Ravens look to upgrade aerial game at passing camp

By Aaron Wilson OWINGS MILLS – It wasn't a difficult task for the Baltimore Ravens to identify one of the primary obstacles preventing an extended playoff run.<br><br> One day after the reigning AFC North champions were expelled from the first round of the playoffs in January with a 20-17 wild-card loss to the Tennessee Titans, Ravens coach Brian Billick pointed directly at having the lowest-ranked passing game in the league last season.<br>

"For the balance that we need to be a championship team, it has to be better," Billick said of Baltimore having a passing game that mustered only 141.3 yards per contest to go with its top-ranked rushing game. "Some of that has to come at the outside receiver position. Some of it has to come from the quarterback play. Some of it has to come schematically."

As the Ravens reconvene today at their training complex for a voluntary, four-day passing camp, the goal of creating a viable aerial complement to Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis' output hasn't changed. However, the look of the team has altered slightly.

The Ravens acquired veteran receiver Kevin Johnson by trading a fourth-round selection to the Jacksonville Jaguars during the NFL draft. And they expended a third-round draft pick on Washington State receiver Devard Darling. This followed a nullified off-season trade for controversial All-Pro wide receiver Terrell Owens, who was sent to the Philadelphia Eagles in a settlement.

Months before the draft, the team hired former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel, a noted quarterback guru and a close friend of Billick's, as a senior consultant. Fassel will work closely with second-year quarterback Kyle Boller, whose rookie season was shortened by a leg injury. Fassel has an extensive background with quarterbacks, including recruiting John Elway and coaching him at Stanford and for one ultra-productive season with the Denver Broncos, along with Kerry Collins and, years earlier, Phil Simms with the Giants.

Last season, Boller compiled a 5-4 record in games he started. He passed for 1,260 yards, completing 51.8 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 62.4 quarterback rating.

Although Boller demonstrated flashes of the potential that prompted Baltimore to draft him in the first round last year after trading this year's first-round pick to New England, he also struggled on occasion with his mechanics and decision-making. With quarterbacks, experience and technique-oriented coaching tend to be great equalizers.

"I am a fundamentalist," Fassel said. "I had John fresh out of high school. I wish I could tell you that he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. I gave him the fundamentals. I learn from all the quarterbacks. "Phil Simms had a fumbling problem when I went to the Giants. We tried to straighten that out. I remember going back to Denver and John was having problems. He asked me what he could do. I told him it was the fundamentals. He went back and fixed them."

This week will be the first time that Johnson, Darling and fellow rookies Clarence Moore and Derek Abney have participated in an actual practice with Boller. It will also mark the return of a trio of players who missed all of last season due to injuries: receivers Randy Hymes (torn anterior cruciate ligament) and Javin Hunter (ruptured Achilles' tendon) and tight end Trent Smith (broken leg). Johnson has averaged 66 receptions in a five-year career.

His presence, coupled with Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, former first-round pick Travis Taylor, and Boller's development, represents the Ravens' best hopes of upgrading the passing offense.

"We're going to expand the passing game, as everybody is dying to see," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said when the team introduced Johnson, who will line up at flanker with Taylor moving to split end.

Since 1999 when Billick took over as head coach, Baltimore has ranked 25th (189.0), 22nd (175.9), 16th (207.1), 27th (177.9) and 32nd in passing yards per game.

The desire to improve those numbers will be tempered, Billick said, by being cautious to maintain the strength of the offense: the running game.

"Certainly, it's a more realistic expectation that we will have more balance," Billick said after trading for Johnson and drafting Darling. "I think it's important to stay true to the personality of your football team. For us, that's running the ball and playing good defense. "We know we have to get better at throwing the ball, but it's hard for me to think we're going to stray too far from what we are. You do what your talent dictates. I don't think a throwing team is who we are right now. A lot will depend on the growth of Kyle Boller."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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