Alone on Billick field, even Ravens can score

January 19, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

Not even the Ravens can blow a lead this big.

They want Brian Billick as their new head coach, and their only competition for him, the Cleveland Browns, abruptly dropped out of the running yesterday.

So, for those scoring at home, it's the Ravens against the Ravens for the right to hire Billick.

Given their history of blowing leads and turning even simple situations into complex obstacles, it's tempting to predict that they'll still find a way to lose Billick. They always find a way to lose, right?

But not this time. Let's face it, even the Ravens can beat out competition consisting of, well, no one.

This is one deal they can close with authority.

If they still want Billick, they've got him. On their terms.

Billick, the Vikings' offensive coordinator, had all the leverage before the Browns dropped out. Now the Ravens have all the leverage.

They don't have to put on a big show for Billick, compromise their ideals, exceed their spending limit or do any of the things teams sometimes do to get the man they want.

They just have to offer him a fair-market deal and watch him sign.

Hey, maybe their luck is changing. The Browns' sudden departure from the Billick sweepstakes is certainly one of the biggest and best breaks in their three-year history.

What happened? Who knows? Billick was the Browns' top candidate, and then, suddenly, he was out. To say it makes no sense is an understatement.

Browns president Carmen Policy had said Billick blew him away during a long interview two weeks ago, but yesterday Policy released a statement saying they had talked more on Sunday after the Vikings' loss to the Falcons in the NFC championship game and "come to the realization" that they had "significant philosophical differences."

You can believe that balderdash if you want. The guess here is the Browns were afraid to lose the head coach they wanted to, of all people, Ravens owner Art Modell. Their fans wouldn't have cared for that, to say the least.

And while it was hardly assured that the Ravens were going to lock up Billick in their interview scheduled for today, they did have the home-field advantage. Billick was coming here first.

So the Browns just dropped out of the game instead of staying in and risking losing to Modell. They'll settle for, say, Jacksonville offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, Oakland defensive coordinator Willie Shaw or former Raiders coach Art Shell.

Hey, it makes as much sense as any theory.

If it's true, Policy should get ripped for giving in so easily. He forgot that he was competing for Billick with the Ravens, not with the 49ers, Packers or some other power. Given the Ravens' history, the Browns could have outbid Modell for Billick and become hometown heroes even before they'd played a game.

But Policy blinked, for whatever reason. And no one was more relieved than the members of the Ravens' search committee. They were feeling the heat before the Browns' announcement. They'd lamented their inability to interview George Seifert or Mike Holmgren before both signed elsewhere, and now Billick, their new top choice, was coming to town. It was time to back up all their talk about having an organization that could match offers with anyone.

Then the Browns dropped their surprise, and the situation completely changed.

Oh, sure, the Ravens still have to give Billick the big pitch today. He's going to be their coach for the next three or four years. They wanted him for a reason, because he's one of the game's top offensive minds. They need him happy.

But the pressure is off.

If the Ravens can't close the deal now, well, it's a huge organizational embarrassment. There's no competition.

But how can they not close the deal now?

Oddly enough, the Ravens seem to have benefited from the NFL's overly charitable pose toward Cleveland in the wake of the Browns' departure in 1995 -- a pose that has disgusted many Baltimore fans because this city didn't receive any of the same breaks.

Cleveland was awarded an expansion team, the "new" Browns, and then the Browns were given all sorts of advantages, such as the ability to interview coaching candidates before the end of the playoffs. No other team could do that.

But the Browns interviewed Billick long before the Vikings were eliminated, freeing up Billick to come to Baltimore first after the NFC title game. That scenario frightened the Browns, it seemed. And they didn't want to lose to Modell.

Oh, they wanted Billick, you can be sure of that. Regardless of what they say, the Browns wanted Billick as their head coach.

Now the Ravens will get him. Not even they can blow this one.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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