For Billick, necessity to win should be mother of his reinvention

On the Ravens

July 31, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

DENNIS GREEN couldn't do it in Minnesota. Vince Lombardi couldn't do it in Green Bay. It's hard for an NFL coach to reinvent himself during a long tenure in one city, yet that's what Brian Billick needs to do for the Ravens to be successful in 2005.

The Dallas Cowboys' Tom Landry and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Chuck Noll pulled it off in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and the Tennessee Titans' Jeff Fisher, Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher and the Denver Broncos' Mike Shanahan are modern coaches who have had long stints in their respective cities.

But there have been a lot of casualties in between, including two of the game's all-time greats. Don Shula had to leave Baltimore to start fresh in Miami. Lombardi began anew in Washington after his luster wore off in Green Bay.

It's now Billick's turn.

Despite denials from die-hard fans and team officials last season, there was a chemistry problem with this team long before the Ravens lost four of their last six games. The locker room was divided, split into three factions - one consisting of star players who received special treatment.

It started early in the season when safety Ed Reed turned and walked away from defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and later Billick as they tried to confront him about gambling on certain plays. There were no repercussions. It continued late into the season when cornerback Deion Sanders, out injured, used his cell phone as he watched his teammates practice.

You could see the players' respect for Billick start to wane. His team lost its edge and discipline. His message, after six seasons, had become old.

Immediately after the season, Billick acknowledged that he needed to regain some control. If there is a coach who can reinvent himself, it's Billick. He's extremely intelligent, and if you don't think so, just ask him. He'll tell you.

He was smart enough to admit there was a problem, and during the offseason had face-to-face meetings with a dozen players about any concerns.

That's a great start.

But now comes the interesting part as training camp opens today. Does Billick change his style? The same characteristics that distinguished him from the NFL stereotype also wear on those around him.

He can be arrogant, abrasive and often can speak in four- and five-syllable words. He sounds more like a good car salesman or lawyer than an NFL coach, which is good if you're on commission or on Court TV, but it gets old when you're speaking to a 335-pound lineman who has the attention span of a gnat.

Billick has to find a common ground, one where he still needs to lose a little of himself, but still be himself.

"It takes a tremendous effort for a coach to reinvent himself," one NFL assistant said. "It's kind of like being married. A lot of people get divorced because they want to try new things with someone else because they're bored. Instead of getting a divorce, sometimes you have to ask your wife to put on the black wig."

Billick's situation is no different than a lot of other coaches'. When Lou Holtz runs out of magic tricks, he takes another job. When players no longer are intimidated by Bill Parcells, he moves on. And maybe no one burns out players and assistants faster than the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin.

The Ravens weren't close to a mass mutiny last year, but Billick could take a closer look at Fisher, Cowher and the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick. They have great player relationships, but they don't talk to them a lot. They speak to them only when necessary, only at key moments. These coaches don't try to be bigger than their team or the players.

They don't have to use the "Us Against the World" mentality or the "Us Against the Media" routine. It's old, just like the current Ravens hearing about the 2000 Super Bowl team. It's over. Done. Gone. They want their own identity.

It's going to be a tough balancing act for Billick. Not only does he have to make personal adjustments, but he'll also have to take away some of the power given to Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis. The new Ray isn't as good as the old Ray.

As Lewis slides back closer to the "normal" level, Billick has to find a way to treat him like the rest of the players. He should have to ride the bus and train home from New York with the rest of the team, unlike last year when he got on the John Madden-like bus with Sanders, Reed and Corey Fuller.

This is the perfect time for Billick to reinvent himself. The Ravens have three new offensive assistants in Chris Foerster (offensive line coach), Rick Neuheisel (quarterbacks) and Jim Fassel (coordinator). Billick can set a new tone through them. There is enough new blood for an infusion.

This is a key year for the Ravens, especially Billick. He's at that point in his career in Baltimore where his message is just as important as the X's and O's. He has a solid, but sometimes bumpy relationship with owner Steve Bisciotti. They're both bull-headed and extremely competitive, and Bisciotti seems to tolerate Billick only because he is a winner.

That's fine. And if Billick wins this season, that shows that he can adapt just like Fisher, Cowher and Shanahan. That should guarantee him being around for a few more years.

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