“I believe we have the nucleus of a team that can get back to the Super Bowl, and we felt that in the next five years, we had a better chance with a new coach than leaving Brian in that position.” – Steve Bisciotti, December 31, 2007
For the Brian Billick supporters out there, the struggle is over. You can relax now. No more need to defend an offense that never developed a dangerous passing game. No more need to explain why it’s generally not a good idea for the head coach to publicly throw one of his players under the bus, even when fans and the press are desperately looking for someone at which to point their accusatory fingers. No more need to remind people that the conservative, defense-first modus operandi employed by the team for the past decade was instituted prior to Billick’s arrival, after Ozzie Newsome and Co. determined that out-scoring opponents with a high-powered offense was less reliable than stifling them with a smothering defense (remember the big “offensive” acquisitions of Jim Harbaugh and Rosie Potts in 1998?). No more need to convince people that, yes, as strange as it sounds, the head coach actually had a lot to do with the Ravens averaging nine wins a year from 1999-2007 and winning the Super Bowl in 2000.
So the red-faced water cooler discussions about Billick’s worth to the team can cease, or at least quiet considerably. This is the dawn of a new era for the Baltimore Ravens, and the pressure shifts squarely to the shoulders of the thousands of fans, local media members, team executives and players who believed Billick was the Ravens’ biggest impediment to returning to the Super Bowl. Their philosophy is based on three core beliefs: the Ravens have always had the players (just take a look at the framed photos of all their Pro Bowlers in the lobby of the team’s headquarters), Ozzie Newsome is a “top 5 general manager” (in the words of team owner Steve Bisciotti), and Bisciotti’s bank account and staffing industry acumen will translate to success in professional football.
The anti-Billick crowd has been voicing its displeasure loudly and confidently for years now (the exact origin can probably be traced to Trent Dilfer’s dismissal after the 2000 season). Those without power tend to be more passionate in their criticism of the status quo than leaders are in defending their track records. Eventually, the squeaky wheel gets the oil and change occurs. In this case, the notion that the arrogant, egotistical and often confrontational Billick was completely at fault for last season’s 5-11 record – and presumably not responsible for the team’s 13-3 record just one season prior – eventually won out. He was the cancer who poisoned an otherwise healthy body. Cut him out, and let the healing begin. Or maybe they just didn’t like the straw hat Billick wore during summer camp. Whatever the reason, they got their wish, and now we get to watch their plan play out in front of all our eyes.
So when the Ravens take the field in 2008 (and in subsequent years) the pressure is all on the Billick haters. The devil has been exorcised, the team has been liberated, and we’re all supposed to be better off for it (even Billick, who is still cashing checks with Bisciotti’s signature on them). With Billick’s removal, we expect to see:
- A dynamic, unpredictable passing offense (after all, we already saw a record-setting rushing attach under Billick)
- No more tight formations where wide-outs are sacrificed for fullbacks and extra tight ends (even when the team makes exciting pick-ups like 37-year-old fullback Lorenzo Neal)
- No (or very few) false start penalties
- No delay-of-game penalties, nor wasted timeouts to avoid them
- Perfect clock management during the final two minutes of each half, which means not only trying to put points on the board, but preventing the opponent from doing the same
- A poised and disciplined group of young men who think “team” first and don’t pout when they are prevented from grabbing the spotlight for themselves
- A deep team where back-ups fill-in admirably for sidelined veterans
- Respect for officiating no matter how egregious the referees’ errors may be
- A team figurehead who will pleasantly offer honest answers to every question aimed at him by the media, even when the intent of some of those questions is to create division within his own team
- No more infatuations with strong-armed quarterbacks with undistinguished college careers (wait a minute, did I just describe Joe Flacco?)
Even if you’re a Billick loyalist, as a Ravens fan you have to hope that the anti-Billick philosophy is sound. You have to hope that new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can form a top NFL offense with the pieces that Newsome will assemble for him. You have to hope that more hitting in August will translate to winning football in December and January (as long as they win enough games in the first three months of the season to make those months relevant). You have to hope that professional athletes can thrive in an environment where lockers are arbitrarily assigned and individual displays of emotion are discouraged.
Because if the anti-Billick crowd is wrong, we could be in for many years of losing football. And that’s what is ultimately at stake here. Like it or not, Brian Billick left 1 Winning Drive with a winning record, which is a rare feat for a deposed coach in professional sports (but then again, the Orioles haven’t suffered since Davey Johnson’s dismissal, have they?). If new head coach John Harbaugh someday walks away from this organization with a .500+ record, we’d have to consider him a successful coach (I know he’ll certainly consider himself as such). If he doesn’t, it means opposing fans celebrating victories in downtown Baltimore (“Here we go Steelers, here we go…”), while we are left wondering if the Ravens forced out the wrong guy.
Sure, the Billick haters will have plenty of opportunities in the coming years to distance themselves from the sea change they’ve thrust upon the organization. Others will take Billick’s place and feel the wrath of negativity that comes from people who make decisions a split second after their knees jerk. In fact, it’s already beginning. Sun columnist Mike Preston has already published a blog in which he writes that the Ravens’ front office has traditionally drafted much better on the defensive side of the ball and “haven’t pieced together a good, strong offense since they first moved here from Cleveland in the mid 1990’s.” Funny, I never heard him say that during Billick’s stint with the team.
But make no mistake. Eliminating Billick’s stubborn figure from the picture also removes a huge shield that took a lot of hits for the organization. I hope his critics and those responsible for his departure are now ready to feel the impact of the bullets they happily allowed Billick to absorb over the past nine years. I know there will always be plenty of people ready to take aim and fire.