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Follow the Leader With Tony Banks finally maturing into a first-rate quarterback, the Ravens are ready to join the ranks of AFC contenders

Four days before delivering the touchdown pass that would give the
Baltimore Ravens the biggest victory in their brief history,
quarterback Tony Banks was doing the little things that people
used to criticize him for not doing. After practice ended last
Thursday, Banks stayed behind, ball in hand, and set up in the
middle of the field. Coach Brian Billick, impersonating a
Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker, positioned himself about 20
yards downfield, with offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh,
playing the role of a safety, about 10 yards behind Billick. The
two coaches watched Banks work for nearly 20 minutes, tossing one
pass after another to tight end Shannon Sharpe, running a pattern
to a point between them. The ball had to arc over Billick and
land in Sharpe's hands before the tight end reached Cavanaugh.

Fast forward to Sunday: Banks hits Sharpe on a similar route for
a 29-yard touchdown with 41 seconds left to give Baltimore a
39-36 victory over Jacksonville. As a result the Ravens are 2-0
for the first time since they moved to Baltimore, in 1996, and
more important, Banks looks like a new man. At this point last
season he might not have put in the time required to make such a
precise delivery. But he has learned to appreciate the subtleties
that separate erratic quarterbacks from effective ones, and he is
coming of age at the right time for a team that looks like it's
capable of contending for the AFC Central title.

The ride hasn't been an easy one for the 27-year-old Banks. He
floundered with the St. Louis Rams for three seasons and started
his Ravens career in Billick's doghouse because of poor practice
habits. However, with every start he is showing he has what it
takes to be a standout NFL signal-caller. That much was clear on
Sunday, after the Ravens fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter.
Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell, who finished the game with
386 passing yards, and wideout Jimmy Smith (15 receptions, 291
yards, three touchdowns) were having their way with Baltimore's
vaunted defense. The Jaguars had won all eight of the teams'
previous meetings and appeared to be on their way to the ninth
before Banks turned the tide. Displaying poise and the talent
that made him a second-round draft pick out of Michigan State in
1996, he threw a career-high five touchdown passes and drove the
Ravens 75 yards in 1:04 for the winning score.

"I've had comebacks before, but never in this fashion," said
Banks, who completed 23 of 40 passes for 262 yards. He also threw
two interceptions, but one was a desperation throw at the end of
the first half, and the other came on a tipped ball that should
have been caught. "It did a lot for our confidence. We showed our
defense that they don't have to do it all by themselves."

"Tony has a lot of talent," Jaguars tackle Zach Wiegert, a former
teammate of Banks's with the Rams, said on Sunday. "When you give
him the time, he's as good as anyone in the league. He had a
tough time early in St. Louis because he got thrown into the mix
too early, but he was the best guy we had. His confidence is
back. He has the skills to be a good quarterback, and he showed
that today."

Banks's struggles in St. Louis can't all be attributed to his
being pressed into service. He was too reliant on his strong
right arm and too lazy to put in the study required to make the
most of his talent. He's finally shaking those bad habits, thanks
largely to his maturation and to a coach who isn't short on

Banks certainly wouldn't be as far along as he is today if not
for Billick, Baltimore's second-year coach. The coordinator for
the Minnesota Vikings offense that set the league scoring record
in 1998, Billick is a stickler for details. He wanted a
quarterback whose confidence came from preparation, not
potential, so Banks opened last year third on the depth chart,
behind Scott Mitchell and Stoney Case. Banks pouted over his
backup role, but then he began visiting team chaplain Rod
Hairston. "I needed to find something that was more important
than football," Banks says. "I was reluctant at first, because I
didn't want to be one of those guys who preaches about being a
Christian in the media and then lives another life out of the
public eye. In my first few years in the league I was pretty
wild. But [religion] settled me down."

After Mitchell and Case struggled during the first six games of
the 1999 season, Billick reluctantly turned the job over to
Banks. He started the last 10 games and showed flashes of
brilliance as the Ravens won six of their last nine to finish
8-8. In the off-season Banks focused on his footwork to help
improve his accuracy on short throws. Now he watches more film
than he ever did, scrutinizing matchups and defensive tendencies
and considering plays he might run in various situations. The
6'4", 230-pound Banks also realizes he doesn't have to win games
by himself. The Ravens beefed up the offense in the off-season by
adding Sharpe, Ben Coates, another veteran tight end, and two
rookie first-round picks, running back Jamal Lewis and wideout
Travis Taylor. On Sunday, Banks completed passes to six
receivers, and his five scoring tosses were spread among four

"Tony has confidence in [wideout] Qadry Ismail because Qadry
bailed him out a lot last season," Sharpe says. "But in time he
has to have that same trust in me, Ben, Travis and the other
receivers, that we'll be where we're supposed to be. Once we get
that mix, the sky is the limit."

"Tony is getting more comfortable with the offense," Billick
says. "This is the first time since high school that he's been in
the same system two years in a row, and that's tough for any
quarterback. If he can get that understanding of this offense,
he'll put his fingerprints on it. This offense will [be
distinguished by] whatever strengths Tony Banks has."

Indeed, if Banks continues to develop, the Ravens should climb
into the league's upper echelon. They already have one of the
NFL's best defenses, and they have the ultraconfident Billick,
who won over his players when he didn't deviate from his approach
following a 2-5 start last year. Billick's self-assurance is
reflected in his Internet screen name, THEMAN.

That brashness has rubbed off on the Ravens. "You can see how he
expects to be successful at everything he does," says linebacker
Peter Boulware. "It's not an arrogance, but it's a level of pride
that when you walk on the field, you know you're going to win."

After the game-winning pass, Billick found Banks on the sideline,
and the two embraced. Billick told Banks, "You still piss me off
sometimes." It wasn't the first time the quarterback had heard
such a comment from the coach. But Banks understands where
Billick is coming from. Billick is going to ride Banks until he
is efficient week in and week out, and Banks knows what that

"I feel good about where I'm at. I'm happy at home," says Banks,
who married longtime girlfriend Yolanda Porter in April, "and I
love coming to work. It got to a point in St. Louis where I hated
coming to work and practice. But now I know how much practice has
helped me grow."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO CAT'S CRADLE Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith gets behind Ravens cornerback Duane Starks for a first-quarter touchdown catch in a game Baltimore won 39-36 (page 62). [Leading Off]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER IN CONTROL Banks had five touchdown passes and twice brought Baltimore back from double-digit deficits.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO DEEP THREAT The Ravens have a host of big-play receivers, including Jermaine Lewis, who caught the pass that gave Baltimore its first lead.

Banks appreciates the subtleties that separate erratic
quarterbacks from effective ones.