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8 Upper

Great, Scott

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/22/1999

With about 11 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter of Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Scott Mitchell became the first official failure of the 1999 Ravens. At that moment, the starting quarterback threw his ninth and final incompletion of the day, a pass on third-and-4 that tailed into the turf behind receiver Jermaine Lewis. The crowd jeered, the punting team came on, and backup Stoney Case began limbering up on the sideline.

But doom had been hanging over Mitchell since the Ravens' fans got dressed in the morning. Amid the replica jerseys at the game, the sea of 52s and 58s and 29s and 99s, I spotted Mitchell's number 19 only twice. That put him behind his departed predecessor, Jim Harbaugh (four sightings of number 4), in a tie with the two-years-gone Vinny Testaverde. His first home game and Mitchell was already history.

There were no number-10 Stoney Case jerseys in sight. But there will be. The clichés--It's the Stoney Age! Case closed!--are already in place. When Stoney jogged out to the huddle, signaling the dawning of the Paleolithic, the crowd roared.

After the game, Ravens coach Brian Billick claimed that the change at quarterback was only situational. In defeat, The Genius has a way with the media; he looks stern and sweats where Ted Marchibroda just looked sad and fidgeted. The way the Steelers had set up their defense, The Genius explained, meant the Ravens "needed to move the quarterback around more."

This was polite falsehood. Yes, the nimble Case did better against the Pittsburgh blitz than the slow-footed Mitchell. But Mitchell's immobility is merely the flaw of his that everyone's allowed to mention: OK, some quarterbacks don't move around so well, and that's the kind of quarterback Scott is.

But the kind of quarterback Mitchell is, as Sunday proved, is a grotesquely incompetent one. Immobile quarterbacks (such as, say, Dan Marino) get across by throwing the ball quickly and accurately. Mitchell does neither. His passes were comically off the mark, sailing high out of bounds or plunging into the dirt. He was so bad that by Monday, even the shills at The Sun had turned on him.

Still, there was some revisionism after the game. I was startled to hear, from various analysts, that the two interceptions Mitchell threw to Pittsburgh cornerback Dewayne Washington weren't really so bad--the first was a tipped ball; the second a great defensive play, made possible by the fact that Lewis was too short to get the ball away from his defender. Nonsense. The first pass was tipped because Mitchell threw it too high and toward a receiver who was guarded. The second pass was simply hung up for grabs, after a transparently fake hand-off. Washington had a bead on it all the way, and beat Lewis to it because it was underthrown.

In the wake of this debacle, Billick apparently doesn't even consider Mitchell capable enough to beat the hapless Cleveland Browns this Sunday; he's anointed Case the starter. That should come as no surprise; in the bottom ranks of the NFL, a live backup quarterback is the opiate of the masses. "The second-team quarterback is always loved," Case admitted in his postgame remarks. Absent a real hero, such as the great Archie Manning was for the terrible New Orleans Saints of yore, the backup quarterback offers the fans at least a dram of hope, the promise of something different. Case is so new, he isn't even in the Ravens' media guide.

It's that hunger for change that accounts for The Genius' own cachet, the exclamation point on that BILLICK! billboard by Russell Street. Marchibroda had the team in a rut, but Coach B has come to town to turn things around. There are going to be changes at PSINet Stadium.

And when Case found his rhythm, things did seem to be looking up. The surly drunks in front of the press box stopped getting into fistfights. When Case hit Qadry Ismail down the middle for the tying touchdown late in the game, there was outright glee in the air.

It was such a nice moment, it's almost unfair to point out that it's happened before. But it did. Last year, in the home opener against the Steelers, it was plucky backup quarterback Eric Zeier--wearing number 10, yet--who came off the bench to throw a 64-yard strike to Jermaine Lewis, pulling the Ravens within seven points late in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh won despite those heroics, too.

There is, though, one important difference. That loss was in the first game of the season. In game number two, foolish old Marchibroda took his team on the road and clobbered supercoach Bill Parcells and the Jets, a team that went on to the AFC title game. For all the hype, Billick! is behind last year's pace.

Genius or no, you can't shine shit. Mitchell's death throes are a nice distraction for a team that desperately needs one. If the quarterback controversy settles down, people might notice that Billick! is calling the same sort of dull plays that Marchibroda did, ramming the ball into the line or dumping unambitious passes to the tight ends. They might recognize that All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis is the only playmaker on defense. The way the Ravens are going, the Scott Mitchell jerseys, hanging forlornly in the souvenir stands after the game, aren't the only things that are going to be tough to sell. [·]

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