Boller, Smith squaring off

OWINGS MILLS -- It wasn't hard to identify the Baltimore Ravens' candidates to replace veteran quarterback Steve McNair one day after his abrupt retirement, especially since Kyle Boller and Troy Smith were sporting bright red jerseys. That practice uniform modification is just intended to protect their health.

No, it wasn't signifying red-alert status under center in the wake of McNair's unexpected departure.

As the Ravens try to determine who's going to be their starter after losing a four-time Pro Bowl selection, they face an uncertain, fluid situation.

The Ravens' primary options are former starter Kyle Boller, former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith or acquiring a blue-chip rookie draft pick such as Boston College's Matt Ryan, Delaware's Joe Flacco, Louisville's Brian Brohm and Michigan's Chad Henne to insert into the competition.

During his first minicamp, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was complimentary of Boller and Smith's initial performance. However, he acknowledged that a rookie could also emerge as a new contender.

"It'll be tough for anybody to come in and win a job against those guys," Harbaugh said Friday. "Those two guys are solid quarterbacks and they can both play.

"But whoever we draft is going to be a real good quarterback, too. So, it's going to be competition. We're going to roll the balls out and let them fight for the job."

The battle began with Boller taking the majority of the snaps with the first offense.

Both quarterbacks displayed strong arms, so much so that several spirals ricocheted off their intended receivers' hands and chests.

Both face a dual challenge of absorbing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's thick playbook staff as they try to succeed McNair.

"I'm just trying to earn a spot on this roster, compete and do everything I can to be the starting quarterback on this team," said Boller, who passed for 1,743 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. "The best guy is going to be out on the field. I think it's awesome.

"For me and Troy to keep pushing each other back and forth, I think it will only make our offense better, and definitely our team better. I would like it no other way."

Boller has struggled with his consistency with an 18-21 record as a starter and a 71.9 career quarterback rating.

Smith doesn't have Boller's edge of experience, but the 6-foot, 225-pound former Ohio State star does have mobility, a big arm and a trademark swagger.

"At all times, I'm going to be a leader," Smith said. "I'm going to control the things that I know how to control and I don't worry about, 'May the best man win.' I just worry about the things that I can perfect within my day-to-day actions.

"I'm not thinking of being No. 2, being No. 1, being No. 3. I'm just thinking about l learning this offense as much as I can because that's what it's about."

In two starts last season with McNair and Boller out, Smith completed 40 of 76 passes for 452 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

It doesn't approach Boller's 42 career starts, but it's something to build on.

"It helped me a little bit, because now I've got a little taste," Smith said.

Since it's only an April minicamp, it's hard to draw conclusions about how the quarterbacks are faring.

However, Harbaugh is encouraged by what he's seeing so far.

"I think they're hungry," he said. "They are guys that feel like they have something to prove. They can do all the things quarterbacks do.

"It's interesting to see the progress from the first practice to third practice in terms of the huddle and the body language. They're getting confident making the calls now. Those two guys are leaders."

Although he faltered last year with 11 turnovers and two touchdown passes as he dealt with a myriad of injuries, it was McNair who led Baltimore to a franchise-record 13-3 campaign two seasons ago.

"Steve raised the bar for what you would want from a quarterback," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Now, we have that model and they can make their decision on what you want for a quarterback."

One day later, McNair's stunning decision to walk away still drew an emotional response from former teammates.

"I'm sad to see him go as a person, that was my buddy, a guy who I could really confide in at any time," Smith said. "It was a sad day for the organization, but I know we have to move on. With his absence, we definitely feel it. But I have to step up and be Troy Smith, the only Troy Smith I know and that's to be an accountable guy, be a leader, control the things that I can control."

Where McNair played 13 seasons, Boller and Smith have only a combined six years under their belts.

So, the team could ponder the merits of journeymen free agents such as Byron Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper following the draft.

Emerging as the starter will represent a huge test of Boller and Smith's respective abilities and intangibles.

"It's up to those guys to get ready, and they've gotten off to a good start these last few days," tight end Todd Heap said.

Entering his 12th season, Mason said he has high expectations for Boller and Smith.

"I expect them to be themselves, but I also expect them to learn from one another and from the things that Steve brought to this organization," Mason said. "Take all that in, but be yourself."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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