Billick won't win award, but deserves recognition

December 31, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Brian Billick should get serious consideration for NFL Coach of the Year. But I wouldn't vote for him, and not many people will, period.

There are some good reasons for this. Not to mention a few bad, somewhat cowardly ones. Whichever reasons are used to vote for someone else for the award, though, shouldn't detract from what Billick has done. One way or another, there ought to be some way to recognize it.

Nevertheless, if I had a vote, I'd give it to Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints, and wouldn't apologize for it. He deserves it no matter what criteria are used. He did what he did under unique, never-before-seen (and, hopefully, never-again-seen) circumstances. To not give it to him this season would be a crime.

Problem is, if it were any other city, any other team, any other resurrection of a franchise, any other yank on America's emotional heartstrings -- Payton probably still would win, but for not necessarily the right reasons. And Billick would be overlooked, again for not altogether the right reasons.

This season's Ravens might have gone from 6-10 to a chance at 13-3, depending on what happens today at M&T Bank Stadium against the Bills in the regular-season finale. But they did it with the same coach as before. A new coach didn't come in and turn a 3-13 team to a division champ with double-digit wins.

That's what Payton did, and that always makes voters' eyes glaze over. The dramatic turnaround by a new coach, a new face, a new voice. It must all be his coaching!

It happens in every sport. Big, splashy, one-year turnarounds are much sexier than sustained excellence. Some great coaches have never, or hardly ever, won such awards, while one-year wonders who later find themselves out of work a year or two later end up with a nice line on the resume and an entry through the door for the next job opening.

Vince Lombardi has one Coach of the Year award, the same number as Dom Capers. Tom Landry has one, same as Dave Wannstedt. Red Auerbach, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, winners of 23 NBA championships combined, have three Coach of the Year trophies among them, one each.

Come in and clean up someone else's mess? Impressive, but not exactly unprecedented.

Come in and clean up your own mess? That deserves notice.

That's what Billick has done. Do all of the above with the same coach, the same face, the same voice -- even, for the most part, the same players. Has that ever happened, even with the aforementioned overlooked legends?

Remember, it was a year ago Wednesday that Billick was put on notice, very publicly and very embarrassingly, by owner Steve Bisciotti, after the disharmony of the 2005 season.

He was merely asked to do things differently this season. Not everything, just the major things, the ones that defined his coaching style, his communication style, his public persona, not much else. Do it or you're gone, it was pointed out.

Billick did it.

The blocked lines of communication clearly have opened. The wounds that had opened up with players, and the gaps that had grown between Billick and some key influential players, have closed. The grumbling about Billick and his style has silenced.

The complaints -- by Jamal Lewis, most notably -- about how they spoke through the position coach instead of to each other have stopped. The player, Ray Lewis, whose silence in an infamous offseason interview came off as a negative endorsement of Billick, hasn't uttered a discouraging word all season.

The old saying about having two ears and one mouth has, by all accounts, been put into action.

Among the results: Now the players praise Billick for his role in this turnaround practically without any prompting. Ask, for example, how the offense has clicked, opened up, started rolling, and they'll instantly say that Billick is the reason.

That, of course, is his biggest change, the firing of friend Jim Fassel and the assumption of offensive play-calling. (If you're still not sure that the timing of that move, desperate as it seemed, was perfect, see how the Giants' Tom Coughlin tried the same gimmick at the 11th hour last week.) That was a result of him hearing, rather than tuning out, the voices in his locker room.

Just a year ago, during the lower points of last season, Billick had hinted that in most cases (not this one, he added), all coaches get tuned out after a certain number of years, with the voices losing their effectiveness. Now, it appears, the opposite had happened -- they didn't tune him out, and he tuned them in.

The mutual respect, thus, has flown freely. Billick goes out of his way to deflect credit, and his charges never hesitate to give credit where it's due.

It's a kind of coaching that doesn't get enough recognition, even though it's really the hardest kind to do -- to go against your own nature and do, belatedly as it might be, what's best for the team to win. It requires a confidence in one's self that benefits the franchise, rather than one's own ego.

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