Will He Stay or Will He Go?

December 17, 2007 | Thyrl Nelson

I must admit that as a longtime Billick apologist this has been my most trying season by far. The disappointment of this season will impact my mood as a sports fan long after football is over. The Ravens have always been a comfort to local fans as disappointing baseball seasons wind down. Counting down to the start of football season will likely provide little comfort as the O’s are playing out the string in 2008.
In fact, since the Ravens have seemingly called a premature end to the season after week 12, I am actually looking forward to the day when pitchers and catchers will report. The longest losing streak in team history is in fact much worse than the 2 separate meltdowns that the O’s experienced this past summer. The fact that the O’s were at least able to momentarily right the ship says something about their character. After losing to the winless Dolphins on Sunday, the Ravens character is very much in question.
I know that the popular theme this week will again be “Fire Billick”. As I stated, I have always been a big Billick supporter, and perhaps an apologist. One thing that I will always go back to is the fact that Billick is the kind of guy that you’d want to work for. His loyalty, often to a fault is well documented. He’s the kind of guy who keeps in house business in house, and never throws anyone under the bus publicly. To my knowledge, he still hasn’t acknowledged the fact that Rex Ryan called the time out against New England, even though we all saw it. And I will go to my grave believing that Steve McNair consistently checked Billick off in last year’s playoff game against Indy. Twenty rushes and only 6 in the second half is not a Brian Billick game plan. Not against the Colts, who were the worst run defense in the league prior to the playoffs. Not when both Lewis and Mike Anderson were over 4 yards per carry. But everything that I know about him says that he wouldn’t ever tell anyone, if McNair had taken the game out of the hands of the running backs.
I have my criticisms of the coach too. In 1997 back when Billick was with the Vikings, they beat the Giants in an opening round playoff game 23-22. They scored 10 points in the final 90 seconds and won despite doing everything possible to “piss away” the clock. That game left me feeling like Denny Green was a horrible coach. Since Billick has been in Baltimore, he has made me realize that he was probably the one responsible for the poor clock management. This is something that continues to be an issue for Billick and one that he has not improved on.
He has made more decisions that I disagree with this year than in any season that I can remember. Passing the ball in short yardage situations has drawn him a lot of criticism this season. (For the record, I don’t disagree with passing as much as I disagree with doing it from the shotgun in those situations.) Poor clock management has continued to be a theme, and of course his decision not to go for the win on Sunday will also be a point of contention. What ever happened to playing for the tie at home and the win on the road?
I will say this; Billick deserves to come back. My support for him is not as strong as it once was, but he has earned the chance to fix this. All too often in life, I think that we allow our emotions to effect our point of view. If the Mitchell Report accomplished nothing else, it proved that sports fans are incapable of being objective. We like who we like, and we hate who we hate. The Billick haters are the vocal majority right now, and are growing in number too. But the coach’s resume speaks for itself, and every experience is a learning experience. A season like this one certainly provides a lot more opportunity for personal growth than 13-3. Billick has never put together back to back losing seasons, a record which it appears will be tough to keep intact in 2008. And whether you want to give him credit for it or not, he does have a pretty exclusive piece of hardware. By my unofficial count there are still 15 teams that have never raised the Lombardi trophy, and 6 that have never even been to the Superbowl. All of those except for the Texans have longer histories than the Ravens. Only 7 other teams have won the big game since the Ravens came into existence. And no team has repeated as division champ in the history of the AFC North.
I tend to believe that a lot of the public’s disdain for Billick is a result of his own design. He made himself a lightning rod for criticism during the Superbowl run and perhaps sold it too well. Since then, the detractors have been vocal and passionate. I don’t think it bothers him much. It could probably be argued that the public outcry over the coach has largely shielded the players from criticism throughout this miserable season.
Consider that other than clock management, which admittedly hasn’t cost us many games that I can recall, the biggest beef against Billick seems to be play calling. I am not sure what exactly that means. The offense has been admittedly miserable, but the plays that are being called don’t look much different than those of the Patriots or any other team. Execution however is another story. The offense has become an easy scapegoat, they are criticized for running too much and for not running enough. They have cost the team their share of games, but this year’s problems go far beyond the offense.
Perhaps, because Billick is an offensive guy, those who don’t like him will always criticize the offense. Perhaps being too closely associated with Billick is what led to Kyle Boller’s chilly reception in Baltimore. Whatever the reason for the disdain, Billick will be forced to lie in the bed that he has made for himself for at least the remainder of this season. If you believe the reports, his return for next year is practically already guaranteed, although it has been my experience that mid season public endorsements are usually the precursor to off season changes.
I am no longer the staunch supporter of Billick that I once was. In fact, I am willing to acknowledge that even the greatest coaches can lose their effectiveness and begin to grate on players over time. I will say though that the prospects of finding a suitable replacement scare the hell out of me. Billick certainly has his faults, but the amount of coaching turnover in the NFL makes any hire a gamble.
Rex Ryan might be a popular choice, but I think that if you argue that Billick has to go than you can’t promote from within. If the philosophy of the locker room has to change, that can’t be accomplished by promoting from within.
Marty Schottenheimer is a name that I’ve heard thrown around a lot. You can’t argue that Billick’s offense is too predictable, and then endorse Schottenheimer. To do so undermines your credibility. Bill Cowher is another name I’ve heard. Cowher would just be hard for me to embrace as a Ravens fan. It’s also worth noting that Cowher suffered through quite a few disappointing seasons too. Including the 6-10 that netted Roethlisberger in the first round and paved the way to his first championship. He has also stated that he doesn’t want to return, but who would want to take over the Falcons?
I think that too many things have gone against the Ravens to simply blame it on Billick. There are lots of things that can be blamed on the coach, but too many other things worked against the Ravens this season. Too many turnovers, not enough forced, too many injuries, too many penalties both good and bad, and too many bad bounces. If you believe that random things like the bounce of a football tend to even out, than the Ravens should be in for a big season next season. That is still of little comfort as this season winds down and our focus shifts to free agency and the draft, and dare I say it, baseball.
Maybe this is Billick’s revenge. Maybe this is payback for the public drubbing he was forced to take after the 2005 season. Now with his new contract intact, and a resume that insures him another chance somewhere else, maybe he’s cashed it in. As I watched that press conference unfold, I was surprised at Billick’s forced humility. The public browbeating that he was forced to endure is in direct contrast to the way he handles his subordinates. I doubt that’s what’s happening, but it sure sounds better than just play calling.
I have always believed that Billick has kept control of a locker room full of personalities that would have eaten most coaches alive. From Ray Lewis to Orlando Brown to Deion Sanders, Terrell Suggs and Chris McAllister, (remember that Ozzie even tried to throw TO into that locker room) Billick has seemed to maintain harmony. And lastly why is it that Ozzie seems to get credit for all of the good moves and Billick seems to take the blame for all of the bad ones? Ozzie will have a tough time finding another such willing and capable scapegoat.
So let the fire Billick calls begin. I am still not on board with it, but I’m at least open to listening. I know I’ll be hearing plenty of it regardless.