Fun and games, taken seriously

The Baltimore Sun

The football sliced through the air, remaining in a tight spiral until the ball struck its intended target - the crossbar.

The resounding clang would have drawn groans from Ravens kicker Matt Stover, but it was a beautiful sound to cornerback Chris McAlister, who had launched the football.

The cornerback's throwing a football at the goal posts on a practice field at the team's training facility in Owings Mills is part of a pre-practice contest during which several Ravens test their quarterback skills.

The rules are simple: Stand behind the 30-yard line, take aim and fire away.

McAlister, one of several players who is an everyday participant in the competition, is locked in a tight battle with fellow cornerback Samari Rolle. Rolle is trailing 9-8, with McAlister needing just one more accurate throw to win. Is there anything at stake?

"Yeah, but I can't tell you what it is," McAlister said. "A carwash here and there. Something like that."

As many as two dozen players over the past two seasons have taken part in the matchup. Pro Bowl selections such as linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, free safety Ed Reed and tight end Todd Heap have tried their hand - and arm - at the contest.

It's difficult to figure out the origin of the competition, but the consensus is that it spawned from a defensive backs meeting last season when the coaches had the players bring in highlight reels of their high school days.

"In our room with the defensive backs, a lot of us played quarterback in high school," said Rolle, referring to seven of the team's 10 cornerbacks and safeties. "We just went from there."

Added McAlister: "We were just messing around one day. 'Hit the goal post [crossbar].' And everybody started throwing."

The contest drew the attention of the other players, and a tradition was born.

Players such as wide receiver Mark Clayton, Reed and Rolle are considered pros at the contest, but McAlister is widely regarded as the best.

"I thought I was the No. 1 seed before, but this year, Chris has probably hit the most," Rolle said.

McAlister said the key to hitting the crossbar consistently is putting a little arc on the throw. "I kind of want to float it so that the fat part of the ball hits it," he said. "I don't want the point coming down. I don't want to throw it on a line. I'd rather have the fat part of the ball come down and have a chance to hit."

But there is one person whom even McAlister defers to: offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel. Neuheisel, who played quarterback at UCLA and with the USFL's San Antonio Gunslingers and the San Diego Chargers, said the most common misperception among players is how to adjust their throws during the contest.

"What they don't take into account is they don't bracket their problem," Neuheisel said. "If they're long, the next one should be short to find that common ground and factor in 'Am I close?' or 'Am I long?' so that they can eventually hit the target. It's very akin to what a golfer does with a wedge. They practice from 65 [yards out] and when they're good, they can hit it from 66 and 67 rather than 65 and 75. So you just fine-tune that throw."

Many of the players are not as skilled at hitting the crossbar from 40 yards out. Running back Willis McGahee gets several votes for the player who misses the target the most, while Suggs acknowledged that he needs to work on his game.

Even being a quarterback or one of the team's stars doesn't make you a natural at this game.

"Troy Smith, that's an easy win right there any day. I've got him. I own him," McAlister said.

Said Clayton: "Ray threw one a couple times, and it wasn't pretty. Probably Ray is the worst I've seen."

Neuheisel called Heap's attempts "woeful," which drew a pointed response from the tight end.

"You can't expect somebody who hasn't thrown a ball in 10 years to be any good at it," Heap said. "I'll challenge him. I'll challenge him any day. You've got to have confidence in what you're doing out there. It doesn't matter if I haven't done it in 10 years. I'll still take Neuheisel."

Let the games begin.

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