Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller said he is constantly reminded of something he would like to forget: his rookie season.
Boller, the team's 2003 first-round draft pick, was given the reins to the offense -- and proceeded to lead it nowhere. The Ravens had the league's worst passing offense, but Boller consistently did something well before he suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury in a Nov. 9 loss to the Rams. He handed the ball to running back Jamal Lewis.
Lewis's sensational season, in which he became the fifth player in league history to rush for more than 2,000 yards, overshadowed Boller's struggles and gave the Ravens just enough offense to finish 10-6 and win their first AFC North title.
"Jamal really had to carry us last year, and some of that was my fault," said Boller, who completed 116 of 224 attempts for 1,260 yards with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions and a paltry passer rating of 62.4. "I've said all along I wasn't very good throwing the ball last season, and I need to get better this season. That's the bottom line."
The Ravens have given Boller better personnel, which should also prevent defenses from keying on his favorite target, Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, who led the team with 693 receiving yards last year. The team acquired wide receiver Kevin Johnson to play opposite Travis Taylor, drafted Devard Darling in the third round of this year's draft and hired former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel as an offensive consultant.
But the Ravens' success won't completely hinge on Boller's play because they are expected to field arguably the league's best defense, just as they did last season. The Ravens ranked in the top six in nearly every statistical category, highlighted by finishing first in sacks (47), third in average yards allowed per game (271) and fourth in passing defense (175 ypg).
Ray Lewis is the centerpiece of the defense, which also features a secondary led by strong safety Ed Reed, who intercepted seven passes, tying him for the most in the AFC.
Though the Ravens appear to be a better team than the one that lost to Tennessee in the first round of the playoffs, they will need to wait until the season begins to address some nagging questions. How will the team be affected when Jamal Lewis goes on trial to face federal drug conspiracy charges in November? Will defensive back Chris McAlister, who reported to the team just last week because of a contract dispute, be able to play at his Pro Bowl level right away? And what about Deion Sanders, who decided on a comeback with Baltimore after not playing for three years?
"We can't worry about those things: we just need to focus and go out there and play," Jamal Lewis said. "We know what's expected of us this season. We just need to go out and make it happen."
Best Hands: Qadry Ismail led the Ravens in catches and yards in 1999 and 2001, making him the only player in the franchise's brief history to lead the team in both categories twice.
Worst Hands: Travis Taylor suffered a major decline last season, catching 39 passes for 632 yards after 61 for 869 in 2002.
Grading This Year's WRs: The addition of Kevin Johnson (to go with Randy Hymes and Ron Johnson) was needed after unit's league-low 217 receptions.
WRs grade: C