For Ravens, losing games is fact of life

September 20, 1999|By John Eisenberg

You knew it as soon as Will Blackwell returned the short kickoff to midfield, setting up a terrific scoring chance for the Steelers with the score tied and a little more than a minute to play.

It was going to happen again. The Ravens were going to find a way to lose.

As they so often do.

"I think the Steelers know coming in every time that we're going to play them tough, but I think they also always believe they're going to find a way to win in the end," Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "And they have a right to feel that way."

Every team that plays the Ravens has a right to feel that way, given the Ravens' lamentable history. They're the opposite of opportunistic. They have the football version of a death wish.

Ravens coach Brian Billick saw it up close for the first time yesterday in the Steelers' 23-20 victory at Camden Yards.

Now he knows, if he didn't before, that it's his biggest obstacle as he tries to reinvent the Ravens as something other than a team with a 16-33-1 record since coming to town.

None of Billick's offensive magic will matter if he doesn't erase the losing culture festering in his locker room.

"We have too many veterans on this team to keep losing like this," nose tackle Tony Siragusa said.

The Ravens didn't play that well yesterday, but the Steelers didn't either, and the Ravens kept fighting, came from behind and gave themselves a chance in the final minutes. A touchdown pass from Stoney Case to Qadry Ismail tied the score 20-20 with 1: 22 to play.

What happened next was an instant replay of the kind of doomed efforts that got Ted Marchibroda fired. The Ravens did just enough wrong to lose.

Matt Stover's ensuing kickoff flew high and short into the wind, falling to Blackwell at the Pittsburgh 13. Blackwell eluded the first line of the Ravens' kickoff coverage and made his way down the sideline to the 50.

"I had a great shot at him and I missed him, plain and simple." the Ravens' Cornell Brown said.

Billick's take on the short kickoff and poor coverage that decided the game?

"It's very disappointing to give up the [long] return there," he said. "We will do what it takes to correct what went wrong. It will get corrected."

What happened next was even uglier. On the first play of the Steelers' final drive, with the game on the line, the Ravens' defense lined up with only nine players, two fewer than allowed.

Nine men on the field!

The Steelers took full advantage, with quarterback Kordell Stewart completing a 12-yard pass to Courtney Hawkins.

"If we have enough guys on the field, we defend the play," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. "But two guys were missing. I don't know what happened. Maybe there was some confusion over what defense we were in. But we go over all that stuff on Saturday. There's no excuse.

"All I know is we can't expect to start winning games like this until we stop making mistakes like that at the wrong time."

All 11 players made it onto the field for the next play, but Stewart still completed a 16-yard pass to Troy Edwards, putting the ball on the Ravens' 22. Two plays later, rookie kicker Kris Brown put a 36-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired.

So quick, so simple. In just a matter of minutes, with just a couple of key mistakes, the Ravens gave away the game.

The only reason it wasn't stunning was that it has happened so often before.

Some teams find ways to win, but the Ravens find ways to lose.

"How do you break that habit? It's a process. A learning curve. It takes time," Woodson said. "But one thing is certain. You have to start winning some of these [close] games before you start believing you're going to win them."

And of course, as Yogi Berra might have said, you have to start believing you can win them before you win them.

Whatever, round and round we go. Where will the losing stop? No one knows.

The change from Marchibroda to Billick was supposed to help, but after yesterday, Billick probably is facing a larger psychological overhaul than even he imagined.

"Losing is a part of life," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said in the wake of the devastating home loss.

Lewis is right, but a team that accepts such a reality is headed for trouble.

The Ravens probably don't think they're accepting of defeat, but where's the evidence to the contrary?

Billick should tear up the practice facility today, yell at everyone he sees in the locker room and make it known that these aren't his standards.

Time for some bad cop, in other words.

Marchibroda's good cop act certainly didn't work, and if Billick doesn't attack the problem, it could swallow him up, too.

"One way or another, we have to turn the thing around," Ogden said. "We have to learn how to win."

It sounds simple, but it isn't.

Obviously, a franchise that's had only one winning season in the '90s is pretty set in its ways.

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