Meet the New Boss
Thursday, January 11, 2007
OWINGS MILLS, Md. On the wall of his sprawling office, one complete with a balcony, wood paneling and leather couches that smell like the interior of a luxury sedan, Brian Billick has placed a framed book cover. It is a book the Baltimore Ravens coach once helped write and organize. And its 550 pages are filled with the ruminations and theories of the great coach Bill Walsh, a man Billick always has considered to be one of his mentors.
In short, it is a guide for running a professional football team. And the underlying theme of this manual is the same belief held by virtually everyone in the NFL: That the coach is the supreme authority. It is a philosophy Billick had adopted quite nicely in his first seven seasons as the Ravens' coach.
But in the fall of 2005, his normally successful football team collapsed. This office, once his sanctuary, became a prison. His ears, always open to the chatter outside the Ravens' facility, tuned more intently to the voices on the radio and in the newspapers, and they were saying that perhaps it was time for him to leave.
And in the worst coaching season of his life, he thought they might be right.
It was at this point, with the team plummeting to depths it never had known in his time here, that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and General Manager Ozzie Newsome walked through the office door with the rough beginnings of a plan. They presented a way of doing business that essentially was different from every other organizational approach in modern football, one that would strip away some of the omnipotence of the head coach, tearing away the only framework Billick knew.
Then they made a strange request. They wanted Billick to help them design it.
And Billick, often chastened for his enormous ego and legendary inflexibility, did something that must have shocked those around him. He enthusiastically agreed to the request of an owner who is six years younger than he is.
"It took me a while to get used to it because that's very unconventional," Billick said recently as he sprawled in his office. "I had to get past that a little bit."
Looking back, they realize their behavior must have seemed odd to everyone else in the Ravens' facility. For the next several weeks, until the end of the season, they worked on their plan, discussing it, molding it. At a time when most teams were starting to talk about playoffs or whom to draft, Billick, Bisciotti and Newsome huddled in offices putting together their new plan.
The process invigorated Billick, stimulating a sense of intellectual adventure. And a year after they finished designing their new system, he and Newsome point to those discussions as the impetus for changing the culture of their organization. It is perhaps the biggest reason why the Ravens are 13-3 and champions of the AFC North, with a second-round playoff game at home Saturday against Indianapolis.
In the new plan, Billick still is the head coach and Newsome the general manager, but decisions come more from a consensus. Lower-level team employees, such as assistant coaches and scouts, are able to contribute to the process, empowering more people but diluting some of the extreme authority most NFL coaches are accustomed to holding.
Scouts, for instance, no longer have to report to Newsome and hope that important information trickles down to the assistants. Instead, they can call the assistants directly, allowing for better game planning. Likewise, Billick has been encouraged to hold more meetings with players to see how they feel about things as routine as training camp workouts and bus rides to the stadium.