Team on the verge

Ravens: Brian Billick and his players have learned about winning this season and hope these are lessons to build on.


January 02, 2000|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Even though some fans believe the Ravens have turned the corner, members of the front office and coaching staff won't find out if the team is over the proverbial hump until the 2000 season.

There is little doubt that the Ravens (8-7) are a better team than last season, and a victory today would seal their first winning season since moving to Baltimore from Cleveland four years ago. But, in reality, the Ravens are just an average team on the verge of a possible breakthrough.

Here's the evidence: The Ravens have won five of their past six games, but only one victory was against a winning team. Three of the wins came against two of the worst teams in the 1990s, the Cincinnati Bengals and the New Orleans Saints. Two other victories this season were against the expansion Cleveland Browns (2-14) and another against the Falcons (4-11).

That's not to underestimate what the Ravens have achieved this season, because if they continue to win in 2000, the turning point would be a devastating, 35-8 loss on national television to the Kansas City Chiefs in their sixth game.

That's when rookie coach Brian Billick inserted quarterback Tony Banks for Stoney Case and put the long ball into his offense. A week later, after a 13-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the defense moved up from the good to the dominating category.

But does the progress end today or does it carry the Ravens into the playoffs next season?

"I would like to think so," Billick said when asked if his team had overcome its losing ways. "But I don't know if we can say that until a little further down the line. If we are and we're able to build on this, we will look back on the three-game road stand, look back to see where we had won four or five in a row or five out of seven.

"If we're fortunate enough to get to the playoffs next season, we can look back right where we are as the defining moment of this team."

The Ravens are still several offensive players away from being a top contender. Their top priority during the off-season is to become more consistent at quarterback, whether it requires re-signing Banks or drafting one in the first round. The second is to sign a go-to receiver, then a tight end and to improve their return game on special teams.

It sounds like a lot, but it isn't. Not when players such as running backs Corey Dillon and James Stewart and receivers Joey Galloway, Carl Pickens, Shannon Sharpe, Muhsin Muhammad and Ken Dilger might be available via free agency or trade.

"We need a skilled person who is a threat, who people have to defend," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "Going into a game, the defensive coordinator has to say we have to defend this guy. We don't want a quick-fix solution; build is a better word. If we win nine games this year, then the goal next season is 10 to 11.

"I think Brian has gotten this team to the point where they think they can win, they will prepare to win and he can win coming from behind," said Newsome. "I think we're either at the hump or close to it. We'll find out next season."

Low point

The lowest point of the 1999 season came on Oct. 21, when the Chiefs embarrassed the Ravens, 35-8, on a Thursday night ESPN game.

Not only was it Billick's national debut, but it also was the chance to showcase Case, the team's possible quarterback of the future. Instead, Kansas City, like other teams, crowded the line of scrimmage with seven to eight players and dared Case to beat them with his arm.

Case tried, but two of his passes were intercepted and returned for touchdowns in the second half. Case completed 15 of 37 passes in that game for 103 yards before he was replaced by Banks in the fourth quarter. The Ravens had 277 yards of total offense.

Billick was humbled.

"Brian didn't have to say a word to me about how bad he felt," Newsome said. "I could just tell from spending a great deal of time with him. This was an opportunity for him, the first time being on the national stage. He wanted to shine, and it didn't go as well as he would have liked."

David Modell, the team's president, said, "That was the lowest part for him as well as the organization. It was a disappointment shared by Art [Modell], Ozzie and myself."

Billick second-guessed himself after the game. He made some changes, but not in his West Coast "system."

"You knew you would struggle in the first year," Billick said. "But to do it nationally like that and do it as poorly as we did, you start wondering, `Boy, what else can you do? What am I not doing right?'

"But I've been mentored by some pretty good people, especially [Minnesota Vikings coach] Denny Green. I drew some strength from them. If you know and believe in what you're doing, stay the course. You have to believe it's going to make a difference.

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