Nearly two weeks have passed since Kyle Boller played one of the worst games of his short and uneven NFL career, and it has not been an easy stretch for the Baltimore Ravens' second-year quarterback. Boller has come under fire from fans and the media -- both local and national -- since his performance in the Ravens' nationally televised win over the Washington Redskins on Oct. 10, in which he threw for just 81 yards, was intercepted on three consecutive drives, and finished with a quarterback rating of 22.9.
Life won't get any easier for Boller on Sunday, when Baltimore (3-2), coming off a bye week, hosts the Buffalo Bills (1-4). The Ravens won't have Pro Bowl running back Jamal Lewis, who has begun a two-game NFL suspension, and they most likely won't have Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, who is still recovering from a badly sprained ankle. The focus will fall more squarely on Boller.
"I'm not putting any more pressure on myself," Boller said. "I'm just trying to be the best quarterback I can be."
Baltimore's offense didn't score a touchdown against the Redskins, the second time in five games that the unit has come up empty. Boller struggled, completing 9 of 18 passes.
"I've said it before, I'll say it a thousand times before we get past this game," Baltimore Coach Brian Billick said. "Kyle needed to play better than he did against Washington. Short of the Washington game, I'm very, very pleased and encouraged by the things that Kyle has done. . . . He's our guy, he's our quarterback, and he's going to be a guy that our fans can be proud of."
The criticism after the Redskins game was brutal. Former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, now a television analyst, wrote in a column posted on the NFL's Web site that "Baltimore's defense is good, but the offense just plain stinks. Kyle Boller is not the answer." Boomer Esiason, the former quarterback turned analyst, wrote that Baltimore's passing offense is by far the worst in the NFL and that Boller is a liability to the Ravens' long-term future.
"You have to have thick skin," Boller said. "If you read what people write, listen to what people say, every critic -- I'd be on a plane back to California. I'd be crushed. You've got to just go out there each day and try to work on things."
He went home to California during the bye week and tried to get away from football. He returned here last weekend, and said that he was refreshed and ready to become "the quarterback everybody wants [him] to be."
"The one thing I always try to tell Kyle is, there's only one group of people that you have to impress and that's the people in the locker room," said Ray Lewis, Baltimore's all-pro linebacker. "You don't have to even impress us, all you have to do is go out and be Kyle. But you have to just stay the course, and truly understand that a quarterback won't lose or win a season for you, a team will."
"He'll be all right. He has no choice," said Kordell Stewart, the 10-year veteran who is now Boller's backup. "You've got to leave him in there to let him learn. If you take him out, you're going to tear up his confidence."
The Ravens traded up to select Boller with the 19th pick of the 2003 draft. He became the first rookie to start at quarterback for the Ravens, and he started the first nine games before a quadriceps injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Boller, who will make his 15th career start today, is still the youngest starting quarterback in the league; at 23, he's five months younger than Pittsburgh rookie Ben Roethlisberger.
Both Billick and Jim Fassel, the former New York Giants coach who is now a senior consultant with the Ravens, preach patience when talking about Boller. Fassel rattles off the names of several successful quarterbacks -- John Elway, Brett Favre, Jim Plunkett -- all of whom struggled early in their careers.
Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann believes that it takes at least three years for a quarterback to develop, because the first year is spent figuring out what he himself needs to do, and the second year is spent figuring out what the defense is trying to do to him. Those two things start to come together in the third year.
"I am defending him; I am defending him from the perspective of growth as a young quarterback," said Theismann, who was part of the ESPN broadcast crew for the Ravens-Redskins game. "There are certain physical tools you need to be a successful quarterback, and [Boller] has all of them: mobility, a strong arm, a quiet confidence about him. You have to remember that the kid hasn't started a full year yet."
The Ravens' passing game ranks last in the NFL (116.4 yards per game), though no team has attempted fewer passes (109). Boller has a quarterback rating of 61.3, and he ranks near the bottom of the AFC in virtually every passing category. He has completed 56.9 percent of his passes (62 for 109) for 650 yards, with two touchdowns and five interceptions. He has only three completions of longer than 30 yards.
Billick and Fassel say that Boller's progress can't be judged solely on his statistics. Boller is not going to have huge passing numbers because the Ravens do not ask him to throw the ball as often as some other quarterbacks. He isn't asked to win games on his own, they say; he is expected to be part of a team that wins with defense, a bruising running game, and stifling special teams.
Baltimore is 8-6 in games that Boller has started. The Ravens lost the two games in which Boller had his highest quarterback rating (108.5 against Kansas City this season and 104.2 at Cincinnati last year), and they won the five games in which Boller passed for fewer than 100 yards.
"He has been everything we anticipated and thought we saw when we drafted him," Billick said. "Intelligence, vision, athleticism, strong arm, a certain confidence, a natural charisma that you're drawn to, that his teammates are drawn to, a burning desire -- these are all things you saw and fell in love with when you went to evaluate him. I've seen nothing to indicate that we were wrong about any of those attributes. Now it's a matter of those coming together with the proper experience base, for him to produce at the level we know he's capable of producing at."
Boller has had to operate for much of the season without his two favorite targets, Heap and wide receiver Travis Taylor, a five-year veteran who spent much of the offseason working out with the quarterback. Just how significant a part of the Ravens' offense is Heap? The fourth-year tight end is Baltimore's second-leading receiver (12 catches for 113 yards), despite the fact that he hasn't played since the first half of the Pittsburgh game (Sept. 19).
There have been modest improvements so far this year. Boller is completing a higher percentage of his passes (56.9 percent versus 51.8 percent as a rookie). He has rushed for 71 yards, which already surpasses his rookie total and puts him among the top 10 rushing quarterbacks in the NFL. His presence in the pocket has improved, according to Fassel.
Boller threw at least one interception in seven of nine starts last year. He has five interceptions this season, but they have been clumped together -- two in the fourth quarter against Cleveland, and three in the second quarter against Washington. Two came after the intended receiver bobbled and lost the ball.
"The mistakes I see him making are not out of lack of talent, or lack of ability to play the game, they're out of lack of experience," said Fassel, who has worked with quarterbacks throughout his career, most notably John Elway and Phil Simms. "He might miss his read sometimes. If he gets pressure a couple of times, he might get quick his next couple of throws, and hurt himself that way. It's just matter of being in there."
Fassel was a constant presence around Boller during training camp, often standing behind Boller and barking instructions as the quarterback went through drills. But Fassel hasn't spent much time on the field with Boller since the regular season started; he spends only Mondays and Tuesdays in Owings Mills, and those days are devoted to watching film and game-planning. Fassel said that he is willing to adjust his schedule to spend more time on the practice field with Boller, if necessary.
Fassel took Boller out to dinner on Monday night, and he had specific things he wanted to discuss with Boller, from how to handle different situations to how to prepare for games. He also wanted to check in with Boller, to see how he has been holding up.
"Young quarterbacks are like investments," Fassel said. "You think you've got a good stock; you think you've got a good young quarterback. Every time you take a little bit of a down turn, you can't sell it. You'll get nowhere. You've got to look at what you've got and you've got to be patient."
NFL's youngest starting QB