Billick can't lose balance on QBs

The Baltimore Sun

Ravens coach Brian Billick is now walking a fine line between his top two quarterbacks, and a mistake here could cause his entire team to fall.

Billick replaced injured starter Steve McNair (strained groin) with backup Kyle Boller with 12:02 remaining in Sunday's game and the Ravens leading the Cardinals by 10 points. With the game on the line, Billick stayed with Boller, who helped lead the Ravens to a 26-23 victory as time expired.

After the game, McNair said that being replaced surprised him and that he could have played. Billick said he switched to Boller because McNair was favoring the injury and he didn't want to risk further damage that could have sidelined his starter for two to three more weeks.

The move makes sense, but it was apparent McNair was uncomfortable with the situation. He was trying to be the good company guy, but you could clearly see through the smoke screen.

And now there is some added, unnecessary drama for a team that is still trying to rediscover the magic formula from 2006's 13-3 season. Of course, this situation could have been avoided if the Ravens had just reinserted McNair and used the running game to pound the Cardinals.

But that's conventional wisdom, and there is no wisdom at all when it comes to this offense. Boller played well, completing five of five passes for 32 yards on the game-winning drive, and you can bet McNair is going to be looking over his shoulder for the next couple of weeks.

Who can blame him?

There has been a lot of speculation surrounding Billick's move to stay with Boller. Everyone knows Boller is Billick's chosen quarterback, and he once mortgaged this team's shot at a championship to make him a starter during Boller's rookie season.

The perception is that Billick still wants Boller to be his starter, and whether it's true or not, it's there. And that's why Billick has to be so careful with this quarterback situation.

McNair was unhappy with Billick's decision to stay with Boller. You could tell by his body language on the sideline and the way he snapped the towel once he grabbed his helmet. It was then that he apparently learned he wasn't going back into the game.

You expect McNair to be angry. He's a competitor. He wants to play every snap, injured or not. But I'm also sure McNair is aware of the Billick-Boller history. I'm sure it crossed his mind several times on the way home from M&T; Bank Stadium on Sunday night.

The last thing this team needs right now is an unhappy McNair. Regardless of how he is playing, he has become one of the team's unquestioned leaders, a role Boller could not fill in his three seasons as a starter.

An unhappy veteran like McNair could spill over to other starters. The Ravens should remember that lesson from a few years ago, when several unhappy players poisoned their locker room.

McNair was playing well for three quarters, except for the two times he failed to take care of the ball in the third quarter. He seemed in sync with the passing game, something he failed to be in the season-opening loss at Cincinnati.

Boller was equally impressive and appears more comfortable in the pocket than in his previous four seasons. Like McNair, he also found a rhythm with the offense for a second straight week.

At this point of the season, they are interchangeable. With or without McNair, the Ravens should be able to beat teams like the Cardinals and their next four opponents - Cleveland, San Francisco, St. Louis and Buffalo.

This schedule reminds me of the end of the 2005 season, when Boller played well in back-to-back games against Green Bay and Minnesota and fans started labeling him the quarterback of the future. And then he bombed in the season finale against Cleveland.

Boller has matured a lot since then. But when the Ravens return from the bye to play at Pittsburgh on Nov. 5, you want a proven veteran on the field, one who can win on the road.

You want a quarterback who has qualities besides a strong arm, one who won't get rattled in big games. Boller is used to coming off the bench and understands his role. I can't see McNair being so understanding if he is No. 2.

I don't think general manager Ozzie Newsome or owner Steve Bisciotti would be happy either after having signed McNair to a five-year, $32 million contract in June last year.

Billick said yesterday that there could be a potential for a quarterback problem if McNair had an ego, but McNair is more concerned with winning than anything else.

All quarterbacks have egos, and few players on a team have bigger ones. No one likes to get benched in front of 70,000 fans, especially a four-time Pro Bowl performer like McNair.

It's a fine line for any coach to walk, and Billick knows he can't afford to slip. One minor misstep could lead to a major fall.

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