20 Years of Ravens – Chapter 4: Eight Quarterbacks in Seven Years
Be sure to check out previous entries in this series…
Prologue: Give Baltimore the Ball
Chapter 1: Art Modell Gives Baltimore, the Ravens
Chapter 2: The Marchibroda Era
Chapter 3: Festivus Maximus
In a matter of just six months, Trent Dilfer went from backup quarterback, to Super Bowl champion, to the streets looking for a new job. He was the first quarterback in history to win a Super Bowl and not start the following season with the same team, unless you count John Elway who retires after winning his second in Denver. Coach Billick and Dilfer’s agent made it sound like a game of phone tag as to why no deal was ever talked about, or why Dilfer wasn’t told about the team moving in another direction before the rest of the world found out. One party tried calling the other, no one ever picked up the phone…Dilfer was a free agent, and the Ravens had their eyes on the market, and signed what they considered an upgrade at the position.
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The then 31 year old had played his college ball at Michigan and led the Wolverines to three Rose Bowls in his tenure. In 1994 he was drafted by the 49ers and learned under Steve Young. The rookie Grbac watched from the bench as Young took the Niners to the Super Bowl, and won it in dominating fashion over the Chargers as he threw six TDs in the game. After three years in San Fran, he moved onto Kansas City as the backup to Steve Bono. Another former Niner who learned from two of the best, Young, and Joe Montana. Grabc would unseat Bono and become the starter in 1997.
By 2000, Grbac was a Pro Bowler after posting career highs in TDs (28) and yards (4,169). It was this pro bowl caliber play that caught the eye of the Ravens, who signed the free agent to a five-year, $30M dollar contract, with $11M guaranteed in 2001.
Grbac made it through just the one season with the Ravens and posted very pedestrian numbers. A completion percentage of 56.7%, 3,033 yards, 15 TDs, 18 INTs. Despite the numbers, The Ravens still went 10-6, and won a playoff game in Miami before facing 13-3 Pittsburgh in the divisional round where the Ravens would lose their first ever playoff game.
The Ravens and their fans have to wonder what could have been in 2001 if not for two devastating injuries. In addition to Grbac, the other free agency splash they would make was taking on Pro Bowl tackle, Leon Searcy. He was signed to a five year, $31.5M contract. With the addition of Searcy, the Ravens had arguably one of the best offensive lines in the league, bookended with Searcy and Jonathan Ogden. But Searcy never played a down for the Ravens, injuring his arm in training camp, and aggravating an earlier triceps injury in October trying to get back on the field. It too was the only season he spent in Baltimore.
These two big free agent signings, and subsequent busts, led General Manager Ozzie Newsome to a new way of approaching the free agency frenzy on the NFL. Let the market come to them, take on players that become cap casualties of other teams. The Ravens rarely if ever put themselves in a position where a big name free agent signing can backfire on them, making for a tough cap situation in future years.
Jamal Lewis was also poised for big things, coming off a great rookie campaign, and having Odgen and Searcy creating space for him. But five days after losing Searcy, Lewis also suffered a season ending injury when he tore his left ACL after reserve defensive lineman, Kelly Gregg, tackled him in practice. It was devastating news, but nothing new for Lewis, who tore his right ACL while in college at Tennessee. The Ravens turn to Jason Brookins and Terry Allen for ball carrying duties. A major step backwards.
At the time the Ravens signed Grbac, the other free agent QB of interest to teams was Brad Johnson. He would be signed by Trent Dilfer’s old squad, the Buccaneeers. One year later, Johnson hoists the Lombardi trophy with them. Like Dilfer in Baltimore, the championship run was hardly based on the QB play as the Bucs boasted another one of the best defenses the league had seen. Johnson just had to not cost the team games.
Cunningham, 38, was signed as the backup to Grabc in 2001, and managed to make two starts mid-season. He won both of his games and posted decent numbers overall. An 81.3 QB rating, on par with his career 81.5 rating. He retired after the 2001 season.
