By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
It's the fifth year of Kyle Boller in Baltimore and nothing much has changed. The more you see of him at quarterback the less you want to see. Okay, veteran Steve McNair made entirely too many mistakes the first 54 minutes of Baltimore's loss to the Bengals on Monday night. But it was Boller who got seven cracks at punching it in, six from inside the 5. And not surprisingly, really, he couldn't get the Ravens the inches they needed for the game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes.
Yes, the referee made a shameless, bogus, game-changing offensive pass interference call on fourth down nullifying what should have been Boller's touchdown pass to Todd Heap that, after a point-after kick, would have tied the game . It's the kind of error for which the NFL will, or at least should, apologize to the Ravens because Heap didn't do a thing to warrant a penalty flag. Nonetheless, an ensuing makeup call gave the Ravens first down just outside the Cincinnati 5. Boller threw incomplete on second down, then had his third-down pass batted around into a game-ending interception.
Boller was bad. The play-calling was way too trusting of Boller, who simply hasn't earned any benefit of the doubt. Why in the world, when you're a smash-mouth running team to your very core, would you have the usually disappointing Boller throw five times in the final eight plays? He did complete a fourth-and-three pass earlier to keep the drive going. But if the Ravens, with their brawn and attitude, can't line up and pound the ball in on the Bengals' terrible goal line defense, then they've got a personality disorder. McNair shouldn't be trying to throw the ball five times in eight plays down there, much less Boller, whose right arm should have been put in a harness after first and goal at the 3 so that all he could do was take the snap and hand it off to Willis McGahee.
If the Ravens had opted to dump Boller and sign Byron Leftwich, fine.
Leftwich can throw it down there. Boller can't. What, four years of his ineptitude isn't enough? If McNair's groin injury keeps him on the sideline for any length of time, the Ravens would become entirely one-dimensional unless Boller has a mid-career transformation.
Usually it's the Bengals who blow these kinds of games, which is why they've been stuck on 8-8 three of the last four years. But this time it was the Ravens who gave away a game after Ed Reed's electrifying punt return for a touchdown put Baltimore ahead 20-19 with 12 minutes to play. If anybody in the AFC can protect a one-point lead, it ought to be the Ravens, who early on laid the wood to Rudi Johnson and eliminated any thought Cincinnati might have had of running the football.
But for every good thing the defense and special teams did, the offense undid. Another officiating mistake -- this one was blown by the replay booth -- allowed the Bengals an interception that clearly hit the ground, and Cincinnati used it to turn that one-point deficit into a 27-20 lead that stood up as the final score.
It's no shame to lose on the road to a team as talented as the Bengals, a team with real championship aspirations. But the Ravens hung in there for so long despite the team's four early turnovers (three by McNair) that it had to be crushing to throw it away again and again. Carson Palmer was ordinary at best, wilder early in the game than Rick Ankiel before the position change. Palmer, probably the most accurate passer in the NFL, threw one wild pitch after another. He threw behind his receiver more than once in the first quarter, was wild high, threw it in the dirt.
He did manage to loft one perfect pass early, a 39-yard rainbow touchdown pass to Chad Johnson, who for weeks hyped how he would excite the football world with his touchdown celebration. All he did, in fact, was go to the bench and don a yellow jacket that proclaimed "HOF 20??," referring to his presumed induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at some later date.
The Ravens held their collective breath when Ray Lewis, definitely a future HOF, went to the locker room to have his injured triceps checked out by the doctors.
If there was one official theme for Week One it was significant injuries to important players. The most serious, of course, was the injury suffered by the Bills' Kevin Everett, whose emergency spinal surgery Monday didn't offer any reason for optimism. Beyond that, there seemed to be a score of everyday football injuries. The one-dimensional Chicago Bears lost two of their important defensive players for the season, one of them safety Mike Brown. The Giants appear to have lost quarterback Eli Manning for at least four weeks, though optimistic reports have him playing sooner.
It's no surprise to see the Ravens play through pain and mistakes; they have to be one of the league's toughest teams, physically and mentally. And this game had a late November feel to it, what with the violent hits.
Despite all the mistakes, the Bengals could do nothing to dissuade the Ravens. And once Baltimore had the lead, the Bengals started to look like the same team that last year would play so impressively for stretches, but often fail to put away teams and wind up losing.
The packed stadium was church quiet after Reed's punt return put the Ravens ahead, and after Palmer misfired on two passes the next series to force a Cincinnati punt. But for some reason, even while averaging 4.3 yards per carry, the Ravens kept throwing the ball -- 40 times total, while running it only 25. The last Baltimore quarterback who earned the right to throw it 40 times in a game was John Unitas. If what matters most is making adjustments after Game 1 and learning lessons from the season opener, then clearly the Ravens players and coaches know exactly what's on their worksheet between now and Sunday.