Eisenberg: Give Webb Some Breathing Room

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The Ravens were upbeat Monday in the wake of the news that cornerback Lardarius Webb had returned to practice after passing his conditioning test and coming off the injured list. After weeks of somber injury news, here was something to make everyone smile.

"I can't wait until he gets back out there," Fabian Washington said.

The fans were just as excited; a story about Webb's return on this site quickly elicited more than three dozens responses, mostly gushing.

Washington plays the same position as Webb and returned from the same injury, a torn ACL, just a couple of weeks earlier. He also was warmly received when he came back. The Ravens are in desperate need of solid cornerbacks.

But Washington's return didn't generate the same buzz as Webb's.

Washington is a former first-round draft pick who has made 50 starts (22 for the Ravens) in his five-year pro career, using his speed to overcome a lack of stature and establish a track record of solid play. Webb, on the other hand, is a 2009 third-round pick who has started just four NFL games, all toward the end of last season.

So why is Webb's return generating more excitement than Washington's? Because Webb played with an aggressive, high-energy fury in those four starts, defending passes with a vengeance, seldom getting beat, and exhibiting that rarest of football treasures, a high upside.

When he went down for the season in week 15, the fans went into a funk, thinking the team wouldn't go far without him -- quite a compliment.

His return has his teammates and fans envisioning the same guy playing the same way in 2010, but please, everyone needs to be fair and not get too caught up in thinking he is just going to jump right back in and immediately reassert himself as the same high-upside starter.

Give him some breathing room.

Maybe he will come back that way – he certainly wants to – but I would suggest preparing for a slightly slower timeline.

Webb, 24, isn't some hard-knocked veteran who fully knows the ropes. He played in college at little Nicholls State. He hasn't spent much time in an NFL secondary. As he said Monday, his injury was a blessing in that it gave him time to stand on the sidelines, watch how things unfold and develop a better grasp of pro ball. That's a young guy talking.

More importantly, he is coming back from a serious injury suffered just nine months ago. The fact that he is back so soon is a testament to his commitment and the professionalism of the Ravens' training staff, led by Bill Tessendorf, whom Webb continually praises.

Washington made it back sooner at least partially because he went down a month earlier last season. But he has the same work ethic and commitment. He returned to the starting lineup and looked terrific against the Redskins last weekend. You couldn't tell he had been injured. It was a huge boost for the team.

The Ravens hope Webb will follow the same path now that he has been cleared -- spend a couple of weeks getting up to speed and then come back just where he left off, preferably in the regular season opener against the New York Jets.

But Webb is younger, less experienced, and seemingly more cautious. He clearly and understandably is concerned about coming back only when he is ready.

"I'm not trying to do the same things Fabian did. This is my body. We have to wait and see how my body reacts," he said Monday. "My expectations are to get through this whole season healthy, help the team win a championship and play my role whether it be cheering on my teammates from the sidelines or (playing) starting corner or starting nickel."

He wants to be the same player he was. He believes he will be. But he is growing up fast and learning that he can't rush it.

"You've got to take it as slow as you possibly can when you're coming back," safety Tom Zbikowski said. "As a professional athlete, you've got your body and that's it. You've got to make sure you're 100 percent and that's it. In this league, the way receivers can run, you've got to be 100 percent."

Webb is close. But everyone needs to stand back and give him the room – and time -- to get there.

John Eisenberg covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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