Ability to change gives Billick rare staying power

January 18, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Besides the news items, including the business about the new offensive coordinator not calling plays, a couple of things jumped out from Brian Billick's season-ending news conference Monday. One was the simple declaration that 2007 will be his ninth as the Ravens' coach.

We'll pause here for the wisecracks. Nine years, huh? Watching that offense, it feels like 90.

Think about it. Billick now has the third-longest tenure in the AFC, behind Jeff Fisher, heading into his 14th season with the Tennessee Titans franchise, and Mike Shanahan, going into his 13th with the Denver Broncos. During Billick's time with the Ravens, the Miami Dolphins have gone through four coaches and are trying to hire a fifth (and not doing well with it so far).

Even with that, it's not so much that he's third in seniority. This will be the seventh season after he set the bar at the top possible height.

After the Super Bowl victory, were you thinking he'd still be here for a seventh season, with only one more playoff win along the way? Burnout, tune-out, player mutiny - one or a combination of them would have caught up to him, you'd figure.

Forget the Super Bowl. Would you have bet the mortgage that he'd be here now at this time last year?

Now, however, Billick will be around at least a year after next, thanks to what appears to be the second-briefest major announcement in sports history yesterday. The Ravens could have at least taken a stab at Michael Jordan's record. Just issue this release: "He's back." It couldn't have been less information, more vague, more open to speculation.

So, speculate we will.

Billick did, in fact, tweak his persona, fine-tune his communication skills and reinvigorate himself as Ravens coach this past season, fulfilling owner Steve Bisciotti's mandate almost to perfection. Perfection would have been a Super Bowl win, of course, and that brings up the other moment that leaped out of Billick's Monday comments: Twice in his opening statement, he spoke of him and the team "not living up to our potential."

Now he has more than the one year remaining on his current contract to live up to that potential - and to figure out what worked in getting the Ravens so close to that potential.

Drawing up clever offensive plays looks good, but Steve Spurrier could do that. Making a team out of a group of players is more what pro coaches have to do, or else. If Billick coached the Ravens out of a win Saturday, as he has been accused, he surely coached them into that game even more.

And, it's worth repeating, he did it at a point in his tenure when his authority was threatened by his players, and eventually by the owner. What might have threatened it most was simple time. Billick has said more than a few times over the years, and said it again Monday, that it isn't automatic that coaches only have a certain shelf life with teams. Yet in plenty of cases and with plenty of coaches, that's exactly what happens. They just can't be around each other anymore. The buttons have all been pushed.

Billick either found new buttons or found different ways to push the old ones. It can't be emphasized enough how rare and remarkable that is. Ask Pat Riley, or Larry Brown, or Bill Parcells, or the other coaches in every sport who have to keep moving when they lose their ability to reach their men - or he doesn't want to try anymore.

The question for the Ravens now, though, is whether Billick can pull this off again. Not necessarily next season, which will be a challenge enough, but when the extension kicks in, the roster and chemistry and circumstances change again, the message lands a little differently.

Talk about a closing window of opportunity. It's the veteran players, it's the coach, it's his staff, it's how they all blend.

Billick has wrestled the window open again once. You'd have to figure it will get harder next time, even if next time isn't until a few years from now. You'd also figure that if it is, Bisciotti will have an eye out for who can open it better.

On Monday, Billick spoke often about how he enjoyed being closer to the players this season and looked forward to the challenge of renewing the connections. "But," he did add, "you can't just assume it's going to happen. It's like a marriage. You'd better bring those flowers home on a regular basis."

He must have brought them. He's still willing to bring them.

"Whatever the circumstances for me personally," Billick said, "I'm energized, I'm right where I want to be, I can't imagine doing anything else. I'm appreciative of those giving me this opportunity. And when I say that, I don't just mean Steve Bisciotti, but the team giving me an opportunity to continue on."

They all gave him the opportunity to keep going for at least two more years.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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