Attention, Ravens: It counts now

September 14, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The players aren't good enough. The fans can see that. The fans can accept that. But if the players aren't physical enough -- in their season opener, against a beatable team, at the start of a new era -- then where are the Ravens?

Maybe nowhere.

New coach Brian Billick joked that he woke up yesterday morning to find his bandwagon empty, but the deflated mood of the city is the least of his problems.

Former coach Ted Marchibroda periodically questioned the Ravens' character during his three-year tenure, wondering if the players understood what it took to win.

Billick didn't go quite that far yesterday in assessing Sunday's 27-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams. But when he mentioned his team's lack of physical intensity, he spoke to the same concern.

How can an NFL team fail to max out in its opener?

How is that possible?

"It's maybe a lack of appreciation of what opening day represents, the difference between the preseason and opening day," Billick said. "You can only attribute so much to being on the road. If anything, that ought to increase it [intensity] a little more.

"I don't mean to intimate at all that these guys laid down. They played hard. But they didn't have the tenacity that I've seen from them, the physical wanting, the sense of urgency on every single play to get the job done.

"That's what was a little surprising to me. Up to now, we have shown that."

But up to now, the games didn't count.

Perhaps Billick should post signs in the locker room: "The preseason is over!" "Time to get on `SportsCenter'!" "Time to play for your next contract!" "Time to show up!"

Hit them over the head until they hit somebody.

"We did have a lack of enthusiasm, whatever you might want to call it -- it seemed like we had a lack of energy," safety Rod Woodson said. "I would think with the season so fresh, we'd all be flying around the football.

"In the preseason, everybody was flying around the football. You're only playing one quarter, two quarters then. You're going to be tired, we all know that. We all have to suck it up a little bit better."

Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden echoed Woodson's sentiments.

"I give them a lot of credit -- they came to play," he said of the Rams. "They had the mind-set that they were going to get their home opener. I don't think we were quite ready for the level that they brought to the table.

"They were really well-prepared. They were determined to prove that they could win with a new quarterback, that their defense was going to stop us. They were ready to play a little more so than we were."

Again, it was the season opener.

How is this possible?

Billick didn't have an answer. Perhaps he's starting to understand that the Ravens are a massive rebuilding project, that the challenge before him is greater than he even imagined.

See, this isn't just about changing the offense. This is about changing the culture of a team that is 16-32-1 in four seasons. About finding better players, and about finding leaders.

Who are the leaders of this team?

Ray Lewis, perhaps. But no one else comes to mind.

Bennie Thompson's leadership qualities apply only to special teams. Ogden, Michael McCrary and Peter Boulware are Pro Bowl players but lack the personalities to command a locker room.

Woodson and Tony Siragusa? They're in the twilights of their careers and not emotionally invested in the team's fortunes.

Harry Swayne and Chuck Evans? They could evolve into leaders, but they just joined the team.

The importance of leadership and chemistry are debatable in baseball, but not football, which requires greater emotion and teamwork. It's simple: You either come to play or you take a beating.

And the Ravens took a beating Sunday.

"We have a lot of young players in a lot of key roles that have to obviously learn what opening day is about, what each week is about," Billick said. "Rod Woodson understands. Tony Siragusa understands. You hope it rubs off on the team.

"It sounds like a dichotomy. I'm saying that there was good, solid effort. But there was a lack of physical intensity about them.

"This is a vicious, violent game. If you don't take that mentality into it every week, then you're not going to play well or, God forbid, you're going to get hurt."

McCrary and Boulware were limited Sunday and couldn't play as physically as they normally might, diminishing the Ravens' pass rush, exposing the secondary. Still, Billick was talking about a teamwide malaise.

What is it with this bunch? More than half the players have joined the team within the past 19 months. Several came from winning organizations. And yet, nothing seems to change.

"These guys are certainly willing," Billick said. "They've done everything we've asked to this point, whether it be off-season conditioning camp, what we've done in training camp, during the games.

"There's plenty of `want' there. But it's amazing with athletes of this caliber how tenuous confidence can be."

Well, Sunday is Pittsburgh. Sunday is the home opener. Sunday could be 0-2 on the way to 1-4, with another home game against Cleveland, then road games at Atlanta and Tennessee.

Is that enough of an invitation for physical intensity?

Can it get any clearer?

Pub Date: 9/14/99

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