Pressure on Boller's shoulders in third season

WESTMINSTER -- The time for feats of arm strength like quarterback Kyle Boller launching a spiral through the goalposts from his knees at midfield, and for all those excuses about the Baltimore Ravens' lack of a passing game has officially expired.

Heading into Boller's third season as the starter, his training wheels have been discarded and the Ravens expect him to do more than not lose games. They want him to consistently deliver winning performances and justify their investment of a pair of first-round draft picks and millions of dollars.

The Ravens have finally supplied the 24-year-old with some viable downfield targets to boost an aerial attack that has struggled mightily during Boller's short tenure.

With the acquisitions of two-time Pro Bowl receiver Derrick Mason and Oklahoma All-American wideout Mark Clayton, the organization's expectations have risen dramatically for Boller after a season in which he was the second-lowest ranked passer in the AFC and Baltimore ranked 31st overall in passing offense.

"This is my offense," said Boller, whom Baltimore drafted 19th overall in 2003 after trading a first-round pick to New England at coach Brian Billick's request. "It's going to be my job this year to rally the guys. Our passing game has struggled in the past, but that's the past. We have the future to look forward to. If I'm not a leader, then we have a problem."

The Ravens dismissed offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and replaced him with former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel, also adding Rick Neuheisel as quarterbacks coach. Fassel has a strong quarterback background having coached John Elway, Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason and Kerry Collins.

"This is all orchestrated for Kyle, this playbook, this offense, because he has to be successful," Billick said. "We have every confidence he can be, not only with the people we brought in, but with the structure we've wrapped around him.

"Just in his confidence, his demeanor, his understanding, his full comprehension, he's in total control out there as it should be in a third season."

Last season, the Ravens' passing game generated only 144.5 yards per contest and 5.52 yards per passing attempt one year removed from ranking last in the NFL in total passing. For his career, Boller has averaged 152 yards per game, but has gone 14-10 as a starter. The Ravens have ranked 21st or lower offensively for the past three years, and reversing that trend will likely require a breakthrough season from Boller.

"This is a huge year for Kyle Boller," said ESPN analyst and former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. "Kyle had better be ready because the Ravens aren't going anywhere unless Kyle takes them there.

"His time has come. I see leadership qualities in him. I think he'll do very well."
Despite being without Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap for 10 games last season because of an ankle injury and running back Jamal Lewis missing four games due to injuries and suspension, Boller demonstrated increased proficiency in the second half of 2004.

During the final eight games, Boller averaged 182.3 yards per game with 10 touchdown passes and five interceptions.
It's a matter of maintaining mechanics and fundamentals that improved markedly last year when Fassel joined the team as a senior consultant.

The goal is to emerge as an accurate passer who makes sound decisions and reads.
"I have high expectations for him," Fassel said. "One reason I believe in him a lot is last year when everybody was down on him and wrote him off he handled it so well. When he really started to do some things, not once did he say, 'I told you so.' He was the same guy and that showed me he has the mental capabilities and toughness to do it."

Gradually, Boller made advancements. He recorded a career-high 112.3 quarterback rating in a Dec. 12 win over the Giants, passing for 219 yards, a career-high four touchdowns and no interceptions to earn AFC Offensive Player of the Week.

This followed a rough first half of the season that included three interceptions in the second quarter against the Redskins, prompting a vote of confidence from Billick amid a public outcry against his hand-chosen quarterback.

"During Kyle's rookie year, he threw the ball so poorly that I thought, 'This isn't going to work,'" former Giants quarterback Phil Simms said. "I've noticed an unbelievable difference in Kyle since he started working with Jim. I think he has plenty enough talent to be a front-line starter in the NFL for a long time.

"[But] to be a really good NFL quarterback, he's got to become dead-on accurate. If they're open, you can't miss them."
At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Boller is an impressive athlete capable of sprinting away from linebackers - he rushed for 189 yards last year - and firing spirals into confined quarters. Yet, aiming the football has been a major issue, particularly on short and intermediate routes.

Boller is a career 54.4-percent passer who wasn't even very accurate during his college days at Cal. Fassel has set a lofty goal of Boller completing 63 to 64 percent of his attempts this season.

"It's building blocks, you have to get his fundamentals consistent and sound and we did that last year," Fassel said. "There's been no resumption of bad habits. How can he be accurate? Stay fluid and smooth, keep practicing with the receivers and it will happen."

Meanwhile, the Ravens are trying to shed their conservative approach. They were one of 10 teams last year that averaged more rushing attempts than passes. They've set a goal of hitting receivers in stride after ranking last in the league in yards after the catch.

"I've never seen Kyle Boller get on a roll throwing the football," Theismann said. "That offense hasn't presented that opportunity to him where he can win the football game with his arm. That isn't a weakness to me, it's a question mark."

Instead of being counseled by Billick and multiple assistants like last year, this season Fassel will have Boller's ear.

"He's the guy," Boller said of Fassel. "There's going to be one voice."
In 2004, Boller completed 55.9 percent of his passes for 2,559 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His 70.9 quarterback rating ranked him ahead only of Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler in the AFC, but it was an improvement over his rookie totals of 1,260 yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.

"This is the year where Kyle Boller has to win games throwing the football and become more than a caretaker who hands the football off to Jamal Lewis," Theismann said.

The measure of progress will be determined not only by wins and losses, but by how much he affects those outcomes.
Having endured two seasons where his inexperience, miscues that include fumbling 20 times, losing a dozen, and a suspect receiving corps hampered his development, Boller is still smiling and standing. He's slated to be the first quarterback in team history to start three consecutive seasons.

"It's been a journey," Boller said. "I have done a lot of wrong things and without having the hard times, I don't think it would be fun.

"I've got some weapons and I have an opportunity to go out there and be a good quarterback and kind of make a name for myself."

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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