Despite having only one healthy quarterback on the roster, the Ravens are still sorting through a two-man competition.**
Rookie Joe Flacco took all the practice reps Monday with Troy Smith recuperating from a "viral illness" and Kyle Boller battling a sore throwing shoulder.
Still, head coach John Harbaugh remains optimistic that Smith will be available to start this Thursday against the Atlanta Falcons.
"We expect him to be ready to play in the game, but it's not certain," Harbaugh said.
Smith was not present at Ravens headquarters because of a tonsil issue that kept him out of last weekend's preseason matchup with the St. Louis Rams. The former Heisman Trophy winner has been taking antibiotics for his condition, which could affect his ability to make calls at the line if not fully recovered.
Harbaugh is rooting for that recovery because Smith has yet to play enough in the preseason to warrant a full evaluation from the Ravens' coaching staff. If he can make the start, Smith is expected to see extended action.
"I hate to put a number on it, but I'd say at least a quarter and a half, and we'll take it from there," Harbaugh said of the two-year veteran, who went 3-of-5 for 25 yards and an interception in preseason's Week 2.
Meanwhile, Boller is more of a known commodity. His 42 career starts offer the most experience of the trio, but he is a combined 19-of-27 for 142 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns in two preseason contests.
An injury to his right shoulder kept him out of the Rams game, but Boller tested it out Monday by only throwing passes under 20 yards.
Boller could also see time against the Falcons.
"We need to look at Troy," Harbaugh explained. "We need to find out more about Troy, so if Troy can go he's going to play a lot in the game.
"Kyle is still very viable in the mix. He's had really good practices all through training camp, and we'd also like to play him in the game."
But how much Smith is under center could affect the rest of the offense. The final preseason game typically features backups vying for the last few roster spots, not the starters.
With Smith on the field, the Ravens may have to play their first-string more than they'd like in order to achieve an accurate assessment.
Harbaugh thinks the team – especially a developing offensive line that could welcome back starting tackles Jared Gaither and Adam Terry – will benefit from the extra run.
Both offensive linemen have missed time since spraining their ankles the first week of training camp, and Gaither practiced for the first time since July 26 Monday.
"We're in a unique situation because our starting offensive line is so young, and you have two tackles that haven't played," said the coach. "Those two tackles, they need to play anyway, so they're going to play a significant amount of time in this game.
"We want our whole offensive line together, even though those [veteran] guys have played a lot. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to break up an offensive line when you've got a quarterback in there who's fighting for a job."
That also pertains to the veterans. Wideout Derrick Mason, who enters his 12th year, is not accustomed to playing much – if at all – the last week of August, but he's willing to change that.
"I just have to do whatever is most important to helping this team," Mason said. "If Harbaugh wants me to go out there and play with Troy, then I'll go play with Troy because we need that chemistry."
Of course, there is always the scenario that includes neither Smith nor Boller, which unexpectedly occurred in St. Louis.
The Ravens are prepared to rally behind Flacco. The rookie turned in a solid performance in his starting debut, completing 18 of 37 attempts for 157 yards and a score, but much of that success came against second- and third-teamers.
"He's operating the offense pretty effectively, and the offense is operating pretty effectively," Harbaugh said. "Now, making plays, getting first downs, scoring points, doing all the things that you have to do to win games on offense in the NFL, that's something that still has to be accomplished."
Whether it's Flacco, Smith or Boller helming the offense this week, the real race will stay between the veteran signal-callers heading into the regular season opener Sept. 7 – no matter how well Flacco achieves.
"He's in the mix because we have two quarterbacks right now, who aren't able to practice today," Harbaugh said. "The big picture hasn't changed dramatically in the sense that he's still a rookie, and we've got two guys who were ahead of him going into the situation that came up right before the game.
"That's where we're at."