Although former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith arrived at training camp regarded as the clubhouse leader for the job and remains a strong contender to start the season opener Sept. 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Ravens coach John Harbaugh has yet to declare whether Smith, veteran Kyle Boller or rookie first-round draft pick Joe Flacco will open the game under center at Gillette Stadium.
"We’ll let you know," Harbaugh said with a smile Monday morning.
It’s believed that Harbaugh could make an announcement as soon as today following the Ravens’ morning practice at McDaniel College. Behind the scenes, Smith is considered the favorite to start with Boller being the next alternative.
Accurately gauging who’s truly ahead in the quarterback competition has become an interesting exercise since each quarterback took snaps with the first-string offense Monday, a rotation the coaching staff has conducted since camp opened.
"I wish I could tell you, but I have no idea," Boller said. "I just come out here every day to practice never knowing who’s going to be the one, the two or the three and get ready to try to have a great practice.
"I want to play the best football that I can play. That ultimately doesn’t matter if it’s preseason, regular season or postseason. I want to be the best preseason quarterback."
Meanwhile, Smith has opened practice running the first offense more often than the other two dueling quarterbacks. He also has the best mobility to elude pass rushers, which is an important asset considering the injury-riddled state of the Ravens’ offensive line.
Plus, Smith carries an infectious swagger into the huddle. He has drawn high marks from teammates looking for leadership at the NFL’s most pivotal position.
At least outwardly, Smith seems unconcerned about whether he starts the first preseason game.
"It doesn’t matter," Smith said. "This is preseason. There’s a lot still to come out of this. I know that we’re pretty much going to get about the same amount of playing time. The cards will fall whichever way they do, and, hopefully, our preparation will get us a win."
All three quarterbacks have had their moments, but all three have alternately generated their share of interceptions, fumbles and poor decisions.
Smith has definitely impressed with his ability to throw on the run. However, he had the worst day of any quarterback since camp started with three interceptions, including one tossed to secondary coach Chuck Pagano, during a red-zone drill on the first day of practice.
Since that rocky start, the former Ohio State star has calmed down and cut down on his turnovers.
"We, as a team and as an offense, have so far to go," Smith said. "My development is coming along still. I’ve got a long way to go. This is an incredible offense and an incredible opportunity for this city. We’re looking to win some games."
Boller has thrown a fairly high number of interceptions, telegraphing throws by staring down receivers or throwing off his back foot. In particular, rookie safety Haruki Nakamura has made a habit out of reading Boller’s eyes for multiple turnovers.
The Ravens’ former starting quarterback has been fairly consistent on his short to intermediate throws and carries the most experience at reading defenses. He still has good arm strength and ability to escape the pocket, but hasn’t been accurate on a lot of deep attempts.
Boller acknowledged that it’s a difficult task to try to build rhythm and timing while alternating reps in drills.
"You’re not always going to be in rhythm in a game, and sometimes you have to pull yourself out of that," Boller said. "Sometimes, this is a good way of mimicking how the game is going to go, but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t hard to get in a rhythm if you’re not in there 10, 15 plays in a row."
This isn’t Boller’s first quarterback derby.
In 2003 after being drafted in the first round out of Cal-Berkeley, Boller beat out Chris Redman in a competition usually labeled as a sham since Boller was informed shortly after the draft that he was going to start the season.
This time, though, Boller is facing the reality of having to hold off Smith, a confident former All-American, and Flacco, an imposing, rifle-armed rookie from Delaware.
"The strategy is to do everything you can each day in practice to be the best player that you can be," Boller said. "That’s ultimately what will get you to be the starter: if you’re out there executing and doing the right things. I’m pleased with how I’ve done.
"The things I learn in practice, they’re not going to be perfect. There are going to be balls I throw that maybe I don’t want to throw there, but as long as I can correct them and continue to understand the offense, then I think I’ll be going in the right direction."
At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, Flacco has prototypical size and a powerful arm.
He has delivered spirals into tight spots that Boller and Smith have not proven nearly as capable of. However, the big rookie from Delaware has also displayed too much velocity on his short throws, scalding receivers’ hands or overthrowing them.
The humble New Jersey native has improved rapidly at reading defenses, but still has a lot of work to do to really understand NFL blitz packages and disguised coverage schemes while adjusting to the increased speed of the game.
"I think I ‘m getting happier and happier, but I wish I’d be more comfortable," Flacco said. "It’s my first time in the offense and my first time out here with an NFL team in an NFL training camp. Each day, I’m getting more comfortable, but it’s going to take the rest of camp."
The Ravens may be hesitant to rush Flacco onto the field given how that didn’t work out with Boller. Of course, they will want to protect a $30 million investment in their quarterback of the future.
Flacco, who played in front of much smaller crowds at the Division I-AA level, admitted that nerves could be a factor for him during his professional debut against the reigning AFC champions whose only loss last season was in the Super Bowl.
"I’m anxious, I think most people would be," Flacco said. "I want to get the first game under my belt. I want to go out there and get rid of the first-game anxiousness and go out there and prove to myself that I can do it at this level."