Ravens return to running plays, not their mouths

November 02, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

There were numerous differences between the Ravens who fought the Steelers so hard in Monday night's one-point loss and the Ravens who stumbled through their first six games. Better offense. More discipline. More creativity.

But the most startling difference was just the way the Ravens played overall. There was little showboating or gesturing. They didn't run their mouths. They just shut up, put on their helmets and played hard. Really hard.

Although they lost in the end, they gave what was easily their best performance of 2005, one that would bode well for their future if it weren't, at this point, an aberration.

Was it a coincidence that they were finally about "we" instead of "me" on a night when their signature player, Ray Lewis, wasn't in uniform because of an injury? Interesting question, isn't it?

Lewis is an all-but-certain Hall of Famer who has done more than any other player to turn the Ravens into winners (four of the past five years over .500), but from his overwrought pre-game intro to his chest-beating on-field manner, he is nothing if not a guy who loves the individual spotlight. And since it's still his team, the rest of the players are free to follow his attention-grabbing lead - and many have, to the detriment of the team.

Maybe it's a stretch to suggest they adopted a no-nonsense approach Monday night just because Lewis wasn't on the field; he was still a tangible presence, cheering and exhorting on the bench (while still getting his share of TV face time with a sideline interview and a starring role in a taped pre-game skit).

But whatever the explanation, the Ravens were a pleasure to watch Monday night, a team that hit harder than it talked - a team that just played football, and played it well.

The change to that needs to become permanent.

A strutting macho attitude worked for the Ravens' Super Bowl-winning team, but those players were veterans able to control their emotions. Five years later, the evolutionary wheel has turned, the team is younger and more hot-blooded, and what worked before has disintegrated into a cartoon.

If any lesson is evident in this season's first seven games, it's that this team needs a new personality. The Detroit debacle revealed how dangerously pervasive the "me" mentality has become. Monday night's impressive gut-wrencher offered an example of what to shoot for.

Instead of being all about how individually tough they are, the Ravens should be a no-nonsense team that just plays hard.

I believe many fans would welcome that. As much as they support all things purple and embrace the intimidating aura, they know better than anyone that things have spiraled out of control.

This city has a long history of supporting athletes who are clean and hard-working, professional and no-nonsense. My guess is a return to that would be applauded.

Does the organization see the need to make such a change? Can it be facilitated? We're about to find out. Although climbing out of a 2-5 hole and making the playoffs might be out of the question, the Ravens are approaching a palpable crossroads, facing questions so large only owner Steve Bisciotti can answer them.

One fork of the crossroads has the Ravens maintaining their status quo and remaining a team with a reputation that has outlived its purpose. The other fork involves asking the tough questions that need to be asked. Is Lewis - a friend of Bisciotti's - the right guy to lead this team? And is Brian Billick the right coach to oversee the needed personality change?

A lot of people are calling for Billick to go because he is losing this year, but sound, stable organizations don't panic like that. The Steelers let Bill Cowher live through back-to-back seasons of 7-9 and 6-10 in the late 1990s, and they're back now. The Broncos haven't won a playoff game since the 1998 season, but Mike Shanahan is 16 games over .500 in that time, and the team is better off with him still in charge.

Billick (13 games over .500 since 1999) is a smart, solid, successful coach who deserves a mulligan for 2005 on the basis of his record. But he also has unceasingly and unapologetically tolerated the tough-guy stuff, even when it has morphed into self-defeating bad-boy behavior.

If I'm Bisciotti, I want to know if Billick is willing to put a different kind of team on the field starting in 2006.

If I'm Bisciotti, I want my team to start playing every game like the hard-hitting pros who played so well in defeat Monday night.

If I'm Bisciotti, I'm going to do whatever it takes to make that happen - and when I say whatever, I mean whatever.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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