Eisenberg: Late Moves Signal Belief in Deep Playoff Run


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For an NFL team, the period between the end of the OTA season and the beginning of training camp is usually low on news. The big free agents are long gone. The draft is history. Basically, everyone is just counting the days until the season starts.

But it hasn't been a quiet time for the Ravens this year. In the run-up to training camp, now just three weeks away, they've made several acquisitions that seem relatively small but could turn out to be hugely important. They brought in former Pro Bowl quarterback Marc Bulger (pending a physical) to back up Joe Flacco. And they bolstered their secondary depth by signing safety Ken Hamlin and cornerback Walt Harris (pending a physical).

As a group, these moves clearly signal that the Ravens believe they have a chance to go deep into the playoffs in 2010. A team brings in genuine veteran insurance when it doesn't want to see a promising season ruined by getting stuck taking risks with young or unproven players at important positions.

Hamlin, a hard hitter who started 12 games for the Cowboys in 2009, becomes an option if Ed Reed isn't 100 percent healthy or ever needs to take a game off. Yes, Tom Zbikowski filled in ably for Reed a year ago and might still play ahead of Hamlin, who had no interceptions in his final 24 games in Dallas. But Hamlin is just 29 and played at a Pro Bowl level three years ago. He might play better in the Ravens' scheme.

Harris, a 13-year veteran, is a riskier addition because he missed all of 2009 with a torn ACL, making him the third Ravens cornerback (along with Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington) to be coming back from that injury. The team now has 10 cornerbacks, some young, some old, some coming off injuries, some expected to help. Having gambled by not drafting one in the first round in April, the Ravens are just going to let the situation play out in camp, hoping to see positive performances.

As for the Bulger signing – like a lot of people, I didn't see it coming. I thought the team was satisfied with having Troy Smith and John Beck battle it out to back up Flacco. But Bulger, 33, is a far more accomplished option. Given a spot start, he could actually give opposing defenses something to worry about.

True, Bulger, who started 95 games for the Rams from 2002-2009, seemingly peaked a few years ago, when he made the Pro Bowl for the second time in 2006. His numbers have steadily slipped since then and he lost his starting job last year, but in his defense, he was playing on a pitiful team that provided little support in the way of a credible offensive line, and he took a supreme beating.

If the tread on his playing skills isn't entirely worn – and I suspect it isn't – this is a guy who has thrown for almost 23,000 yards. He didn't come cheaply (reportedly a one-year deal for $3.8 million) and given the protection and support he wasn't getting in St. Louis, he could conceivably step in and produce wins. Smith and Beck just can't match his bona fides.

Flacco, entering his third season, will benefit from having such an experienced quarterback around. Between Bulger, new quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn and offensive coordinatorCam Cameron (the latter two both former NFL head coaches) Flacco will have quite a brain trust around him this season.

But the Bulger acquisition isn't about his mentoring abilities. He is an insurance policy. Flacco is big and strong, but he took a beating himself in 2009 and was admittedly hobbled down the stretch. The Ravens expect him to play every game, as he has in his first two seasons, but you never know when he might get knocked to the sidelines. In the end, the Ravens' season could hinge on whether they have a viable quarterback to replace Flacco for a few games. Give them kudos for being proactive on this issue and taking the more expensive route instead of trying to cut a corner and just hoping for the best.

John Eisenberg 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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