Sunday, April 5, 2009

Arrivederci, Kyle Boller

The handwriting had been on the wall since last preseason but yesterday it was made official: Kyle Boller is no longer a member of the Baltimore Ravens.

As the draft approaches and Ravens fans can let out a big "FINALLY!" at the arrival of Joe Flacco as (hopefully) the long-term solution to Baltmo's quarterbacking woes, I figured I'd take a look back at the man that should have been king, Boller.

Maybe we should have known Boller would be a bust right from the get-go. He was the quarterback on some of the most gawd-awful Cal teams of recent history, posting only one winning season during his tenure with the Golden Bears. Most Ravens fans, like myself, hadn't even heard of him up until the 2003 draft. It was in that leadup that then-Coach Brian Billick fell in love with Boller like George McFly at the "Enchantment Under The Sea" dance. It was well-known that Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome wanted Marshall QB Byron Leftwich and the Ravens attempted to trade up ahead of Jacksonville (who were also eyeing him) to get Ozzie's guy. But a screw-up with the trade card (don't ask) enabled Jacksonville to jump up to the podium and pick Leftwich (turns out, things probably worked out for the better. Without Leftwich, who has bounced around the league, the Ravens picked Terrell Suggs & his partner 'Lil Sizzle.) Still in need of a future franchise QB, the Ravens went to Plan B: Boller.

As stated earlier, despite his lack of collegiate accomplishments, Billick fell in love with Boller in pre-draft workouts for one reason: he had a big arm. Every Ravens fan worth their salt can still remember that ESPN video of Boller firing the ball 60 yards on one knee through the uprights (sadly, there is no video on YouTube.)This wasn't the first time Billick went ga-ga over a guy who looked great throwing the ball in shorts.

In 2001, coming off a Super Bowl championship, Billick dumped Trent Dilfer for Elvis Grbac. Dilfer was erratic and often ugly throwing the ball, but he was a winner and the team respected him. Grbac, on the other hand, was your classic "look like Tarzan, play like Jane" guy. Grbac had a cannon arm, was tall and could wow you in workouts (I saw this firsthand at 2001 training camp). But when the heat was on and he got hit a few times, Grbac was softer than toilet paper. By the end of the 2001 season, the team was begging Billick to play a decrepit Randall Cunningham over Grbac. Cunningham may not have had Grbac's tools but at least he wasn't going to cry on the sidelines like Grbac once did in a game against Cleveland.

That history did not stop Billick from thinking he could harness the lightning in Boller's right arm. In Billick's mind, Boller was the Chosen One and, in a ego-driven move, sent his new padawan learner to the wolves, tabbing the rookie to start opening day in Pittsburgh. Predictably, the kid wasn't ready and the Steelers ate him for lunch. That one move set the stage for Boller's career and tied Billick's future to the kid's (here's a hint: neither is with the Ravens anymore.)

Over the next few years, Boller's career would become a maddening series of fits and starts. He seemed to be coming around that rookie season but then got injured. He would play a series of games where he'd looked like he'd turned a corner, only to self-destruct with poor decisions and turnovers. How was it not working out for this guy? He seemed to have all the tools: he was a tall, good-looking Southern California boy that dated Tara Reid back when that meant something...

...he had the aforementioned great arm, good mobility and unlike Grbac, Boller was tough. He took some huge hits and never flinched. He took a lot of abuse from fans and never pointed fingers. By all accounts he was coachable, hell, Jim Fassel was brought in by Billick as Boller's personal QB guru.

No, there was something else missing. Boller lacked the one thing that is impossible to teach: accuracy. Sure, he could throw it THROUGH the broad side of a barn, but he couldn't hit it. In an effort to improve his accuracy, Fassel taught Boller what may be the ugliest passing motion ever unleashed on the NFL. Now, you tell me, does this look natural?

When he was benched for Steve McNair in 2006, we learned the other thing Boller didn't have. You see, in my time playing (6 years of high school and college) and watching football there's one thing I've learned about quarterbacks: 70 percent of playing the position is the other 10 guys believing you can get the job done. You can have all the ability in the world but if your teammates don't believe in you, if they won't play for you, talent doesn't mean a thing. Never was that more apparent than during the 2006 regular season. When the team got down, they always believed McNair could bring them back. With Boller it was "Please don't let Kyle screw this up." With largely the same group of guys, a team that went 6-10 with Boller at the helm went 13-3 with McNair. I really believe that McNair's presence, more than his ability, made the difference in at least 3 more wins. The guys played for McNair, not Boller.

To his credit, Boller never complained about being benched and the backup role seemed to suit him. He showed what we all had sort of figured out: he was good for short stretches, but you didn't want him carrying the mail all season. Unfortunately for Ravens fans, carry the mail he would have to do in the disastrous 2007 season, one that would turn out to be the last for the Billick-Boller team.

2007 was a season with very high expectations, but it soon became apparent that McNair had turned into a pumpkin in a big hurry. He couldn't stay healthy, couldn't avoid sacks and couldn't avoid turnovers. That forced Boller into a starting role and the season into the toilet. But Boller would have his defining game as a Baltimore Raven. Week 13. Monday Night Football. Ravens vs the undefeated New England Patriots.

Through 3 quarters, Boller looked as sharp as he ever had. He made some great throws into tight windows, including two touchdown passes. He escaped pressure well and mixed the pass and run to have the mighty Pats defense on its heels. Going into the fourth quarter, the Ravens held the lead and seemed on the verge of an improbable upset. That's when Pats coach Bill Belichick wisened up, stacking the box to cut off the Ravens running game and making Boller beat them. Of course, Boller obliged by throwing a hideous pick into triple coverage, robbing the Ravens of momentum and rendering Baltmo's offense impotent for good.

From that point on, it was only a matter of time until Boller's days as a Raven were over. He was benched at the tail end of 2007 for Troy Smith. His biggest fan, Billick, was canned. And then the team drafted Flacco as its new heir apparent. Boller injured his shoulder in the 2008 preseason and Flacco staked his claim as "The Man," hopefully for the next decade.

Having covered both Boller and Flacco over the past two seasons, the difference between the two QBs is startling. Boller always seemed like a nice guy that really hoped he could play well. As Double Down Trent might say, Boller was like the guy from the PG-13 movie everyone was REEEEALY hoping makes it. With Flacco, you could tell the guy had an aura about him from the first press conference. He told a pack of media members in the preseason, "I want to play, I'm not going to learn anything sitting." The key with Flacco though, is that he never changes expression. Ever. Actually, I did see him change once, when Troy Smith and Le'Ron McClain played a practical joke on him in the locker room by tying his shoes to his shirt hangar. And even then, the guy was as cool as can be, didn't get mad, just rolled with it. And THAT is why guys play for Flacco and why we Ravens fans are lucky to have him. He doesn't flinch and he doesn't get rattled.

Clearly, we Ravens fans have moved on. I think Kyle has moved on as well. But it really is a shame that the man who should have been king is known primarily for dating Tara Reid and this drunk photo...

I certainly wish Kyle all the luck in the world. Lord knows the guy could use some. Arrivederci, auf wiedershein and goodbye old boy.

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