Boller's final exam

The Baltimore Sun

Kyle Boller was back with the Ravens' starting offense again yesterday, taking snaps in preparation for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.

But is Boller the Ravens' quarterback of the future or simply the one of the moment?

Ravens coach Brian Billick said Boller could finish the season as the starting quarterback, and he didn't definitively answer whether Steve McNair would ever play for the Ravens again.

McNair, who is mired in the worst slump of his decorated 13-year career, is out at least two to three weeks with a partially dislocated left shoulder, meaning Boller will have a couple of games to stake his claim to the job.

Billick seemed inclined to let Boller start the rest of the season if the former first-round pick is successful.

"Sure, that's always a possibility," Billick said. "It has to do with Steve's strength, as well, and how we're doing as a team."

McNair's future with the Ravens is more uncertain.

Four years removed from sharing the NFL's Most Valuable Player award, McNair seems to be reaching the end of his career. The 34-year-old has had more injuries (back, groin and shoulder) than touchdown passes (two) this season.

The Ravens could have to pay for their miscalculation on McNair. After trading a fourth-round pick to the Tennessee Titans for McNair in June 2006, the Ravens signed him to a five-year, $32 million deal (which included an $11 million signing bonus and a $1 million bonus last spring), expecting him to start at least through the 2008 season.

If the Ravens released him after this season, they would take a $3.35 million salary cap hit in 2008 (his $7.35 million cap number minus the $4 million salary the Ravens won't have to pay him).

Asked whether McNair would ever play for the Ravens again, Billick said: "That's a question that I really can't answer. Only time will tell that. My admiration for Steve McNair - the champion he's been, the grit, the toughness, the professionalism - is something that I will continue to value. I don't know that anybody can answer that question right now."

Answer needed

The one question the Ravens need to answer by the end of the season is whether Boller can be a capable starter. There are some in the organization who consider Boller a career backup.

During his three-year run as a starter (2003 to 2005), Boller showed flashes of being a legitimate NFL quarterback with his size, arm strength and mobility, compiling a winning record (18-16) in the process. But too often, he would throw into coverage, trip over his feet or rush out of the pocket.

That's why the Ravens replaced him with McNair last season. Now, Boller could regain his starting job in what could be the most critical stretch of games in his career.

"I really don't try and think too much ahead," said Boller, 26, who recently signed a one-year extension that could be worth more than $3 million in 2008. "We're playing the Cleveland Browns, and that's all that's on my mind. We've got to get back on track. That's really my main focus."

In McNair's shadow for the past year and a half, Boller has quietly turned his career around, developing into one of the better backups in the NFL.

Last season, he replaced the injured McNair twice in the first quarter, totaling 464 passing yards and five touchdowns. Boller's rating last season (104.0) ranked third among backup quarterbacks.

In three starts this season, he has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 560 yards, throwing three touchdowns and one interception (for an 81.3 rating).

"Maturation has always been a factor, and I think you've seen it in the times Kyle has played [this season]," Billick said. "I think he's played under control and has been very effective for the most part."

It's been an interesting role reversal for Boller, who was once a hot-button issue with fans because of his erratic play.

Just two years ago, fans were cheering when he was writhing on the ground in pain at M&T; Bank Stadium. Over the past two weeks, some of those same fans have been clamoring for Boller to replace McNair.

'That's life'

"I'd be lying if I didn't say it wasn't weird. That's life in the NFL," said Boller, who has talked to past quarterbacks, such as Phil Simms, about the challenges of the position. "It's not always going to be great. You just got to keep battling and keep fighting, and the best things will happen."

Billick almost pleaded with fans yesterday to extend more of a courtesy to McNair, who is struggling through the low point of a respected career.

"I understand the fans' anxieties ... but this man has been an incredible athlete and an incredible force in the NFL," Billick said. "He's been a class act from Day One. I hope people keep that in mind in the way that they deal with him."



Oct. 10, 2004 (Ravens 17, Redskins 10): Boller was picked off on three straight possessions and over a span of eight throws. Each one of his career-high three interceptions set up the Redskins in Ravens territory, but the Ravens' defense held them to 10 points. It marked his career low quarterback rating (22.9).

ABOVE: Nov. 13, 2005 (Jaguars 30, Ravens 3): Boller threw three interceptions, the result of nonstop pressure applied by Jacksonville. He was sacked four times, including one in which he was sandwiched between two Jaguars. After that sack, Boller was 10-for-21 the rest of the game.

Dec. 11, 2005 (Broncos 12, Ravens 10): Boller single-handedly stymied the Ravens this time with two of his three turnovers (two interceptions and one fumble) coming in the red zone. The most inexplicable mistake came one play after the Broncos fumbled at midfield in the fourth quarter: Boller fumbled while on the run with no one around him.


ABOVE: Nov. 14, 2004 (Ravens 20, Jets 17, OT): Boller connected on two touchdown passes to Clarence Moore to rally the Ravens from a 14-0 deficit before directing a seven-play, 32-yard drive to set up Matt Stover's game-winning field goal. Boller was 6-for-8 for 81 yards on his final three drives after going 13-for-25 for 132 yards on his first nine.

Dec. 19, 2005 (Ravens 48, Packers 3): Boller out-dueled Brett Favre on Monday Night Football, throwing for 253 yards and three touchdowns. He shredded the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, completing 19 of 27 passes (70 percent) and producing a career-best 136.8 quarterback rating (out of a possible 158.3).

Dec. 17, 2006 (Ravens 27, Browns 17): Coming off the bench to replace the injured Steve McNair, Boller helped the Ravens secure their first playoff berth in three seasons with his big-play arm. With the game tied at 17, he hit Demetrius Williams for a 77-yard touchdown.

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