Back-room deal has M. Lewis bound for Buffalo

January 24, 2001|By Mike Preston

TAMPA, Fla. - The hot topic around Super Bowl XXXV is Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, but the hot property is defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.

With Coach Lewis about to participate in the best chess matchup of his life against New York Giants coach Jim Fassel on Sunday in Super Bowl XXXV, three teams - Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit - want to interview him about their head coaching positions.

Teams are supposed to wait until after the Ravens' season ends Sunday to begin courting Lewis, but two highly ranked Ravens officials said yesterday that Lewis and the Bills are each their No. 1 choices and want to make the deal happen.

Barring a squabble over money, you can pretty much say goodbye to Cleveland, and so long to Detroit.

How can that be happening if teams are not supposed to have contact until after the season?


This is the National Football League, where back-room deals are the norm, not the exception.

When the Ravens hired the Compu Coach two years ago, the parameters of Brian Billick's deal were set long before he technically became a free agent after his Minnesota Vikings lost to Atlanta in the NFC championship game.

"The dynamic that the league has set up for this is difficult at best," said Billick. "Having been through it just two years ago, I think I bring a little bit of experience in that I've been able to help Marvin kind of navigate his way through some of the situation. I think we've set up a good structure for that."


Lewis, 42, was evasive about his future last week and was just as noncommittal yesterday. But the Buffalo job puts Lewis in a great situation. It would reunite him with Bills president and general manager Tom Donahoe, who was in a similar position with the Steelers when Lewis was Pittsburgh's linebackers coach from 1992 through 1995. They usually talk at least once a week during the season.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson is one of the most stable in the league and Buffalo has good, solid personnel and scouting departments. Of the 22 starters last season, 18 were draft picks that the Bills developed. The Bills are very similar to the Ravens with great young players on defense with linebackers Sam Cowart, Keith Newman and defensive end Marcellus Wiley, but more proven offensive talent than the Ravens in quarterbacks Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson, receivers Eric Moulds, Peerless Price and Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown.

And here's what may clinch the deal: Lewis would also be able to survive his greatest weakness, which is dealing with the media.

He is thin-skinned and has had problems when criticized. He would get nailed in New York City. He can grow in Buffalo.

Actually, this is a no-brainer unless Cleveland or Detroit comes up with a Dan Snyder (Washington Redskins owner) type offer. Really, who would want to coach in Cleveland? After recently giving coach Chris Palmer a vote of confidence, Cleveland president Carmen Policy fired him.

That's a joke.

The Browns are a bigger one on the field. They have a solid defense, a quarterback to build around in Tim Couch, but no wide receivers worth talking about and an old, worn-down running back named Errict Rhett whose legs can no longer match his lip speed.


Assistant coaches quit there every day. They haven't even fired their interim head coach, Gary Moeller, yet.

The Lions have a good secondary, but the interior of their offensive line is horrendous and receivers Johnnie Morton and Herman Moore haven't intimidated anyone in years. Quarterback Charlie Batch has yet to prove he can win and stay healthy consistently.

All signs point to Lewis shuffling off to Buffalo, possibly with secondary coach Donnie Henderson and Chip Morton, the Ravens' assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Lewis deserves the opportunity. His defenses have finished the regular season ranked No. 2 the last two seasons, and this year the Ravens set NFL records for points and rushing yards allowed and recorded four shutouts. The Ravens' defense finished No. 1 in six categories and No. 2 in three others.

Critics will say that Lewis should have an outstanding defense because the unit is loaded with four No. 1 draft picks in linebackers Peter Boulware and Ray Lewis and cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister.

But these same people don't know how well Lewis can break down an offense and get his players in position to make plays. They don't know the tremendous strides he made in dealing with players.

When he first came to Baltimore, Lewis tried to teach the ex-Browns the Steelers' way. Big mistake. In the past two seasons, he has won over the players.

"Marvin is a study guy," said Ravens outside linebacker Jamie Sharper. "He is extremely smart, can break an offense down instantly and then adjust to it with his calls on the sidelines."

Billick has said linebackers coach Jack Del Rio will become the defensive coordinator if Lewis leaves, but Del Rio will keep the gap-control, pressure defensive scheme intact.

"If it were to happen, my duties would become more than just preparing the linebacking position to perform at a higher level," said Del Rio. "I'd be concerning myself with the entire defensive unit. I would be more involved in the actual play-calling and game planning. Actually, it would be a lot of things I'm aware of now, just looking at it in a what-if role.

"There would probably be some subtle changes, but basically the plans would remain the same," said Del Rio. "I understand the strengths and weaknesses of the personnel that we have and the system we have in place. There are certain things I would be interested in discussing with the staff and seeing if there was merit in changing a wrinkle or two. For the most part, the system is in place, and I'm going to embrace it."

Only the architect seems to be leaving.

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