Instead of strutting finish, Ravens pull up lame at end

January 03, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

FOXBORO, Mass. -- The season was over, and now the Ravens were walking off the field, 20-3 losers to the New England Patriots. Some were smiling. Others were waving to fans.

Michael McCrary looked furious.

A half-hour later, he was still seething in the locker room, frowning as he emerged from the shower, shaking his head in disgust, trying to contain his anger.

"We just beat ourselves. That's obvious," the Pro Bowl defensive end said. "We sure didn't play the way we've been playing the past few weeks. When not everyone shows up, that will happen."

Why didn't everyone show up?

"I have no idea. I really don't," McCrary said. "Today was just a matter of which players on which team had packed their bags already. It's a shame that at the end of the season a lot of players do that."

Hadn't the Ravens matured past that point?

"I thought we did," McCrary said. "I honestly thought we did."

He was wrong. They all were wrong.

Just when the Ravens thought they had turned a corner, along came yesterday to remind them that they're still immature, still mediocre, still a long way from being the team they want to be.

Maybe it's better this way, better that they failed to end the season with a five-game winning streak, better that they finished 8-8 instead of 9-7.

Otherwise, they would have spent the entire off-season strutting around town, congratulating each other and talking about the playoffs as if they were inevitable.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

"I thought there was a lot of fire in us, but a few guys had their bags packed," quarterback Tony Banks said. "Once they stepped on the field, they tried hard, but you've got to prepare during the week."

Granted, the Ravens had been eliminated from the playoffs, draining the season finale of any real meaning. Granted, even a .500 record qualifies as a success for a team that was 16-31-1 in its first three campaigns.

Still, what was the month of December all about?

Instilling a sense of professionalism. Establishing a winning identity. Learning from the sins of the past.

By those standards, yesterday was a clear step back.

The special teams were abysmal, allowing three returns of 49 or more yards. The offensive line was horrid, allowing seven sacks. Banks lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and threw an interception into the end zone.

And coach Brian Billick wasn't so hot, either.

Billick deserves credit for all that the Ravens accomplished this season, but his reluctance to play smash-mouth football might ultimately cost this team a playoff game. He already has one such black mark on his record -- last year's NFC championship game, when he was Minnesota's offensive coordinator.

Near the end of the first quarter yesterday, Priest Holmes ran three times for 24 yards and caught an 11-yard pass as the Ravens drove from their 21 to the New England 1. It was the best he had run all season. But whom did "There was a lot of fire in us, but a few guys had their bags packed. They tried hard, but you've got to prepare during the week." Tony Banks,Ravens quarterback

Billick insert once the Ravens got down to the 1? Errict Rhett, only to see him stuffed twice.

The Ravens wound up with a field goal, but finished the season with the worst red-zone touchdown percentage in the AFC (35 percent). Their lack of a big-play receiver was the major reason. But play-calling -- Billick frequently chose to pass in short-yardage situations near the goal line -- also was a factor.

In this case, he called the right plays, but used the wrong back. He then returned to the right back -- Rhett didn't rush again the rest of the day -- but started calling the wrong plays. Holmes ran only once in the second quarter despite averaging 5.9 yards per carry for the game and 5.7 for the season.

Will Billick ever pound a back the way Wisconsin pounded Ron Dayne against Stanford in the Rose Bowl? It seems that his West Coast mentality won't allow it, even though he now coaches in an area of the country where teams rarely succeed without a powerhouse running game.

Speaking in general terms about his first season, Billick said, "I'm as accountable as anyone there's obviously a lot of situations I have to learn."

He has all the tools to become a terrific coach, but he needs to be less stubborn with both his play-calling and personnel decisions -- see Banks and Patrick Johnson.

Actually, Billick's biggest mistake in this game might have been treating his players like adults and lifting curfew for New Year's Eve. The curfew for next New Year's Eve should be as follows: offense, 10 p.m.; defense, 11 p.m. The special teams should be placed under house arrest.

The Patriots had lost six of seven. They were playing without suspended wide receiver Terry Glenn and three of their top four defensive backs. Drew Bledsoe had thrown 16 interceptions in his previous seven games and been sacked five times or more in three straight. He threw only one interception yesterday and was sacked only twice.

This isn't to indict the Ravens' defense -- the Patriots scored on two short-field possessions, a 51-yard field goal and a fumble return for a touchdown. But the reality is that the Ravens finished 8-8 in large part because they play in the weak AFC Central. They defeated only one team with a record better than 6-10 -- Tennessee.

New England was the team that should have been ready to quit yesterday, the team with the players ready to revolt, the fans ready to boo and the coach ready to be fired.

Yet, New England was the team that showed greater resolve.

"It's definitely disappointing," Banks said. "Maybe this time next year we're playing this game for a playoff berth. You have to give a better showing than this."

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