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8 Upper

Birds of a Different Feather

By Tom Scocca | Posted 12/5/2001

As with mighty redwood forests and lowly termite colonies, sports franchises are supposed to go through cycles of growth and decline. Thanks to the salary cap and the weighted schedule, the National Football League has speeded up the cycle. Following the league this year has been like watching one of those time-lapse photography nature films: With the naked eye, you see a plant burst from the seed, grow, and bloom (the San Francisco 49ers), or you see a dead animal rot and crumple into dust (the Tennessee Titans).

Some teams even appear to be cramming two seasons into one. The San Diego Chargers shot straight to the top of their division in the first few weeks, then headed right back down again. The New England Patriots are doing just the opposite. And the Washington [racial slur], who opened a hapless 0-5 and then went a triumphant 5-0, may have inaugurated a third season by getting pulped by the Dallas Cowboys this past weekend.

By comparison, all the high drama of another typical Ravens season doesn't mean much. Your World Champions have been through three devastating injuries, a fistful of stirring victories, and a certifiable quarterback controversy--and the upshot is an 8-4 record, just like last year. Once again, they're running a strong second place in the AFC Central, with a good shot at hosting a playoff game. Entering the bye week after a 39-27 win over the Colts in the Thieving Scumbag Owner Bowl, they are right where everyone expected them to be: not on top, but within smelling distance.

True, they didn't get to this point the way everyone expected. Only the hard-core optimists were predicting they'd go 5-0 against Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh. And even their biggest skeptics didn't guess they'd be 0-3 against the Browns and Bengals. I should know.

Last year, after 12 games, they were just starting to heat up for their stretch run--they had edged the Titans on the road, then shut out the Cowboys. The sputtering offense had been handed to Trent Dilfer, who wisely handed it to Jamal Lewis; the Greatest Defense of the 21st Century was roaring to life. They would not lose another game.

This year's Ravens, however, aren't following that script. The defense is formidable, but not suffocating. Last season, the Ravens gave up 20 or more points only three times; this season, they've already done it six times. It's not all the defense's fault--they could hardly stop the Colts' Jeff Burris from running back an Elvis Grbac interception to tie the game at 10--but the line is banged up and the secondary has been beatable. At 17.8 points per game, in fact, the Ravens only have the fourth-best defense in their own division (third-best, to be fair, if you correct for the touchdowns served up by Grbac and by the punting unit).

But they're making up for it on offense, right? Not really. Under Grbac, the team's latest offensive savior, the Ravens were supposed to finally start scoring, to take the pressure off the defense. And the team does seem to have stopped going through those weeks-long touchdown droughts, the three- or six-point Sundays. Thanks to an overpowering blocking game and Shannon Sharpe, they're almost always able to move the ball, even without Jamal Lewis. Still, last year, in the end, they averaged 20.8 points per game through the regular season. This year they're averaging 19.75.

There seems to be some upper limit to how well the offense can play under Brian Billick's command--the Genius may have been the coordinator of a record-setting offense in Minnesota, but, then, Ray Miller was a really good pitching coach. As a head coach, Billick eats quarterbacks. Grbac was a Pro Bowl QB last season; now, according to the league's impenetrable quarterback-rating system, he ranks 25th in the NFL, a hair ahead of Tony Banks. With his 59-percent completion rate and a dozen touchdowns, he looks a lot like Trent Dilfer.

Actually, the whole team looks like Trent Dilfer. The party line last year was that Dilfer might not have been the most impressive quarterback in the world, but he somehow played better than his statistics. He knew how to win. Now, it's the whole team that's statistically unimpressive. Last year, the Ravens outscored their opponents by a 2-to-1 margin. This year, on average, they're outscoring them by two points a game.

Scoring isn't everything. In the AFC East, the first-place Dolphins are likewise outscoring their foes by a puny margin. The Jacksonville Jaguars are a slightly less than break-even team in the scoring column but are 3-8--thanks, in large part, to their two narrow losses to the Ravens. The Jags' first defeat showed that Ravens backup Randall Cunningham is still one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the league. The second demonstrated that the prevent defense is a sham. Neither one showed that the Ravens were much better, top to bottom, than the last-place team in their division.

Week in and week out, the Ravens have failed to make that kind of statement. They have the Titans whipped, clearly, but we knew that after last year's playoffs. They beat Denver, but Denver is bad now. They beat Pittsburgh, but only because the Steelers' kicker shanked four field goals.

No, what stands out in the ledger is the two games they lost to the Browns, especially the second one. Going into the fourth quarter the Browns led 20-17, and I was sure the Ravens had the game in hand: The defense would stop Cleveland, and the offense would eke out a few field goals. Instead, it was the Cleveland defense that did the stopping, and the Cleveland offense that went grinding down the field, adding a touchdown to ice the game. Last year's Ravens would never have been ground down like that. But these aren't last year's Ravens.

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