The kickoff of the 2003 NFL season is right around the corner. Let's pretend for the time being that scheduling the first game of the year on a Thursday night makes any sense at all. While we're at it, let's pretend that Britney Spears, Aerosmith, Mary J Blige, and Aretha Franklin taking top billing over the actual game (Jets vs. 'Skins) doesn't grossly offend us. Once you get over those couple hurdles, you're home free. Or homebound, as is the case in my house, where on Sundays my big ol' sectional seems to radiate some sort of electromagnetic tractor beam that prevents my ass from moving for six to 10 hours straight. Unless, of course, the Ravens are at home, in which case the tractor beam mercifully allows me to attend the game in person.
Last year, Brian Billick's boys exceeded expectations, which isn't saying too much considering how little was expected going into the season. They managed to linger around the playoff party tent deep into December, eventually falling short. Their 7-9 record becomes all the more impressive when you consider that five of the team's losses came by a total of 12 points, and that All-Galaxy linebacker Ray Lewis missed 11 games with a shoulder injury.
Having a healthy Lewis back on the field automatically gives Baltimore a legitimate shot at the postseason this year. How good are the 2003 Ravens? So glad you asked:
Quarterbacks: Ugh. When your veteran incumbent has all of six starts under his belt, that's generally not a good sign. When your veteran incumbent is recovering from back surgery, that's generally not a good sign either. In other words, when your veteran incumbent is Chris Redman, you're basically screwed. Backup Kyle Boller, a 2003 first-round pick out of Cal, will mature into a stud signal caller, but not this year. If you disagree, take a look at the game tape from Boller's first preseason start against the Redskins. Not pretty. You don't need a star QB to win it all--the Ravens proved that three years ago. But you at least need a QB who won't make mistakes. That, the Ravens haven't got. Grade: D
Running backs: For the Ravens to have any chance at the postseason, they need Jamal Lewis to stay healthy. After missing the entire '01 season with a knee injury, Lewis came back surprisingly strong last year, rushing for 1,327 yards and six TDs. Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh will need at least that much production from his horse this year. Clearing the way for Lewis will be fullback Alan Ricard. Ricard is no Sam Gash, but then again, who is? Grade: B
Receivers: GM Ozzie Newsome gets rave reviews for his drafting acumen. As for his free-agent wide receiver-signing acumen, that's another story. Hercules clone David Boston would've been a huge addition to this thin corps, but he ended up going to San Diego. Instead, Newsome brought in the underwhelming Frank Sanders, a former teammate of Boston's in Arizona, and Marcus Robinson from the Chicago Bears. They caught 55 balls last year--combined. Translation? The Ravens need Travis Taylor (61 receptions/869 yards) to continue his improvement and Todd Heap (68 receptions/836 yards) to continue being the best tight end in the AFC. Grade: C
Offensive line: Familiar face Orlando Brown returns as the other bookend opposite left tackle and human eclipse Jonathan Ogden (6-foot-9, 340 pounds). With Edwin Mulitalo at left guard, and Mike Flynn at center, this group is the strength of the offense. Good thing too, because Redman and/or Boller will need all the protection they can get, and then some. Grade: B
Defensive line: Michael McCrary has called it quits, leaving Kelly Gregg, Anthony Weaver, and Marques Douglas to man the front line in Mike Nolan's 3-4 base. Last year, the D-line allowed 3.7 yards per carry, the lowest average in the AFC. They'll need to do more of the same this year. Grade: B
Linebackers: The rich get richer as first round pick Terrell Suggs joins Pro Bowlers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware and last year's leading tackler, Ed Hartwell, in the team's best unit. Grade: A+
Defensive backs: No AFC team had more interceptions in '02 than the Ravens (25), but only two teams gave up more passing yards per game (238.9). Safety Ed Reed (his five interceptions led all rookies) is a superstar in the making, but he needs a better supporting cast. Grade: B-
Special teams: Kicker Matt Stover (84 percent on field goals last year) offers the kind of dependability you expect from a 13-year veteran, and Dave Zastudil landed 31 punts inside the 20-yard line last year, tied for second-best in the league. Second-year return man Lamont Brightful was stellar on punts (16.1 average, one 95-yard TD return) but mediocre on kickoffs. Grade: B-
Put it all together and you've got a Ravens team that will have to win games with defense, Jamal Lewis, and more defense. Says here that the Steelers will finish atop the AFC North. Expect the Ravens to finish a close second--good enough for a wild card berth. After that, who knows what might happen? After all, it was a wild card berth that got the Ravens into that whole Super Bowl mess back in 2000, remember?
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