Billick's high standards keep players on their toes

August 27, 1999|By John Eisenberg

On many winning NFL teams, the players have respect for the head coach mixed with a tinge of fear.

They believe in the coach, but they also worry about living up to his high standards.

Brian Billick is already there with the Ravens.

He has the players' attention and respect, but he also has them worried about their jobs.

That's what the best NFL coaches want these days, edgy circumstances leading to inspired performances.

Sure, Billick still has to win to complete the process; nothing turns players off faster than losing, and given the Ravens' recent history, who knows what's going to happen?

Still, he has managed to instill an environment Jimmy Johnson would approve of, and that's not bad for a guy with a 0-0 record as a head coach.

"Billick and his staff are doing a good job of allowing us to be comfortable, but at the same time getting on us when we make a mistake and saying, `That's not the way it's going to be done, and if you do it that way, you can't be on the team,' " halfback Priest Holmes said.

Two incidents in training camp, which ended yesterday, established the desired tone.

The first came 13 days ago, when Billick blew up during a practice less than 48 hours after the Ravens' sloppy exhibition opener in Philadelphia. Within easy earshot of the fans and media, he scolded the players bitterly for making so many mistakes in his intricate offense after whining last season about former coach Ted Marchibroda's offense being too conservative.

He had them cold there, taking their gripe and turning it on them. Bill Parcells intimidates the same way, with logic more than volume.

Then, out of nowhere, popular third-string quarterback Wally Richardson suddenly was sacrificed when Stoney Case was signed last week. Sure, Billick was just trying to improve the team's overall quality and send a message to Tony Banks and Scott Mitchell, but the whole team quivered at the sudden and unexpected end of Richardson's days here.

It's a maneuver Johnson tries to pull every year, just to make sure everyone is paying attention.

"He expects a certain performance level, expects a certain attention to detail and expects you to attain certain things mentally," veteran defensive end Rob Burnett said of Billick. "And you're going to be scared if you feel in your heart and your mind that you can't do one of those things. Because if you don't, it's `You're not going to help us, period.' "

Marchibroda couldn't apply that kind of hammer to the players, not with his contract dwindling and his job status under such scrutiny.

And fairly or not, he lost the players' faith as the losses piled up.

Billick's circumstances are 180 degrees different. He has a six-year contract, the ultimate show of support from management. Any players who don't respect that are just being foolish. He's the man here, quite clearly.

He's also brought an intriguing, new-age philosophy of giving the players what they want, with the tacit understanding that they'd better give him what he wants in return.

The wide-open offense is part of that philosophy. That's why his lecture after the Philly game was so effective. You wanted it, fellas, you got it. Now do your part.

Along the same lines, there's been much less gratuitous contact in practice. The emphasis is on learning, not pounding.

Having given the players that easier regimen, Billick then rides them hard during workouts, exhibiting a perfectionist's impatience. They'd better do things right.

"They know I have their best interests in mind," Billick said. "That's why we practice the way we practice."

Off the field, the philosophy included no bed checks during training camp and a more common-sense approach to meetings.

"When he opens his mouth, he's got something legitimate to say," Burnett said. "That's what's got people's attention. There's not a lot of gibberish coming out. In the past, a lot of times, a lot of these speeches that different coaches gave could have been saved. Nothing was gotten out of them. But now, in all of our meetings and when he speaks to us, there's always a meaning. He's got something to say and it makes sense. Players respond to that."

They'd better. That's their half of the bargain.

"I'll treat them like men as long as they act like men," Billick said. "There probably wasn't another team in the league that went without bed checks during camp. But we had no incidents. I was pleased to see that."

He'll give them what they want, as long as they give him the high standards he wants in return.

And if they don't, well, look what happened to Wally Richardson.

"I don't want them to fear me," Billick said. "But it's like what [Gen. George] Patton said, `Give it to 'em loud and dirty, and they'll remember it.' I want them to pay attention when I say something."

They are.

Pub Date: 8/27/99

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