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OWINGS MILLS — The Baltimore Ravens are about to be confronted by a ghost, a haunting quarterback who slipped out of their grasp two years ago following a roster move that appeared fairly inconsequential at the time.
As the Cleveland Browns (5-4) face off with the Ravens (4-5) today at M&T Bank Stadium, the Browns’ vibrant offense is now headlined by Derek Anderson.
He’s the former Ravens sixth-round draft pick with the big arm, huge feet with size 17 shoes at age 10 and emerging game that only got to manifest itself because of a strange confluence of events.
Two years after Anderson was cut by Baltimore with Browns general manager Phil Savage pouncing on him on the waiver wire when the Ravens unsuccessfully tried to sneak him onto the practice squad, the 6-foot-6 Oregon native is regarded as one of the NFL’s top passers with 20 touchdowns along with a glittery 90.7 quarterback rating.
"We coveted Derek, we really thought he had a future," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We were in a roster situation where injuries prompted other concerns. We thought we could develop him. Cleveland did a great job of picking him up. He’s playing the way we thought he would."
Meanwhile, the Ravens are in the midst of a three-game losing streak and yet another patented quarterback crisis. With beleaguered starter Steve McNair out for at least the next few weeks and possibly indefinitely due to a partially dislocated non-throwing shoulder, Kyle Boller gets one more shot to prove himself as a viable quarterback option.
The timing of this encounter has many Ravens fans pondering what might have been if Baltimore had been able to hold onto the rookie from Oregon State who captured their imagination with a dramatic preseason comeback victory over the Washington Redskins sealed by his late touchdown pass to Randy Hymes.
Despite the Browns having the worst defense in the league, they are contending for a playoff spot largely because of Anderson, explosive downfield targets Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow and an improved offensive line led by standout rookie left tackle Joe Thomas.
Anderson’s star trip wouldn’t likely have transpired if Boller hadn’t hurt his toe in the 2005 season opener against the Indianapolis Colts.
That injury basically forced the Ravens’ hand with Anderson.
With Boller out, the Ravens elevated backup Anthony Wright to the first-team offense. However, they weren’t comfortable with having a rookie backing Wright up for a game against the Tennessee Titans.
So, the Ravens signed veteran quarterback Kordell Stewart and cut wide receiver Patrick Johnson.
At the coaxing of since-departed special teams coach Gary Zauner, Baltimore signed Johnson a week later and then opted to cut Anderson instead of reserve linebacker Jim Nelson.
It was ultimately an ill-fated move because Johnson wound up catching two passes for 31 yards that season.
"We took a gamble and we lost," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome told a Cleveland newspaper this week. "We would have put him back on active roster as soon as we could. People do it all the time."
Not this time, though.
Now, Anderson is on pace to throw 35 touchdowns, which would break Brian Sipe’s franchise record, and pass for 3,996 yards, which would rank second to Sipe’s mark of 4,132 in 1980 throwing passes to Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end.
"He could play, as we can all see, he can play," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said regarding Anderson. "You never know why they do things."
Still, it can be argued convincingly that the Browns didn’t really know what they had in Anderson, too.
After all, they traded a first-round draft pick and a second-round draft pick to the Dallas Cowboys to draft Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, who might have been the opening-day starter if not for staging a lengthy contract holdout.
Anderson, who tossed two touchdown passes in a 27-13 win over the Ravens on Sept. 30, didn’t even begin the season as the starter. It took Charlie Frye’s trade to the Seattle Seahawks after the first game to pave the way for Anderson’s charmed ascension.
Anderson has completed 164 of 292 passes for 2,231 yards. His touchdown pass total ranks fourth in the league behind Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger, and it’s four times as many as the Baltimore quarterbacks’ total of five scores with three for Boller and two for McNair.
Savage, a former Ravens’ director of player personnel, followed Oregon State coach Mike Riley’s advice to sign Anderson and it has paid major dividends.
"Phil had had some exposure to him and knew what kind of arm he had and what kind of size he had," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "So, we kind of looked at him as the classic pro, drop-back, pocket quarterback. This year, he’s taken the bull by the horns and he’s been running with it."
In college, Anderson threw 79 touchdown passes. However, his draft stock dipped because of his 57 interceptions. This year, he has thrown nine interceptions although he still demonstrates a tendency to be streaky.
"I’ve always thought he was a poised quarterback, even when he was here," linebacker Bart Scott said. "He was mature beyond his years."
Boller has fond memories of Anderson. They remain friends to this day, playing golf during the offseason with Anderson claiming the superior game on the links.
"He’s a goofy guy, he’s awesome," Boller said. "He’s actually one of my good buddies. I’m really happy for him. He’s playing well. It will be fun to be able to go out there and compete with him."
Anderson said he enjoyed his short tenure in Baltimore and was initially upset about being forced to leave.
Unlike the Ravens’ fans, though, he doesn’t spend much time thinking about what might have been.
"Not really," Anderson said in a conference call. "Possibly, it would’ve been a little while until I got a chance to play, but who knows what would have happened? I don’t really dwell on it or think about it."
Anderson will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and there has already been talk about the Browns either signing him to a long-term contract extension, making him their franchise player or signing him to the highest restricted tender.
"The future is the game on Sunday," Anderson said. "I really haven’t had time to think about what’s going to happen after the season’s over. We’ve still got a long way to go here."
One year ago, Boller relieved McNair and outdueled Anderson to lead Baltimore to a victory.
Now, the Ravens need Boller to do it again to avoid their first four-game losing streak since finishing 6-10 two years ago.
"I view it as a chance to hopefully help this team win," Boller said. "Me being the quarterback, I’m going to hopefully go out there and lead this team and do everything I can to get our offense going in the right direction."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.