Billick puts weight on his own shoulders

October 18, 2006|By RICK MAESE

The fallout will not make itself immediately known. At season's end, we'll know whether Brian Billick saved the Ravens with his decision to oust offensive coordinator Jim Fassel or if he simply signed his own walking papers.

Either way, the pressure has clearly shifted.

Billick would surely suggest that pressure is inherent in his position, but the truth is, the head coach shares it, delegating both responsibility and accountability to his assistants and coordinators. Over the past few weeks, as the Ravens have struggled offensively, there've been just two men flailing about in the Ravens' boiling pot. Billick tossed Fassel overboard yesterday, which leaves just one person to be held accountable when all is said and done.

It's a gamble, and recent history might suggest that Billick just pointed himself to the unemployment line. No doubt, the way he views it, though, is that he's saving his own tail.

"He told me, `You're right. My job's on the line and the only way I can deal with it is if I take control of the offense,' " Fassel told ESPN yesterday.

So now, more so than ever before, Billick's fate is tied directly to the Ravens' ability to take this talent-laden team to the postseason. Not an unreasonable expectation of a well-paid head coach, but time will tell whether it's a feasible one for Billick.

The fa?ade of the Ravens' coach as some sort of offensive genius crumbled long ago. And there's no evidence to suggest that the team is going to turn a great offensive corner now that the real culprit has been smoked out of the organization.

Remember Matt Cavanaugh? Wasn't he the reason the Ravens struggled from 1999 to 2004? And now we're to believe that his replacement is the problem? Too many faces have passed through the program to think that either Cavanaugh or Fassel deserves to shoulder all of the blame.

The past 7 1/2 seasons have been brutal to watch. The Ravens have done to offensive artistry what Jimmy Fallon has done to fine cinema. Only twice have they managed to finish in the top half of the league in offensive production (finishing an exciting No. 14 in 2001 and 16th in 2000), and the franchise's two best offensive seasons were both before Billick arrived.

Over the years, we've seen different assistant coaches, different quarterbacks, different receivers and different linemen. In fact, I'm going to inch my way out on the limb and suggest that there's been just one constant during the Ravens' streak of offensive mediocrity: the head coach.

No one is going to suggest that Steve McNair's arm is young and fresh, that the offensive line has the footwork to compete on Dancing with the Stars or that Jamal Lewis still has the ability to find the hole in a doughnut. But it isn't a reach to think that Fassel was not what was ailing the offense.

He inherited a system and philosophy that was already in place. What fans watch on Sundays wasn't magically installed by Fassel during the offseason. In fact, it looked nothing like the teams Fassel ran in Denver and New York.

"Everywhere I've been, I've gotten the offense up and running pretty fast," Fassel told ESPN. "It didn't happen here and the reason I believe is that I wasn't in full control."

Do we really think that Fassel, a 56-year-old man when he took over coordinator duties, suddenly had an awakening after three decades of coaching that a boring offense with predictable play-calling was the way to go? Not likely. Forget who's wearing the headset and calling the plays -- "It's who's structuring the thing," Fassel says.

We'd love to discuss exactly how the Billick-Fassel power struggle went down, but Billick is offering few clues. At his news conference earlier yesterday, he talked around questions so carefully you'd think he was running for office.

"It is a collective evaluation on my part that something dramatic needed to be done," he said.

Billick refused to say what's been wrong, he didn't say how he'd fix it and he didn't give any specific explanation as to why Fassel is the one taking the fall.

"I'm not going to do it," he said, adding that he prefers to look forward.

So let's look forward. The Ravens have another 1 1/2 weeks before their next game. It just doesn't seem too likely that things will be significantly different. Billick's offensive structure is designed in such a way that the assistants, coordinator and head coach all have input into what happens on Sundays. In the organizational flow chart, the arrows always point to the head coach.

If Billick wasn't happy with the way something was working over the past six weeks, he was always in position to make changes. It'd be inaccurate to suggest that Fassel was freelancing, calling plays or making personnel decisions without the input and approval of Billick.

Regardless of the intent behind Fassel's firing, it's not the play-calling that needs an overhaul -- it's the entire system.

So what changes? It'd be a stretch to think a whole lot -- at least until the end of the season. That's when we'll see exactly what it means to bump off a coordinator midseason.

Billick never asked to be called an offensive genius, but it's a label he was given for one special Vikings team in 1998, and it's a label that he must now live up to.

He has no choice. Billick is the only one left in the boiling pot. Sink or swim, at season's end, Billick will either be the one deserving of praise or the one run out of town.

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