Last-place Ravens focused on future

OWINGS MILLS -- Inside the Baltimore Ravens' $31 million training complex at the plush address of One Winning Drive, there's more business afoot than the usual pursuits of a football team. Because of the last-place Ravens' underachieving season heading into Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the focus for the second half of the season isn't solely on generating an unlikely playoff run.

It has primarily become an exercise in striving for job security as virtually every aspect of the Ravens (2-6) will be evaluated. The future has become as relevant as the present for a team that has lost three games in a row and 10 of its last 14 to plummet into the cellar of the AFC North.

Beginning Sunday at Alltel Stadium where the Jaguars (5-3) have already defeated division leaders Cincinnati and Seattle, Kyle Boller will begin his two-month audition to quarterback the Ravens beyond this year. It's Boller's first start since hyperextending his right big toe two months ago in the season-opener, and it's likely there will be some rust.

The Ravens have invested millions of dollars in the 2003 first-round draft pick from Cal, and they're seeking dividends.

"There's pressure obviously, but I see it as an opportunity," said Boller, who has a 68.0 career passer rating and a 14-12 record as a starter. "I just want to go out there and be the quarterback that I know I can be."

Another pressing issue for the front office is the future of Ravens coach Brian Billick.

Will Billick be dismissed after two disappointing seasons where the offense has regressed and the locker room has occasionally been dotted with controversy?

Billick owns a Super Bowl ring, has a career mark of 63-48 and is under contract through 2007 with a reported annual salary of $4.5 million. He has already stated that he expects to be retained by majority owner Steve Bisciotti.

That hasn't derailed rampant speculation, though, as Billick is deemed to be on the hot seat by several national publications.

"You try to keep the criticisms at arm's length, but I have a wife and two daughters and the concept of nothing personal, just business is a little harder on them to understand," Billick said. "Me, I'm fine. I can deal with it and it's all I've ever known. So, it does wear on you."

Meanwhile, star running back Jamal Lewis is in the midst of his worst season. The former NFL Offensive Player of the Year is averaging 54.5 rushing yards two seasons removed from gaining 2,066 yards.

In the final year of a six-year, $35.3 million contract, Lewis has admitted that he's concerned about getting hurt and ruining his market value.

It's most likely that the Ravens will designate him as their franchise player with roughly a $6.5 million salary. Their other top options are re-signing Chester Taylor or pursuing high-dollar free agents like Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander.

"I'm not auditioning to go out and try to prove myself," Lewis said. "I've proven myself. I have had a 2,000-yard season. I haven't forgotten how to run the football.

"I'm not auditioning for a team. I'm not auditioning for anything else but just to play another year of football."

Besides Lewis, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome will have decisions to make on these unrestricted free agents: defensive end Tony Weaver, linebacker Tommy Polley, safety Will Demps, nose guard Maake Kemoeatu, Taylor, punter Dave Zastudil, quarterback Anthony Wright, defensive backs Deion Sanders, Dale Carter and Chad Williams, receiver Randy Hymes, tight end Darnell Dinkins and linebacker Bart Scott.

Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed will be entering the final year of his rookie deal and middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who's making $5.5 million this season, wants more money.

An oft-criticized offensive line with four starters over age 30 is under scrutiny, especially offensive tackle Orlando Brown and center Mike Flynn.

The Ravens haven't beaten a team with a winning record in nearly a full year (Nov. 14, 2004 at the Jets) and have lost their last seven road games.

Their only two wins this season are against teams (Jets and Browns) with a collective mark of 5-11.

"Good teams win at home and on the road," said Billick, who's 0-4 on the road in 2005. "Teams that struggle tend to struggle at home and on the road. It's tougher on the road obviously."

The Ravens have the lowest-scoring offense (12.1 points per game) in the league and have just one touchdown in the past three games, a scoreless streak of seven quarters.

"A win won't alleviate all the problems, it wouldn't even put a Band-Aid on it," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Not until we start kicking off wins in arrow. Winning would be a step in the right direction.

"Not just winning, but winning in a way where we improved offensively, defensively and on special teams. We have to rectify a lot of things."

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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