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OWINGS MILLS — The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Kyle Boller, bringing a wry smile to the face of the Baltimore Ravens’ once-derided quarterback.
The fans who cheered when Boller was on the ground and injured two years ago are now banking on him acting as the potential agent of change for an offense that’s on life support. Boller will start at least the next two to three games due to Steve McNair’s injured non-throwing shoulder, but the change could wind up lasting through the remainder of the season.
After being stripped of the starting job prior to last season and replaced by McNair following an offseason trade, Boller gets the football beginning Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. Heâ€™s being counted on to resuscitate a gasping attack.
"I’d be lying if I was said it wasn’t weird, but I think that’s life in the NFL," Boller said Wednesday after taking every snap with the first-team offense. "I’ve talked to guys, Phil Simms, who told me it’s not always going to be great.
"It’s an interesting occupation, and it’s one of a kind. There are only 32 guys out there who get to do it. You’ve just got to keep battling and keep fighting."
The move to insert the teamâ€™s 2003 first-round draft pick could act as a seven-game audition on whether he should remain the quarterback in the future.
Ravens coach Brian Billick didn’t rule out the possibility that Boller, whoâ€™s under contract through 2008 after signing a one-year contract extension worth up to $3 million, will remain under center when McNair is healed up.
"Sure, that’s always a possibility," Billick said when asked whether Boller will finish the season if he performs well. "It has to do with Steve’s strength as well and how we’re doing as a team, but, yeah, there’s always that possibility."
When put on the spot on whether McNair will ever play again for the Ravens, Billick was noncommittal.
Signed to a five-year, $32 million contract last year that included $11 million in guaranteed money, McNair could be cut after the season. McNair, who has a $4 million base salary next year, would cost the Ravens $7.3 million against the salary cap next year if they cut him after the season. They could also designate him as a post-June 1 cut and divide the dead money over two years on the NFL fiscal calendar.
"That’s a question that I really can’t answer," Billick said. "Only time will tell that. I know my admiration for Steve McNair, the champion he’s been, the grit, the toughness, the professionalism, is something that I will continue to value. I don’t know that anybody can answer that question right now."
McNair is mired in the worst slump of his 13-year career, committing 11 turnovers this season on four interceptions and seven lost fumbles. He has won just two of his past seven starts, including a 15-6 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
The fans have made it clear who they want, booing the former NFL Co-Most Valuable Player constantly.
"I understand the fans’ anxieties, but this man has been an incredible athlete and an incredible force in the NFL," Billick said. "He’s been a class act. I hope people keep that in mind in the way that they deal with him."
Meanwhile, the Ravens (4-5) are hoping that Boller can revive an offense that ranks 23rd in total offense and 28th in scoring with a 15.3 average.
Boller is 2-1 as a starter this year, tossing three touchdown passes with three interceptions for one more score and one less interception than McNair.
"Back in the saddle, it’s a great opportunity," Boller said. "It will be fun to get back out there with my guys and put a nice game plan together."
Sporting a thick beard, Boller, 26, is no longer the clean-cut, unprepared rookie who was immediately thrown to the wolves against the Pittsburgh Steelers in his first NFL start.
Greeted by a loud round of applause in the fourth quarter when he entered the Ravensâ€™ 21-7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Boller directed the offense on its lone touchdown drive.
"I feel the game has definitely slowed down," Boller said.
Boller has appeared in seven of nine games for a defending AFC North division champion that has lost all four division games this season. He has a 20-17 career record as a starter.
In his fifth season in Baltimore, Boller insisted that he’s not looking ahead or pondering what this opportunity could mean for his career.
"I really don’t try to think too much ahead,â€ Boller said. â€œI just like to take it one day at a time. We’re playing the Cleveland Browns this week, and that’s all that’s on my mind."
There have been signs of improvement, including last season where Boller posted a career-high 100.4 quarterback rating.
"He’s definitely progressed," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "He sees the field better, he sees it faster. He’s right there. Kyle will be fine."
Although no longer regarded as fundamentally inept, Boller still plays the game with a high-energy style. He’s prone to scrambling and throwing on the run, with mixed success.
"He’s a very hyperkinetic athlete, which is good," Billick said. "Everyone can clearly see that our tempo is different with Kyle in there, but he has also got to get to the point where if he can just calm his mechanics down.
"If he can continue to do that and show that type of maturity, then the sky is the limit for Kyle. .. Naturally there are certain strengths that we’ll try to tap into that Kyle has, obviously his speed and mobility, his arm strength."
Where McNair demonstrated a laidback demeanor along with reduced arm strength and slow reactions, Boller tends to speak fast, move even faster and has a penchant for throwing deep.
The dynamic of the offense is expected to change at least subtly.
"Kyle’s a lot more chipper," wide receiver Mark Clayton said. "He’s fun, he’s an uptempo guy. We’re looking forward to going out and having some fun.
"We know Kyle is really energetic. He really likes the long ball. We’re looking forward to that."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.