Fassel's on the hook, but he won't take bait

November 29, 2006|By RICK MAESE

The Man Who Is To Blame is still watching. And cheering. Let's get that out of the way right now.

He'll tune in tomorrow night like everyone else - this blessed bunch that thinks purple dye is a perfectly normal hair-care product - to see whether the Ravens can become the first NFL team to clinch a division title this season. If that happens, we'll see some momentum starting to propel two very different ideas.

The first: Another dominant showing will firmly establish the Ravens' place alongside the Colts as a Super Bowl favorite heading into the final month of the season. And second, experts and prognosticators will take every chance they get from now until the playoffs to point out that Jim Fassel is what ailed this Ravens team all along.

Fassel knows such finger-pointing is a part of this life he has chosen.

"I think football people might see it all differently," he said.

As the Ravens continue to get better, Fassel, who was fired as offensive coordinator Oct. 17, will increasingly be portrayed as somewhere between an albatross and a sacrificial lamb. He said that won't stop him from rooting for the Ravens, though.

"I don't have a bad bone in my body about what happened," he said yesterday. "I still follow the guys and all that. I've been out of town and missed a couple of games. But I watch whenever I can."

The burning question, of course, is: Was Fassel really what was holding the Ravens back?

Fassel, 57, won't touch that one. He said any team not named Ravens or Giants is fair game to discuss. But he doesn't feel comfortable evaluating his two most recent employers.

Just because he won't doesn't mean that we can't, though. With five games still left on the schedule, I think it's safe to say that this year's Ravens owe their success to three important decisions:

Steve Bisciotti's decision to bring back coach Brian Billick.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and Billick's decision to target quarterback Steve McNair for acquisition.

Billick's tough decision to part ways with Fassel, a longtime friend.

The team's impressive play in recent weeks, though, is more a reflection of Billick than it is Fassel. There's no way you can attribute improved play in all the different areas to the departure of an offensive coordinator.

Let's agree that offensively, the Ravens are improved. Billick has varied his approach, spread the ball effectively and better used the running game. They're averaging 27.8 points in the five games since Fassel left, after averaging 18.3 through the first six of the season.

But I don't buy the idea that the world was dark until Billick's sunshine chased Fassel away. Fassel was essentially let go because of the Ravens' back-to-back losses against the Broncos and the Panthers. But it was hardly Fassel's fault that they had posted their worst defensive outing against Carolina. And against Denver, Fassel's offense actually outgained the Broncos'.

The coordinator change was as much symbolic as it was practical. The truth is Billick needed absolute control for them to reach their potential - and I'm not just referring to the offense. The Ravens are playing well all over the place. Where would they be without two defensive scores against the Saints? Or Matt Stover scoring 14 of their 26 points against the Bengals? And what about the special teams play against Atlanta?

When Billick took over the play-calling, the offense certainly did improve, and that excitement rubbed off on everyone else in the locker room. That's why the defense has scored four times in the past five games after scoring just once in the first six. That's why B.J. Sams could single-handedly total more yards returning punts and kicks than the Falcons' entire offensive unit. And that's why despite having five interceptions and a lost fumble in those two losses, the Ravens' turnover ratio blows away everyone else's in the league.

But Fassel won't touch any of that. He'll take some public lumps in the next few weeks, but as he sends out feelers for his next coaching gig, he takes comfort knowing that many football minds will realize he wasn't some dam wall that was holding back some bubbling body of potential.

Even though he hasn't spoken to Billick since they parted ways last month - "Brian's very busy right now" - Fassel was a head coach before and knows his role isn't to be some armchair quarterback as the Ravens make their push toward the postseason. He's content to watch from afar.

"I mean this sincerely, I really felt this was going to be an outstanding year, because I thought this team really jelled way back in training camp," Fassel said. "I thought they were as together as any Raven team. I thought these guys had a great attitude and really wanted to have a great year."

Still living in Baltimore, the deposed coordinator has a new role now, one he certainly didn't expect just a couple of months ago. No, all those early problems weren't his fault, but as the Ravens keep getting better, expect to see more so-called experts rush to cast Fassel as the fall guy.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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