First it was Scott Mitchell. Then it was Stoney Case. Now it's Tony Banks. Is Johnny Unitas next? The Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame quarterback is about the only one who hasn't taken his turn on the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback carousel this season.
Baltimore is 3-5 largely because of its inability to settle on a starting quarterback. The Ravens brought in three new quarterbacks this season, but it is the quarterback they didn't acquire who is causing some second-guessing.
Brad Johnson nearly came to Baltimore earlier this year before the Washington Redskins outbid the Ravens for his rights. Now, it is the Redskins' offense--not the Ravens'--that is thriving under Johnson, who ranks second in the league with a 101.1 rating.
"Sometimes you hit it big and sometimes you don't," Ravens owner Art Modell said. "We had three shots at [finding a starting quarterback]. This is our third shot. I'm not giving up on this season. We have a good football team."
Although Banks remains the starter for Sunday's game against Jacksonville, Billick has not settled on a permanent starting quarterback. Case may return or Banks could continue.
"You would prefer to have one guy that you can focus totally on and build around him," Billick said. "I am not familiar enough with Tony or Stoney at this point to be able to say definitely, 'Okay, I'm going to bank on this guy. I think this guy has the best chance to develop.' . . . We think we have one of the two quarterbacks in place that can take us to that next level. Who that individual will be I really can't tell you right now."
With Banks's tenuous hold on the starting quarterback job, the Ravens are left to wonder what might have been and to continue to search for a solution to their quarterback problem.
Shortly after he took over as the Ravens' coach, Brian Billick evaluated the existing quarterbacks and decided neither Jim Harbaugh nor Eric Zeier was right for his system. So he and vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome put together a list of quarterbacks who might be available and ranked them from best to worst. Johnson was at the top of that list.
Billick and Johnson knew each other from their days together in Minnesota. As the Vikings' offensive coordinator, Billick had spent the past seven years working with Johnson.
Despite his injury-riddled history, Johnson seemed like the perfect fit: He knew Billick's system, he had a good arm and was experienced. But Baltimore lost the bidding war for Johnson when Washington offered three draft picks for him. The Ravens were willing to give up two.
"Right decision? Wrong decision? A one, two and a three [draft pick] is a lot to give up for us at this point in our organization and where we're going," Billick said. "Would I love to have Brad Johnson? Oh God, how could you not?"
After losing out on Johnson, Baltimore turned its attention to Mitchell. The Ravens also pursued Warren Moon.
"We also felt like [Mitchell] and Moon in a combination would have been a good combination," Newsome said. "But Moon told us he felt that [Elvis] Grbac would get the hook quicker than Scott Mitchell would here, so that's why he went to Kansas City."
Mitchell was coming off a disastrous season in Detroit, playing two games before being benched in favor of rookie Charlie Batch. But the Ravens saw the potential for Mitchell to become another one of Billick's quarterback reclamation projects.
"What we had seen in the league the prior year with [Vinny] Testaverde, [Chris] Chandler and Randall Cunningham was that maybe with a change, something different could happen," Newsome said. "Those guys had struggled their whole careers, then they went somewhere different and became players. . . . We felt like maybe we could do that with Scott."
But it quickly became clear Billick was not going to rebuild Mitchell's career.
"What I underestimated in bringing Scott in here was the talent base we had to surround him with was not sufficient for Scott in the style of game that Scott played to be effective," Billick said.
Mitchell started the first two games of the regular season--both losses--before being benched by Billick, who chose Case over Banks to start. Case had been with the team just six weeks when he became the Ravens' starting quarterback.
Billick had been impressed with Case's youthful enthusiasm and with how quickly Case picked up the system. However, that exuberance proved to be his undoing. Case frequently pressed too hard trying to make something happen.
After throwing three interceptions against Kansas City on Oct. 21, Case was demoted to second string and Banks became the Ravens' third starting quarterback of the season. Banks has not fared much better than Mitchell and Case. In two starts, Banks has completed 35 of 73 passes for 327 yards and two touchdowns. He also has one interception and one fumble.
Billick likes Banks's strong arm and his experience. Banks, 26, has started 45 NFL games. But Billick does not like Banks's penchant for turnovers or freelancing outside the system.
The uncertainty at quarterback has led the Ravens to ponder their options for the future. Banks and Case become free agents at the end of the season. Mitchell is not likely to remain with the team. Baltimore may end up keeping either Banks or Case if the Ravens decide there are no better quarterbacks available in the league. Even if they pursue a veteran quarterback, that does not preclude them from drafting one next year.
But drafting a young quarterback and immediately placing the offense in his hands is risky. Young quarterbacks tend to suffer through growing pains their first year in the league.
"[Next season will] be our fifth year here," Newsome said. "These fans need to have something delivered to them. They can see the improvement on the defense, but they need to see wins. And when you talk about bringing in a young Peyton Manning or a young Tim Couch and putting him out there, you see what Indianapolis went through. Then we're going to have to educate our fans."