Billick Is Keeping Cool After Feeling the Heat
Friday, September 8, 2006
This season, the most scrutinized member of the Baltimore Ravens won't be Steve McNair, the former NFL co-MVP who was brought in to start at quarterback. It won't be Ray Lewis, the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker who is coming off a torn hamstring that caused him to miss the final 10 games of last season. In fact, it won't be anyone wearing helmet and pads.
Instead, much of the focus will fall on Coach Brian Billick, who was on the hot seat for much of last season as his team underachieved with a 6-10 record and a last-place finish in the AFC North. Billick led the Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV in 2001 and since has brought them to the playoffs two more times. But the past two seasons have ended without a playoff berth, and last season's record was the worst of his career.
"Everybody is asking, 'Boy, do you feel the pressure?' " said Billick, whose team travels to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa -- the site of its Super Bowl win -- to face the Buccaneers on Sunday. "I can't imagine you sitting here with any one of my peers and them saying, 'Nah, this year is no big deal.' Whatever comes, it'll be what it'll be. This is just a different kind of pressure."
Billick, 52, is one of six coaches in the NFL who has won a Super Bowl title with his current team. He is entering his eighth season with the franchise, which makes him the fourth-longest tenured coach in the league. He has stuck with the Ravens through a salary cap purge, and now he has a team with a core of Pro Bowl veterans who are 30 or older -- Lewis, McNair, tackle Jonathan Ogden, cornerback Samari Rolle, wide receiver Derrick Mason and defensive end Trevor Pryce.
The Ravens have lost 14 of their last 22 games. They've dropped their last 11 road games, a streak that started Nov. 28, 2004. They haven't won a playoff game since Jan. 13, 2002, when they beat Miami in the first round. And they play in a division that includes the Super Bowl champion (Pittsburgh) and another playoff team (Cincinnati).
But after a healthy preseason and the offseason addition of McNair, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, the Ravens are optimistic they have the pieces to make a run at the playoffs.
"As far as right now, there could be no more excitement in Baltimore because we're very unpredictable right now," Lewis said during training camp. "Everybody else has their thing in place. A lot of people have always played us one way -- great defense or they can run, or whatever. But now they can't do that against us. It's going to really be very difficult to play against us. I just don't believe that there's a team that can just sit there and beat us for 60 minutes. I just don't."
Billick says this could be the most balanced team he's had in Baltimore. The defense ranked fifth in the NFL last season despite missing Lewis and safety Ed Reed, two former defensive players of the year, for extended periods because of injury. Both are healthy, and the defensive line has added some much-needed bulk with the drafting of 6-foot-4, 340-pound tackle Haloti Ngata.
The offense, which ranked in the bottom third of the league for the fourth year in a row, finally has an experienced leader. Kyle Boller is now the backup quarterback -- and one with experience (34 starts in the past three seasons). McNair, 33, has the sixth-highest winning percentage of any active quarterback (56-37, .602), has a career completion percentage of 59.5 and has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in four of his past five seasons.
"Obviously, there's his physical abilities to do the job; that speaks for itself," Billick said of McNair. "The confidence that not only he has but the team has in his ability to do the job raises the level of play of everybody around him. There's a calm there that even when things don't go right, we're okay, we're going to sort it out.
"And then -- I saw this in Minnesota when we got Warren Moon, and I think Steve is of that stature -- even your best players don't want to be the one to let a guy like this down, so it raises their level of play."
The Ravens were filled with hope at this point last season, but they lost three of their first four games, and the season quickly unraveled. A four-game losing streak in the middle of the season that dropped Baltimore to 2-7 led to questions about Billick's job security, but in the final week of the season, owner Steve Bisciotti announced Billick would be back. Bisciotti gave the coach a choice: He could make some changes in his managerial style, or he could find a new job.