Billick's back against wall, but he won't be backing off

November 21, 2001|By Mike Preston

SOME OF THE fans have soured on Ravens coach Brian Billick.

They see the signs of a team in decline. The Ravens have been swept by the Cleveland Browns. There is debate about the starting quarterback. One Pro Bowl defensive end is out for the season with a knee injury, the other starting end probably won't play Sunday against Jacksonville, and a starting cornerback won't be at full strength against the Jaguars, who have one of the best pair of receivers in the league.

But Billick gets an endorsement here. That's right. I got Brian Billick's back. We're tight like that now.

I've been accused of being a Billick basher because I think his major weakness is judging talent, and he is overrated as far as offensive X's and O's go.

Nothing changes there.

The decision not to start Randall Cunningham in the second half of Sunday's game against Cleveland was dumb, and the decision to start Elvis Grbac this weekend against Jacksonville is even dumber. There are some days I leave games wondering if Billick knows the difference between a screen pass and a screen door and a hot read and a hot flash.

Now, with that out of the way, here's what I admire about the guy:

He is so darn competitive and passionate about the game. While there is a sense of panic among fans about the team, the personality and leadership of the head coach won't allow this season to crash and burn.

Organization and leadership are his strengths. Those two characteristics may not be enough to overcome an aging defensive line, an ineffective Grbac, an offensive line that can't pass block and a running game that has no big-play potential, but you need this type of coach when your back is against the wall.

He'll fight, yell, curse and try to find every psychological advantage. Billick has worked through similar situations before. Back in 1999, the Ravens lost games Nos. 5, 6 and 7. The second loss, 35-8, was the low point of the season, because it was the Ravens' debut on national television under Billick. But the Ravens rebounded to win five of their last eight games to finish 8-8.

Last season, the Ravens went five games without a touchdown, another national embarrassment, but still won the Super Bowl because Billick managed to keep the team together.

Each season, there is always adversity. The Ravens' time is here now. Pro Bowl defensive end Michael McCrary is out for the season with a knee injury. Fellow defensive end Rob Burnett probably won't play in Jacksonville because of a strained calf. Cornerback Duane Starks might play, but won't be at full strength because of a groin injury suffered Sunday.

A Jacksonville loss would be the fourth in the AFC Central and might cause the team to lose some fan support at home, where the Ravens play four of their last five games. PSINet wasn't so friendly to the Ravens on Sunday, when fans chanted for Billick to replace Grbac with Cunningham.

But Billick thrives under those conditions. It makes him feisty, and he is driven to prove those who doubt him wrong.

He drew the line in the sand Monday morning, imposing a gag order on players' commenting about others' performances. Beautiful. Predictable. Vintage Billick.

The bunker mentality has begun. It's the Ravens against the world, Part II. Billick absorbs the tough blows (questions) while shielding his team, and hopes the troops rally behind him. Must be a chapter right out of his book, Competitive Leadership.

And he'll come up with a few more little tricks. By now, he has searched the Internet and found any stories about the Ravens not being a playoff-caliber team. Those stories will be up on the team's Power Point presentation this morning. He'll show segments of certain movies to emphasize special themes for the week.

Billick always has been a good communicator, very straightforward. He announced to the team Monday morning that Grbac was still the starting quarterback, and then told the players why. Players like his style. They like his swagger and the way he talks trash to the Titans and coach Jeff Fisher.

The Ravens have been a relatively quiet team this season compared with last, and Billick seemed to lose a little of his edge, too. Two unnamed players (uh-oh, violating the gag rule) said they felt Billick underplayed the ramifications of a loss to Cleveland last week.

That changes now. The intensity level on the season has been turned up. No one in the Ravens' organization wanted to be at this point in the season, but Billick's style and strengths are ideal for the situation.

It's just so Billick.

"His greatest asset is the basic ingredient in coaching to communicate, teach and motivate gifted players," said Ravens owner Art Modell. "He is a gifted young man, and his best days are to come. I believe in him."

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