Billick is offense builder, but do Ravens have tools?

April 23, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

He has co-written a book on offensive football, developed a reputation as a quarterback guru and designed an offense that set the NFL's single-season scoring record.

Now comes a challenge demanding all of new Ravens coach Brian Billick's wiles: Turning the Ravens' dreadful offense into a respectable, productive unit.

It all starts today as minicamp opens and Billick coaches a practice for the first time at the Ravens' training complex, and all one can say to him is this:

Coach, you're not in Minnesota anymore.

The Ravens finished last in the AFC in total offense last season and near the bottom in almost every offensive category.

Billick's charge is to improve on that performance with a starting quarterback who sat on the bench in Detroit last season; an offensive line that lost two veteran starters to free agency; an undersized and largely unproven receiving corps; and a second-year halfback labeled "the fifth-best back in our division" by Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel.

"I'd love to challenge the all-time scoring record again [as he did as Minnesota's offensive coordinator in 1998]," Billick said yesterday, "but I think that's a little optimistic."

A little.

But does that mean Billick is worried? Hardly. His tenure in Minnesota has given him unshakable confidence in his ability to deliver a quality offense.

"When I look at [the Ravens' offense], I liken it to 1993" in Minnesota, he said. "We'd lost some players to free agency and injuries, and we weren't real dynamic. But we had the second-fewest turnovers in the league and the highest scoring efficiency in the red zone, and we were fairly effective on first down. We weren't great, but we were OK, 16th or 17th in the league [in offense]."

Ravens fans would settle for "OK" after last year's marathon session of sacks, turnovers and swing passes to Roosevelt Potts. But is "OK" attainable?

"There are three things we have to do," Billick said. "One, cut down on turnovers. Two, don't give up as many sacks. Three, move the ball more consistently, with less `three [downs] and out' series. If we do all that and generate a big play now and then, we have a chance to be pretty good."

But knowing what to do and actually doing it are different issues, especially when Billick is playing with offensive personnel that, let's face it, won't frighten many opponents. How can he make it all hum?

"It's too early to know what we'll do until we're used to the personnel," Billick said, "but basically, all anyone has to do is look at [film of] the last couple of years in Minnesota. Those are my principles and beliefs. I'll rotate my ends, tight ends and backs, depending on the down. It's a fairly multiple [option] look."

In other words, get ready for a little bit of everything. The days of mind-numbing predictability are over. Billick will ask quarterback Scott Mitchell to throw to wide receivers, tight ends, H-backs, halfbacks and fullbacks. He'll use a straight-ahead running game with a blocking fullback.

And yes, he'll look for the big play.

"Statistically, a team averages one explosive passing play for every 10 [pass] attempts," he said. "If I get get to the sixth, seventh or eighth [attempt in 10] without a big play, I start getting antsy. I start trying to make it happen."

Can he do it with Jermaine Lewis, Floyd Turner and Patrick Johnson at receiver? Lewis is a second-year starter, Turner a journeyman and Johnson an unknown.

"We're a little young and inexperienced there," Billick said. "Consistency is my concern [at receiver]. But we do have some speed. We do have the potential for explosiveness."

Mitchell has to deliver accurate passes for that or anything to happen, of course. Many in the league are skeptical, but Billick's support is unwavering. The addition of Tony Banks last week didn't change a thing.

"Scott is our starting quarterback," Billick said. "Tony understands his role. There'll be some competition, and obviously, if Tony were able to step up and do the job at a higher level, he'd play. But right now, it's clear-cut. Scott is our starting quarterback."

The other half of the offense is the running game, which was inconsistent at best a year ago and dealt a blow with the losses of center Wally Williams and tackle Orlando Brown via free agency. But Jeff Mitchell and Harry Swayne are the new starters, and Billick isn't worried.

"I feel as good about the line as I do about any aspect of the team," he said. "The hullabaloo about this line [being one of the best in the league] last year was maybe a little overstated. We're fine there."

And at running back, too?

"Priest Holmes is a good, tough runner," he said of the incumbent starter. "If I can get a one-two punch there with [unsigned] Errict Rhett, we'll be good."

The overall concept is clear. Billick is going back to basics with this offense. Cut down on mistakes, keep it simple, do a few things well. Be creative, aggressive and sound.

The goal is competency, not combustibility -- a reasonable goal, given what happened last season.

"I'm very modestly geared right now," Billick said, "and we're starting from ground zero. But I like what we have. I expect us to improve as the year goes on."

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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