Monday, July 28, 2008

The Other Birds in Town

Contrary to what the theme of the blog has been of late, this is an all-Baltimore blog and not simply an O's blog. So! In that spirit we have to turn our attention to the other birds, the Baltimore Ravens.

Although the importance of following training camp has been debated (as previously on this blog), there is no denying that this year's training camp is truly a pivotal one for the Ravens, as I'm sure even the most casual fan knows. Sure it is too early to draw conclusions, but what are we as fans looking to learn from camp this year? Here are the top three questions going through training camp, ranked in order of significance:

1. Who's the starting quarterback on this team? John Harbaugh has said since the OTA's that this battle would be an open competition and he is certainly keeping to his word. The three quarterbacks have for the most part gotten equal snaps, though Harbaugh has generally switched between Boller and Smith for the first reps with the first team. Who is eventually chosen to start the season will not only affect this season, but could very well define the future of this franchise. Keep in mind, as Baltimore fans, we still look back and say 'what if' as to Boller starting his first year.

Certainly there is more faith this year on the part of the fans to the coaching staff than in past years; Harbaugh has taken a wise and mature approach, and has certainly given the impression that he will rely heavily on Cam Cameron's judgement. The popular consensus, and my personal opinion, is that the Ravens should and most likely will start Troy Smith to start the season. By all accounts he has taken a big leap from last year to this in terms of decision making and being comfortable, and has unique mobility among this group to make plays outside the pocket and compensate for an unsure offensive line. Most importantly, Troy Smith has the confidence of his teammates and they seem to be quick to rally around him. Flacco and Boller seem to be a toss-up as to the second most likely to win the job. Coaches have been effusive in their praise of Flacco and have been relatively mum on Boller, though conventional wisdom says to take Boller over Flacco for his experience.

The battle won't be won in one practice or preseason game, but I think it will become very clear near the end of training camp who's leading the pack.

2. How will the players react to John Harbaugh and his camp style? All the reports thus far have been positive to Harbaugh, but keep in mind that camp has just started. This new grind is different for most all of the veteran players, and how this wears on them both mentally and physically is a significant storyline to watch. Even more significant, however, might be the physical toll this takes on the team heading into the season. Certainly a tougher camp can lead to a team that isn't as tough out of the gate as many of Billick's teams, but there are significant risks involved. Already several players are going down with injuries, which is common, however if an unusual number of injuries pile up there will certainly be scrutiny on the style of camp and its effect on the players' bodies.

With such an intense training camp, this team can go in two directions: either they bind together as a battle tested team, or they splinter as a result of weariness and discontent. Count me as a man who's betting on the former, but we'll have to wait and see.

3. Will Gaither take hold of the LT spot vacated by Jonathan Ogden? With the retirement of Ogden, all eyes turned to Gaither as the man to take his spot. The former Terp carries nearly the same build as Ogden, with many of the same physical tools. While certainly noone expects him to be in the class of Jonathan Ogden, he has been eyed as the heir apparent to JO after the Ravens picked him up in last year's supplemental draft. Gaither played sparingly last season, but made a favorable impression on the coaching staff with his natural ability.

So, the question is whether or not Gaither can take that next step up, dedicating himself to improving his game and learning Cam's system thoroughly. That work ethic has always been the question for Jared since his days at UMD, and if he can turn around that reputation then all expectations are that he can seize the left tackle spot for this team.

Gaither has been recently sidelined with an ankle injury, however it is not meant to be serious. Assuming he recovers smoothly, Gaither should be considered the favorite for the job, but he's going to have to go out and seize it. By no means will Cam and John hand him this prized job.

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