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Point Blank

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/25/2000

PSINET STADIUM, OCT. 22--About halfway through the third quarter, with the home team trailing the Tennessee Titans 14-6, I suddenly realize why the Ravens can't score any touchdowns. The Ravens can't score any touchdowns because they never run any touchdown plays.

I know this is an unfancy explanation, in a sport that thrives on fancy combinatorial analysis, laid out in brass-plated jargon. Yet there it is. Down on the field, Tony Banks--who is being booed ever more frequently, and louder--has just completed a 15-yard pass to Qadry Ismail, giving the Ravens a first down on their own 43-yard line. It's the 17th time this afternoon the purple legion has moved the chains against the first-place Titans. By the end of the quarter, they will have rolled up 306 yards to Tennessee's 123; they will have held the ball more than twice as long as the Titans and run more than twice as many plays.

But the object is not to hold the ball. It's to put the ball in the end zone. And the Banks-to-Ismail pass, like most of the Ravens' previous 49 offensive plays, never threatened to score. The ball stayed squarely in front of the Tennessee defense. This is how it's been all afternoon, the Ravens steadily and pointlessly dinking away, 4-yard runs mixed with cautious, unambitious passes--receivers cutting out of bounds, diving across the middle, turning back upfield. It's the prevent offense: Do what you will in close, but let nothing go deep downfield.

The Titans have long since figured out the pattern. Their own offense has been stalled since the first series, when running back Eddie George limped off with a knee sprain. Even so, they've got two touchdowns, thanks to a short-field drive and an interception return, and that's two more touchdowns than the Ravens have scored all month. If nothing more happens in this game, Tennessee will win. And the best way to make sure nothing happens is to keep the home team's offense on the field.

The crowd understands this too. The fans are subdued when the Ravens' offense is at work, watching with mixed hostility and dismay. After three weeks without a touchdown, 15-yard gains do not impress them. Instead, they've been revved up for the defense, roaring with joy and hope whenever the Titans face third down. This is the sound of the 2000 Ravens: 69,200 people cheering for something not to happen.

By the end of the quarter, they've got another nonevent to cheer: Trent Dilfer is limbering up on the sideline, indicating that Banks won't be playing again this afternoon. It is impossible to interpret the noise as affirmative cheers for Dilfer; he's Trent Dilfer, for pity's sake. Last year, Tony Banks got cheered for not being Stoney Case. Stoney Case got cheered for not being Scott Mitchell. By December they'll be cheering Chris Redman for being none of the above.

Banks has had a terrible day--three interceptions and two of his trademark fumbles, one on third-and-goal at the Tennessee 1. But blaming Banks for the failure of the offense is like blaming your car for running out of gas. He's a deep-throwing improviser trying to run a scripted short-ball offense. His most disastrous play was one in which he did what he was supposed to: On the Ravens' first possession after halftime, he threw yet another conservative pass--and linebacker Randall Godfrey, knowing the play would be in front of him, cut inside on tight end Ben Coates as the pass arrived, wrestled the ball away, and ran it back upfield to give the Titans an 8-point lead.

So now it's Dilfer's turn. On first down, he completes a safe 7-yarder. On second, he fumbles while attempting a handoff, but recovers the ball. Now, on third down, he slings one toward the far sideline for Ismail. It sails high, the little-ish receiver jumps for it, and a Tennessee defender hits him in midair like a shotgun blast hitting a clay pigeon. The ball tumbles one way and Ismail goes the other, sprawling out of bounds with a mild concussion.

Quarterbacking was not supposed to be a problem once Brian Billick rolled into town. The coach was a certified quarterback guru, architect in Minnesota of the highest-scoring offense in history. Funny--sans Billick, the Vikings continued to light it up, last year with the mediocre Jeff George, this year with the inexperienced Daunte Culpepper. It's almost as if the Vikes' spectacular wideouts, Randy Moss and Cris Carter, had more to do with Billick's success there than Billick himself did.

Heresy? Coach B-exclamation point gets all the credit for Baltimore's improvement. The cover of the media guide shows two helmeted Ravens gazing reverently up at their coach's giant image on the scoreboard. This is his team. And his team can't score.

After the game grinds to its end, still 14-6, Billick grouses to reporters about the Ravens' last play, in which officials ruled--correctly--that Ismail had one foot out of bounds as he caught a pass from Dilfer in the end zone. It looked good to him, and besides, Ismail was shoved by the defender. Never mind that the shove rule is never enforced. Never mind that the Ravens would have needed to get into the end zone again, for a 2-point conversion, just to tie the game.

And never mind the 52 yards of penalties--many on false starts--or the seven fumbles, or any of the other evidence that the Genius' team, halfway through the season, can't do the fundamentals. This team, Billick says proudly, is 5-3. At that rate, they'll end up a handsome 10-6. And along the way, by that logic, they'll go eight games without scoring a touchdown.

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