NOW IT'S TIME to find out if Brian Billick is going to become a quality head coach or remain just a good former offensive coordinator.
The Ravens have lost three straight, their offense is close to becoming one of the most inept in scoring in recent NFL history, the team has a quarterback controversy and its defense is softening in the second half of games.
The team's playoff hopes are sinking as fast as Halley's comet could be seen plummeting toward Earth, which is about the last time the Ravens scored a touchdown.
It's time for the Compu Coach to step forward and step up. No more posturing for "SportsCenter." No more great sound bites for radio. Ease up on the $50 words and improve the five-and-dime offense.
Last season, Billick's first, there were no expectations. This year, the playoffs are realistic.
This is the first real crucial test of the Billick era.
"There are pressures," Billick said yesterday. "Stress and frustration are a part of this business. There are pressures that come with the responsibility of this job, and I understand that wholeheartedly. But the challenges that we face after what we've been through, I love it. I love it."
It's ludicrous to question Billick's knowledge of the game. He has been coaching for 22 years overall, six as Minnesota's offensive coordinator - including 1998, when the Vikings set a league record by scoring 556 points.
But it's not unfair to question his leadership, because he has never experienced any problems like this as a head coach. He may be able to handle it, or he might be another former great offensive coordinator who can't.
Do the names Kevin Gilbride and Bruce Coslet ring a bell?
Overall, Billick has been impressive in Baltimore. He is organized to a fault, has discipline and the respect of his players. He finished 8-8 last season, and the Ravens are 5-4 heading into the weakest part of their schedule.
But the Ravens hired him for two main reasons on Jan. 19, 1999. They signed Billick to a six-year, $9 million contract to fill the leadership void under predecessor Ted Marchibroda and to put juice into a lifeless offense.
Now, Marchibroda's offense looks like the St. Louis Rams compared with Billick's.
And now he has to become more of a leader. He has to exude more confidence than ever in himself, his assistants and system, because this is a team that could continue to fall.
He has to walk that fine line of a controversy between quarterbacks Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer, yet not lose either one or the entire team for the season.
It won't be easy, not with this offense. It's a mess.
Let's be honest. With or without injuries, the offensive line is average at best. The Ravens run a West Coast offense - or as Billick calls it, the West Coast philosophy - yet the most integral part of it requires an athletic quarterback, and the Ravens have Dilfer and Banks.
The team has two good running backs in Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes, the game's best blocking fullback in Sam Gash and two of the best tight ends to ever play in Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates.
Yet Billick has preferred to throw.
His most consistent receiver is punt returner Jermaine Lewis, to whom they can't get the ball. The team's so-called best receiver, Qadry Ismail, would be the No. 3 or 4 receiver on most teams.
The Ravens haven't scored a touchdown in 20 quarters and 58 possessions, which is one quarter shy of the longest drought in the past decade, by the 1991 Indianapolis Colts.
You can point fingers at Billick, and that's where it should start. He is the head coach. Accountable. He has been and always will be stubborn when it comes to running the ball instead of throwing it. His play selection in the red zone has been poor at times, and thus far he has given this city quarterbacks such as Banks, Dilfer, Stoney Case and Mr. Leap of Faith, Scott Mitchell.
So, was Billick really the offensive guru in Minnesota, or is he still there and named Dennis Green?
But let's also point the fingers at the players. The coach is supposed to put the team in position to win in the last four minutes of the game, and then someone has to make The Play. After all, this is the NFL. Sharpe made a big play against Jacksonville, but what has he done lately?
Jermaine Lewis hasn't made one as a receiver or punt returner. Neither has Ismail or Travis Taylor. Receiver Patrick Johnson? He is still MIA. Special teams haven't made The Play yet, either.
Let's not leave out the defense. The unit may be good, and middle linebacker Ray Lewis makes a lot of tackles, but not The Play. The Ravens have three other Pro Bowlers on defense in linebacker Peter Boulware, defensive end Michael McCrary and safety Rod Woodson, but none of them makes The Play.