The Heat Is On

New pressure tests Billick

Heat's on Billick for turnaround

Ravens Training Camp Preview

July 27, 2006|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Brian Billick will make the same drive up to training camp today, but this year's road to Westminster is unlike any other in his eight years as Ravens coach.

Never before has Billick's team finished in last place, missing out on the playoffs for a second straight year.

Never before has Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti ordered him to make changes or go elsewhere.

And never before has Ray Lewis given what appeared to be a vote of no confidence toward him, a comment the linebacker later said was misconstrued.

All of this leads to the most critical training camp in the Billick era, one in which he must turn around the underachieving Ravens now or sweat out the consequences.

"In kind of a sick way, you've got to love the circumstance we're in now because it's different than any other challenge I've had prior to this," said Billick, whose team reports to McDaniel College today. "I'm energized by it. I'm excited to see how this plays out."

Billick has turned the Ravens around once before, guiding the perennial losing franchise to the Super Bowl in the 2000 season.

But a couple of underachieving seasons can cause any championship ring to lose its luster. The Ravens, who were 6-10 last season, haven't won a playoff game since January 2002, and, more recently, have lost 14 of their past 22 games.

Although he acknowledged this season presents a "different kind of pressure," Billick said he doesn't believe he needs to take the Ravens to the playoffs this season to remain as coach.

"The criteria the organization sets is not measured by a definitive number of wins," said Billick, who reportedly has one more year left on his contract after this season. "How do you judge a 9-7 playoff year vs. a 10-6 non-playoff year? Steve Bisciotti made it very clear that he's looking for a certain style to what we're going to do organizationally. And Steve is not going to pigeonhole himself and put some arbitrary number out there. But certainly, you have to be successful."

Bisciotti, who generally declines to talk publicly about the team, did comment about Billick at the owners meetings in March, saying he would not fire the coach at midseason under any circumstance. He added, "I pray that we win, because I want him to be our head coach for a long time and I don't want him to have to go through that again."

It's still unknown what changes Bisciotti demanded of Billick, but he insinuated that the coach needs to show less arrogance, the ability to listen to others and a firmer hand with the players.

Some players predicted a stricter training camp, especially after the way he disciplined them at a spring minicamp. Angered because three fights broke out, Billick stopped practice and made everyone run sprints from sideline to sideline.

But the coach contends there will be only subtle changes this summer to what the players have affectionately referred to as "Club Billick."

There will still only be one contact practice a day because Billick believes more would wear out the players before the regular season. The team will still practice at its indoor facility during blistering hot or rainy weather because of the risk of injury. And veteran players will still be allowed to go home at night after the first few days of camp because they rest better there than at the team hotel.

"To come in here and alter camp just to prove I'm tougher would be stupid," Billick said. "I don't know if anybody could look at our losses and say they weren't conditioned well or they weren't carrying their pads well."

If anything, Billick has made a point to reach out to players instead of cracking the whip.

With the mantra of "We'll explain it or change it," Billick wants his players' suggestions on offseason workouts, discipline issues and even weekly game plans.

"Brian had some player input when he first got here, but now he is pretty much requiring it," said kicker Matt Stover, who has played under Billick for all eight years. "A lot of time a head coach is kept in the dark because they're not in the locker room and don't hear the chatter. With regard to motivating a team and setting a vision, it's important for a coach to know where the players are."

There is some concern internally of the players' perception of Billick, who could be viewed as a lame-duck coach.

"As a veteran, I think we need to stand up and follow him because he's our leader," Stover said. "I support him 100 percent. I think he's got it. If he doesn't have it here, he can have it anywhere else he wants to go. He's that good."

Billick, one of six coaches currently with the team he guided to the Super Bowl title, has produced more playoff seasons (three) than losing ones (two). He is tied for fourth among the league's longest-tenured coaches with the same team and ranks only behind Weeb Ewbank in Baltimore's NFL coaching history.

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