Variables will be test for Billick

January 20, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

Brian Billick's skills as an offensive architect earned him the job as the Ravens' head coach. But those skills won't determine whether he succeeds or fails in the coming years.

If all he had to do was design and operate a potent offense, there's little doubt he would prosper. He can handle that part of the job. Just check his record.

But there is so much more to the art of being an NFL head coach, so much that doesn't involve diagramming plays. And those variables almost always separate the winners from the losers.

Can he rule 53 players with authority? Can he motivate them to play hard and play smart for him? Can he handle second-guessing from the media? Can he get along with Ravens owner Art Modell?

The answers to those and other questions will determine the course of Billick's tenure more than his skills as an architect.

Does he have a sharp eye for talent? Is he an organized manager? Can he handle the stress of being in charge? Can he handle losses?

Is he tough enough?

Those issues, in the end, will determine if Billick was a good hire.

There's no way of knowing now. As impressive as Billick was during a news conference last night at Camden Yards, there's never any way of knowing about a coach on the day he becomes an NFL head coach for the first time.

No matter how much Billick or any assistant accomplishes during his rise, being in charge is a new experience requiring a new set of skills. Some handle it, some don't. And it takes years before the verdict is delivered in the form of wins and losses.

In the end, all you can do is re search the candidates until you're exhausted, pick your man and hope for the best -- hope that he's the next Bill Cowher and not the next Bill Belichick.

The Ravens feel terrific about Billick now, of course, and they should. He was the most promising assistant coach available this year, a candidate whose smarts and potential are obvious on first impression.

"We knew he was a good offensive coordinator, but we wanted to know if he could wear the head coach's hat," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, who was part of the search committee. "How would he discipline? How would he lead? How would he create chemistry? Those are the things we talked about. And the answers he gave were what I wanted to hear."

Win or lose, Billick's skills as an offensive coach will make the Ravens more interesting. Not that it's fair to expect him to recreate the Vikings' awesome attack immediately. But the days of watching countless swing passes to Roosevelt Potts are over.

"I'm going to call the plays," Billick said.

He won't have Randy Moss to throw to, but things should improve considerably, particularly if the Ravens finagle a trade for Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson.

Still, in the end, Billick's prowess in the non-playbook skills ultimately will determine the tenor of his tenure. And of all those skills, none will be more critical than his abilities as a leader.

The Ravens respected former head coach Ted Marchibroda personally and played hard for him, but he wasn't a forceful leader and he didn't instill discipline. He didn't scare anyone. And he lost.

What the team needs now, in the wake of Marchibroda's tenure, is a harder mental edge. More discipline on and off the field. More fear of failure. A tougher, smarter attitude.

"It's one thing to play hard, but you have to play hard, play smart and play to win," Newsome said. "Young players are looking for someone to show them the way. And we have some young players."

It's up to Billick to deliver what's needed. He knows that better than anyone.

"As the head coach, it's up to me to instill a certain level of expectations," he said.

Ravens vice president David Modell, who led the search committee, isn't worried about Billick's ability to lead and discipline.

"He has those laser eyes," Modell said. "I know those eyes are going to be trained on me one day, and I'm not looking forward to it." Modell said the Ravens interviewed 28 of Billick's friends and associates. Not surprisingly, they heard a lot of favorable things.

"He's super-intelligent, he has a terrific intensity level, he's very competitive and he's demanding but reasonable," Modell said. "It's a well-put-together package."

Of course, almost every coach ever hired came with a list of similar recommendations, and less than half succeeded. And Billick has never been a head coach at any level.

Taking a top assistant and making him a head coach is always a risk. There's just no way of knowing what will happen.

Give the Ravens credit for landing a top candidate, one who was desired elsewhere. The Cleveland Browns' sudden and bizarre withdrawal from the Billick sweepstakes certainly helped the cause, but this was a bottom-line business and the Ravens scored the touchdown.

They got their man.

Now comes the tough part: sitting back and hoping they made the right choice.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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