By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"You get to a point in this business where you say, 'Okay, I've pretty much figured it out, this is how it works,' " Billick said. "And you're pretty close to saying: 'Well, I'll go do something else. I learned a lot about myself and I hope I'm a better coach. I think I'm a better person, but it's been a learning process and I appreciate it.' "
The new plan is not a secret, but the Ravens seem somewhat uncomfortable discussing its details. They speak in generalities, such as when Newsome said vaguely: "We weren't re-creating anything. We were trying to make it better." It is further complicated by the fact that the man behind it -- Bisciotti -- rarely speaks publicly about his team.
But they say the new approach worked well at his company, Allegis Group -- a model built heavily around giving everybody in the organization a say in what is going on. After watching Billick become more withdrawn from his team, Billick and Newsome say Bisciotti felt the Ravens needed to implement it as well.
"It's very different from the model that 90 percent of the NFL uses. When you have everybody saying they have more input in the decisions, that is important," Newsome said.
"It's one thing to say I have an open-door policy and then convince myself I'm an open coach and have interaction with my players," Billick said. "Well, just because that door is open doesn't mean that anybody's going to walk through it."
And by last fall, no one wanted to. Adhering to the conventional models of running a football team, Billick, ever stubborn even in good times, clenched his jaw even more fiercely. This is what any other NFL coach would have done, maybe not to the same extremes as Billick, because Billick is a man of extremes. But for generations, the mandate of the NFL coach had remained unchanged:
Get as much power as you can and don't let go.
"It was more of a traditional corporate CEO model where the CEO sits there and people bring decisions to him to make," team president Dick Cass said in an attempt to explain the old system. "I think a lot of companies are going away from that to where they move around and talk to people."
Which is exactly what Bisciotti wanted to do. The old model says players don't have opinions. And in many of the systems employed today, such as those of Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells and his followers, scouts and assistants have little say. Bisciotti found that approach unproductive, those involved in redesigning the organization say. How could anyone function if ideas were confined to a very few? When things truly began to fall apart last season, Bisciotti stepped in. And while the goal was to overhaul the whole franchise's approach, much of that involved Billick.
At first, Bisciotti, Newsome and sometimes Cass discussed the idea. But they realized that if they were going to build the perfect organization, they needed Billick's input on Billick as well.
The coach was surprised when they arrived at his office. Still living in the conventional football model, Billick figured his job was in jeopardy. The Ravens were headed to a 6-10 season, and it would have made sense if they had asked him to leave. Instead, they began wondering what it was like for a coach to talk to his players, how he managed his day, what tasks distracted him from preparing for games.
On and on the questions went. And one meeting grew into two, then three, until soon they were gathering almost every day. The sessions never were scheduled. Instead, two or three of them would sense it was time to get together, appointments would be canceled, they'd gather in a room and the door would stay locked, sometimes for as long as two or three hours.
"A lot of it focused on me, but it was always inclusive," Billick said. "Yeah, there were times when being part of it was rough. I had to say to Ozzie and Steve, 'You know I'm sitting here, right?' Because they were taking a pretty good hunk out of my ass at times, talking about a number of different things. But at the end of the day, if you were able to take the ego out of the way, they were valid observations.
"And they were observations that I appreciated because I knew what their intent was. Their intent wasn't to punish me, it was to help me. It really was. And I had to joke with my wife. I'd come home and talk about it and she'd get upset and I'd say: 'Why are you getting upset? These people are saying things you've been saying for 25 years.' And she said, 'Yeah, but I'm your wife.' "
At the time, it was widely assumed in football circles that Billick would be fired. And yet inside the meetings at the Ravens' headquarters, that was the last thing Bisciotti wanted to do. At one point, he walked into the office of Kevin Byrne, senior vice president of public and community relations, and said, "You know, I have no intention of firing Brian."
Instead, the bigger concern, according to those in the process, was that Billick wouldn't want to stay, either because he was tired of Baltimore or because he wouldn't be able to adapt to the job they were designing.
