Ravens are in the ‘no fret’ zone…

August 19, 2008 | Drew Forrester

I’ll give the Ravens credit.  If they are concerned about the team’s lackluster pre-season play to date, they’re certainly not showing it.
What’s it say when the fan base is more worried about the team’s prognosis than the team itself?
That’s the feeling I got yesterday when I talked to two different Ravens staffers and a veteran player.  Granted, a sampling of three people hardly qualifies as mass-polling, but I remain convinced the Ravens are taking this pre-season in stride after my discussions on Monday.  They’re not making Super Bowl plans by any means, but they’re not ready to start thinking about next year’s draft, either.  In other words, the Ravens are confident in the fact that they’re going to compete in 2008.
“We’re in the process of trying to get ready for September 7,” said one staffer.  “That’s not something that happens overnight.  We’re evaluating players, introducing new schemes on offense and, with the injuries we’ve had, a number of guys are stepping up to play at levels they haven’t played at before. It takes a little time for it to all come together.”
Whether or not it comes together before September 7 is the real question at hand. The Bengals won’t care if the Ravens aren’t ready.  
One veteran member of the organization thinks the positives have balanced out the negatives in the two pre-season games thus far.  “Rice, Nakumura, Zbikowski, Hale…those guys have done a nice job.  Marcus Smith looks like he’s going to be a keeper.  Flacco is starting to feel more comfortable. Our crop of rookies is pretty solid.  We just need to get those six or seven veterans completely healthy and we’ll be OK.”
Getting those six or seven starters healthy isn’t the difference between being OK or not.  It’s the difference between competing for a playoff spot or competing, perhaps, for one of the top 3 draft picks next April.  Reed’s injury looks to be the worst of them all.  “We don’t have it figured out yet,” a staffer said Monday.  “Our medical people are working with Ed every day to get him to a point where he’s comfortable with contact, but right now he’s not ready to go full tilt.”  If Reed’s out and McAlister’s knee pesters him in the early going, the Ravens might get tired of seeing Johnson’s by week #2.  As in Chad and Andre.  Anyone remember that Monday night game in Pittsburgh last year when Big Ben put the Big Torch on the Ravens’ inexperienced secondary?  It wasn’t pretty.  
The quarterback situation continues to be a quandry for everyone, from the fans, to the media, to the team itself. “I think John knows who he wants to be the starter, but he’s being as fair as he can be to the process and he’s making sure that he’s making the right call,” a source said yesterday.  “We’ve seen good and bad from all three in the pre-season, which isn’t totally unexpected, especially since our offensive line is so young at this point. We expect that Cam’s system will help protect whichever guy winds up starting on the 7th.”
A veteran player told me the players thought Smith handled himself well on Saturday night vs. Minnesota.  “Troy only made that one mistake. Other than that, he handled the pressure well.  We were all talking about how comfortable he looked back there.”
Advantage Smith?  Maybe.  The players don’t want Boller, which makes Harbaugh’s task that much harder.  If he chooses Smith, he’ll be throwing a guy to the wolves who only has a total of about 200 snaps under his belt.  If it’s Boller, Harbaugh will be sacrificing the experience level (42 NFL starts) for the comfort level, since very few players in the locker room have full faith in Kyle.  Quite a dilemma for a first year coach.   
The fans no longer want Boller, but they don’t have a say in the matter.  Still, Harbaugh has to know in his heart of hearts that there are two different types of losing in 2008.  Losing WITH Boller at the helm and losing WITHOUT Boller at the helm.  As strange as it sounds, losing WITHOUT Boller would be far more acceptable to the folks in the seats than losing WITH him.  Harbaugh has to have some sense of that, right?  If he starts Troy Smith and the team loses, people will say, “Well, the team’s young and inexperienced and Smith is still learning the system.”  If Boller gets the gig and the team loses, the fans are merely going to say, “It’s Harbaugh’s fault for starting Boller in the first place.”
As the former coach found out – and Harbaugh is set-up for this as well: if the Ravens win WITH Boller, it will be because of the defense.  If they lose with Boller, it will be John Harbaugh’s fault.  Harbaugh can only come out smelling like a rose if he gives Smith the job and somehow, probably by the Grace of God more than anything, the Ravens put together a 10-6 season and snatch the AFC North from the Browns, Steelers and Bengals.  
I’m sure glad it’s not my decision.
I mentioned to a veteran player yesterday that I’m fearful of a 4 or 5 win season.  “If we’re healthy, you can forget that,” the player said,   “We’ll be right in the thick of it if these guys come back and play when the season starts.  Don’t count us out.  That would be a mistake.”
Fair enough.  I want the players to think like that.  And, in all fairness, if Reed, Willis, CMac, Heap, Terry, Ngata, Gregg and Rolle are all 100% or close to it by the beginning of September, the Ravens could wind up winning as many as they lose throughout 2008.  That’s not entirely out of the question.  Perhaps some combination of Smith and Boller will prove itself effective over 16 weeks. Maybe this is the year Pittsburgh gets bit by the injury bug and THEY go 5-11.  Perhaps Carson Palmer goes out with an injury in week #5 and the Bengals win a game a month.   
But if the Ravens gets ravaged by injuries this year in the same manner they did in ’07, there’s no amount of wishful thinking that can save them from a top 5 pick in the ’09 Draft.  And, unlike last year, firing the coach won’t be an option this December 31.  
And, it’s all likely to come down to quarterback play – injuries or not – and if you’re putting your mortgage up as a wager, are you betting ON Smith or Boller or betting AGAINST them?  Yep, me too.  
So, while the fan base rightfully remains in panic mode, the Ravens go along like it’s business as usual.  The way THEY see it, the pre-season is only halfway over.  Two games down, two games to go.  I don’t hear much panic or concern in the voices of the people I talk to at Owings Mills and the players seem fairly unfazed by the pedestrian offensive play thus far.  
Give me some of what they’re sipping on, ‘cuz I’m nervous as a burglar about this ’08 campaign.