Billick, Gibbs share hot seats, mild starts

October 10, 2004|By DAVID STEELE

BRIAN BILLICK feels strongly about two things concerning his coaching counterpart for tonight's game. One, the fact that they both have a Super Bowl ring hardly puts them in the same category. Two, the very idea that the NFL game has passed Joe Gibbs by is "absurd" and "ludicrous."

It's hard to argue either point, especially the latter at this very early stage of Gibbs' return. Yet at this stage, Billick and Gibbs are in similar circumstances. Gibbs, by reputation an offensive genius, runs a Redskins team that struggles to move the ball and is falling short of delirious preseason expectations.

Billick, who has had that same label tossed about him before, oversees a Ravens team that is coming up short in the same areas.

Both men are hearing about it in unprecedented volumes. Both have been forced to defend themselves and their game plans, as well as their choice of quarterbacks. Both believe it's far wiser to take the long view on all of this and can't understand why the naysayers aren't buying their argument. Both have logical reasons behind their moves, and for why they don't pan out.

Naturally, both need to win tonight at FedEx Field. The winner gets a respite from the sniping. The loser is in for another hellish week. Billick and his Ravens would be in for two, if you include the bye week. Four, if you include the suspension of Jamal Lewis. And for every occasion in which a starter remains injured - or, worse, in which Kyle Boller doesn't transform into Brett Favre - add a week of torture.

That's what expectations can do. Not that anyone was envisioning a Battle of the Beltways in Jacksonville in February, but around both beltways, the fever ran high. It's running high now, but for the wrong reasons.

Down there: "How can God lose three in a row? Has He turned mortal before our very eyes?"

Up here: "Two-and-two? How are we supposed to get to the Super Bowl off of 2-2?"

In light of that, though, Billick and Gibbs can count on another common trait: belief that there's still time to turn this around, belief based on experience. Part of the Gibbs lore, of course, is the five straight losses to start his NFL head coaching career in Washington.

It's still a little early for anyone to talk about Ravens "lore," but for Billick and his guys, this will do: They've been here before. Sputtering offense. Constantly questioned quarterback. Crucial injuries. Swirling legal controversies raising their heads in the locker room every day. What would a Ravens season be without all of that?

But even as Billick waves off the mere suggestion of a comparison with Gibbs in any context because he's two Super Bowls behind the master, he has no problem noting that the Super Bowl he has won is "a reference range" for himself and his team during hard times.

(Gibbs, by the way, pointed out last week that his 11-year absence from the sidelines actually puts Billick up on him: "I haven't done anything. I look at my situation as starting over again.")

Billick has watched Gibbs from afar, and has always, since his Vikings days, tried to weld the Hall of Famer's power-running, Hog-driven scheme to the West Coast offense learned directly from Bill Walsh and carried on by Dennis Green. But, Billick pointed out, he picked up another critical trait from Gibbs and Walsh: the ability to figure out "how all the pieces work and how they all fit into the puzzle."

That goes far beyond X's and O's and choosing starters, of course. With his team, it's on Billick's shoulders to keep selling everyone in the locker room on patience and perseverance and trust - and on tuning out what he calls "the peripheral noise."

Billick's antenna has picked up more noise than usual lately, especially on the topic of Boller. His defenses of his quarterback last week were particularly prickly.

Gibbs, meanwhile, has had mini-fires of his own to put out, with his chief lieutenant, Joe Bugel, and chief offensive weapon, Clinton Portis, requiring mediation after Bugel objected to Portis' criticism of the offense. Gibbs was left to defend what he does when the Redskins have the ball.

Sound familiar?

Then this should sound even more familiar. "They're playing great defense, and once that offense begins to get into that little bit of rhythm, now they start to really understand the offense and they understand him," Billick said. "All it takes is a game or two to get into that rhythm, and all of a sudden you're off and winning."

He was talking about the Redskins that time. But yes, now that you mention it, it does describe the Ravens, too.

So far, expectations and projections aren't matching reality, for either team or either coach, and for largely the same reasons. By late tonight, either Billick or Gibbs will have a slightly easier life. Their common goal: to make sure the good feeling lasts a lot longer than one game.

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