Guardian of defense

Ravens: Marvin Lewis won the trust of Brian Billick to return as defensive coordinator, but his unit is expected to meet its elite potential-now.

August 15, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The old photograph of a young Marvin Lewis reveals a hint about a man who could become a head coach in the NFL.

In the picture, taken when he was 9 and playing Pop Warner Football in McDonald, Pa., Lewis stands on the sideline, with his helmet off, head up, chin out, hands on hips. Clearly, this kid is not daydreaming. He stares intently at the field, as if anticipating the next play.

The confident pose and thoughtful gaze suggest Lewis knows something the other boys don't.

"A lot of times, Marvin knew what I was going to do before I did. He was a good quarterback. It was like having a coach on the field," said Jim Gary, Lewis' football coach at Fort Cherry High. "A lot of guys would look at film, but Marvin spent a lot more time at it than anybody. He always acted more mature than the other guys."

As Lewis, 40, heads into his fourth season as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, the skills he began honing long ago will be put to the test. The lone holdover from a staff that was canned last Dec. 28, Lewis is a man with something to prove, partly because he was not the first choice of head coach Brian Billick.

Lewis brings to the task a stable of young talent, including first-round draft picks such as linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware and cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister.

Lewis' background and brains may be his best ammunition. His parents recall his routinely pulling straight A's without bringing home books. With SAT scores over 1,200, Lewis had a choice of top colleges and was expected to become an engineer, like one of his two sisters did. But he chose the unsettled, cutthroat world of coaching.

Waiting on Billick

Lewis began 1999 with a gut-wrenching month of lining up other coaching jobs, while he and his family were hoping to stay in Baltimore.

Trouble was, Billick preferred Gunther Cunningham, then defensive coordinator in Kansas City who was later promoted to head coach. Meanwhile, Lewis had talked with six other NFL teams and had started to turn down offers while waiting on Billick.

"I had made it clear to [Lewis] that Gunther was the guy I was interested in and I might look at some others," said Billick, who met with Lewis for the first time in Alabama at the Senior Bowl the day after replacing Ted Marchibroda. "I told him he could stay on as a position coach at the very minimum. I could only tell him I would consider him [as coordinator], and he said he could live with that."

As the interview process continued, the two began to click.

"The more we talked football, the more I liked what I heard," Billick said. "I really thought I was going to lose Marvin, and I valued his abilities. That defense did a hell of a job last year. We've got to do our share offensively this year."

Although Lewis' wait-and-see gamble paid off with a three-year, $900,000 contract, his latest assignment comes with a caveat. Billick wants an elite defense. Now. At the least, Billick expects a ranking among the league's top 10 units.

After all, he noted, Lewis is working with no shortage of talent, including three Pro Bowl players in Ray Lewis, Boulware and end Michael McCrary.

"Yeah, that's right here in my file, my must-finish-in-top-10 file," said Lewis, with his signature, high-pitched giggle. "Brian has been clear on his direction from Day One. Any time you're a holdover on a staff, there are moments when you struggle with your pride. Brian has done a good job making sure there aren't many of those days. He doesn't refer to the past very often. He knows what he wants and he's very direct about it. We need that.

"In some ways, leaving [Baltimore] may have been easier. But I think we've worked hard to put ourselves in a position to win. I didn't want to get back into a situation where I had to build something from scratch or I didn't know if we could win."

The 1998 defense finished 22nd, which is misleading. While it surrendered enough big plays to give up an alarming number of yards, the 6-10 Ravens held eight opponents under 17 points, yet won only four of those games. That problem could be traced to an offense that managed under 17 points a game and wore out the defense.

New system, no problem

Billick had no doubts about Lewis' credentials. He did wonder what kind of chemistry would develop between them. Not anymore. For starters, Lewis and his new staff of assistants have devoured Billick's detail-oriented, computerized approach. Lewis rarely goes anywhere without his laptop.

"Marvin has absorbed very quickly what it is I want to do. We communicate very readily, and the interaction between him and the other [defensive] coaches has been excellent," Billick said. "He has the freedom with all of the X's and O's. Marvin is a very intelligent man who has a passion for the game and an understanding of the players. In my opinion, he is head coaching material."

Lewis says he aspires to become a head coach. Then, he changes the subject.

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