- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

BALTIMORE.

Linebacker Adalius Thomas inadvertently revealed the deepest and darkest fear of the players on the Baltimore Ravens roster: Kyle Boller.

Boller, a former No. 1 draft pick, was a bust as a starting quarterback and now serves as a backup to franchise savior Steve McNair. On Sunday, Boller stepped in after McNair hurt his throwing hand in the first quarter and led the Ravens to a playoff-clinching 27-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

“It means a lot,” Thomas said of Boller’s performance. “You’re only as good as your weakest link.”

Kyle Boller = weakest link. Ravens fans now know the players have the same nightmares they do.

Boller did enough to beat the Browns, completing 13 of 21 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns and posting an impressive-looking 112.8 quarterback rating. He also did enough to lose to any team the Ravens would face in the playoffs, throwing an interception and fumbling, bobbling and slipping his way through a typically erratic performance.

“Kyle stepped in, and we won the game,” Thomas said. “We all make mistakes, and you bounce back.”

That means Boller didn’t self-destruct, which should be expected of a quarterback who has started 34 NFL games.

But he is the same old Boller, the same quarterback who can suck the air right out of a stadium — which his appearance on the field in the first quarter did.

The 70,857 fans at M&T; Bank Stadium — it was the second-largest football crowd in Baltimore history — stayed nearly catatonic until Boller hit Demetrius Williams for a 77-yard touchdown with 5:36 left in the third quarter.

Boller did enough not to lose, but that’s not good enough in Baltimore anymore.

Baltimore has seen caretakers come and go at quarterback, mediocre passers and pretenders whose sole responsibility was not to lose the game, not to put the defense in a hole too deep for it to score enough points on its own to catch up.

Fans haven’t seen a quarterback in a Baltimore uniform since Vinny Testaverde threw 33 touchdown passes in the Ravens’ first year in Baltimore in 1996, and, really, they haven’t seen the quarterback as a leader since Bert Jones led the Colts 30 years ago.

But now they have seen McNair, and both the players and fans know what it is like to have a real quarterback leading the team — and that made Boller’s appearance Sunday perhaps more alarming than any of his starts ever did. Tony Banks, Stoney Case, Trent Dilfer, Elvis Grbac, Jeff Blake, Anthony Wright, Kyle Boller, what’s the difference? Those players devalued the quarterback position for this franchise.

That changed with the arrival of McNair, the most important figure in the history of the Titans franchise since it moved to Tennessee. McNair is a former NFL MVP who threw for 156 touchdowns and 27,141 yards over 11 seasons.

McNair was the Titans’ Johnny Unitas, and now he has made the quarterback position important in Baltimore again. He is no caretaker, and that has changed the expectations of both players and fans.

Apparently, that was the problem Sunday. McNair cut his throwing hand, and he left the field to have it X-rayed. The hand was fine, so McNair returned to the sidelines after one series. He could throw the ball, but there was concern about his ability to handle the snaps, so coach Brian Billick stuck with Boller.

“Kyle was ready to go, and I just thought it was the prudent thing to do,” he said.

This is funny because Boller looked like the one who couldn’t handle the ball well, bobbling shotguns snaps several times and fumbling once. The Ravens, it appeared, would have been better off if running back Jamal Lewis took the snap from center and turned around and handed it to McNair to throw.

Billick took a shot, though, at easing the fears of his players about how tenuous their success is — one step away, apparently — by sticking with Boller. After all, the opponent was the Browns, and there was room for experimentation.

But if the experiment was to ease fears, it probably didn’t work. Boller didn’t show them anything they hadn’t seen before from a Ravens quarterback. And that isn’t good enough anymore. The Ravens have seen what life is like with a quarterback who can lead a team to win rather than simply play not to lose.

The next time McNair gets a cut on the hand, the Ravens would do well to put in a quick call to Baltimore’s boxing godfather, Mack Lewis, and ask him to send the best cut man in the city to the stadium, pronto.

Better yet, put him on the payroll now.

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