Following 2001, the Ravens wanted Grbac to negotiate his contract into a more cap friendly one, given his drop off in play, and the money they would be eating from the Searcy contract. Grbac refused to negotiate, and chose retirement as well at just 31 years of age.
If fantasy football was played using collegiate players, Redman would have been the top QB. He set NCAA records for completions, attempts, and tied a record with three straight seasons of 3,000+ passing yards. Redman earned the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award for Louisville, which was also Unitas’ alma mater. The Ravens drafted Redman in 2000, and he saw minimal action in closing seconds of two games. Despite Dilfer and Tony Banks being let go prior to 2001, Redman was not given the keys, and never saw game action behind Grbac and Cunningham. Both of them departed and in 2002, Redman would finally get his chance.
It was a slow start as the Ravens dropped the season opener 10-7, still playing tough as nails defense. They would be shutout in the home opener the following week, 25-0, to the eventual Super Bowl champs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Redman did go on to win three of his next four to get the Ravens back to .500 at 3-3. He would post seven TDs and just three INTs in those six games, and in three of them post a passer rating over 90, twice over 100. But a nagging back injury sent him to the bench. He never healed enough and wouldn’t be activated for the remainder of the year.
Another seasoned veteran backup at the Ravens disposal was Jeff Blake. He was the front man for the Ravens in place of Redman, and now the fourth starting quarterback for Baltimore in the last 24 games. With the Ravens at 3-3, Blake could only win four of ten games and the Ravens finished 7-9.
They were trending in the wrong direction very fast, just two years removed from a title. They missed the playoffs thanks in large part to the continued offensive struggles that have been an issue, since 1997.
When 2003 came around, it was no question that what the Ravens needed was a franchise quarterback. Not an aging veteran. Not a flash in the pan. Not a guy who hangs around the bottom of the depth chart for a couple years that you hope can develop one day.
I know, you just threw up in your mouth a little. So did I. Kyle Boller was highly touted coming out of Cal-Berkley. In high school he was regarded as the best player in the state of California, throwing for 59 TDs in his senior year. He was the nations #1 QB prospect that every college wanted, and was considered the best player out of southern California since John Elway in 1979. He chose Cal-Berkely and was a starter for over three seasons. Boller still holds many records there including career passing touchdowns.
The Ravens drafted Boller in 2003, 19th overall, with their second pick of the first round. Carson Palmer went first overall to the Bengals. Byron Lefwitch went seventh overall to the Jaguars. Then Boller. Then a lot of nothing quarterbacks. Rex Grossman (who tripped and fell and accidentally made it to a Super Bowl once), Dave Ragone, Chris Simms, Senaca Wallace, Brian St. Pierre, Drew Henson, Brooks Bollinger, Kliff Kingsbury, Gibran Hamdan, Ken Dorsey. So clearly the Ravens didn’t pick the wrong QB. Boller looked like the best candidate to be the Ravens franchise QB.
It was a rough go of it for him as a rookie, but the defense and running game did their parts to help the Ravens off to a 5-3 start. Boller suffered a thigh injury in week 9, rendering him inactive for the remainder of 2003. The following year he played in all 16 games for the only time in his career. The Ravens went 9-7, but missed out on the playoffs.
Coming into 2005, the Ravens added WR Derrick Mason, and drafted another WR, Mark Clayton out of Oklahoma in the first round. The Ravens were one of the AFCs favorites to make a deep run to the playoffs as Boller was poised to turn the corner, entering his third year. The first game of the season proved that nothing had changed when the Ravens lost to the Colts 24-7. The defense had kept the best offense run by Peyton Manning out of the endzone for nearly three quarters as Boller struggled, and kicker Matt Stover even missed three field goals. Boller would leave late in the game with a toe injury and be sidelined until week 9. The home crowd in Baltimore cheered as Boller writhed in pain the field.
