Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Near Occasion of Cardinal Sin

Okay, already a day late on the start to the week, so let's begin with a nice and easy warmup on the home team Baltimore Ravens. Nothing too strenuous, wouldn't want to pull anything.

Trailing Baltimore 20-6 in the third quarter, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt replaces second-year starter Matt Leinart with former NFL MVP Kurt Warner. Warner responds by leading his team to three scoring drives and a 23-23 tie with 3:43 to play in the game. Leinart uses his sideline time wisely as the cameras catch him fixing his hair just so in front of the cooling fans. Doesn't he know he's supposed to put on a baseball cap and headset and grab a clipboard?

Veteran coach and offensive genius Brian Billick counters Whisenhunt's move by inserting Kyle Boller into the game for the Ravens' first possession of the fourth quarter. Weren't expecting that, were you? Of course not. Only a master of gamesmanship and sports psychology could understand the logic of removing a QB who had completed 20-27 passes for one touchdown and no interceptions. But genius cannot be explained and often cannot be appreciated.

Boller quickly makes two bad throws and the Ravens' offense heads back to the bench after a three and out. His second effort starts out better with a couple long passes to get into field goal range, but consecutive sacks force the Ravens to punt. Finally, on Baltimore's last possession, the home team drives back into field goal range again (thanks in large part to an unnecessary roughness penalty on the Cardinals), and ever-steady Matt Stover boots the gamewinner home.

This might be a good time to point out that, for all his flaws, Steve McNair is supposed to be a great clutch player. He's the guy who led the final scoring drive against San Diego last season, to name one. Over and over, we hear how calm and poised he is. I can almost understand Billick's decision to give Boller a series or two to give McNair a rest and to show some appreciation for the job Boller did last week as the starter. But once the Cardinals rolled through the defense like Kramer at the dojo, you might want to reconsider.

The quarterback shuffles were fun and distracting, but the real story of this game and season is the Ravens' defense. For two straight weeks, we have seen fourth quarter collapses just when this unit should come up with a big sack or turnover to turn out the lights. Rex Ryan's rep as a defensive guru might start to ring as hollow as Billick's offensive field cred. Except that he's not exactly firing the same caliber weapon he was last season.

Some have pointed out the injury to Trevor Pryce, but the simple fact is that Baltimore misses Adalius Thomas more than most people seem willing to admit. Thomas was the best player on the team last year and while Ed Reed can make some great plays and Ray Lewis is the emotional leader, nobody on this defense has the opposing offensive coordinator really worried the way Thomas did last year.

On the bright side, the Ravens are winning the games they are supposed to win. Yamon Figurs jumped right in for BJ Sams with a touchdown return. But what looked like a break in the schedule suddenly seems more stressful than Baltimore fans might have expected. Road games at Cleveland and San Francisco will show whether the Ravens are ready to be contenders or just really good spoilers.

No comments: