Offense still Billick's call

Neuheisel promoted, but he won't call plays

Ravens' offseason agenda

January 16, 2007|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN REPORTER

In what he anticipates will be one of the few major changes this offseason, Brian Billick promoted quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel to offensive coordinator, although the Ravens' head coach will continue to handle the play-calling.

"Frankly, the way it has provided me to connect and stay connected to the players, it is not something that I would readily give up," Billick said two days after being eliminated by the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL playoffs. "And at the end of the day, quite frankly, I enjoyed it. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed myself that much."

Transformed from a 6-10 team in 2005 to a 13-3 one this season, the Ravens' theme going forward is to maintain continuity.

Owner Steve Bisciotti has already committed to Billick for next season, the coach said.

The Ravens expect to keep most of the team intact, which likely means using the franchise tag on linebacker Adalius Thomas. According to a league source, the Ravens are poised to use the tag on Thomas if they can't sign him to a new deal by next month.

And Billick indicated that the Ravens won't have a huge presence in free agency.

"We have fewer unanswered questions going forward than any time since I've been here with regard to our personnel, our quarterbacking situation, the direction of the offense, the personnel that will be staffing it," said Billick, who will be entering his ninth season as the team's coach. "There are a lot of things to be optimistic about, and I'm excited about it going forward."

Most of the Ravens' tweaks are likely to come on offense, from the starting running back to an already improved line.

The first move came yesterday, when Neuheisel became the third offensive coordinator under Billick.

Neuheisel, 45, a college head coach at Colorado and Washington before coming to the Ravens two years ago, will run the offensive meetings, help devise the game plan and continue to work with the quarterbacks.

"Rick's abilities are well-documented. He's a very established coach," Billick said. "He's got a great rapport with the players and he's very creative."

Billick said he decided to keep the play-calling duties after talking to Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome and several players.

He first took control of the offense after firing Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator Oct. 17, a move that jump-started the offense and the entire team.

With Billick in charge of the attack, the Ravens had a 9-1 record, averaging 344.2 yards and 24.3 points.

Billick said Neuheisel was fine with him calling the plays.

"He saw the reasons for the continuity," Billick said.

If Billick finds calling plays is too much to handle for a full season, he said would give that responsibility to Neuheisel.

"Certainly, he is prepared to call plays, if that were the case," he said.

How the Ravens' offense will look under Neuheisel is undetermined.

The biggest concern is a lackluster running game that ranked 25th in the NFL, the lowest in team history. Jamal Lewis, who averaged 70.7 yards a game, is due a $5 million bonus in March, which likely will force the Ravens to cut him or restructure the contract.

"I thought Jamal played very, very hard," Billick said. "I've never seen Jamal as into what we were doing and trying to get better from week to week."

The offensive line could undergo some changes despite a solid season.

The Ravens don't want to lose offensive tackle Tony Pashos, who is considered a priority in free agency. But there's a chance Pashos could receive a big offer elsewhere.

They also must decide whether promising rookie Chris Chester will move into the starting lineup. It's presumed that either center Mike Flynn (who is scheduled to make $2 million in 2007 and 2008) or right guard Keydrick Vincent (who will make $1.6 million next season) will be asked to restructure his contract and take a backup role.

But the biggest issue on the line is out of their control. Before leaving team headquarters Sunday, Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said he is considering retirement.

"Jonathan is the only one who can answer that question," Billick said. "It may be a while before Jonathan makes that decision, and we'll certainly be respectful about that."

As the Ravens begin to move forward, Billick acknowledged that there is still an emotional hangover from the 15-6 loss to the Colts.

He said it will be "many a night" before he stops waking up at 2 a.m. second-guessing calls.

"I think you saw after the game the despair and the shock on the players' faces for not living up to that potential," Billick said. "But likewise, you saw - almost across the board - the excitement and the hope for the future that this team has."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

AFC North outlook

Ravens -- Looking to become the first repeat champion in the AFC North.

Steelers -- Even if they promote Russ Grimm to head coach, there will be a period of transition.

Bengals -- Eight arrests during the season and three losses to finish it could prompt roster changes.

Browns -- This is coach Romeo Crennel's last stand after 10 wins in two seasons.

NFL Calendar

Feb. 22 -- Deadline to use franchise tag

March 2 -- Free agency begins

April 28-29 -- NFL draft

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