Everyone remembers Kyle Boller for two things. His ability to make playing quarterback look like a three ring circus, the way he would throw jump balls up for grabs off his back foot, or fumble a ball while scrambling despite no on touching him. The other thing? The two games he put together that make you think someone kidnapped him and put Peyton Manning in Boller’s uniform. Late in 2005, he had two of his best games when he embarrassed the Green Bay Packers here in Baltimore on a Monday night with a 48-3 beating. Boller completed 70.4% of his passes for 253 yards, three scores, and no turnovers. The next week he led Baltimore to a 30-23 win over Minnesota where he completed 70.6% of his passes for 289 yards, three scores, just one interception. While those stats are solid, and what is to be expected from a top draft choice in his third season, and what most elite QBs call an average day at the office, these were an anomaly by Boller standards.
The final week of the season he was back to his old self, completing 41.7% of his passes for 151 yards, zero scores, two interceptions. The Ravens moved on from him in 2006, but he would stay around as the team’s backup.
To give credit where credit is due, Boller had one other memorable moment, among a slew of putrid ones. December 3rd, 2007. Boller is back to being a starter late in the season with playoffs not even in the conversation. The Ravens hosted the undefeated New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. The Pats were the most explosive offense in the NFL with the tandem of Tom Brady and Randy Moss shattering the record books. They looked like a shoe in to be the first team to go 16-0 in a regular season, and only had six more more games to secure that fortune. Kyle Boller played well enough to win that night, and didn’t buckle under the pressure of getting into a scoring battle with Brady. The defense did their part to limit the Pats to 27 points on the night. Only once in the first ten games had they been held to under 30 points, also putting up two 40-spots, and two 50-spots.
Boller would go 15-23 on the night with 210 yards, two scores, and one INT. On both scores he made incredible throws in the red zone, threading the needle between defenders to find his guy in high winds and freezing temperatures. He put the Ravens continually in a position to stay in the game, keeping pace with New England, and leading it late. Brady took the lead back late in the game with a TD pass, after Defensive Coordinator, Rex Ryan called timeout, the second before Brady snapped the ball on a 4th and short, and the defense stopped them to seemingly win the game. The refs upheld the timeout, clearly called the second before the snap. After a gift false start making it 4th and 6 for Brady, the Pats converted the 4th down, scored the TD later in the drive after converting another 4th down, and the frustrated Ravens defense committed a slew of bad unsportsmanlike penalties. The highlight was Bart Scott hurling an official’s flag towards the stands in disgust. With one last heave, Boller completed a deep, prayer of a ball to Mark Clayton who hauled it in at the two yard line, but was quickly brought down just shy of the goal line as time expired.
It was the Ravens, and Kyle Boller’s Super Bowl, trying to knock off the undefeated Patriots. They blew all their emotion in one game. The next week they were embarrassed by Peyton Manning again to the tune of 44-20, and then gave the winless Miami Dolphins their first win of the season in week 15. Boller was benched yet again, and would never play another game in a Ravens uniform.
He finished his career in Baltimore with a 56.7 completion rate, averaged 148 passing yards per game, 45 TDs and 44 INTs in 53 games over five seasons, before getting shots in St. Louis and Oakland.
Wright made his debut when then rookie Kyle Boller was knocked out in the 2003 season. He made an immediate impact in a home game with Seattle that resulted in one of the games of the year. The Ravens trailed by 17 points at three different times in the second half of the contest. But thanks to four touchdowns thrown from Wright to Marcus Robinson, who is remembered for this trivia factoid only, the Ravens won the game in OT, 44-41.
The next week, Wright again helped get the Ravens to the 44 point mark with a 44-6 victory over San Francisco. The offense was rolling again as the Ravens finished 5-2 behind Wright, won the division, and hosted a playoff game. They faced the Tennessee Titans, this time in Baltimore. Tennessee squeaked out a win in a tough game, as 78 year old (slight exaggeration) Gary Anderson just cleared the crossbar from 46 yards out for the deciding field goal with 29 seconds to play.
