A simple formula: chemistry

New season: Brian Billick hopes that better relationships will bring success.


July 31, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

When players report for training camp tonight, the Ravens will begin their march to the regular season as an older, and in their estimation, wiser team.

One only has to catch a glimpse of coach Brian Billick's newly grown beard to get that message.

"You know I never had any gray before I became head coach," he said with a chuckle.

Only seven months ago, questions -- not smiles -- filled the Ravens' locker room. A self-proclaimed Super Bowl contender failed to make the playoffs, losing four of its last six games to finish 9-7. It was a late-season tailspin never before seen in Billick's six-year reign, leading many to wonder why it occurred.

Was there a problem with team chemistry? Or was it simply a bad run of injuries?

Billick's search for answers this offseason took him from an International House of Pancakes in Oklahoma City to a high-end restaurant in Las Vegas' Venetian hotel. It was a marathon, one-day road trip that included visits with Kelly Gregg in Oklahoma, Deion Sanders in Dallas, Todd Heap in Arizona and Jonathan Ogden in Las Vegas.

In total, Billick has had two-hour sit-downs with a dozen players since the end of last season, speaking openly about the practice structure, film study and the makeup of the team. He called the meetings upbeat and enlightening.

"There is not a man in this organization that doesn't feel like we came up short last year," Billick said. "The injuries we suffered are well-documented [starters combined to miss 53 games] and could very well be the reason we ended up the way we did. But we just can't dismiss it as that. You have to dig a little deeper.

"If there was a mistake I made last year, it was underestimating the youth and the experience of this team. Now, we're a year removed from that. It may very well be that same approach, in terms of vesting them with part ownership of what we're doing, will be more successful."

The Ravens are banking their season on that.

This will essentially be the same locker room as last year, with close to 40 players expected to return this year. It's the same locker room that cornerback Chris McAlister described as "shifted" last season.

"We definitely have a lot of egos on our team," Heap said. "But it's a lot of egos that want to win."

In defending the closeness of his team, Billick makes the point that a majority of his players think like Heap and have been positive about their chemistry.

But a few others have painted a different picture.

McAlister was the first to point out a problem, saying in December that "everybody stays in their own little corner." Even linebacker Ray Lewis disclosed this offseason that "there was a lot of personal stuff going on, petty stuff, in the locker room."

Whether you believe the locker room was divided or unified, everyone seems to agree that there was a different atmosphere.

"It was a situation where a team some picked going to the Super Bowl ended up 9-7," said center Mike Flynn, one of the players who had a face-to-face meeting with Billick. "I think it was more frustration on the season, and it wasn't directed at individuals."

Nevertheless, Billick said the team has to be more "vigilant" about the issue.

"The challenge for this team is to make sure we are inclusive with one another and recognize how important that team chemistry is," he said.

Facing a new look

New beard or not, this season already had a different look for Billick.

For the first time, he is dealing with a team that underachieved.

Billick won a Super Bowl in his second season. He delivered his best coaching performance by leading the salary cap-ravaged Ravens to a 7-9 record in 2002. And he captured the franchise's first division title in 2003.

So, if the Ravens fail to meet expectations again, is it justified to question the job security of Billick, a coach who owns a 61-42 record (including the postseason)?

"Every year, every coach has to deal with the volatility of this profession, justified or not," Billick said. "Larry Brown got fired from the Detroit Pistons. Are you kidding me? If that tells you anything, you better not get too comfortable in any situation.

"If you're asking am I concerned about my job security, like every coach, you're always mindful of that. But does that create any more pressure, or do I think I'm on that kind of a bubble? No."

Doubts about where coaches stand always arise whenever a new owner takes over. A recent story on Sports Illustrated's Web site, without citing any sources, described Billick's relationship with first-year owner Steve Bisciotti as "occasionally rocky last year."

Billick admitted there was "a great deal of tension" when Bisciotti replaced Art Modell in January 2004. He detailed a feeling-out period in which Bisciotti wanted candid answers, encouraging his coach to speak his mind and argue his points, expletives and all. The result was several "healthy" discussions.

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