1 is enough for Billick contract extension

March 06, 2002|By Mike Preston

THE RAVENS are involved in negotiations with coach Brian Billick about a contract extension, but no more than one year should be added to the three remaining on his current deal.

Anything more would be a risk. In fact, the next two years will tell a lot more about Billick as a head coach, and then the Ravens could add more years or remain status quo.

The Ravens are offering Billick the extension as a reward for his first three seasons, which included a Super Bowl title in 2000, and a postseason appearance last season that ended in a second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It's a nice gesture, a little overboard for my taste. I'd give him a handshake, a pat on the butt and a thank-you card. After all, Billick signed a contract worth $9 million three years ago. It was a deal that included incentives for postseason appearances, which has raised his salary more than $400,000 in each of the past two seasons.

But the Ravens apparently feel that is not enough. They want Billick near the top with Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren.

Instead, owner Art Modell and president David Modell should proceed with caution because Billick has as many weaknesses as strengths.

They should take a look at the warning signs of Billick's failure to develop a quarterback, how his offenses have struggled and his inability to evaluate talent. They should also take into account that this team has won with defense the last two years, with most of those players in place before Billick arrived.

The result should be a four-year contract, which is the window most clubs are using to rebuild teams these days. The Ravens can load up on the money in each of those years, but not commit any further. San Francisco rebuilt in three years, but the 49ers had a quarterback named Jeff Garcia in place. The quarterback the Ravens had in place retired Monday.

"We built this team by being smart, and investing wisely," said David Modell. "Now, we're just in the process of doing it again, and it's a natural process. We believe that Brian has done an excellent job, and we're confident that he will lead us through the transition period with these younger players right back where we were."

Since arriving in Baltimore, Billick has served as a lightning rod, providing the motivation and organization the franchise lacked under former coach Ted Marchibroda. But he hasn't been through anything like this. In some ways, this current transition period is nearly as big as the move from Cleveland because the Browns had a lot of veterans.

The Ravens have lost most of their leaders and have fewer than 25 players on the roster.

Also in the past, Billick has made some questionable offensive decisions, but always had the defense to bail him out. He has turned Baltimore into a graveyard for quarterbacks. The handling of the Grbac situation was an embarrassment. Basically, the Ravens offered him a deal he had to refuse. Imagine Grbac's already diminished credibility in the locker room if he had taken a $5 million pay cut, accepting the $2.5 million offer when starting quarterbacks with his experience are making at least $3 million a season.

If Billick signs a new deal, there should be a clause denying him the right to use the phrase "leap of faith" ever again, even in his sleep. There should be an electrical device that shocks him when he declines to play players such as running back Jamal Lewis and Jason Brookins, and stays with Grbac instead of inserting Randall Cunningham. The Ravens should offer him incentives for running inside the red zone instead of passing.

Those decisions, though, are in the past.

There have been some current ones that have raised doubt, too. I've had problems with former special teams coach Russ Purnell in the past, but last season may have been his best. The Ravens had one of the top 10 special teams units in the league without former standouts such as O.J. Brigance and Cornell Brown. Plus, James Trapp was hurt most of the season.

Yet, the Ravens fired Purnell and replaced him with Minnesota special teams coach Gary Zauner, whose teams were ranked in the lower third in the league last season. Billick has replaced former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis (unofficial head coach of the Washington Redskins) with Mike Nolan, whose defense struggled when he was with the Redskins from 1997 through 1999. Mike Smith replaced Jack Del Rio as the linebackers coach, but he doesn't have the experience or the relationship Del Rio had with linebackers Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper.

The next couple of years are going to be interesting. The Ravens have to find a quarterback if third- year player Chris "I Know Johnny U" Redman isn't ready. Two of their top players, Boulware and Lewis, need to get contract extensions before the start of the next season, and Lewis is asking for a seven-year deal worth $100 million that includes a $30 million signing bonus.

Right now, the strongest unit on the team may be the offensive line, which was the weakest last season.

But the Ravens think Billick can take them to the promised land again. They point out that he has a 35-19 overall record. They point out that he has a way of getting his players to play for him.

"The management team that we had success with in the past is still intact," said David Modell. "We're excited about building this team again. Everyone is frustrated - coaches, players, fans - that we didn't complete the cycle with a second Super Bowl championship. But we can't become too involved with the emotional response. We have to begin the cycle again."

Notice the repeated word "cycle." That means four years, which should be the length of Billick's contract. By then, we should be able to determine if he really is in the class with a Holmgren or a Shanahan.

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