Billick, Ravens get plugged in

NFL: Brian Billick brings the West Coast offense to Baltimore, looking to mix the Ravens' personnel with a system that's proved immensely successful in the league

Generation X And O

West Coast Offense

September 10, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Ravens coach Brian Billick has heard all the criticism of his offensive personnel. No great quarterback. No flashy running back. No prime-time receiver. No dominant offensive line. Billick just smiles. He has an ace. It's called the West Coast offense. Bill Walsh started creating the system in a similar situation in 1968 while he was an assistant under coach Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals.

The West Coast offense became fashionable with Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, and at least 11 of the 31 NFL teams now run it, including six of the past 10 Super Bowl champions.

But let's take a look at who's been executing this offense: With the 49ers, Walsh had possibly the best quarterback and receiver ever in Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. The Green Bay Packers have quarterback Brett Favre, and the Denver Broncos have running back Terrell Davis.

Billick, as Minnesota's offensive coordinator last season, had quarterback Randall Cunningham and receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss, as the Vikings scored an NFL-record 556 points from their West Coast offense.

But the Ravens have a quarterback, Scott Mitchell, who was benched in favor of rookie Charlie Batch with the Detroit Lions last season after only two games. The receivers are basically a bunch of NFL no-names who most teams no longer want, with the possible exception of Jermaine Lewis, and 400 of running back Priest Holmes' 1,008 rushing yards in 1998 came against the lowly Bengals.

"It's a great system once you understand the principles, but you also understand principles and systems don't win championships," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "It's the players."

So, can Billick make it work in Baltimore?

"We have the players to give me the kind of multiple personnel that I like to have to present to the defense," Billick said. "We have the players to have a fairly solid and efficient running game. We have the players who can potentially be very explosive. We have yet to show if we can be consistently efficient at the intermediate and short passing game.

"We can have a solid offense," he said. "What we don't have yet, or I haven't yet seen and they can still prove me wrong, is the players to establish ourselves among the elite offenses, the top five or six in the league. Now, do we have the potential? Yeah. But potential is a scary word."

Using the talent

Walsh learned from two of the game's masters.

Two years before he joined the expansion franchise Bengals in 1968, Walsh learned the intricacies of the passing game from then-San Diego Chargers coach Sid Gillman. He combined Gillman's passing with the organized structure of Brown, the Bengals' head coach, and devised a short, quick-passing offense that would get 25 first downs per game and control the ball with selective runs.

"Bill was not cognizant of the fact that he was creating the offense of the future," said Billick, who co-authored a book with Walsh, "Finding a Winning Edge." "They had less-than-adequate talent. He was trying to find a way to utilize that talent. He was trying to survive. He wasn't going to sit there and cry in his beer just because he didn't have a dominant wide receiver; or, gee, complain because his quarterback was too short; or, `Gosh, I don't have that dominant running back. Gee, our linemen are undersized.'

"You find a way and develop a system where you can be successful," Billick said. "Then you plug in a good player here and there, and you've got something going."

Walsh had Rice and John Taylor running those short routes that turned into long gainers for the 49ers in the '80s, but a lot of his disciples have run the offense and put their signatures on it. Former Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche rode the offense to Super Bowl XXIII before losing to another West Coast team, the 49ers, 20-16. Wyche put the offense into the no-huddle mode.

Former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren, now with the Seattle Seahawks, likes to use a lot of I-formation running plays and screen passes. The Broncos' Shanahan has added the shotgun and more seven-step drops by the quarterback.

"You always hear how complex it is," Wyche said. "It gives the defense a lot of complex problems, but it's easy to come in and learn. It's a high-percentage system, especially with the passing game, and it's cut down on turnovers. It can look different and present different problems for a defense and still be the same. It eats up the clock. The defense doesn't have recovery time."

Billick has his own wrinkles, too. Like Shanahan, he has a shotgun and various pass-protection schemes. Billick also incorporated some of former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs' running plays -- traps and counters -- into the Vikings' offense.

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