Pass on Leftwich open for debate

The Baltimore Sun

In retrospect, the worst thing the Ravens' brass could have done was to say out loud that it had been interested in Byron Leftwich. That seed, now that it has been planted, is going to grow like a weed in the minds of the Ravens' faithful for the rest of this week and right through Sunday's home opener against the New York Jets.

If Steve McNair hobbles around the backfield like Fred Sanford, or Kyle Boller runs around as if his feet are on fire, it will be impossible not to wonder what might have been.

It's obvious now, with Boller signed through next season and Leftwich still unemployed, that Ozzie Newsome and Brian Billick saw the former Jacksonville Jaguar and Boller's 2003 draft mate as a mildly intriguing option at best, and leverage to get Boller to sign his extension at worst. A week ago, that made sense. Better to stick with the devil you know, as they say.

Today, though, it's giving Ravens watchers knots in the stomach, roughly the same feeling generated by the sight of Boller trotting out to the huddle. That same old feeling, with Boller in his fifth NFL season. The one that could very well arise again Sunday if McNair can't grit his way through the groin injury he tried to grit his way through Monday night in Cincinnati.

If Boller starts Sunday and looks too much like the Boller of the past four seasons, then we might experience a rare NFL phenomenon - the clamoring for a backup who doesn't even exist. Ever seen a fan base root for the concept of a quarterback?

Everybody in the locker room is saying the right things about the possibility of Boller starting - he has matured as a player, he has learned from playing behind McNair for a year, he's grasping the game better. At the same time, nowhere was heard a discouraging word about McNair's chances to play, including from McNair himself - after he didn't practice yesterday.

It was a mixed bag of health news presented by the Ravens yesterday, from Ray Lewis all but laughing off whatever happened with his right arm, to B.J. Sams being shut down for the season.

In that same vein, McNair gave himself a big window to decide on playing Sunday, and Jonathan Ogden said: "I don't think there's any way I could play. Miracles have happened before, and that's what it would be if I were to get out there and play this week."

To put it mildly, one complicates the other. With no Ogden protecting the back side, the choice at quarterback is between the veteran who couldn't plant his leg most of Monday night and might not take a snap in practice this week, and Central Maryland's second-leading provider of ulcers (slightly behind Daniel Cabrera).

All of which raises a legitimate, albeit still moot, question: Should the Ravens have gone after Leftwich after all?

Don't feel bad about thinking that. You're entitled.

The house of cards that is the Ravens' offense, not to mention the team's Super Bowl aspirations, has been built on McNair's health, not on Boller's ability to lead the way for more than a game or two. Or even a possession or two. Goodness knows Boller's play down the stretch Monday night isn't anywhere near the top of the list of reasons the Ravens lost, but it's still on the list. He was competent under the circumstances, and he got little help from the officials or his coach. But no one was proclaiming him the 21st-century Earl Morrall, either.

Sunday is a completely different circumstance, and all anyone has to base his or her feelings about Boller is his track record. Yikes! This very well might be the year he crosses that threshold to fulfilling his physical potential and justifying the faith the Ravens have placed in him. But until he proves that, we repeat - Yikes!

Would Leftwich be any better? His track record, especially during the ugly divorce from the Jaguars, says that all he would be is different. But he has succeeded to an extent in this league. He has inspired confidence in his teammates. He likely is as hungry as a quarterback can be. And he might need nothing more than a change of scenery; this, of course, would have been the logical place.

Not that it matters. To paraphrase Rick Pitino: Byron Leftwich isn't walking through that door.

Here are the silver linings, though: McNair might get better in the next three days. If not, the Ravens really could do worse than Boller - the Jets, for instance, might have to start Kellen Clemens, who has played a grand total of three NFL games and thrown a total of 11 passes. And if a worst-case scenario develops with McNair's groin, the Ravens' back-loaded schedule cuts them some slack.

And teams aren't climbing over themselves to sign Leftwich, either, which indicates he's not as much of a commodity as he seemed two weeks ago.

That also means ... he's still available. Uh-oh, don't want to put that out there, again. It's funny, though - when it comes to the Ravens and quarterbacks, there's always an "uh-oh."

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