Billick aims to improve style points

Ravens coach tells team he'll work on dealing with players

Parting speech praised

Modell looks forward to `powerful team'

January 04, 2000|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Like most of the members of the Ravens' organization, owner Art Modell was disappointed with Sunday's 20-3 loss to the New England Patriots in the season finale, but he is optimistic about the team's future under first-year coach Brian Billick, whose coaching style irritated some players early in the season.

The Ravens finished 8-8, but this was their first non-losing season in four years and they were in playoff contention until the second-to-last week of the season. The Ravens also ended the year with the No. 2-ranked defense in the league and didn't allow a single running back to rush for 100 yards in a game.

The Ravens struggled offensively for the second straight year and finished the season ranked No. 24, but they could get a quick fix with two first-round draft picks in April as well as through free agency, where players such as receivers Joey Galloway, Carl Pickens and Muhsin Muhammad and tight ends Ken Dilger and Shannon Sharpe could be on the market.

The Ravens have the Nos. 5 and 14 overall picks in the first round, the first of those selections courtesy of a draft-day trade with Atlanta last year.

"I felt good about this team going into the last game and I feel good about this team after the last game," Modell said. "We have a couple opportunities in the draft and with some free-agent acquisitions, we could become a very powerful team. I think Brian Billick is a very special person and is going to be a great coach in this league. He has a lot of potential. He got the most out of very limited talent this year."

But Billick had problems early in the season. According to several players who were in attendance at a final team meeting yesterday, Billick told the team he needed to improve on his relationships with players. They also said Billick thought he had improved in that area as the season went on, but it was still of some concern.

His relationship with the players could have an impact on the team's 19 free agents. Billick said last week that he could have handled the early season mini-slump with kicker Matt Stover differently. Billick also still has a mildly strained relationship with starting quarterback Tony Banks.

"He told us from Day One that he was going to treat us like men and if we didn't act like men, he would have to go the other route," said receiver Patrick Johnson. "You don't want to get that verbal lashing. You don't want that in front of everybody. It's demeaning."

There were quite a few players who found Billick's final speech refreshing. Banks suggested most of the difficulty came early in the season when the team and Billick were adjusting to personalities.

"He was upfront and honest," said one player who requested anonymity. "That's what I like about him. Not only did he hold us accountable for the things we needed to improve on, but he also held himself accountable. He is looking for ways to improve as a coach. That's good news. That's what makes a team rally around a coach. He points at himself, not just the players."

Modell showed no concern.

"I've been around a lot of first-year coaches," he said. "They have all made mistakes. Who doesn't? Nobody takes over a job with 45 or 50 players and can find the right chemistry immediately. Knute Rockne made mistakes at Notre Dame."

Last week, Billick said that establishing interpersonal relationships among player to player, coach to player and coach to coach was his biggest adjustment. Yesterday at his final news conference, he said he knew he had to be tough on players at the beginning of training camp.

"Quite frankly, this team needed an ass chewing at the beginning of the season," Billick said. "That demeanor could change next season."

It will change because the Ravens know what to expect from Billick and he knows what to expect from them. Even though the Ravens have 19 free agents, the team will retain the bulk of the ballclub, especially on defense. With a lot of the team's debt soon to be behind them, the Ravens can shop the free-agent market more aggressively. Billick said one of the team's main priorities was finding a top skilled player whether it was a receiver, running back or tight end.

Billick prefers a tight end over a receiver and said that player could be complemented by the Ravens' present stable of receivers in Johnson, Qadry Ismail, Jermaine Lewis and Justin Armour. The Ravens want to improve their short to intermediate passing game.

"I feel pretty good about our receiving corps," Billick said. "You have to feel good about the ascension of Patrick Johnson. Qadry Ismail has established himself as a 1,000-yard receiver, not to mention the uniqueness that a receiver like Justin Armour can bring to an offense or having a Brandon Stokley and Jermaine Lewis returning. If there were two free agents available at the tight end and wide receiver positions, I'd opt more for the tight end.

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