Billick: Nucleus is solid

Coach says playoffs in sight for Ravens despite likely changes


Their quarterback situation is up in the air. Their void at running back is unsettling. And their always trusty defense is set to watch more than half of its starters hit free agency.

This month is developing into a transitional phase for the Ravens, one that could determine the direction of a franchise in flux. For a team that has failed to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons, a makeover might be in order for some of the Ravens' most critical positions.

If these changes occur, does it mean the Ravens are retooling for this season or rebuilding for the future?

"I think when you still have the nucleus of players that we have, it's hard to think of it as rebuilding," coach Brian Billick said yesterday. "After the analysis that we've done, and not withstanding what we're able to do in free agency, we feel like we have the elements to quickly re-establish ourselves as a playoff team.

"We can talk about objectives beyond that, and we may clearly have that, but we don't have that right. Our expectations have to be within the reference frame of a team that hasn't been in the playoffs for two years. We're very much aware of that."

Billick's optimism for the future comes from pinpointing what went wrong in last year's 6-10 season, his worst in seven seasons as the Ravens' coach.

Asked how a potential Super Bowl contender finished tied for last place in the AFC North, Billick rattled off correctable issues such as "injuries, the meshing of the team [and] certain positions not living up to the promise that we'd hope for, which is as much my responsibility as theirs."

One position that failed to live up to expectations was quarterback, a long-standing problem for the Ravens.

Declining to mention any names of veteran free agents, Billick said the Ravens have divided the potentially available quarterbacks in three categories: ones that would be brought in as the undisputed starter, ones that would compete against Kyle Boller for the starting job and ones that would simply be signed for the backup role.

It's assumed Drew Brees, Daunte Culpepper and Steve McNair (who still might be released) would be given the starting job if signed. But the Ravens likely have concerns about the injury status of Brees and Culpepper.

The quarterbacks who would be given the opportunity to battle Boller in training camp probably include Kerry Collins and Brian Griese. Others such as Gus Frerotte and Chris Weinke likely would be backups.

Based on how the quarterback market is projected to shape up, Boller has a solid shot at remaining the starter.

"This [quarterback search] doesn't mean we don't have faith in Kyle," Billick said. "It doesn't mean we don't think Kyle is and is going to be a very good quarterback for us. All we're saying is we wouldn't eliminate the potential of who might be in the market to add to this team. Our expectations are very, very high for Kyle."

Other issues addressed were:

Billick denied reports that linebacker Ray Lewis wants to play elsewhere next season.

"Has anyone heard from Ray himself? I've talked to Ray and he is about winning and always has been," Billick said. "I believe that's where his focus is now. I believe he thoroughly understands our situation and his. I have no reason to believe that Ray is going to be anything but what he has been before: a huge part of this team and the consummate professional in practice, in the classroom and on game day."

According to Billick, Lewis' unhappiness with his contract situation has been "blown out of proportion."

"The business side is always a potential distraction. That's not something I'm going to let become a distraction," Billick said. "One of the changes is for me to be very focused on keeping the priorities for this team from a football standpoint to remain in the proper order."

The Ravens' only health concern this offseason is Lewis, who is three months removed from hamstring surgery. Billick indicated Lewis could miss minicamps but his long-term time frame - including availability in training camp - probably won't be determined for another month.

"We certainly don't want to rush him back," Billick said. "Part of the reason for doing the surgery was that it would give him much more confidence and it would be even stronger going into this season."

A major reason the Ravens didn't use the franchise tag on running back Jamal Lewis - which keeps a player off the free-agent market with a one-year contract - is the unwanted tension that it brings. Players who receive the tag often skip minicamps and training camp in protest.

"Franchising tends to not be a productive situation, so you try to avoid it if you can," said Billick, who still holds hope that the Ravens can re-sign Lewis.

Billick basically acknowledged there would be no major changes to the offensive line, one of the most criticized positions last season. He predicted a "great year" from left guard Edwin Mulitalo, who is working out every day at the complex and seemed upbeat about the potential of young linemen such as Tony Pashos, Adam Terry and Jason Brown.

"We have some faith in that group going forward in the improvement they're going to show from one year to the next," Billick said.

A popular figure in trade rumors, cornerback Chris McAlister will be playing for the Ravens next season, according to Billick.

"Chris made a lot of improvement this season in terms of the way he approaches his job both on and off the field," Billick said. "There is not anything active whatsoever with regards to [us] marketing Chris around. When we gave him the contract last year, it was with the idea Chris would be around here for a long time, and I see no reason to think that's changed."

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