With snap of first exhibition, score will be kept on Billick

August 11, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Being Brian Billick has been easy since the Ravens hired him as their head coach after last season. He replaced Ted Marchibroda's losing, easy-to-follow act. He has installed the same offense the Vikings used to obliterate opponents. And of course, he has gone undefeated through the off-season.

Basically, he has been honeymooning for seven months as a promising concept for fans and players to believe in after three straight dismal seasons.

There were no games to play and, thus, no annoying losses to break the reverie.

Billick couldn't lose, literally or figuratively.

That changes when the Ravens open their exhibition season against the Eagles tomorrow night at Veterans Stadium.

Goodbye, concept; hello, reality. They're keeping score from now on.

True, the Philly game is just a meaningless, glorified scrimmage from which no conclusions should be drawn. Only when the regular season begins will Billick feel the pressure to produce more than Marchibroda. And he probably can get away with losing this year, given the massive rebuilding of the offense he's undertaken.

Still, starting tomorrow night -- Billick's first game as a head coach at any level -- he'll be bottom-line accountable for a tangible, on-field product for the first time in his 21-year coaching career. How will he react, particularly when things get tough and life isn't as easy as it has been for him for the past seven months?

The answer to that question has determined the course of many NFL coaches' careers.

We're not talking about how Billick might react tomorrow night. Even though it's his inaugural game as an NFL head coach and "a little more special than your standard exhibition for that reason," he said, expect nothing substantive either way.

The time to pay attention is later, when the games count. Will he hold up under the ludicrously intense scrutiny? Will he handle the inevitable disappointments and caustic second-guessing that have become part of life in the NFL?

Billick has shown himself to be progressive, disciplined and organized in his seven months on the job here, but can he take the heat that's bound to come his way as the coach of a flawed team with a 16-31-1 record since moving to Baltimore?

"Frankly, I'm more interested in seeing how he handles the success that comes his way," said Ravens president David Modell, who led the search committee that hired Billick last winter. "But given how balanced and disciplined he is, I'm also confident in his ability to handle the bumps in the road.

"Anyone who has been in this profession for as long as he has experiences difficulties and disappointments with regularity. You learn to accept that. This is a `big boy' environment in that regard. And you don't get to where he is now without being a big boy."

Initially, at least, Billick does appear to have the right attitude.

"I've been doing this for a long time," he said yesterday. "I know what's coming. And I don't mind the give-and-take [when he's being criticized or second-guessed]. In fact, I enjoy it. If you listen to a radio talk show, the first guy will say I run the ball too much and the second guy will say I pass the ball too much. Those guys need to get together and figure out what I'm supposed to do."

Ever the analyst, Billick said he has boiled the art of complaining down to three basic criticisms.

"No matter where or when you go, it's always the same three things people are mad about," he said. "One, you're too predictable. Two, you're too conservative. Three, you don't throw long often enough. That's all anyone says. And that's all anyone knows to say, frankly."

Did Billick even hear it last year in Minnesota, when his offense set an NFL scoring record?

"You bet I heard it," he said with a smile. "If I didn't throw long to Randy Moss once every four plays, I was a stupid idiot."

Laughing it all off is one way to survive. Not taking criticism personally is another. Marchibroda was a master at that.

But every coach is different, and whether Billick has the right set of defenses remains to be seen. He's a glib "people person" who enjoys a rousing debate, which is a good sign. But he's also extremely confident in his coaching abilities, which could leave him feeling angry at having his knowledge challenged.

Either way, it's one thing to talk rationally about knowing how to handle losing and take criticism during training camp, and another to stay calm and keep your head together when you're 3-5 at midseason and the fans are booing and your quarterback has that faraway look in his eyes.

Some coaches melt into butter in that kind of heat. Others don't. And there's just no way of knowing until it happens either way.

The process begins for Billick tomorrow night. Reality arrives. He puts his undefeated record on the line. And we will see how things go from there.

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