Riley could show Billick how to handle the heat

December 18, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

Once upon a time - actually, thrice upon a time - Pat Riley walked away from a team he had coached to the very top, or near it, at least partly because the players he had pushed to the limit had tired of having their buttons pushed so hard and so often.

Riley wasn't the first, or last, coach to sense that his message, after having delivered it at such an intense pitch for so long, was being tuned out. He was one of the first to acknowledge it, though. Most recently, he copped out two years ago when he quit the Miami Heat four days before the season began, saying the team "needs a new voice, a new energy, a new philosophy."

One could say that about the current Ravens, toting a 4-9 record and a ton of baggage into tomorrow night's game against the Green Bay Packers. But Brian Billick isn't one of those who would say it. Outside observers, yes, particularly those with a finger on the pulse of the locker room. But not Billick.

Last month, when the topic was raised in the wake of the Ravens' fourth straight loss, Billick called the idea that his players were tuning him out "very predictable" and said it "come[s] from a conventional perspective rather than a factual perspective."

However, he also said, "Your challenge in your seventh year is keeping your message fresh enough for guys that have been with you for seven years."

From various reports that have trickled out of the Ravens' locker room, it's not exactly unanimously agreed upon that Billick has succeeded. If the players have hit the wall with Billick's coaching style and Billick isn't recognizing it, then it's hard to see where the final three games are going to be any better than the previous 13.

Now, as it turns out, Riley himself is the Heat's new voice, energy and philosophy; last week, after two years handling only his team president role, he stepped back in for coach Stan Van Gundy, who had stepped in for him back in 2003. Of course, Riley also has new players to hector toward greatness - Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Alonzo Mourning and the rest of a roster assembled by Riley to win a championship now, instead of the patched-together group that was coming off a 25-win season when he left.

Whether this makes Riley the pre-eminent weasel of the 21st century is a topic for another column. (It does. But it's still for another column.)

Still, you have to wonder if Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is taking notes.

Bisciotti has to do something, and he has options. There's the first Riley theory, which says that when the connection between player and coach goes dead after several years, the coach gets replaced. He usually moves on to another team, a different job, or into a brief sabbatical. The list of top-notch coaches taking that route is long and spans all sports: Riley, Phil Jackson, Larry Brown, Bill Parcells, Dusty Baker.

Those who have put Billick firmly on the hot seat since midseason envision this plan being put in place. It would move Billick aside and free him up to put his "profile" in place with a new team, while finding a coach who clicks better with the Ravens' players.

That would be easier, based on the old theory that you can't fire 53 players.

But that brings up the second Riley theory: Get all new players for the coach to work his system on.

It would be bold. Then again, no one is deluded enough about the Ravens to pin all the blame on Billick. Weaknesses on this roster sprang up in unexpected places and, worse, in expected places. (Who really thought the offensive line was going to hold up? Why should anyone have believed Jamal Lewis would be back to where he was pre-incarceration and pre-surgery? And, c'mon, Kyle Boller.)

Even if new players are no more talented or dedicated than the players here now, they might benefit from what Billick says and does in ways the current players can't, or won't, anymore.

No matter how grating Billick can be - and he's as good as there is in the NFL at that - he does have a Super Bowl ring. That opens eyes and ears on players, especially new ones. Ask Riley, who walks in with the credibility of four rings that Stan Van Gundy (no rings) never could.

Then again, he walks into a locker room full of All-Stars. Fill this locker room with a fresh crop of Pro Bowl players, and the coach might be a genius again in no time.

If the Ravens' roster shakeup is big enough, then, Billick's message might no longer be a problem. If he had the right touch with the right group of players in 2000, and in the ensuing years up until this one, then it could all be a good fit again.

But if that touch truly is gone, then everybody involved had better admit to it. There are a couple of ways to fix that. Pretending the problem doesn't exist isn't one of them.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Points after -- David Steele

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