Does he have the answer? Ravens, a 'graveyard' for QBs, hope Flacco can revive them

The Baltimore Sun

The longest-running riddle in Ravens history is Baltimore's hot topic once again.

Who's the quarterback?

It reads like the film comedy Groundhog Day, but is perhaps better suited to a 1939 radio speech by Winston Churchill: It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

And now it's coach John Harbaugh's turn to unravel the mystery, more or less.

For the season opener today, the answer is Joe Flacco. Next week it might be Troy Smith or Todd Bouman. Next month it might be someone not even on the roster now.

Know this about quarterbacking for the Ravens: There is a long list of failure.

"Baltimore," ex-Ravens safety-turned NFL analyst Rod Woodson said last week, "is a graveyard for quarterbacks."

The only Pro Bowl quarterback the Ravens had was their first, Vinny Testaverde, in 1996. It didn't keep him from getting benched in 1997 or released in 1998. That set the fragile foundation.

By the time Brian Billick came to town in 1999 with his "leap of faith," the search for a franchise quarterback took on comedic overtones.

Scott Mitchell, who got two starts and six quarters before being benched, was too slow.

Tony Banks was too erratic.

Trent Dilfer was, well, Trent Dilfer.

Don't even ask about Elvis Grbac.

When Flacco, a rookie first-round draft choice, starts against the Cincinnati Bengals today, he becomes the 16th quarterback to start in the Ravens' 13-year history. A dozen of those came on Billick's watch, along with most of the controversy, contentiousness and criticism.

So was it Billick's fault, this bleary cycle of quarterback misfits and false promises? The quarterbacks' fault? The man who acquired the players, general manager Ozzie Newsome? Or a combination of all of them?

"For the vast majority of time the Ravens have been in existence, they've been under one system," Woodson said. "I hate blaming the system, but everybody can't be that bad."

In a conference call with CBS analysts last week, former NFL star quarterbacks Boomer Esiason and Phil Simms distributed blame around the organization.

"They haven't been able to find the right guy," Esiason said. "They've been trying with Kyle Boller the last three, four years. Sometimes it's a matter of luck. ... All of us played in an age when there wasn't that much expected of us early."

Simms believes the Ravens' defense-dominated structure had a limiting effect on what the team asked of its quarterbacks.

"Do you think the Bengals built their team around Carson Palmer? Absolutely," he said. "Did the Giants keep going with Eli Manning until they got it right? If your quarterback has a decent set of skills, it can work. The organization has to make it work."

Billick arrived from the Minnesota Vikings as a quarterback guru, a label that hung from his neck like an albatross nine years later. Even though he won a Super Bowl with Dilfer in the 2000 season and 13 games with aging Steve McNair as recently as two years ago, Billick was fired in December for failing to deliver the quarterback or the offense his reputation demanded.

Dilfer believes Ravens quarterbacks in general and Boller in particular failed because the team didn't place enough emphasis on adapting the offensive system to the player behind center.

"Simplified, it's a system-driven offense instead of a quarterback-driven offense," he said. "The quarterbacks that sustain longevity are in a quarterback-driven offense.

"It sounds pretentious, but there is a right way and a wrong way [to develop a quarterback]. More than half the teams are doing it the wrong way. But if Cam [new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron] is able to stay, you'll see them do it the right way."

Of Billick's 12 starting quarterbacks, six were signed as free agents, three were acquired in trade and three in the draft - a first-round pick (Boller), a third (Chris Redman) and a fifth (Smith).

Although Billick had success recycling veteran quarterbacks in Minnesota, the offensive skill positions in Baltimore - especially wide receiver - were suspect. That led to inconsistency, conservatism and frustration.

While Newsome assembled a collection of Pro Bowl defenders, his only Pro Bowl picks at offensive skill positions were Jamal Lewis and the often-injured Todd Heap. Newsome declined to be interviewed for this story.

Billick said last week his goal was to develop an offense around his quarterback, but that he never had the continuity at the position to accomplish that.

"Troy Aikman had his faith in [Dallas Cowboys assistant coaches] Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese, and as he developed in that offense, he drank that Kool-Aid," Billick said. "It became the Troy Aikman system. In San Francisco, it became the Joe Montana system. And with the same offense, it became the Steve Young system. That's the continuity you'd love to have.

"At the end of the day, when I've been good, it's been the quarterback's system. He had taken control of it, the personality of it."

The biggest flameout of the Billick era was Grbac, who was signed as a free agent after throwing for 28 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards with the Kansas City Chiefs. He replaced Dilfer, who was released after winning the Super Bowl.

In his one tumultuous season here, Grbac threw a career-high 18 interceptions and was booed at home. In March, after he refused a $5 million paycut, he retired three days after he was cut.

Woodson said the Ravens' veterans protested to management over the decision to release Dilfer.

"To me, Trent embodied what that offense needed," Woodson said. "That was a gutsy, tough individual who knew his role and didn't play above himself.

"The Ravens have been looking for a quarterback since he was not brought back. You make your bed and lay in it. They've been laying in it quite a while now."

Cameron, however, is expected to end the search for a franchise quarterback with Flacco. In San Diego, where he served as offensive coordinator for the Chargers, he produced two Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.

"From this standpoint, now it's all about what Joe does, what Joe does well, in conjunction with the other guys," he said.

"Now, [with] those game reps, he's going to continue to grow, but the game plan will come from what he does know."

injury report

BENGALS: Out: RB Jeremi Johnson (knee), S Nedu Ndukwe (knee), DT Pat Sims (toe).

Doubtful: WR Andre Caldwell (toe).

Probable: DE Jonathan Fanene (illness), WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (hamstring), LB Brandon Johnson (hamstring), WR Chad Johnson (shoulder), DE Antwan Odom (foot), QB Carson Palmer (nose), DT John Thornton (knee), RB Kenny Watson (hamstring).

RAVENS: Out: QB Troy Smith (illness).

Doubtful: DT Kelly Gregg (knee).

Questionable: S Ed Reed (neck).

Probable: T Oniel Cousins (back), TE Todd Heap (knee), RB Willis McGahee (knee), G Marshal Yanda (thumb).

Season opener: Bengals @Ravens, today, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Bengals by 1 1/2

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