Ravens' QB derby about to launch

Every crisp spiral carries the weight of a potential statement. An audible can feel like a speech. Each fumble, interception or wobbly throw is heavily scrutinized. Such is the current existence of Troy Smith, Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco as they duke it out for the right to pledge an elite fraternity: becoming one of the NFL's 32 starting quarterbacks.

As the Ravens stage a rare three-man quarterback competition, the pressure figures to be intense with each candidate making his case for why he should hold the most pivotal position on a team coming off a dreadful season.

Smith, the swaggering former Heisman Trophy winner, seems to be entering the race with a slight edge over Boller, an inconsistent former starter, and Flacco, the towering first-round draft pick with a powerful arm.

Team officials have marveled over Smith's improved accuracy and field presence. By the close of minicamps, he was taking the majority of the snaps with the first-team offense ahead of Boller.

Smith's improved confidence, conditioning and streamlined mechanics are obvious, but he's far from a lock to be the season-opening starter Sept. 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I think he did an admirable job last year, he's just trying take the next step forward," linebacker Bart Scott said. "I think this thing is wide open and he has a tremendous opportunity to start at quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens."

Smith rates highly for his elusiveness and ability to throw on the run. As a rookie, he filled in decently when a since-retired Steve McNair and Boller were out with injuries. He completed 40 of 76 passes for 452 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions and went 1-1 as a starter.

With his teammates believing in him, Smith has to increase the coaches' confidence as he tries to hold off Boller and Flacco.

"At all times, I'm going to20be 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."

However, the former Ohio State star lacks ideal size at 6-foot, 225 pounds.

"A lot of people try to discredit Troy because he doesn't have the height of a stereotypical quarterback, but he pulls it off," offensive guard Jason Brown said.

It's clear that Smith's bid is being taken very seriously by the coaching staff, but it's early.

"I think you can see that he can play quarterback in the NFL, without a question," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's got the arm strength, he can move around and he can operate the offense.

"Under pressure, proving himself in games is going to be up to him. He's got the ability, without question, to be a starting quarterback in this league."

Although Boller impressed during a narrow duel with Tom Brady, he was erratic overall with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptio ns in eigh t starts.

Entering the final year of his contract, Boller needs to bounce back from some rocky offseason practices where he appeared to press and occasionally reverted to a frenetic approach that has dogged him since entering the league.

For Boller, who has 42 career starts, to be the guy, he'll need to relax and display his strong arm, mobility and physical toughness.

"I think it's awesome," Boller said. "I think competition is going to be great for our offense and for our team. It's going to bring the best out in all of our players, so I'm really looking forward to it."

Boller can also provide Flacco with the real-life example of what it's like to play immediately as a rookie, as he did with disastrous results against the Pittsburgh Steelers five years ago.

"If you're ready to play, then you should play," Boller said. "I just don't think I was ready to be playing at the time I played, but you deal with it. I'm going to do everything I can to help Joe out."

Could the quarterback of the future become the quarterback of the present?

At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, Flacco is the prototype. He raised eyebrows when he connected with Mark Clayton on a 50-yard strike during his first NFL practice.

Besides an unflinching attitude, the New Jersey native has looked surprisingly nimble in the pocket.

It's unclear if Flacco is truly ready, but the Ravens are going to give him a long look to find out if he's worthy of wearing the starter's mantle.

"I want to play as soon as possible," Flacco said. "I know it's a tough thing to do at any position, and especially quarterback. I feel I'm capable of doing that.

"The big thing is the mental part. You have to be ready and I think I'm ready. If anyone could come in and start right away, I think I'm that guy."

It's clear that this competition doesn't resemble the sham of a contest between Boller and Chris Redman in 2003.

"All these competitions are a little bit different," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "They truly are day-to-day. We'll talk and come up with a plan at training camp, and away we'll go."

Harbaugh hasn't revealed a specific timetable for declaring a starter, but preseason games and chemistry figure to be major factors.

Ultimately, it may come down to a gut feeling if no one separates himself from the pack.

"The key for all those guys is to be the most consistent because that's going to be the guy who's going to be out there leading us," tight end Todd Heap said. "We've got some guys who are capable of getting the job done. It's a good, healthy competition."

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

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