Ravens' Boller primed for second season

OWINGS MILLS - The scribbled ink of a cheat sheet no longer accompanies quarterback Kyle Boller when he strides into the Baltimore Ravens' huddle.

Evidence of his growing understanding of an offense and his burgeoning self-confidence as he enters his second season are defined by discarding those mental crutches.

No longer does Boller feel the need to recite plays in front of a mirror at home like an actor running lines in the hopes that a practiced manner would convince his peers of his readiness. He's not a rookie anymore, and the lowest-ranked passer in the AFC from last season bears the scars to prove it: tiny dots from an arthroscopic procedure on his non-throwing shoulder along with marks above his knee from the way a torn quadriceps that prematurely ended his season has mended.

Boller was body-slammed by Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Justin Smith last year, jarring his left shoulder loose. He never missed a snap, though, and took a pain-killing injection weeks later to remain on the field.

"This guy is a warrior," All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis said. "That's why we love this kid. We're behind him 100 percent. He's a kid that has his own swagger and we love that swagger."

More than anything, Boller wants to win.

Boller also wants to shed the widely-held and fairly accurate perception around the league that he and a slumbering passing game are the weak links of a football team otherwise primed to contend for another Super Bowl run.

"I take that as a personal thing," said Boller, who went 5-4 as a starter last season after Baltimore traded a first-round draft pick to New England to select him 19th overall. "I want teams to respect us and know that we do have a good passing game. I think I still have miles to go, but I'm much more comfortable now.

"I'm the one that's talking in the huddle, not them. You've got to earn your respect, and I'm still earning that every day."

Proving himself

A year ago, Boller supplanted incumbent Chris Redman to claim the starting job.

He demonstrated the arm strength that he flashed at Cal, along with above-average mobility. However, he struggled with his accuracy and his fundamentals and mechanics admittedly regressed while adjusting to the increased speed of the game.

Boller maintained his poise and impressed teammates with his character and toughness by playing through injuries and bouncing up after rough tackles. Yet, his statistics were at the bottom rung of the NFL quarterback ladder. His 62.4 quarterback rating was the worst in the AFC, second-lowest in the NFL ahead of Kordell Stewart.

"I wasn't really moving fluid," Boller said. "It didn't look good. I'm trying to relax, go through my progressions and not be so tight. I feel a lot smoother."

Boller completed 51.8 percent of his passes last season for 1,260 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

The Southern California native ended last season watching Anthony Wright lead the Ravens to an AFC North title.

If Boller hadn't injured his leg in the ninth game against the St. Louis Rams, he would have likely become the first rookie to lead his team to a playoff berth since Bernie Kosar with the 1985 Cleveland Browns.

Now, Boller is set to become the first Baltimore quarterback during Brian Billick's tenure as head coach to start consecutive regular-season openers.

"Kyle has definitely become the leader on this offense," receiver Travis Taylor said. "If you let him down, he'll let you know about it and he'll tell you, 'I expect better from you.' "He's the guy calling the shots. If you don't have that kind of guy as your quarterback, you're lost as a team."

Fundamentals and mechanics

Often last year, Boller would wasted motion and time while dropping back from center or throw off-balance as he rushed his delivery.

The necessary rhythm simply wasn't there, and the Ravens had the lowest-ranked passing game juxtaposed by the top-ranked running game in the league behind NFL Offensive Player of the Year Jamal Lewis' 2,066 rushing yards.

"Not that he wasn't calm before, but think about where he was a year ago and what was going through his mind," Billick said. "That's why to a large degree we did what we did last year, starting the season with him at Pittsburgh. I think we'll see a return on the investment."

With an eye toward helping Boller progress, the team hired former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel, who has a background with Boller's childhood hero, John Elway, as a senior consultant.

Boller will also wear No. 7, his college number that Elway wore during a Hall of Fame career with the Denver Broncos, after Redman's departure.

"I used to always watch Elway, and I just loved the way he played the game," Boller said. "He had so much passion."

Fassel has been trying to get Boller to evolve from a thrower to a quarterback by stressing technique and counseling the 23-year-old to play within himself and increase his efficiency. "I don't think he always puts himself in a position to make the best possible throw," Fassel said. "The emphasis I'm trying to make with him is to be smooth. Everything is timed." Physically, Fassel views Boller as the prototype of a gifted young quarterback. Yet, he needs to become as savvy as he is strong.

"Kyle has the arm strength, the speed, the athletic ability and the brains," Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap said. "When it becomes his offense and he is making all the right reads, that's when we're going to be successful. Leadership is huge, but it has to stem from production."

The Ravens' are banking on his considerable potential. They want to build the parts around Boller by surrounding him with a dominant defense and a run-oriented offense.

"I think he has a huge upside," Fassel said. "I think the guy can be an outstanding quarterback. He's a little young to evaluate as far as his competitive instincts, but he shows me a work ethic and a desire to be good, which is a good starting point."

Background, adversity built character

Before Boller wanted to be John Elway, he thought he would follow in the family tradition and extinguish fires.

His great-grandfather, grandfather, father and three uncles all were firefighters. Boller spent a lot of his formative years at the firehouse and rode along to fires and accident scenes. From his relatives' example, Boller learned the value of hard work, personal courage and trusting your teammates.

"They have a much tougher job than I do," Boller said. "What they do is so difficult and vital. I grew up thinking I was going to be a firefighter if football didn't work out."

Growing up in suburban Los Angeles, Boller emerged as a blue-chip recruit.

Yet, he nearly quit football after going 1-10 as a junior at Cal. Anointed as "Jesus in Cleats" by the Berkeley student newspaper freshman, Boller had become a campus pariah.

"My career was going nowhere fast," Boller said. "Everyone was blaming me for us losing. It was one of the few times in my life that I really doubted myself and wondered if I had what it takes."

The arrival of head coach Jeff Tedford became Boller's salvation.

Tedford carried the credibility of a quarterback guru having previously coached first-round picks David Carr, Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith and Joey Harrington.

He made Boller do unorthodox drills, including as taping his left forearm to his biceps to create a more precise spiral. A checkerboard was employed to test Boller's memory and knowledge of defensive schemes.

Tedford even made Boller wear tennis shoes instead of cleats on wet grass to improve his balance.

"I needed the help," Boller said. "At that point, I was willing to try anything." As a senior, Boller passed for 2,815 yards and 28 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions as the downtrodden Golden Bears went 7-5 overall.

"When we first got here, he was as low as he could go," Tedford said. "Through hard work and dedication, he was able to build back confidence and it all started with technique and fundamentals. There's no better person or one with stronger character than Kyle Boller."

Increasing efficiency

Besides all of the focus on Boller's technique, the Ravens are altering the game plan slightly. To increase his completion percentage, the plan is to throw to the running backs and tight ends more often with short dump passes. Plus, more motion has been instituted to try to keep defenses off-guard.

Boller built a home a few miles from the Ravens' training complex and had video equipment installed so he can watch game film on his wide-screen television. He regularly watches Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Just as Fassel emphasized the tight end with Jeremy Shockey in New York, the Ravens want to get the football downfield with regularity to Heap.

Yet, burly Jamal Lewis will remain the centerpiece of the offense. Boller remains a complementary factor, not the focal point. "I'm looking for slow, steady progress," Boller said. "I probably won't be the best-rated passer in the NFL, but I know I won't be one of the worst. I don't have to be excellent. I have to be very good for this team to win a championship."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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