Sticking with Boller at QB pays off for Ravens
Kyle Boller knew as soon as Baltimore traded two picks to the Patriots on draft day in 2003 that they wanted him to be The Man. "Nothing is given to you," he said, but it was clear that the Ravens, who'd been through eight quarterbacks in seven years, weren't bringing Boller in as a seasonal temp.
"When we started him in the first game, against Pittsburgh, on the road," said coach Brian Billick, "our commitment was: This is going to be our guy."
Boller was the guy on Day 1, he was the guy when he came back from quadriceps surgery, and he'll be the guy in Gillette Stadium Sunday afternoon, especially with running back Jamal Lewis out with a sprained ankle.
Not that Boller is going to throw for 400 yards and 5 touchdowns. Those are Daunte Culpepper numbers, he says.
"A good day for me would be 25 of 30 for 225, maybe 250 yards, a couple of touchdowns, and no interceptions," Boller reckoned. "That's the main thing. You don't turn the ball over, you win football games."
Boller, who threw six picks in his first four professional games, has thrown 118 straight passes without having one filched, since a Hail Mary at the end of the first half at Philadelphia. Since then, Baltimore (7-3) has won three straight games and is on track to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Boller's numbers so far -- 155 completions in 263 attempts for 1,546 yards and 7 touchdowns -- aren't quite Dauntean. He ranks just 12th in the AFC with a 75.1 rating, which puts him on the cusp of the bottom quadrant among starters. But it's the scoreboard numbers that matter to his employers, and these Ravens are off to their best start since they've been in Edgar Allan Poe's hometown.
"He has made big plays and he has taken the team to victory," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He has managed the game and put his team in a position to win. I think that is what you judge a quarterback by. I'm not big on statistics. I'm big on the production that determines the outcome of the game."
The outcomes, most of them, have been impressive. There was a 30-13 pounding of the Steelers. An overtime victory over the Jets at the Meadowlands. And last week, there was a 30-10 hammering of the Cowboys, with Boller completing 23 of 34 for 232 yards and 2 touchdowns.
"I really feel that each week I get more and more comfortable on the field," said Boller, who has won 12 of the 18 games he started and finished. "I'm seeing things a lot better. I can actually read defenses now, and I know my offense inside and out. The game has slowed down for me a lot."
In essentially one season (he missed half a dozen games last year with the injury), Boller has become the steady helmsman the Ravens were looking for when they picked him 19th overall in the 2003 draft. Since 1996, they'd been speed-dating, bringing in a guy for a year or two, then moving on. Vinny Testaverde. Jim Harbaugh. Tony Banks. Stoney Case. Trent Dilfer. Elvis Grbac. Chris Redman. Jeff Blake.
"We felt we had a mandate to address the quarterback position," said Billick. "It hadn't been adequately addressed in the franchise's history."
So the club put together a special "task force" to evaluate the top candidates, who were Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, and Boller. "We had them highly rated and closely rated," said Billick.
Palmer was plucked first overall by the Bengals, Leftwich seventh by the Jaguars. The Ravens could have taken Boller with the 10th pick, but when the Saints unexpectedly took defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, "the draft turned odd and gave us a gift from above in [linebacker] Terrell Suggs," said Billick.
So Baltimore cut a deal with New England, swapping its second-round choice (which then was dealt to the Texans) and this year's first-rounder (which became Vince Wilfork) for the Patriots' pick -- the 19th overall -- and snagged Boller.
Boller was a homebred Californian, the best quarterback to come out of the San Fernando Valley since John Elway.
"I played against the guy," recalled Patriots defensive end Ty Warren, who watched Boller throw a Hail Mary for the winning touchdown with three seconds left in the California-Texas high school all-star game. "He was an outstanding quarterback then. He had presence."
Boller had a huge senior season at Cal, throwing for 2,815 yards and 28 touchdowns, including five apiece against Washington and Arizona State. "We felt he had everything it took to be successful at this level," said Billick. So Baltimore handed him the job without an apprenticeship.
"There were a lot of high expectations, especially when you go to a good team that expects to win right away," said Boller.
Still, no rookie quarterback had ever started for the Ravens, and Boller's early work was predictably uneven.
Boller was intercepted on his first drive at Pittsburgh, where the Ravens were stomped, 34-15. He had blah games in victories over the Browns and Chargers, three picks in a home loss to the Chiefs. Then, when he sensed things coming together amid a first-half comeback at St. Louis, Boller injured his thigh. Now, with 10 more games under his belt, Boller senses things coming together again. "We are getting on the same page now," he said, "and it has been great these last couple of weeks to get the momentum going."
This is his offense now, no matter who's in or out of the lineup. Last week, Boller was already without his top two tight ends (Todd Heap and Terry Jones) when both Lewis and reserve back Musa Smith (broken leg) went down. But Boller found a way to get 30 points on the board, helped by Baltimore's predatory defense.
"There are times when he is going to have to put this team on his back and make the plays for us to win, when some of the best players are watching from the sidelines," said Billick. "He's done that recently."
Most Sundays, there's been a positive outcome. When there wasn't, Boller has heard about it from multiple sources.
"He's not immune to criticism," said Billick, who contributes his share. "Eventually you hear it, even when you try not to. He hasn't read a newspaper or turned on the radio for a while. I'm not sure he knows that Bush won."
What Boller does know is that the Ravens are 7-3, in the playoff chase, and that he's still the guy calling signals. He knows something else, too.
"I definitely know that Bush won the presidency," Boller said.