Make-or-break game for QB

The Baltimore Sun

ST. LOUIS - Is the Ravens' quarterback race finally reaching the finishing line?

Tonight against the St. Louis Rams, Troy Smith should bring some clarity to the quarterback quandary in his most extended audition of the preseason.

If the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner can put together scoring drives and improve his accuracy, he could claim the season-opening starting job. If Smith struggles in his expected three quarters of action, the Ravens might have to consider going back to Kyle Boller in the preseason finale.

Asked whether starting the third preseason game - which is generally considered the most important - represents his best chance of winning the quarterback competition, Smith said: "It's been written a couple times that last week was my best chance, so obviously [the media have] better insight than I do. Chances are going to come. Opportunities are going to come. I have to make the best of them."

Still, the ball - as well as the quarterback job - appears to rest in Smith's hands.

If Smith excels tonight, wouldn't it be difficult to turn around and give the job to Boller or rookie Joe Flacco?

"What you're asking me is, 'If [Smith] plays well, is he going to be the starter?' We haven't decided," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

When Harbaugh announced Smith this week as his starter for tonight, he based his decision on needing to further evaluate the second-year quarterback.

In his limited play this preseason, Smith has been a disappointment, completing 47.1 percent of his passes and compiling a 41.1 rating, both of which are lows among Ravens quarterbacks.

What separates Smith from Boller and Flacco is his confidence.

Just as much as they need a big-time passer, the Ravens' developing offense needs a strong-minded leader at quarterback.

Now, in his second straight start, Smith has to back up his swagger.

"He definitely has a take-charge mentality," center Jason Brown said. "When he first came here, a lot of guys thought, 'Who is this cocky, young kid?' He can come across as being arrogant, but we need that out there. In order to lead 10 other guys, you have to have that type of demeanor."

Asked what Smith has to do to separate himself from the other quarterbacks, Harbaugh said the 2007 fifth-round pick simply needs to move the ball and score points.

Smith has yet to consistently do that in two preseason games. His eight drives have resulted in one touchdown, two field goals, four punts and one interception.

He has led just one drive of more than 30 yards, and that one was carried by rookie running back Ray Rice.

Despite this less-than-stellar play, Smith's teammates have publicly supported him.

"He knows what to do to put the team in position to win," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "I think that's what he's been able to do. I think that is what he has exemplified since February - that he can be a leader on this team and that he can be a top-flight quarterback in this league."

While most teams have named their starting quarterback by now, the players have remained patient as Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron continue their critique.

"It's not uncommon that a team names their starting quarterback at the end," Mason said. "So now we know that Troy's going to start this game, and there's a high possibility that he may start during the season. So we've just got to back him and move forward."

The biggest concern with Smith has been his accuracy.

He has completed eight of 17 passes, missing wildly on some throws. He has yet to complete back-to-back passes in a drive this preseason.

"Anytime you step into a situation where passes are going to be in the game plan, you want to hit them all, but this is not a perfect game," Smith said. "It's not the chalkboard. I can draw things up in different ways and show you how to beat defenses. But once you get out there on the field, the guys are not going to be in the same places. But this is the preseason. We still have a long way to go - a long way."

Smith said he is mentally prepared to show his potential as a quarterback. If he succeeds, he might not win only tonight's game, but also the starting job.

"As a youngster, you step into this incredible facility, this incredible city, and you are in awe at times," he said. "Hopefully that is out of my system, and now it's time to become an incredible professional quarterback."


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