Billick's innovations come with a history

Record refutes notion new coach of Ravens is overnight phenom

January 26, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

So, you think Brian Billick suddenly became a genius last year in Minnesota.

You think a talented Vikings squad, loaded with the likes of Randall Cunningham, Randy Moss, Jake Reed, Robert Smith and Cris Carter, gave Billick a can't-miss chance to excel as an offensive coordinator. You think just about any coach would have thrived with such a bountiful collection of weapons.

Think again. From his former players and coaching partners to the competitors who have watched him blossom in recent years, the buzz about Billick is clear and consistent.

In their eyes, the Ravens have hired the perfect guy to turn around the team's three years of stagnation. In their eyes, the Ravens have tapped the ideal mind to turn the team's moribund offense into a productive machine that will hum into the 21st century.

"People say he had great players with those three receivers [Carter, Moss and Reed], but the most impressive thing is he gets players to produce for him," Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said of Billick.

"Players love to play for him. They get excited. He gives you so many variations. He is always going to give you something more [to worry about] than you've seen in previous games. It's like he finds the extra piece to the puzzle."

You want proof? Forget about the highlights that packed the 1998 season in Minnesota, which produced a crowning achievement in Billick's final step before assuming his first head coaching job. Forget that the Vikings routinely turned football into pinball last fall, in the end producing a league-record 556 points.

Go back to 1993, when Billick took over as Minnesota's offensive coordinator three games into the season. Consider what Billick inherited: a unit that had averaged just 250 yards per game and featured three new starters on the line, an aging Jim McMahon at quarterback and a backfield that would lose Terry Allen and Robert Smith -- then a rookie -- to injuries.

That didn't stop the Vikings from averaging 352 yards during a season-ending, three-game winning streak that put them in the playoffs.

"He's not an overnight success," Minnesota coach Dennis Green said of Billick. "People are treating him like an overnight success, but we've been here for a long time. We've been in the top five or six [in the NFL offensive ranks] for a long time. We've dealt with a lot of different quarterbacks and injuries. We've had to break in new coaches to our system. He's been very consistent over a long haul."

Indeed, Billick spent six years mastering Minnesota's attack, mixing and matching personnel, usually finding the mismatches that create big plays. Five of the top 10 offensive seasons (total yardage) in Vikings history have occurred under Billick.

In 1994 and 1995, quarterback Warren Moon set team records for completions and passing yards. In 1996 and 1997, a ninth-round draft pick named Brad Johnson stepped under center and produced by far the best years of a career than began anonymously in 1992. The Vikings made the playoffs in each year.

Last year, after Johnson went down with a broken leg in September, Cunningham resurrected his career by having his best season. At the age of 35, he took Minnesota to the NFC title game.

Each of those passers points to Billick as a key to his success. But Billick is much more than a glorified quarterbacks coach. His fans in the Vikings' locker room speak in glowing terms about his imaginative approach to the offensive game.

No formation or philosophy is off-limits to Billick. A little West Coast offense here, power football there, with plenty of deep drop-backs and long balls to boot.

In this year's divisional playoff victory against Arizona, Minnesota showed 15 different formations on its first 15 plays. In one memorable sequence, Cunningham lined up at wide receiver while the ball was snapped directly to punt returner/running back David Palmer, who gained 9 yards and a first down.

"You never know what Brian will do," said running back Leroy Hoard, who knows as well as anyone the value Billick places on his role players. Hoard, a short-yardage specialist in 1998, led the team with nine rushing touchdowns.

"There was some real creative stuff going on in that Arizona game," Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh said. "A lot of times you can run the same play that everybody knows but give it a different look by formation. It makes it harder on the defense. Like the old military quote says, the battlefield is laden with generals who only had one strategy. I like [Billick's] schemes. He's creative."

Billick has little use for the traditional chalk-and-blackboard method of teaching. He would rather do his game-planning like a businessman, with computer at the ready. He prefers a slide presentation with PowerPoint. Color, movement, action and sound are his teaching tools.

Billick got his first NFL break when Bill Walsh hired him as an assistant media relations director in San Francisco in 1979. They eventually co-authored a book in which they predicted the computer age would rewrite conventional coaching tactics.

When Billick joined the Vikings six years ago, after coaching offenses at San Diego State and Utah State, he was the only coach who used a computer. The whole staff relies on them now.

Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy, who worked with Billick as the Vikings' defensive coordinator, thinks the Ravens are in good hands.

"Brian doesn't have a base offense. He'll take a little bit of everything from where he's been and beat you," Dungy said.

"Baltimore is getting a great football coach. I'm glad he went to Baltimore and is out of our division."

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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