With Billick safe, others will be sure to fall by wayside

December 29, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

So, if Brian Billick is staying - if owner Steve Bisciotti truly believes that keeping him as coach "gives us the best opportunity to win" - then who's going? How many are going? Which Ravens, specifically, have to go?

That has to be the deal. There's no other reason to back Billick this way, after the slide the Ravens have taken since the final month of last season.

There are a lot of factors present that could have made Billick's future as coach a non-issue. They've flipped their 3-8 start into a 3-1 finish as the season finale approaches. Kyle Boller has become the NFL's Lazarus. Billick is one of five coaches, including Joe Gibbs, who have won Super Bowls with their current teams. He also has two years left on his contract after this season.

That all should have been enough to make 2006 a given long ago, even after the horrible start, and to brush this off as a garden-variety off-year. But it apparently wasn't.

Instead, the chemistry issues and agenda problems that simmered below the surface all year - and occasionally bubbled over, with and without names attached - had to be factored in. The whole idea of Billick's being tuned out, of his running out of buttons to push, of his message growing stale and getting ignored, had to be worked out.

Bisciotti sent a message of his own yesterday. Unless it's being misinterpreted from here, that message is: Your coach is staying, so either get on board or get off the ship.

Bet on a lot of them getting off - voluntarily or not. The usual protocol - albeit the hasty and overly convenient one - is to fire the coach, not the players. This time, the coach is safe, so ...

There probably was going to be wholesale change on the roster anyway, but now one has to wonder if it will include those who aren't going to listen to Billick no matter how much he changes his tune from now on.

The tune definitely has changed in recent weeks, since things hit rock bottom at 3-8. Admitting to some of his mistakes on his online diary last week and being less confrontational and adversarial with reporters are a few examples.

But if bridges have been burned in that locker room and Billick is still standing, then those not in his corner, those still in position to counter his message next season, are going to be left behind.

If that means players who can help this team, players who are still talented and still respected but who underachieved for their own reasons - some good reasons, some bad - then the Ravens are hanging onto the wrong man.

There's nothing inherently wrong, of course, with cleansing a locker room of disgruntled elements. That is, unless the problem does lie in the coach on whose watch all that unhappiness developed. Retaining Billick tells us that, for now, Bisciotti doesn't believe he is the problem, and that he has faith in Billick as the one who can fix the problem.

Billick, it appears, will have next year to justify that faith.

This franchise can't afford to have another season thrown away while the core group of key players are in or near their prime. For two straight seasons, preseason Super Bowl talk has evaporated into griping, finger-pointing and breakdowns all over - and now, in the case of a certain linebacker/team leader, to his total invisibility.

No late-season hot streak can obscure that.

The players said the right things yesterday afternoon, hours after being given the news themselves. There's no need to question their sincerity now. Even Jamal Lewis, whose season-long campaign to get his own message out about his career prospects is drawing to a close, said the commitment to Billick was "good for the organization." Lewis couldn't commit to his own future here, but he wasn't willing to make a connection between the two.

However, he did add this: "I think things will change around. I think he's going to put his foot down a little bit more. ... He might be a little more aggressive with us, maybe, training-camp-wise, practice-wise. You never know."

That would be different. Or it's wishful thinking coming from one of the long-term veterans of the Super Bowl season. Or it's irrelevant, considering Lewis can't count on being around by next training camp.

But if the problem areas are cleansed and Billick takes his vote of confidence into next season and he changes his tune and the Ravens still don't return to their winning ways, then what?

Bisciotti is betting that won't happen. If it does, though, there will only be one change left to make. And he might regret not making it before.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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