Getting new lease brings new leash, and it's a short one

On the Ravens

December 29, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

The Ravens announced yesterday that coach Brian Billick will be retained for the 2006 season, ending speculation about his return. If nothing else, next season will be interesting, and possibly a lot of fun.

After weeks of evaluating Billick and his coaching staff and interviewing players, the front office has put Billick on a short leash. It wants more humility, sensitivity to others and a new way to control and motivate players.

Management wants a Brian Billick Unplugged.

You can tell that by Billick's demeanor in recent weeks. He has had to grovel internally and publicly to get his job back. There was the mea culpa and the mea culpa maxima in his diary last week about how he hadn't maintained the intensity and the focus for his team this year. He asked his players to notice how he had rededicated himself to the organization in the final month of the season.

You can tell by his actions. The "new" Billick hasn't endorsed quarterback Kyle Boller's return for 2006, even though Boller has played well the past two games. The old Billick would have ripped Boller's critics and talked about his unwavering faith in Boller. Earlier this week, Billick said what he provided to his team this season wasn't good enough and that he had to find whatever was needed.

Billick wants to change.

When I met with him for almost two hours about two weeks ago, he was honestly and diligently searching for answers. Good luck. If he can make the changes, God bless him. But it's going to be hard.

Let's be honest. Billick is stubborn, arrogant and condescending, and he has always been the smartest guy in the room, according to Billick. Those characteristics are what make him a good coach, but they also wear on players, scouts, assistant coaches and other Ravens employees at The Castle.

The Ravens want a change.

They're asking a middle-aged man to modify his personality and try to form a new bond with a bunch of young, millionaire players who often don't care about anything but themselves and their paychecks.

Billick is successful, wealthy and could make a million dollars a year as a football analyst. But he is also 51, an age when most of us stop caring what others think about us. People either like us or they don't. We love our old friends, but often don't find new ones. We're so set in our ways that we often say what we want because we're determined not to take any flak from anyone anymore.

That was the old Billick; now here comes a new one?

Billick has been trying to find a new message for this team during the past season and a half. His fans and supporters have been in a state of denial about his having lost control of this team. He tried to change last season. He went to the homes of several players during the offseason to try to root out locker-room issues. He got rid of some players he thought were troublemakers. He signed new players from top-notch organizations, guys who could emerge as leaders, such as guard Keydrick Vincent and wide receiver Derrick Mason.

Nothing has been enough.

Now, it's more of an uphill battle for Billick, who has two years left on his contract. He didn't pay for this season, but some of his assistants will. He'll get some new coaches here, but will they be good ones? Nearly a year ago, Billick fired offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and offensive line coach Jim Colletto.

Who wants to come here with a coach on a short leash?

There are other issues, as well. Somehow, the coach has to repair strained relationships with Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis and running back Jamal Lewis or move them off the roster. He has to get all these players on the same page. He has to rethink the structure of Camp Cream Puff because it has become obvious that the Ravens weren't ready to play early in the season.

Discipline?

Bring back the curfews until this team proves itself on the field during the season, not from what it accomplished in 2000.

On the field, the Ravens have a solid nucleus of players. They have a good receiving corps. Boller has improved lately, but the Ravens still need to bring in a veteran to be No. 1 or at the least compete with Boller. Don't jeopardize the season again by making Boller the starter going into training camp.

Defensively, the Ravens need a big, Pro Bowl-caliber tackle, a linebacker or two, a safety and some young, aggressive cornerbacks. It sounds like a lot, but it's not in the watered-down NFL.

But Billick has other immediate issues. Despite national reports to the contrary, his job was in serious jeopardy up until the final weeks of the season. He's aware of that. He is also aware that the Ravens had a lot of talent this season, much more than the Cleveland Browns, who trail the Ravens by only one game in the standings. The Ravens have been to one postseason game in the past four years, and they lost that game at home.

Billick has to find the soul of this team. Does it mean becoming more involved with the players in their private lives? Does it mean breaking down that wall of communication where he sometimes talks over his players' heads? Is he too isolated from the players, who don't feel comfortable talking to him?

It has come to the point where owner Steve Bisciotti felt he had to intrude and began interviewing players. He felt the Ravens owed Billick another opportunity, or he didn't want to pay Billick $9 million over the next two years for doing nothing.

Either way, the one year is guaranteed now, but the leash has become a lot shorter.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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