OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens quarterback competition might be decided by default. With Troy Smith out with a viral illness and Kyle Boller nursing a sore shoulder, the first one to get healthy could be considered the winner of this tepid duel.
Less than two weeks before the start of the season, the Ravens still have no idea who will start at quarterback in the Sept. 7 opener against Cincinnati. It is hardly an ideal scenario for a team operating under a first-year head coach and with a new offensive coordinator.
"It's weird how things work, coming right into the season and having two of the three guys battling different [ailments]," tight end Todd Heap said. "But we still have a couple weeks before we really need to go."
When coach John Harbaugh began his first training camp, he told Boller, Smith and top draft pick Joe Flacco that the one who performed best in practice and in the preseason would get the job. Smith and Boller separated themselves from the rookie after the first two preseason games, but neither veteran was healthy enough to play Saturday against the St. Louis Rams.
Smith had swollen tonsils and was unable to retain fluids, and Boller could barely lift his arm over his head, the result of a hit he took against Minnesota one week earlier.
So Flacco took all the snaps in a 24-10 defeat that did little to clarify the muddled mess. Baltimore can only hope one quarterback will distinguish himself in the preseason finale Thursday against Atlanta.
"It's a unique situation we have here. We have three guys, three young guys, that are battling for a position that will determine how far we will go in this season," wide receiver Derrick Mason said Monday. "All three of them are still in the bag right now, and I guess after this game we'll empty the bag and see who is the starting quarterback."
Smith was still too sick to practice Monday, and Boller was asked to preserve his ailing right shoulder by throwing passes under 20 yards. While Boller has little left to prove after starting in 42 games over five seasons, Smith, a former Heisman Trophy winner, remains an unknown entity after starting only twice as a rookie last year.
If Smith recovers by Thursday, he will start against the Falcons and play at least into the second quarter.
"We need to look at Troy. I don't think that's changed from last week," Harbaugh said. "Kyle is still viable in the mix. He's had really good practices all through training camp. We'd like to play him also in the game."
In the first two preseason games, Smith was 9-for-18 for 113 yards and an interception. Boller was 18-for-27 for 142 yards, but committed three turnovers. Baltimore went 10 quarters without a touchdown pass before Flacco connected with Mason in the third quarter against the Rams.
"It was a good opportunity to get better," Flacco said Monday of his surprise start.
Asked to assess his standing in the quarterback competition, Flacco said, "I don't know what they're thinking. All I know is I have to prepare myself as a starter, go out there every day in practice and try to get better."
The unimpressive numbers by Boller and Smith can be attributed in part to injuries on the line and unfamiliarity with Cam Cameron's complex offense. At this point, however, time is running out for each to make an impression.
Flacco remains a long shot, but his stock is rising simply because he's the only healthy quarterback on the roster.
"I think he's in the mix because we have two quarterbacks that aren't able to practice today, so Joe's going to take all the reps," Harbaugh said. "But the big picture hasn't changed dramatically in the sense that he's still a rookie and we've got two guys that were ahead of him before we came into this situation right before the [St. Louis] game."
The Ravens learned five years ago that starting a rookie in his first NFL game can be a mistake. General manager Ozzie Newsome conceded this summer that making Boller a starter from the outset slowed his progress, and it was unlikely the team would take a similar path with Flacco.
But nothing is certain in this most unusual competition.
"You just move forward," Harbaugh said. "You take the situation as it is and you attack it every single day."