Boller takes over reins as Ravens' quarterback

OWINGS MILLS - The Baltimore Ravens emerged from their huddle and formally unveiled a quarterback audible that lost its secret status days ago. Strong-armed rookie Kyle Boller unseated incumbent Chris Redman as the Ravens' starting quarterback for the season-opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The decision announced Saturday morning to have a 22-year-old lead the offense defies a football history book that indicates the NFL is a dangerous environment for rookie passers.

However, multiple factors led to an organizational decision finalized by coach Brian Billick to anoint the first-round draft pick from Cal as the Ravens' fifth quarterback to begin the season in five years.

The Ravens' internal debate didn't ignore the disastrous results of past rookie signal caller debuts, including Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Peyton Manning, but nevertheless went against the unofficial edict about pairing an inexperienced signal-caller with a playoff contender.

"I've done the homework," Billick said. "It's not a particularly pretty picture. The difficulty with conventional thinking is it tends to have a one-size-fits-all mentality. I'm very comfortable with Kyle Boller's mental makeup, his resiliency and enthusiasm. "I will watch how he is maturing. Is he getting glassy-eyed? I don't think he's that kind of individual, but I will be watching him. I won't let him, or this team, suffer because of it."

Billick said he won't hesitate to call upon Redman if Boller falters or repeatedly commits the same mistakes.

Still, the Ravens are enamored by Boller's superior arm strength and mobility that seems to increase his margin for error. Boller managed to overtake Redman, who started six games last fall, despite missing a week of training camp as a contract holdout.

"I really do think I'm ready," Boller said. "A lot of hard works pays off. I have dreamed of being here. The day's come. This is my opportunity, so I have to take advantage of it."

Boller demonstrated improved decision-making and poise in a 30-24 loss to the New York Giants. He completed 7-of-9 passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 152.1. Meanwhile, Redman struggled, completing only one of six passes for 11 yards.

Redman was informed Friday of his demotion and vowed Saturday to stay ready and continue helping Boller progress. "It was frustrating and obviously disappointing, too, but there's a role that everyone has to play," Redman said. "It's tough, but I have to face the music. I feel like I can lead this team to where it wants to be. It's just a matter of time."

Billick alluded to Redman's surgically-repaired back as a consideration in drafting Boller. "Obviously, it was a factor," Redman said.

Only two rookie quarterbacks since 1979 had winning marks as a first-year starter. Dan Marino went 7-2 with the 1983 Miami Dolphins and Kerry Collins had a 7-6 record with the 1995 Carolina Panthers.

Marino blossomed after Don Shula inserted him with 20 touchdowns, six interceptions and 58.4 percent accuracy. There has never been a rookie quarterback who led his team to the Super Bowl.

Manning tossed 28 interceptions in going 3-13 as a rookie with the Indianapolis Colts.

Troy Aikman was 1-15 with the Dallas Cowboys his first year with a 2-1 ratio of interceptions to touchdowns.

Elway was benched with the Denver Broncos after 10 games, compiling a 54.9 quarterback rating, 14 interceptions and only seven touchdowns.

Bradshaw had a 31.3 quarterback rating as a rookie with the 1970 Steelers, completing 38.1 percent of his passes with 24 interceptions and six touchdowns. It wasn't until Bradshaw's sixth season that he threw more touchdowns than interceptions.

Still, most of those quarterbacks were playing on bad football teams. "I think every situation is different," tight end Todd Heap said. "I'm not going to compare him to any of them."

The Ravens are banking on Boller's potential. "The physical skills are obvious and anyone that's seen the kid can recognize that," Billick said. "But his ability to absorb the offense has been shocking to me, and I've been doing this for a while. "Kyle's very natural interaction with the players, his energy, the resiliency this kid has, there's something special about that."

One year ago, Boller was considered a talent that needed a lot of polishing. After a winless junior campaign, he actually thought about quitting football. Boller improved his mechanics and accuracy markedly as a senior under quarterback guru Jeff Tedford.

Personal workouts that included covering 40 yards in 4.59 seconds and tossing a football through the uprights while kneeling at the 50-yard line boosted his stock.

Those sorts of tricks won't stop the Steelers from blitzing Boller at every opportunity, though, with swift linebackers Joey Porter, Jason Gildon and Kendrell Bell. "They're an awesome defense with a lot of speed," Boller said. "They're going to blitz me, it's obvious. I'm a rookie quarterback. I just need to prepare."

The Ravens have made a financial investment of up to $20 million, including incentive and escalator clauses in Boller. Baltimore also traded next year's first-round draft pick and this year's second-round choice to New England to acquire Boller.

Redman is in the final year of his contract that will pay him $1.3 million. He's set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. "Anybody that wants to represent that by starting the rookie that we are basically just building for the future is mistaken in that perception," Billick said. "Those that want to say that this was done and rigged up for one reason, because of the money that we have in Kyle Boller versus the money to Chris Redman, that was not a factor to me.

"Honestly, organizationally, long-term, is it something that I'm aware of? Sure, it has to be. The resolve for Kyle Boller is very strong." General manager Ozzie Newsome noted that the Ravens would have had Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich if the clock hadn't run out during trade talks with the Vikings.

Now, it's Boller's show to run months removed from the Berkeley campus. Redman said Boller could become another exception to the rule about rookie passers. "If anybody can make it, it's Kyle," Redman said. "He's a smart kid, very athletic, very talented. We've all got his back. He's going to be very successful."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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