Coach's call eases tension, not pressure


October 18, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

They've changed receivers and offensive linemen. They've had a constant quarterback shuffle, and yesterday they replaced the offensive coordinator for the second time within two years.

Who's next, the water boy? In an attempt to put more production into the team's 28th-ranked offense, Ravens coach Brian Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and declared himself the team's new play-caller.

With the move, Billick put his job security in his hands and temporarily avoided a player mutiny that had been brewing on the offense for weeks and reached its pinnacle after Sunday's 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

A couple of assistant coaches also voiced displeasure about Fassel to Billick, according to a team source.

It's doubtful that there will be significant changes in the offense, because the one constant is still around from when the offense was installed in 1999: Billick. He's not ready to fire himself yet, but at least you like the sense of urgency surrounding this team.

Running back Jamal Lewis, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and receiver Derrick Mason are near the end of their careers, and they believe the Ravens have enough talent to win it all.

"I talked to him [Billick] Monday, and I made comments about various things," Ogden said. "He wants us to voice our opinion about things, and I mentioned some things that could help us out a little bit. It wasn't necessarily about Jim Fassel, but there were some things said about Jim, Jamal, our offense and our passing game. I've gone to coaches in the past, but it was never because I was dissatisfied. It was to try to help our team in any way, like a voice of reason."

So, who's running the Ravens?

It appears Billick is giving the players enough rope to either drag him to victory or hang him in defeat. But at least this year he is listening, as opposed to last season, when the players criticized him for being too isolated.

Something had to happen. Mason was ripping the offense on a weekly basis. Several times, an obviously irritated Ogden had approached Billick on the sideline about the play-calling. Fassel and Lewis have never been close, and Lewis often said he was promised more carries than he received during games. He criticized the team's strategy after the game Sunday.

Billick really had no other choice but to let Fassel go. He's a coach without much leverage, especially after owner Steve Bisciotti stripped him of a great deal of power at the end of last season. Billick is still walking a fine line with his players, trying to regain the respect he lost last year. In the past, he could have stayed with Fassel, but he has too much to lose now.

According to a team source, Billick has told some members of his coaching staff that he won't name a new offensive coordinator until after the season, if the Ravens retain him.

Ideally, the Ravens want to build a relationship with the new offensive coordinator (Billick) much like the defensive players have with coordinator Rex Ryan. That group is close and has an identity. The defense plays hard for Ryan and prides itself on being one of the best in the game. The offense has no such bond. It has no identity. It's always one of the NFL's worst.

Billick seldom has intervened with his defensive coordinators. The same can't be said about the offense. According to a team source, Billick often intruded. The source also said that even though Billick didn't often call plays directly, he did give final approval over the headphones to Fassel on a lot of plays.

There was also the Rick Neuheisel factor. Billick made a mistake when he announced that Neuheisel would become the offensive coordinator if Fassel became a head coach during the offseason. Neuheisel made plans as if Fassel wouldn't return. When Fassel came back for the spring and summer minicamps, Neuheisel didn't want to relinquish some of the power he had assumed. He and Fassel often disagreed.

There were too many fingerprints on the game plan, and some of the players didn't even know who was calling the plays.

"If there was any ambiguity before about who's responsible for the productivity of any aspect that we do, particularly now offensively, that should be removed," Billick said.

There were also questions about Fassel's work ethic. During the offseason, several defensive coaches questioned whether Fassel and his staff were putting in enough hours.

That kind of speculation will end now. It's Billick's show again, as if it really ever changed hands.

But it won't change much. It can't with only 12 days of preparation. The offense is still a vanilla scheme. The Ravens have always been ineffective in the red zone, and receivers still run a yard or two short of first-down markers on passing situations. Clock management will continue to be atrocious. But at least if the Ravens are going down, the head coach will be in nearly total control.

"If we somehow are able to manufacture a more consistent and productive offense, it is not going to be because of any individual brilliance on my part and the play-calling," Billick said.

If only Kyle Boller and Steve McNair were as accurate. ... But Billick will be smart enough to put the pressure on the players. They want to run the ball more, so he'll do it to make them either produce or shut up. Any time Billick gets outside his 40-yard line, he'll chuck it up just like in the old days when Baltimore became alley-oop city.

Who knows? It just might work.

"We're a talented team. What we're looking for is a spark," Ogden said. "We've got Mason, [Todd] Heap, [Mark] Clayton, myself, McNair and Lewis. We've got guys who came [to] make things happen. We've got some guys who may be near the end of their careers, but guys who have been successful at other places. I think the change will be good for us. Again, we just need a spark."

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