When most NFL coaches say they have no idea how their teams will play in the first preseason game, their motive is to lower fan expectations. When Brian Billick said that today as the Baltimore Ravens ended preparations for Thursday night's game in Philadelphia against the Eagles, he was being totally honest.
So much about the Ravens is new, starting at the top, where Billick will be in his first game as an NFL head coach. Also new are the top two quarterbacks (starter Scott Mitchell and Tony Banks), the fullback (Chuck Evans), the first three tight ends on the depth chart and every significant wide receiver except Jermaine Lewis, Patrick Johnson and Floyd Turner.
The defense is close to set. But it also includes an element of mystery because two Pro Bowl players, end Michael McCrary (knee) and outside linebacker Peter Boulware (shoulder), are recovering from an operation and a minicamp injury, respectively, and will not play. In addition, two Pro Bowlers on offense, left tackle Jonathan Ogden and Lewis, have muscle tension in their legs and might be sidelined. Lewis seems the most likely to play.
Because the players and the system are so new, Billick said, the offensive starters might play into the second quarter. Billick said Banks should play two quarters after replacing Mitchell, the nine-year veteran who hasn't thrown a pass that counted since being benched after the second regular season game last season by the Detroit Lions in favor of rookie Charlie Batch.
"For what we've been trying to accomplish so far, we're doing pretty well," said Mitchell, speaking about himself and his teammates on offense.
Billick will call the plays--and said the ones Thursday will not feature anything tricky, in part because he wants to evaluate players in specific situations and does not want to tip his hand before the regular season opener against the St. Louis Rams.
Fortunately for the Ravens, the Eagles also are in massive flux, with a new coach (Andy Reid), new quarterbacks (Doug Pederson and rookie Donovan McNabb) and a mostly retooled offensive line. Reid has promised the Eagles defense will be more aggressive--and that seems to please most players.
"There's pros and cons to it," said Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent, "but there's nothing like pressure, nothing like turnovers."
For the Ravens, second-year player Johnson and rookie cornerback Chris McAlister will get special scrutiny from Billick because they have high potential. Johnson played well during the preseason games last year, but faded during the regular season.
"Patrick needs to show up," Billick said. "We have the speed [with Johnson and newcomers Billy Davis and Qadry Ismail] to stretch defenses. But can we go vertical and catch the ball?"
McAlister already has moved into the lineup when three defensive backs are necessary and has impressed thus far in camp. Billick revealed parts of a recent conversation he had with McAlister: "Is what I see in practice going to show up [against the Eagles]? Or are you going to kinda crawl up in that fetal position?"
Data: Ravens at Philadelphia Eagles preseason game.
Time: 8 p.m.
Site: Veterans Stadium.
Radio: WLIF-FM-101.9, WSMD-FM-98.3, WJFK-1300.