Ravens ’08 (part 3) – An early cup of Joe?

August 06, 2008 | Drew Forrester

These are interesting days for the Ravens’ quarterback triangle.
In this corner, and the rightful starter for Thursday’s pre-season opener at New England…Kyle Boller.  Career accomplishments? Well, he’s started 42 games in the NFL – has won a bunch of them – and didn’t give the stadium the finger back in 2005 when he was injured in the season’s first game and 20,000 or so actually cheered the fallen player.  Experience is absolutely his best friend.  He’s played more games in one month than his two competitors have played in their respective NFL careers.
But that doesn’t mean Boller has a cakewalk to the starting job in ’08. And, it doesn’t mean he deserves the starting job “just because”.
In another corner is Troy Smith, whose career resume includes three total games – a win, a loss and an “incomplete” highlight his personal scorecard.  To judge Smith on those three games would be grossly unfair as all three came at the end of a miserable campaign when both teams on the field were disinterested, for the most part.  
Smith could be the team’s starter on September 7 when the Ravens host Cincinnati.  If he wins “the derby”, I say go ahead and start him.  
In the other corner sits Joe Flacco, the prospective golden child who, by nearly all accounts, will assume the keys to the team by 2009 at the very latest, leaving Smith and Boller on the sidelines with a clipboard and a headset or, perhaps, battling for a job in another NFL city.
These ARE interesting days in Westminster, though, because for once, there’s actually excitement about the team’s quarterback situation.  And for a franchise that has spent upwards of $60 million on the starting quarterback position since 2003, any ray of hope requires SPF 50 sunscreen, a pair of Oakley’s and an umbrella. The Ravens burn easily when it comes to identifying, grooming and holding on to a proven quarterback.  In the case of their new number one draft pick, though, it’s safe to say “the future’s so bright, I need to wear shades…”
To summarize what’s happened so far in this training camp and to point ahead to what MIGHT happen in the regular season and beyond, let’s recap what we know to date.  The only big news so far was delivered on Tuesday of this week when Boller was named the starter for Thursday in the pre-season opener.  Read NOTHING into that, though.  It was merely a gesture of respect from John Harbaugh, who understands that five seasons in the NFL accounts for something. 
However, I’m hearing from someone completely in the know at McDaniel College that Kyle Boller has moved ahead in the quarterback derby for 2008.  He was NOT given the starting nod for this Thursday at New England based on that note…the coaching staff needs to see everyone in “live” game action before they’ll even hint at who’s ahead and who’s behind in the derby.  That’s fair and it’s the right thing to do.  Boller isn’t light years ahead in the ’08 battle to stand behind center on September 7.  As someone associated with the team told me yesterday: “If this were being scored like a boxing match, Troy won the first three rounds (days) on points and Kyle has won the last six or seven rounds. But no one has knocked the other guy down.”
That purple bird on the tree also tells me that it’s already been determined that Troy Smith will start pre-season game #2.  “The only fair way to do it,” I was told. “Give them both (Kyle and Troy) equal time with the first team, even though the opponents are different and one game is home and one is away.”
Lastly, and you might want to sit down for this one ‘cuz it’s a potential doozy.  My high ranking source says the players are completely enamored with — grab the arm of your chair — J-o-e  F-l-a-c-c-o.  One Ravens veteran who was on the sideline nursing a training camp injury said to my source, “We’re not really going to leave that kid on the bench this year are we?  We want to win games, you know.”
The doozy-fest isn’t over yet.  I’m hearing – and this is a direct quote – “we haven’t completely ruled out starting Flacco on September 7.”
Whhhaaaaaat?  I almost fell into the steamed rice and vegetables in the cafeteria at the team hotel when a team staffer told me that earlier this week.
“Flacco knows the offense better than Kyle or Troy right now…”
How is that possible, I wonder?
A veteran player told me this week that Smith’s accuracy has been consistently inconsistent throughout training camp.  And, while he acknowledged that Boller “looks better” in this training camp than ever before, the vet also reminded me that the games they play right now are about 40% of what the game will look like on September 7.  “There’s something about Flacco,” the player said.  “It’s the way he delivers the ball.  He looks around, steps up and zips the ball.  He’s a thrower.  We see it and we’re like, ‘holy smoke, this guy’s the real deal’ and that’s not a slap at Kyle or Troy.” 
Keep in mind that’s just one player’s opinion on Smith, Boller and Flacco and others in camp might see things differently. Players watch the quarterbacks closely, though, particularly the injured ones who have nothing better to do but bide their time on the sidelines serving as apprentice coaches – mostly in their own mind(s).  
John Harbaugh and his staff see the same things in all of the quarterbacks.  There aren’t any surprises with Boller.  He’s an athlete and a hard worker and a guy you want to root for to succeed because if anyone in this town ever DESERVED to have his day in the sun, it’s Boller.  But being athletic and working hard don’t help when Troy Polamalu is lurking in the defensive backfield and he knows where you’re throwing the ball before you know where it’s going.  You know what you’re getting with Smith as well.  His oft-criticized height is non-negotiable and can’t be fixed or improved upon.  He is what he is.  A small’ish quarterback with a bigger-than-most chip on his shoulder, Troy Smith is well liked in the locker room and the players play for him in a way they don’t or haven’t for Boller.  There’s something to that.  But, is it enough to give him the starting job and rest your hopes on someone who’s built more like a point guard than a quarterback?  Maybe. Maybe not.  Everything is “maybe, maybe not” with Smith.  That’s one of the things working against him.  No one’s quite sure if he can do it or not.
As for Flacco, despite their head-over-heels affection for him, I can’t imagine the coaching staff will hand him the ball on September 7.  It should be noted, though, that more than one staffer has said to me recently, “What happened with Boller in ’03 has no bearing on us and our decisions this year…we can’t be swayed by decisions that were made 6 seasons ago.  Times have changed, players are different and our offensive philosophies and formations are different.”  Fair enough.
Still, though, I can’t see Flacco under center on September 7. When I reiterated that to a Ravens staffer Tuesday, he smiled and said, “If it happens, don’t say I didn’t tip you off to it…”
At this point, I say stick with the plan that includes a Boller-Smith competition and give the guy who performs the best the keys to the game in week #1. 
In my mind, there’s no favorite in this race, mainly because it’s still far too early for anyone to separate himself from the pack.  Kyle Boller could have a great game in New England or a bad one.  Troy Smith could wow us in week #2 when he plays with the starters or he could stink it up.  By September, though, one of those two will emerge as the “go to” guy for the opener vs. the Bengals.
Waiting his turn will be Joe Flacco.  I don’t think he’s going to be waiting that long, though.
Get your sunglasses ready.