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Ravens' Flacco ready for action

| Friday, Aug. 15, 2008

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Quick now: How many Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks have put together back-to-back outstanding seasons?

Checking ... checking ... checking.

OK, how about none.

As a free public service, we now provide the list of quarterbacks who have started at least one game for the Ravens since they joined the NFL in 1996 -- but be advised, side effects may include nausea, dizziness and the sudden impulse to intercept a pass and return it for a touchdown.

The envelope, please.

In no particular order: Vinny Testaverde (who wasn't half-bad in Baltimore); Stoney Case (who was); Tony Banks; Scott Mitchell; Eric Zeier; Jim Harbaugh; Trent Dilfer; Elvis Grbac; Randall Cunningham; Jeff Blake; Chris Redman; Kyle Boller; Anthony Wright; Steve McNair; and Troy Smith.

Easily the most puzzling aspect of the Brian Billick era (1999-2007) was the failure to develop a decent quarterback. Billick had been identified as a passing-game guru with the Minnesota Vikings and was expected to install his high-wire act in Baltimore.

It never got off the ground.

Maybe it's The Curse of Dilfer, the man who sort of helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl in 2000 and promptly was discarded in favor of Grbac.

Whatever the case, the Ravens own precisely one playoff win - a wild-card victory over Dave Wannstedt's Miami Dolphins in 2001 - since crushing the Giants in the Super Bowl eight years ago. Subpar and sometimes disastrous quarterback play is the main reason, notwithstanding Steve McNair's solid 2006 season (little did anyone know his expiration date would be Nov. 11, 2007, against Cincinnati).

All of which brings us to Joseph Vincent Flacco.

Armed with a five-year, $30 million contract, Baltimore Joe better be a fancy passer and not just another passing fancy. The Ravens drafted him 18th overall out of Delaware, where he set multiple passing records after transferring from Pitt, where Wannstedt was committed to Tyler Palko.

One thing I liked immediately upon speaking with Flacco three days ago at Ravens training camp was his self-assuredness. He doesn't sound particularly interested in a Carson Palmer-style, one-year apprenticeship.

"I feel like if I'm sitting on the bench, all I'm doing is getting worse each day," Flacco said.

At 6-foot-6, 236 pounds, with a rocket arm and better mobility than people might think (he ran a 4.8 40 at the NFL Combine), Flacco conjures visions of Ben Roethlisberger.

The feeling in Ravens camp is that there's little chance Flacco will start early in the season. It's a bit of a jump, after all, from Delaware to Dick LeBeau's fire-zone defense.

More likely, Kyle Boller or Troy Smith will start the opener Sept. 7 against Cincinnati and go from there - and whoever plays won't be operating in the kind of stable, talented offense Roethlisberger inherited his rookie year.

Teams use various methods to break in potential big-time quarterbacks. One is the Palmer method. Another is the Troy Aikman method, where the player starts right away. Yet another is the Roethlisberger method, where the team favors an apprenticeship only to see circumstance force the young quarterback into action.

Flacco wants action.

"I just think the best way to get better is to get in there and be thrown into the fire and see how you do," he said. "Learn that way. Learn by the experience."

You might have guessed Flacco would have little interest in the watch-and-learn routine. He bolted from Pitt after his sophomore year in 2004, when it became clear he had no chance to unseat Palko.

Flacco, who had more yards punting (24) than passing (11) at Pitt, still isn't pleased that Wannstedt refused to release him from his scholarship, thus preventing him from going immediately to another Division I-A school.

"That bothered me, but what do you do?" Flacco said. "You make the best of it."

Flacco's only chance to start at Pitt likely would have been last season, as a fifth-year senior. Can you imagine how different the Panthers' season would have been with Flacco behind center?

Not that anyone should be blamed for his departure. Palko was a very good player who'd earned the right to start.

Back in the present, The Baltimore Sun garnered more than 11,000 responses to a recent poll asking two questions: Who will be the Ravens' starting quarterback to begin the season, and who will it be at the end?

Flacco garnered only 2.7 percent of the vote on the first question (Smith 50.2; Boller 47.1) but got 46 percent in the second (Smith 37.7, Boller 14.3).

That sounds about right. Flacco's preseason debut against New England wasn't exactly the stuff of legend - 0 for 3 with two sacks and a fumble - but he was playing behind a papier mache line late in the game.

The bet here is that whenever he cracks the lineup, Flacco will adjust quickly and give the Ravens something they've never had before: a young star quarterback.

No offense to Stoney Case.

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