All The Right Moves

Key decisions spur rise of Ravens

December 12, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Some people are looking smart as the Ravens steam toward a likely division title and one of the top seeds in the AFC playoffs.

A few decision-makers had to make a lot of calls, any of which could have derailed this season. But it appears they mostly made the right choices.

The lesson is that a lot of decision-making goes into a season, the margin between success and failure is narrow, and credit needs to be shared.

Let's start at the top, with owner Steve Bisciotti, who addressed reporters 11 months ago, after the Ravens' 2005 debacle, and said he would tweak the team rather than overhaul it because he believed it was close to playoff-caliber. It sounded absurd then, after a 6-10 season, and I questioned him in print. But who is laughing now?

No one would have blamed Bisciotti for blowing up the team; the Ravens barely tried in their last 2005 game, a loss in Cleveland. Clearly, there were major problems.

It was actually bolder of Bisciotti to "stay the course" rather than fire Brian Billick, trade Ray Lewis and let Jamal Lewis go - a scenario that, let's face it, many fans wanted.

"I heard some commentator say the Chargers were the best team not to make the [2005] playoffs, but I think we have as good a chance as San Diego of being back [in the playoffs] next season," Bisciotti said at the time. How smart does that sound now?

Bisciotti, as you might recall, also told Billick to be more open-minded and less antagonistic. Billick could have chafed and walked away, which surely would have sent the Ravens into a rebuilding mode and made 2006 a lot less fun. But he chose to heed the advice.

The coach is looking pretty smart himself these days, and not just for going 10-3 as a "new" guy. He also correctly chose when and when not to be loyal, sticking with Jamal Lewis but giving up on Kyle Boller and Jim Fassel. Imagine if he had chosen otherwise in any of those cases.

There was every reason for him to give up on Lewis, who will never be what he was in 2003, but the coach had a vision for what he wanted in a feature back - picture a sledgehammer hitting rocks. Former backup Chester Taylor, starring in Minnesota, would have sufficed, but Lewis is now grinding out yardage and setting the tempo for the Ravens' ball-control offense.

A lot of people have wanted to see different runners, but no one was complaining as Lewis ground Kansas City's defense into dust on that magnificent fourth-quarter drive that finished off the Chiefs on Sunday.

Billick also had all sorts of reasons to layer over Boller, who had struggled since becoming the team's No. 1 quarterback as a top draft pick in 2003. But instead of exercising similar loyalty to a player he had nurtured and invested in, Billick finally relented and admitted defeat, clearing the way for the team to pick up Steve McNair.

McNair has energized the offense and engineered winning comebacks, but his greatest contribution has been his unflappable demeanor, the "oh, we'll get it done" attitude he exudes. Billick seems a lot calmer just knowing he is in there.

But, of course, the biggest decision Billick made was to dismiss Fassel, his friend and offensive coordinator, six games into the season. You know he didn't want to, but he felt he had to, and at this point, it's impossible to argue with the results - six wins in seven games.

As a matter of fact, why would this team hire another offensive coordinator for 2007? Why tinker with what's working?

Another person looking smart is Ozzie Newsome, the team's general manager. Talk about a productive offseason. He picked up McNair instead of Daunte Culpepper, Kerry Collins or Brian Griese, ending up with the best of that lot in exchange for just a fourth-round draft pick. Newsome also oversaw a wonderful draft that produced two defensive starters (tackle Haloti Ngata and safety Dawan Landry), guard Chris Chester, punter Sam Koch and dangerous backup receiver Demetrius Williams.

Newsome also signed veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce after Maake Kemoeatu and Tony Weaver surprisingly fled via free agency. Pryce's history of back trouble seemed to make him a dubious addition, and the move was criticized, but Pryce has played well.

With three games left in the regular season, the Ravens wouldn't trade places with any team in the league. (OK, maybe San Diego.) Their season is a success, and who knows what might happen next?

A year after the disaster of 2005, Bisciotti, Billick and Newsome are looking pretty smart.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

Making a difference

Steve Bisciotti Owner adopted "stay the course" approach instead of starting over after 6-10 2005 season.

Brian Billick Coach heeded Bisciotti's advice to be more open-minded; fired Jim Fassel; loyal to the right players.

Ozzie Newsome GM traded for Steve McNair instead of Daunte Culpepper; oversaw bountiful 2006 draft.

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