First and 10

The Baltimore Sun

Let's not pretend we didn't see this day coming eventually. We just didn't know it was coming this specific day.

Everybody knew the Steve McNair era in Baltimore would end soon -- the fans knew, McNair had to know and certainly the Ravens knew. But it happened yesterday, and now the Ravens have a couple of options. An intelligent one, befitting an intelligent organization. Or a delusional one.

The Ravens have to take the intelligent path -- one, by the way, already being followed by the other major league franchise in town, that until now had mastered the art of delusion. The Orioles have finally given up on the stopgap philosophy. Now, with the Ravens' quarterback situation never clearer than it is now -- that is, they don't have one on whom they can build any kind of foundation -- they can give up on it, too.

They probably already knew that, and realistically, they still have time to make their intentions clear. We'll know the true direction they're taking not on draft day next weekend or at the June 1 cap deadline, but at the start of training camp.

If the Ravens have brought in a veteran to keep the seat warm for the franchise quarterback -- if they're very lucky and Matt Ryan falls into their laps at the eighth overall pick -- they will be signaling the first rebuilding effort here in a long time. That's the sensible and logical move.

If they've dusted off the McNair blueprint of two years ago and brought in another veteran for the same reasons, then they've convinced themselves they're not that far removed from that 13-3 season of 2006 and have one more postseason run in them before they grow old together.

That's the risky move, to say the least. Insane, to say the most.

Either way, though, the Ravens already know what they'll do. Even before they envisioned a new coach, surely they envisioned a new quarterback and, if things fell into place, a graceful exit for the old one. (Or, as his now-former coach John Harbaugh said, the "incumbent.")

Thus, give general manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh credit. They weren't exactly playing all their cards yesterday at the Castle -- in fact, good luck finding a more hastily assembled and tightly scripted farewell gathering for any big-time player -- but they weren't exactly lying, either.

"This will not impact our decision in the draft, not one iota," Newsome said, adding that mapping this out hardly crossed his mind until the minute McNair walked into his office yesterday morning.

"We talked about a year ago to start going about looking at getting someone to be a quarterback [for] this franchise. We talked about that in 2007 and we talked about that in 2008," he said. In other words, with Brian Billick in charge and with Harbaugh taking the reins and putting a new scheme in place, in most every way.

Contingencies. Be prepared in case McNair made like Lazarus, flung himself into the offseason workouts in vigor and met all the challenges Harbaugh was presenting -- and in case he didn't.

More important, though, decide now, with the new coach on board and with the future of the other crucial veterans up in the air -- a certain left tackle and middle linebacker come to mind -- whether this was the time to make a clean break.

Even McNair recognized it; he had both himself and his team in mind when he said, "We've got to move on." And if the Ravens were ready to move on with Kyle Boller and Troy Smith at the controls, this whole discussion wouldn't be taking place. If those two were the future, McNair's decision might have been made long before yesterday. Harbaugh probably would have described Boller and Smith's presence as something more promising than "competition" yesterday, too.

So there were a lot of goodbyes at the Castle yesterday. The Ravens said goodbye to McNair and recalled the near-fantasy season he had in 2006. McNair said goodbye to a career he cherishes for having "survived" so long but others will cherish for his toughness, resilience and accomplishments (and maybe reward one day with a bust in Canton, Ohio).

And the Ravens said goodbye to an era, one of which McNair was a significant but brief part. The molding of a new, distinct era in Ravens history has officially begun.

Chances are that down at the Warehouse, Andy MacPhail is applauding.

Listen to David Steele Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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