But Billick was excited by the chance to make something new. It was a peculiar place for him: helping to create an ideal vision of what a head coach should be without knowing if he would actually stick around to be that head coach. Yet because of the strangely creative atmosphere in the room, it didn't seem that unusual to the men inside.
"It was good to have a coach who has been a coach," Newsome said. "It's easy for us to say, 'This is the way we want it to be,' but we weren't the ones who were going to have to turn around and go down to the locker room."
Then he laughed.
"We sit here all the time and ask, 'What does it take to be a good quarterback?' Wouldn't it help to have a quarterback to tell you what it's like?"
Ultimately, when they created the job description they wanted, everyone turned to Billick. A decision had to be made. They could take their list of criteria and begin a search all over the country for 20 candidates who might be able to fit in, or keep the man who helped create the list, asking him to change by delegating lesser responsibilities, talking more to his players and listening more to his assistant coaches.
Billick said he wanted to stay.
"Three men came together, did a thorough critique of their organization, laid out the objectives they want at the end of the day, through the critique," he said. "Then the owner put the money where his mouth was, so to speak. At the end of the day, he said: 'Here's what we want you to do and we think you are the guy to do it. Do you want to be on board?'
"Allowing me to have an input on what we were doing, how can you ask for more than that?"
By all accounts, it is a changed Billick around the Ravens now.
"It's a very different interaction with him," said center Mike Flynn, who has been with the Ravens longer than Billick. "I feel more connected. I can go to him and say, 'I like this play,' and he will say, 'I'm doing it this way here and this is why.' "
In the past, players rarely dared to approach Billick about anything, let alone to suggest plays. Now they find themselves talking to him more. His humor now comes out. Wide receiver Mark Clayton calls him "the king of the comeback."
Billick himself said he has been more comfortable this season. Last season, he said that when he heard the phrase "he's worn himself out here," he wavered.
"There's no answer for that," he said. "Typically you look at coaches who have had the fortune of lasting long, there's going to be a point where it dips. And either one of two things happens. You're either gone or you weather yourself through.
"Bill Cowher went through seven, eight, nine non-playoff years. In most cases, you don't come out of it. You will decide or someone decides you will leave. And that was the critical thing for me last year, recognizing I had to look at myself and do a self-search and say, 'Could I move on?' It might have been easier to go do this someplace else, quite frankly. But what I coveted was working with the people in this organization, being here in Baltimore."
Bisciotti has provided him with someone to talk to on a regular basis, Billick said, a man he calls "a fabulous mentor for me." He will not name him, but said the man is "one of those guys who has the ability to size things up and see things a little clearer."
All this gave Billick the strength earlier in the fall to do something he never felt possible when he fired Jim Fassel, one of his best friends who had been the Ravens offensive coordinator. For some time, Billick said, he worried that that things weren't working out with Fassel.
Maybe this was because Fassel, once the coach of the New York Giants, wanted to be a head coach again, while Billick already had the job he wanted. Fassel was putting together the game plan in ways that reminded Billick of himself as a young coordinator in Minnesota, with an eye on what would impress other owners and general managers with hopes a job would follow.
"Jim did a great job. There was no one single event, there was nothing specifically that prompted the move," Billick said. "It was just something I felt needed to be done and this was that something."
He named himself coordinator because "I felt the team needed that accountability to remove the ambiguity as to who was responsible," he said.
It was a move that has brought mixed emotions. In one sense, Billick has enjoyed putting together game plans and feels as if he has gotten back to his first love -- teaching. But in another way, he still feels for his friend. They still talk, but he worries something good might be broken, at least a little.
Nonetheless, he figures Fassel might be the one person who understood what he had to do because Fassel had been a head coach. He said the two have talked, but that "there is still some healing to be done."
He is asked if he thinks he has lost a friend.
"I don't know that I have because as odd as it may sound -- and I have great faith in this -- as dramatic a situation as it is, if our friendship couldn't survive that then it wasn't much of a friendship," Billick said. "And I think it is."
After all, it was just one more change in the year that Brian Billick, at 52, tore up the foundation of everything he believed in as a coach and started anew.