Mitchell puts Billick on hot seat

September 19, 1999|By John Eisenberg

If Scott Mitchell flounders again today against the Steelers and Brian Billick sticks with him, the Ravens will lose and fall to 0-2 in Billick's first season, failing to live up even to the low standard they set under Ted Marchibroda, who started 1-1 in each of his three seasons here.

But if Billick can't take it anymore and finally yanks Mitchell in favor of Stoney Case, he'll be confessing to two potentially major errors, namely the acquisitions of Mitchell and Tony Banks.

Enjoy your big day, coach.

It's hardly the predicament Billick wanted to be in, making his home debut as a rookie head coach in the NFL.

But, hey, he got himself into this mess. Let's see him get out of it.

Actually, Mitchell could get him out of it by rebounding from last week's disaster against the Rams and playing decently today. Billick won't have to make any big decisions then. Win or lose, he wouldn't have to tear up his pledge to stick with Mitchell or renege on his oft-stated opinion that Mitchell is his best option.

Only if Mitchell plays poorly again would Billick be in a no-win situation, forced to choose between his record and his reputation.

But after last week, who knows how Mitchell will play?

In Mitchell's defense, he was making his first regular-season start in almost a year last week, and he was far from the only contributor to the offensive nightmare. His line was beaten soundly, resulting in constant pressure. His receivers didn't exactly leave the Rams' defenders quaking. And Billick prematurely abandoned a running game that was functioning ably.

Don't misunderstand. Mitchell still was awful, throwing simple balls in the dirt and failing to evade even modest rushes.

But his support was awful, too. All of it.

The line, in particular, will have to do better today, holding off pass rushers long enough to give Mitchell at least a chance to survey his options in those short drop-backs Billick prefers.

Until the line does that, it's really unfair to judge Mitchell.

Of course, that doesn't mean the fans won't be howling for his scalp today if he doesn't play well early. He didn't produce in the exhibition season, he didn't produce in the opener and the Ravens are 16-32-1. Neither he nor Billick should expect understanding in those conditions. At some point, you have to earn your support.

If the booing gets ugly, Billick will face his first tough decision. He wouldn't look good making a change in just the second game, after insisting for so long that Mitchell "would be fine."

On the other hand, he'd be selling out the rest of the team if he didn't do everything he could to try to win, including benching a struggling quarterback.

Told you it was a tough spot.

And let's face it, it's particularly tough because there's no evidence Billick's alternatives to Mitchell are any better. In fact, it's likely they're worse.

The fans want Case, who engineered two late, winning rallies in the exhibition season, but he's a five-year veteran who has seldom gotten off the bench. What does that tell you? He isn't the answer.

Banks? His stunning fall from Billick's good graces is the story of the year for the Ravens so far, even if it hasn't generated major headlines.

Acquired in a trade after starting for the Rams for three years, Banks, 26, was the Ravens' rationale for not going after a franchise quarterback in a quarterback-rich draft last April. He was going to be their long-term project, the young quarterback Billick could develop.

Well, he has already lost the backup job to Case, and there's talk he might get traded even though he hasn't thrown a regular-season pass for the Ravens. Billick obviously isn't impressed.

So much for the long-term project.

And so much for not gambling on a young quarterback in the draft.

Billick has done a lot of things right since being hired to replace Marchibroda, but until and unless Mitchell starts playing better, it's debatable whether he has stocked the Ravens with a quarterback who can get the job done.

In his defense, his options outside the draft were somewhat limited. The price for Brad Johnson -- three high draft picks -- wound up being too high for a team with so many needs. Not trading for Johnson was the right move.

That left Mitchell, Banks and other former starters such as Kerry Collins, Rich Gannon and Jeff George. Billick went with Mitchell and insisted things would be fine. Now he has to live with his decision.

If Mitchell plays well today, or even just better, the whole issue disappears. It could happen. Mitchell threw some quality passes last week. He brings assets to the table.

But those are the Steelers on the other side of the ball today, the same Steelers who have dominated the AFC Central in the '90s and still field a strong team, even though Jacksonville appears to have passed them.

It's a tough spot for Billick, a tough spot for Mitchell, a tough spot for a franchise trying to prove to a city that it can do things right.

Quite a way for a new head coach to open at home.

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