When Brian Billick shut the locker room door in Buffalo on Sunday afternoon around 4:45 pm, he wished all of his embattled players a good week of rest, safe travels, and then uttered the three words that would hopefully serve as the centerpiece of the Ravens next 9 games in the 2007 season.
"Let’s stick together," Billick said.
About 27 hours later, Ray Lewis ignored those words and became the first player to publicly become unglued following the 19-14 loss to Buffalo.
Anytime there’s a topic involving Billick, it must first be mentioned – as it will here, right now – that this situation in no way exonerates the Head Coach from his team’s poor offensive showing thus far in ’07. He has his own slew of problems to deal with right now – namely, trying to find the keys to his offense and working on a game plan for three straight division games that could very well make or break his team’s season.
So, Billick is clearly involved in a battle of his own, trying to remedy an ill offense and, at the same time, keep his team together during a fragile time period when a glimpse ahead to the next 9 games could force even the most positive player to wonder how it’s going to get any better.
And that’s why Ray’s comments on Monday night were out of line. For those who haven’t heard, Ray basically criticized Billick for his failure to run the ball on Sunday (something a lot of us have done) and then threw in an extra-sharp dagger about the season opener in Cincinnati and essentially said – in so many words – "Billick blew that game by not running the ball."
Bad move, Ray.
And, frankly, that’s not "let’s stick together" type of material – particularly from a guy who should know better.
Here’s a comparative situation for all of you. If the Steelers were in the exact same situation as the Ravens right now – just reverse roles – and they were 4-3 and struggling offensively and had just lost to a woeful Bills team…and if following that loss, Hines Ward would have roasted Mike Tomlin in the media…all of you would be laughing and calling the talk shows and posting on message boards about how they’re "melting down in Pissburgh". When a player openly wallops a coach like that, we all know it’s the first sign of a true crisis. And for those of you who think Ray’s tongue-lashing of Billick is somehow "good for the team" or "deserved"…just think about how you’d be reacting right now if Ward or Big Ben bad-mouthed their coach in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. You would all be saying, "the Steelers are about to crack."
Let’s get to the heart of a few other issues here – and these might be somewhat sensitive, but I didn’t create this story, I’m just reporting on it now.
You can have whatever opinion you want of Brian Billick as a Head Coach (and an offensive coordinator). You can think Billick is a great coach, a good coach or a poor coach. You have every right to question this team’s offense this year and in season’s past under Billick. In other words, if you have a logical, sensible review of Billick’s coaching tenure, you are welcome to "have at it", as Brian himself would say.
But there’s one undeniable element of Brian Billick as a Head Coach that even his most ardent detractors can never try and pin on Billick.
He has NEVER, EVER publicly thrown any of his players under the bus to the media.
And let’s face it – and it’s "sensitive time" so be warned…Billick has seen a number of his players run afoul of the law, among other things, and never once has he, or the organization, throw those players to the wolves as they "go through the legal process" and try to clear their name. Time after time, arrest after arrest, Billick was forced to face the media and answer yet another question about one of his criminal-athletes. And, every time, Billick said the same thing. "We believe in (insert name here) and we’re confident when the legal process plays out we’ll be able to move on with football."
A number of players have also underperformed ON THE FIELD – some players have even jetted out of town in mid-season (ahem, ahem) – and never once has Billick EVER called those players out for their poor play or lack of team dedication.
Hell, Yamon Figurs looked like he was trying out for a Land O’Lakes butter commercial on Sunday in Buffalo and yet there was Billick during Monday’s press conference, defending his young player by commenting on the "sun and the wind" as plausible excuses for Figurs’ inability to handle punts and kick-offs in a professional manner.
Say what you want about Billick as a Coach. But when it comes to his players, he’s always under "max protect".
And that’s why Ray’s insubordinate act is even more difficult to swallow. There have been a number of occasions when Brian could have put the heat on Ray (legal, contract, the famous "no comment" on Comcast a few years back) and, yet, he never has.
And when Billick told everyone "let’s stick together" on Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, he did so with the knowledge that the fans and the media back home would be chomping at the bit after a 19-14 loss to the Bills and a 4-3 mark prior to the bye.
All Ray did on Monday night was create an issue at a time, right now, when the last thing the Ravens need is MORE turmoil. The city…the fans…are already divided enough on Billick and the team. All Ray has done is wedged himself into that chasm by spouting off about the Bengals loss. Memo to Ray: that wasn’t Billick that got beat on that Chad Johnson TD in the 1st half – it was Dawan Landry. And Ray…just so you know, Brian didn’t throw that pass in the 3rd quarter that got deflected and run back for a TD – McNair tossed that ball. And – for the record – I howled long and loud the Tuesday morning following that Bengals loss about the Ravens "failure to run the ball". I agree with Ray. But calling out the Coach for a loss in week #1 when a number of other players were involved in critical errors – game-changing errors – is not what a team’s leader should be doing on day one of "bye week".
Those three losses – and the four wins – were all in the book on Sunday night in Buffalo when Billick gathered the club together for one final time before he gave them off for 7 days.
"Let’s stick together".
You would think the team leader would be the first guy to stand up and say, "That’s right boys…we need to take a week to get ourselves prepared for this second half of the season…"
If only Ray would have listened more and said less.
By the way, just as an aside, but always worth mentioning – Ray Lewis is the best football player in the 12-year history of the Ravens. He is, arguably, the best defensive player in all of the NFL since Lawrence Taylor. He’s a sure-fire, first ballot, guaranteed Hall of Famer. He’s a rock star.
But that doesn’t give him the right to disregard his coach’s request. In that regard, Ray is just like everyone else. He’s an "employee". The boss says "x" – employees do "x".
And, in Ray’s case, the man he defied has bent over backwards for him time and time again…sometimes at the risk of embarrassing himself to his peers.
Is Ray frustrated with the team’s 2007 season? Sure he is. Everyone is. But frustration, aggravation and toeing the company line are all part of being "in the arena", so to speak.
Billick’s $5 million or so annual salary is comprised of about 25% actual "coaching pay" and 75% "hazard pay". He’s the guy that deals with the media after the players fail to perform…he’s the guy who deflects the criticism when his players don’t behave the right way and face legal hurdles…and he’s the guy that gets thrown to the wolves when the players want to run from the light that is shining on them and illuminating their poor play or lack of leadership.
It’s good work if you can get it, I guess.
But it would be better work if the players would just listen more, and say less.