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8 Upper

Stoney End

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/27/1999

For the middling middle of the NFL bell curve, game six of the schedule is when a team starts to find its true level. The clot of teams in the comfortable ambiguity of 3-2 and 2-3 suddenly starts to separate into 4-2 and 2-4 squads—winners and losers, wheat and chaff.

So it was that the Ravens got their due threshing on Oct. 21, in an ESPN Thursday-night football special. In front of an honest-to-goodness National Television Audience, the Kansas City Chiefs intercepted quarterback Stoney Case three times (twice for touchdowns), stifled coach Brian Billick's ambitious offense, battered the defense senseless, and rolled to a humiliating 35-8 win. When it was over, the purple grandstands of PSINet Stadium were long empty, and the carrion-eaters were a grim-looking 2-4.

Any talk of an 8-8 finish can cease. The Ravens will be hard pressed to win more games than the University of Maryland Terrapins, who play a mere 12-game schedule. Right now, Maryland is up 5 wins to 2. The long-dormant Terps seem to have finally reversed their fortunes; the Ravens seem locked into their badness. If they manage to run the table against the hapless Bengals and the expansion Browns and beat the stumbling Saints, they'd match last year's 6-10 mark. Based on Thursday's debacle, even that may be too much to ask.

First, and bleakest, the Chiefs ended any illusions about Stoney Case. The Great Purple Hope was abysmal—Scott Mitchell abysmal, completing a sorry 15 passes on 37 attempts for 103 yards. The Chiefs, by comparison, ran back his intercepted passes for 108 yards. Repeat: 103 yards forward, 108 yards backward. Add in those two touchdowns off interceptions and Case did almost precisely as much for Kansas City as did the Chiefs' own quarterback, Elvis Grbac (112 yards, two TD passes).

It's always fun to see a backup quarterback confound expectations and succeed as a starter. The NFL is, after all, wrong about almost everything it requires of prospective quarterbacks, from height (see Flutie, Doug) to big-college experience (see Cunningham, Randall) to proper throwing form (see Favre, Brett). But there is one rule that permits no exceptions: A quarterback has to be able to throw the damn football. He can throw it sidearm or off the wrong foot, but he must fling the pig with authority. Stoney Case, plucky and agile though he is, can't. His short passes are tentative and fluttery; his long passes are nonexistent. When the quarterback doesn't have the arm to throw a credible deep ball, the opposition cornerbacks don't have to worry about receivers getting behind them. This, in turn, means that the safeties can move up to support the linebackers, and the linebackers can stack up on the line of scrimmage. And if the linebackers are stacked on the line of scrimmage—well, in Case's four starts, the Ravens never scored more than 19 points.

When Case finally gave way to Tony Banks in the fourth quarter, the difference was obvious. Banks is far from an All-Pro; in his three previous seasons, he fumbled 46 times and threw 42 interceptions. On Thursday night, he seemed to be struggling to keep his feet under him. But when he delivered the ball, it went crisply where it was supposed to. He even managed to direct a touchdown drive, for the Ravens' only points of the night.

In one of his occasional nods to reality, coach Billick! announced a few days later that Banks would start Oct. 31 against Buffalo. Why Banks didn't get the job in the first place, once Mitchell played his way out of the starting job, is something known only to The Genius. The rumor at the time was that Banks was out of favor because he had, in one exhibition game, called a play from the playbook of his previous team, the St. Louis Rams. Whether that happened or not, the underlying notion was that Banks was having trouble getting the hang of the Billick! System, those thousands of plays The Genius is said to carry around on his laptop.

After six games, though, it's starting to look as if nobody's going to get the hang of the Billick! System. The Ravens have scored only 85 points all season, while giving up 122. The theories of offense that Billick developed with the high-flying Minnesota Vikings—with cannoneers such as Warren Moon, Brad Johnson, and Randall Cunningham at quarterback—don't work for the Mitchell-Case-Banks Ravens. The stagnant attack recalls the darkest days of the recent-vintage Philadelphia Eagles, when then-coach Ray Rhodes insisted on having rag-armed Rodney Peete run a pass-based West Coast offense. Like Rhodes, Billick is bravely sticking with his system, even if it means Stoney Case throwing the ball 37 times in a game.

Successful coaches do just the opposite. Bill Parcells won two Super Bowls with the Giants using a grinding running game. When he went to the Patriots, his new team had lousy run-blocking but a strong-armed quarterback. Parcells worked out a new, pass-heavy offense and went to the Super Bowl by air.

The sensible thing for the Ravens to do is to find the plays that Tony Banks can run, and let him run them. Keep it simple: Throw deep to keep the defense honest, and let running back Errict Rhett—the one decent player on the offense—carry the ball as much as possible. That probably still won't be enough to get the team seven wins this year. But if they stop kidding themselves about what they can do, the Ravens might at least start looking respectable now and then. For this franchise, that alone would be something new.

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