Wright was kept around, but Kyle Boller played the entirety of the 2004 season, and when given the chance to start seven games in 2005, Wright was dreadful. The Ravens moved on from him as well for 2006, after going 6-10.
The Ravens were at a crossroads yet again. They couldn’t find a quarterback in the bargain bins like Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer. They failed when it came to signing other star veterans like Elvis Grbac. They failed at developing young talent like Chris Redman and Kyle Boller. Were they back where they started, about to sign aging veteran Steve McNair to a contract? For one season, this deal worked out.
McNair, 33 years old, and with hardly any wheels left, came out of the gate hot leading the Ravens to a 27-0 shutout on the road in Tampa Bay in week 1. He set the tone by operating an efficient first drive resulting in a four yard TD to Jamal Lewis, silencing the Bucs faithful.
He led the Raven to their first ever 4-0 start with an epic home win against the tough San Diego Chargers. It was a hard fought battle, but McNair found TE Todd Heap for a ten yard score to seal the game in the closing seconds.
The McNair led Ravens posted to this day their best regular season, going 13-3. The earned a first round bye in the playoffs for the first time in team history, which proved to be meaningless though when the Divisional round came. The Colts, again, led by Peyton Manning, came into town. The defense held up their end of the bargain, stifling the Colts, holding them to five Adam Vinatieri field goals. McNair went 18 of 29 for 173 yards, no scores, and two interceptions, and statistically was still better than Peyton Manning! But you need to be a lot better to beat that talented squad. A disappointing way to end an amazing season that saved Brian Billick’s job, at least for another year.
The same old offensive problems crept in again in 2007. McNair also battled nagging injuries that eventually pushed him out of the game, throwing just two TDs in six scattered games in 2007.
Two years after retirement, Steve McNair was tragically shot and killed on July 4th, 2009, in his sleep in an apparent murder suicide by his girlfriend, who he was having an extra-marital relationship with.
Smith was the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner out of Ohio State, and drafted in the fifth round of the 2007 draft by the Ravens. Smith was never a factor for the Ravens, earning his first playing time in the final minutes of the previously mentioned drubbing at the hands of the Colts in 2007. He made the next two starts in the final games of the 2007 season, totaling 506 yards and three scores.
Troy Smith was the eighth and final starting quarterback in a seven year stretch from 2001 through 2007. In 2008, another man would become the ninth in an eight year stretch, and a nine year stretch, ten year stretch, eleven…
Notable draft picks
2001: Todd Heap (1st round, 31st overall)
2002: Ed Reed (1st round, 24th overall), Chester Taylor (6th round)
2003: Terrell Suggs (1st round, 10th overall), Kyle Boller (1st round, 19th overall), Jarrett Johnson (4th round)
2004: Dwan Edwards (2nd round, Ravens first pick of the draft)
2005: Mark Clayton (1st round, 22nd overall)
2006: Haloti Ngata (1st round, 12th overall), Chris Chester (2nd round), Dawan Landry (5th round) Sam Koch (6th round)
2007: Ben Grubbs (1st round, 29th overall), Marshal Yanda (3rd round), Le’Ron McClain (4th round), Troy Smith (5th round)
2001: Marvin Lewis (Defensive coordinator), Jack Del Rio (Linebackers), Rex Ryan (Defensive line), Mike Smith (Defensive line), Mike Nolan (Wide receivers)
2002: Mike Nolan (Defensive coordinator), Mike Pettine (Quality Control), Dennis Thurman (Defensive assistant), Ryan, Smith
2003, 2004: Mike Singletary (Linebackers), Nolan, Pettine, Ryan, Thurman
2005: Jim Fassel (Offensive coordinator), Rex Ryan (Defensive coordinator), Mike Pettine (Outside Linebackers), Dennis Thurman (Secondary)
2006: Vic Fangio (Linebackers), Greg Roman (Assistant coach), Fassel, Ryan, Pettine, Thurman
2007: Rick Neuheisel (Offensive Coordinator), Ryan, Fangio, Pettine, Roman, Thurman