Flacco deftly makes his bid to be Ravens starter

BALTIMORE (AP) -Conventional wisdom, and the Baltimore Ravens' experience with Kyle Boller, suggests it would be a mistake to start a rookie quarterback in the first game of the NFL season.

Joe Flacco strongly disagrees.

How are you going to learn when you're sitting?'' said Flacco, who took the majority of snaps for Baltimore during the preseason.You learn a lot of different ways, but for me the best way to learn is to go out there and experience it for yourself.''

Two weeks ago, Flacco appeared destined to start the season on the sideline behind either Boller or Troy Smith. The former Delaware star struggled in two games as the third-string quarterback, and coach John Harbaugh virtually eliminated the team's top draft pick from the three-way duel to become the starter.

``I think Troy and Kyle ... have separated themselves from Joe in terms of being ready to line up and win a football game for us at this level,'' Harbaugh declared on Aug. 16.

Then things got a little weird.

Smith was scheduled to start the third preseason game but was scratched with a viral infection. Boller had a shoulder injury, leaving Harbaugh no choice but to play Flacco the entire way against the St. Louis Rams. Neither Smith or Boller were available for Thursday night's finale against Atlanta, so Flacco again started and did a capable job of running the offense before leaving in the second quarter.

Casey Bramlet, signed as a free agent hours before the game, finished up.

So, with Smith ailing, Boller hurting and Flacco getting more confident every day, why not just go with the rookie in the Sept. 7 opener against Cincinnati?

Because the Ravens are wary of making the same mistake they did with Boller.

After drafting Boller in the first round of the 2003 draft, the Ravens made him a starter out of training camp. Boller struggled with the speed of the game and was overwhelmed by the expectations of a team in search of a playoff berth. Now in his sixth season, Boller still hasn't developed into a consistent quarterback, perhaps because he couldn't ease into the starting role.

``I would have to say it hurt him. It retarded his development because he never got a chance to really learn,'' Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said.

Boller has 42 career starts, but was asked to again prove himself during training camp. His bid to claim the job was blunted by three turnovers in two games and a mysterious, seriously sore shoulder. Asked if the injury was a labrum tear, Harbaugh replied, ``The great thing about it is I don't think I have to give out that information at this time.''

Smith was hospitalized with infected tonsils during the Atlanta game, and must get healthy in a hurry to be part of the mix for Cincinnati.

It was very unfortunate for Troy,'' Ravens center Jason Brown said.It looked as though he was about to get that nod.''

Smith might still get the job, based on his play in practice rather than the 17 passes he threw during the preseason.

We had a quarterback who very well could have been our starter miss all that time. So we'll kind of have to factor that into the equation as we go forward,'' Harbaugh said.But by the same token, he's had a lot of reps from the very first minicamp on through. So he knows our offense.''

So does Flacco, whose 68 passes during the preseason were more than the other three quarterbacks combined. His 69.4 quarterback rating also topped the chart, and he threw Baltimore's lone touchdown pass.

His improvement over the past month was profound. In his first game, Flacco went 0-for-3 and lost a fumble at New England. Against the Falcons, he was 8-for-13 for 72 yards before leaving with Baltimore up 3-0.

I think Joe is in a place where he can compete for us as opening day starter,'' Harbaugh said.Now whether that's the best thing for us ... we'll have to see in the next four or five days. But he's handled himself very well.''

Harbaugh has injury concerns besides those at quarterback. Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed left open the possibility that the neck injury that kept him sidelined through the season could keep him out of the opener.

Speaking Friday at the team's training complex in Owings Mills, Reed said, ``Hopefully, I can get back. But health is more important right now because it's a long season and I feel the team is going to need me more down the line than early.''

Reed described the injury as ``nerve impingement'' around the neck and shoulder. He has traveled to North Carolina Detroit and New Jersey to receive treatment, in part because he's afraid that one solid hit on the spot could put his career in jeopardy.

I've been making sure it's getting right, seeing every doctor you can possibly see to make sure nothing bad is going to happen,'' he said.... I've been playing this game for a long time and I pray I can continue to do that. You got to be smart.''

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