Trying to turn down the heat

Ravens: After questioning whether the officials would give his team a fair shake Sunday in Cleveland, Brian Billick apologizes.

November 04, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

The buildup to the Ravens' first visit to Cleveland is starting to resemble an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show."

Both sides were back in their chairs yesterday, an apology had been delivered and accepted, sort of, but it seems to be an uneasy truce at best.

It's hard to believe all this is about the rematch of a 2-5 team against a 1-7 team.

It started when Ravens coach Brian Billick said Monday that the league wanted Cleveland to win and that the officials wouldn't give the Ravens any calls.

Browns president Carmen Policy, who had Billick at the top of his coaching list until Billick insisted on visiting Baltimore, fired back Tuesday in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

He said Billick's remarks were "ill-advised and irresponsible." He also said that the league should pay attention to them and suggested Billick apologize and that he is cracking under the pressure of a 2-5 start in his first season in Baltimore.

"Maybe the heat of losing is getting to him. He's not coaching an expansion team. He's coaching a team with one of the best defenses in the NFL, and expectations were high," Policy said.

A league spokesman said that independent of Policy's remarks, the league had begun its own review of the situation Tuesday, and a league official, George Young, sent Billick a letter asking for an explanation.

Billick then tried to defuse the situation yesterday when he apologized in a conference call to Cleveland reporters.

"I'm apologizing for what is obviously a misunderstanding. and basically just apologize for a lack of verbal skills in this incident, and I didn't use the right words to convey my thoughts," Billick said.

He added: "It's going to be a very volatile situation for us to come into that city, and I know the Cleveland Browns will do everything they can to make it a workable scenario and make it a good day. I in no way intended to impugn that the officials would act in any other way but in a professional manner."

Policy then met with Cleveland reporters and took a few more jabs at Billick while supposedly accepting his apology.

Policy, a lawyer, couldn't match Billick in X's and O's, but he had the edge in verbal sparring.

He said if Billick stepped up and said he made a mistake, "I think you've got to try to cut him a little slack because he's in his first year of coaching."

He then needled Billick again about his losing record and passed off the Browns' losing record as part of building an expansion team.

"I understand the frustration that develops from continued losing. I've said before, we're building here. I think in Baltimore, they expected a better situation than they're experiencing," he said.

Although Billick may still be fined by the league, the real question is how Cleveland fans will react to this.

In 1989, when the Denver Broncos made their first visit to Cleveland after "The Drive" in the January 1987 AFC title game, fans threw batteries and other projectiles at the Broncos when John Elway made his first drive toward the Dawg Pound.

The officials stopped the game and had the Broncos drive toward the other end of the stadium.

When Policy became team president, he said he made it a priority to improve the behavior in the Dawg Pound.

Contacted at his office yesterday, Policy said the Browns had canceled the season tickets of unruly fans to create a family atmosphere. He also hired the former head of the Secret Service, Lew Merletti, to head security.

Coach Chris Palmer, who declined to comment on Billick's remarks, said yesterday, "I think the Dawg Pound has kind of gotten soft. They have backs on the seats and stuff like that."

The other question is whether Billick's comments about the officiating will tend to keep the officials from giving calls to the Browns. It's not exactly a secret that the home teams tends to get the calls. It's part of the home-field advantage.

Maybe that's why Policy was so quick to respond.

"Brian Billick impugned the integrity of the league, the officiating and demeaned the stature of the Cleveland Browns," Policy said. "Maybe this is some cheap trick of his or some type of reverse psychology -- his way of subtly intimidating the officials. But I know the officials and they will not be intimidated."

Policy said his reaction to Billick's statements had nothing to do with the fact that Billick didn't become the Cleveland coach. He said Billick even sent him a bottle of wine after the Browns won the Hall of Fame Game. Policy said he just didn't think Billick's remarks were appropriate.

"We really would not be very happy if a coach who worked for the Cleveland Browns took that approach," he said.

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