The pressure on Kyle Boller will come from all sides Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville when he returns as the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback. He will take over the NFL's lowest-scoring offense and try to lead a team that has not won a road game or beaten a team with a winning record in nearly a year. He will face a tough Jaguars defense that ranks third in sacks per pass play. And he will square off against Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich, whose career has been closely tied with Boller's.
"There is pressure, obviously, but I see it as an opportunity," said Boller, who missed the past seven games with a hyper-extended right big toe. "I just want to go out there and be the quarterback that I know I can be."
By now, the story has been well-documented: On the first day of the 2003 draft, the Ravens attempted to make a trade with Minnesota that would have allowed them to leapfrog the Jaguars and select Leftwich, the former H.D. Woodson standout. A busy signal at the league office prevented the Ravens from completing the deal, and Jacksonville drafted Leftwich.
Baltimore wound up taking defensive end Terrell Suggs with the 10th pick and later traded its 2004 first-round pick in order to grab Boller with the 19th selection. Suggs has since developed into a Pro Bowl pass rusher; Boller remains a work in progress.
Leftwich has proven to be a productive quarterback. In 35 career starts, he has completed 58.8 percent of his passes (641 for 1091) for 7,396 yards, 40 touchdowns and 31 interceptions, and has led the Jaguars to 18 wins. The Ravens have won 14 of Boller's 26 starts; he has a career completion percentage of 54.7 percent and has thrown for 3,960 yards, 20 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.
But comparisons between Boller and Leftwich aren't entirely fair, according to Baltimore Coach Brian Billick, because Boller has missed 13 games in three seasons because of injury. Also, the quarterbacks came into the league facing different situations. Boller was thrown into a starting role on a playoff-caliber team as a rookie, while Leftwich started the season as Mark Brunell's backup and took over after Brunell was injured.
Now "the role's reversed a little bit," Billick said in a conference call with Jacksonville reporters. "As we go into the second half of the season, one of the good things will be that Kyle can kind of let it go and it can be about, 'Okay, how do we develop Kyle?' because obviously our playoff chances, although not removed, are remote. Now Byron is having to orchestrate a [5-3] team that's right there in the thick of the playoffs."
When the season began, the Ravens (2-6) were eager to see if Boller would continue to build on the progress he made during the second half of the 2004 season. In the final eight games, Boller averaged 182.3 passing yards per game and threw 10 touchdown passes versus five interceptions. In the first eight, he averaged 137.6 passing yards and threw for three touchdowns and six interceptions. The Ravens went 4-4 down the stretch, facing four teams that went to the playoffs (the Jets, Patriots, Steelers and Colts).
Boller's completion percentage needs to improve. Billick also would like to see him continue to do some of the things he did down the stretch last year, like sustain drives, complete long throws, convert on third down, and run for yards. The remaining eight games are essentially an audition for Boller, in the sense that they are an audition for every other player on the team, said Billick.
"There are things that we've got to see. There's a certain progress that's got to be made on his behalf that we were hoping we could continue on right from the beginning of the season," Billick said.
Boller realizes that. He also realizes unless Boller's play continues to improve, he won't escape the comparison with Leftwich or the what-ifs.
"Things happen for a reason, and it's going to be fun to go down there and compete against him and see him," said Boller, who led the Ravens to a 24-17 victory over Leftwich and the Jaguars during the 2003 season. "I'm sure people are going to compare us, but things are different. Hopefully we'll come out of there with a win."
Ravens Notes: Linebacker Ray Lewis (thigh) and safety Ed Reed (ankle) have been ruled out of Sunday's game. Reed hasn't played since spraining his ankle against Cleveland on Oct. 16, and his lower right leg was in a walking cast when he briefly appeared in the Ravens' locker room on Wednesday. . . .
The Ravens terminated the contract of backup quarterback Kordell Stewart in order to clear a roster spot for third-year running back Musa Smith, who was activated from the physically unable to perform reserve list. Smith, who will be used primarily on special teams, has not played since suffering a compound fracture of his right tibia in a game against Dallas on Nov. 21, 2004.