- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

BALTIMORE — How much of a football town is Baltimore? The Orioles suffered through the bad press of having the pariah of baseball, steroid cheat Rafael Palmeiro, on their roster, and you would think he had done something as heinous as obstructing a murder investigation or offering his cell phone for a drug deal.

Then, next door, you have their neighbors, the Baltimore Ravens, whose two biggest stars — linebacker Ray Lewis and running back Jamal Lewis — have spent nearly as much time conferring with attorneys as with coaches at different times during their careers in Baltimore.

Yet Ray Lewis is idolized in this town. Replicas of his purple jersey everywhere to be seen. And Jamal Lewis is right behind him, a fan favorite as well and the man Ravens fans hope will carry them to another Super Bowl.

Why? Perception and reality.

The reality is that the Ravens are perceived to take care of their business the right way on the football field, which makes Ravens fans happy, while the Orioles are perceived to be the most dysfunctional franchise in the game of baseball, which makes Orioles fans angry.

Happy fans are more forgiving.

The question, though, facing the Ravens organization this year is whether the reality will finally overtake the perception. In other words, will merely the perception of a well-run football operation (especially when compared to the that of the Redskins) be good enough?

Or will Baltimore football fans, five years removed from the Super Bowl and with the Ray Lewis era closer to the end than the beginning, expect more results? Is the window of opportunity closing?

Of course, the Ravens’ bearded guru and coach, Brian Billick, chose to first look at it in broader terms when asked that last question. “It’s kind of true for all of us, isn’t it?” he asked.

But he did address the issue in football terms and believes the franchise has put itself in position to stay competitive.

“We’re not getting any younger. I think [the players] have the understanding that there’s a shelf life to this game and you have to maximize your opportunities when you have them,” Deepak Billick said. “We’ve got a nice window for ourselves, cap-wise, where this team is, for a couple of years, and I think they understand that.”

Since Baltimore won the Super Bowl following the 2000 season, it has managed to both stay competitive enough to keep fans happy and retool its roster to manage the finances of the NFL. The switch from Art Modell to Steve Bisciotti as owner has been smooth, and the philosophies of the organization have stayed in place.

But so have the Ravens, a team seemingly stuck in the mode of good but not good enough. They followed up the Super Bowl season by going 10-6 in 2001, and then 7-9 in their big rebuilding year in 2002. They rebounded to 10-6 in 2003 but fell to 9-7 last year. Good may no longer be good enough this year, particularly when Ravens fans can seemingly pinpoint their woes to the very position of expertise for Deepak Billick — quarterback.

Deepak Billick’s claim to fame before he arrived in Baltimore was that he was an offensive genius of sorts, and particularly good at developing quarterbacks. He gets much of the credit for Brad Johnson’s development with the Vikings and the one-season revival of Randall Cunningham there, when he threw 34 touchdown passes in 1998.

But Deepak Billick’s track record of quarterbacks in Baltimore has been laughable — Tony Banks, Stoney Case, Scott Mitchell, Elvis Grbac, Jeff Blake, and on and on. Even when they won the Super Bowl, the perception was they won in spite of quarterback Trent Dilfer, not because of him.

So Deepak Billick’s reputation is riding on his 2003 first-round draft choice, Kyle Boller, and so is the success of the team, if it is to compete in the AFC with the likes of Indianapolis and New England to take the next step and return to the Super Bowl.

Boller has been erratic at the helm of the offense, but he has more tools this year at wide receiver with the additions of rookie Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason. But he will have to master those tools to make significant progress with an offense that was 31st in the league last year.

It won’t take much more offense to make this team better. The Ravens still live by their defense, and the change to Buddy Ryan’s son, Rex, as defensive coordinator, and the installation of the 46 defense, could make them even more dominant. But they need more balance from the offense to keep their defense fresh and aggressive. They need Boller to be the quarterback that Deepak Billick has been searching for all these years, his version of Moby Dick.

In that story, Ahab loses. So, too, I fear, will Deepak Billick.

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