Ravens' offense, Boller shedding training wheels

OWINGS MILLS – Kyle Boller sailed multiple spirals several feet over his wide receivers' outstretched hands on errant sideline throws. He was just warming up, though.

Eventually, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback stopped skidding footballs along the manicured grass behind the team's training complex and began to demonstrate a burgeoning connection with two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Mason. Boller completed a series of sharp throws, including a red-zone strike to Mason for a touchdown.

As the Ravens opened a four-day, voluntary passing camp Monday, their top priority remains upgrading a passing game that ranked 31st in the NFL last season.

With the additions of Mason, first-round pick Mark Clayton -- an All-American wideout from Oklahoma -- and Jim Fassel replacing Matt Cavanaugh as offensive coordinator, the Ravens struck an upbeat, yet realistic stance about their offense.

"We need to be a disciplined offense," Fassel said. "We need to be able to be on the attack. I told ‘em, you can't be stupid with the ball. We can't penalize ourselves. We've got a ways to go and a lot to work on.

"We're just out here in our pajamas. We haven't put the pads on to really run things. From what I see, they're talented guys, smart guys and classy guys. They're smart and they want to learn."

In particular, Boller is eager to take advantage of new, speedy weapons added to bolster a run-oriented offense. For years, defenses have crowded the line of scrimmage to account for bruising running back Jamal Lewis and dared Baltimore to throw.

Boller ranked second-to-last in the AFC last season with a 70.9 quarterback rating, passing for 2,559 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The former first-round draft pick's 55.6 percent accuracy is one of the major areas where Fassel wants to see vast improvement, ideally looking for 65 percent.

"We have a great relationship, it's a new vibe," Boller said of Fassel's management style, which hasn't included many terminology changes. "I just really want to be an efficient quarterback. They brought in some guys that are really going to help me out.

"It's going to be my job to get the ball in their hands and let them make plays. My arm is strong enough. If anything, I want to work on my touch and have it be more like Joe Montana."

Entering his third season as a starter, Boller has made strides in his mechanics and fundamentals. Boller no longer looks awkward dropping back from center, and his delivery is much more compact and crisp.

"The one thing I'm most pleased about is last year we made a number of significant changes in his fundamentals and when we started working together this offseason, he had not reverted to bad habits," said Fassel, noting that Boller visited the coaches Sunday night to go over passing-camp details. "He's very smooth, and as we work on more things, I'm becoming more pleased."

Typically, the third year is a benchmark for NFL quarterbacks' progress and the removal of any training wheels.

The Ravens expect Boller to evolve into a consistent passer who can lead the team back into the playoffs after last year's 9-7 mark.

"We have a lot of talent here, and we have a huge amount of faith in Kyle and his understanding of the offense," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "If he can stay healthy with the talent we can wrap around him, our expectation is to have that level of productivity whether it's the third, fourth, fifth or sixth year."

Boller had four games last season with quarterback ratings over 100, including a career-high 112.3 rating while throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions against the New York Giants, whom Fassel used to coach.

"It would be inaccurate to say a guy's third year is going to tell you how much progress he's made," Fassel said. "Now, I want Kyle to progress and I think he'll have a good year, but quarterbacks are so subject to the team around ‘em."

Even a newcomer like Mason, whose background includes time spent with accomplished Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, noted Boller's confident huddle demeanor.

"He's very energetic and he's showing that leadership role which he has to show as a quarterback," Mason said. "To be a very good quarterback, you have to step up and be a leader and I think he's going to do to that this year."

With Mason and Clayton's speed and the impending return of Heap (shoulder surgery) and Lewis (due to be released June 2 from federal prison), this one-dimensional offense could be on the verge of a reputation-changing turnaround.

Especially if the investment of two first-round selections following a draft-day trade with New England and millions of dollars in Boller pays dividends.

"I'm not a rookie anymore," Boller said. "I see these young kids come in here and I can't even imagine what I looked like then compared to now. Everything is much smoother, much easier."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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