Staying the course

Billick to return as Ravens coach

December 29, 2005|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Brian Billick will return as the Ravens' coach next season, a decision that owner Steve Bisciotti surprisingly announced yesterday as the best way to end consecutive underachieving seasons.

The Ravens have had their most trying season under Billick, matching the worst start in franchise history at 3-8 to put their Super Bowl-winning coach on the hot seat. But the Ravens' strong finish - winning three of their past four games, including outscoring opponents 78-26 in two prime-time games - likely saved Billick's job.

During what players described as an intense, 10-minute speech to open the team meeting yesterday, Bisciotti unexpectedly delivered his first vote of confidence this season, removing months of uncertainty about Billick's job status only four days away from Sunday's season finale in Cleveland.

"We have an ongoing and extensive process to find ways to win. This included a thorough evaluation of Brian Billick," Bisciotti said in a statement. "Collectively, we concluded that continuing with Brian as head coach gives us the best opportunity to win."

It marked the first time Bisciotti addressed the players in a team meeting this season. He declined further comment through a club spokesman, a trend common among team officials yesterday.

In what may mark the first of many changes with Billick, the usually loquacious coach fielded three questions from reporters about being retained before refusing to answer any more on that subject. He said his focus was on the last-place Browns, the Ravens' final opponent of the 2005 season.

Billick, 51, has two years remaining on his contract that reportedly will pay him $4.5 million each season.

Although Billick will be coming back for his eighth season, there have been no such guarantees for his coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, secondary coach Johnnie Lynn and special teams coach Gary Zauner are the coaches most frequently rumored to be leaving.

"I'm very thankful and appreciative to be a part of an organization and a group of people we have here," said Billick, one of five coaches currently with the teams they guided to the Super Bowl title. "The ability to go through the difficulties that a team and organization does and to deal with it the way we have is very important to me and is why I covet being here."

Bisciotti's announcement was met with eerie silence in the team meeting room.

There were no cheers or applause, a reaction that some players say should not be misconstrued. One player said Bisciotti's serious tone gave the impression that "you're either on this team or you're off it."

"The majority of the guys are happy he's back. ... I don't know of anyone that's not happy about it," said kicker Matt Stover, one of three players who have been with the Ravens since their first season in 1996. "Some people say that change for the sake of change - new blood or a new voice - is a good thing. I disagree. You have a guy that's taken you to a Super Bowl, and now it's just a matter of getting us back."

Billick led the Ravens to the Super Bowl in his second year, capturing the championship in the 2000 season before following up with another playoff season.

But the Ravens have a 32-31 regular-season record since 2002, missing the postseason in three of the past four seasons. There had been speculation that Billick had lost interest and that players had tuned him out, all of which Billick has denied.

In recent weeks, Billick has admitted that this season has been a "humbling" one and that he needs to adapt his focus, one of many changes predicted by players. Billick has been criticized this season for being "too soft" on his players, from no curfews in training camp to reducing the number of two-a-day practices.

"He might be a little more aggressive with us," running back Jamal Lewis said. "Just in training camp and practice, I think he's going to put his foot down a little more."

After replacing Ted Marchibroda as Ravens coach in 1999, Billick quickly turned the franchise around from a perennial loser. Billick, who has a 62-49 career record, is wrapping up just his second losing season in seven years.

He is currently tied for fourth in NFL seniority with Philadelphia's Andy Reid among coaches with their current teams, trailing only Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher (14 years), Tennessee's Jeff Fisher (12) and Denver's Mike Shanahan (11).

"I've always been a fan of Coach Billick," tight end Todd Heap said. "I think he runs the program the right way. I'm excited we have this continuity going forward. Everything was kind of up in the air. But now we can lay that to rest and focus on what we can do as a team to get better for next season."

The happiest player seemed to be Kyle Boller, who has remained Billick's hand-picked starting quarterback despite struggling for most of his three seasons.

"I'm excited. Brian has been behind me through everything, when a lot of coaches would have given up on me," Boller said. "It's a great move by the organization."

Bisciotti spoke to the players without prepared notes, standing at the podium in front of Billick, general manager Ozzie Newsome and president Dick Cass.

Billick and his players were relieved at the timing of the announcement, allowing them to have one question answered before heading into the offseason.

"Things happen very quickly at the end of the season and the players move on very quickly," Billick said. "It just seemed like the right thing to do for us to move forward."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Ravens@Browns Sunday, 1 p.m., chs. 13, 9, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Ravens by 3

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