Ravens extend themselves with premature decision


February 22, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

More than a month ago, the Ravens extended coach Brian Billick's contract but said that no details would be discussed publicly. Then yesterday, the team confirmed that Billick has a new four-year contract.

What gives?

Were the Ravens trying to shoot down a story in The Sun last month that Billick had received only a one-year extension to add to a final year in 2007? Or were they trying to make themselves look better after being embarrassed because the extension was for only one year?

Any type of spin can happen over at The Castle, but the Ravens shouldn't have given Billick a four-year deal. The euphoria from 2006 when the Ravens went 13-3 during the regular season is understandable, but you don't allow the coach to go from the hot seat back to the top perch in one season.

Apparently the Ravens are missing something, like that little 15-6 playoff loss to Indianapolis, which next to the victory over the New York Giants in the 35th Super Bowl, was the biggest football game in Ravens history. Didn't the Ravens get out-coached in that one? Didn't they underachieve in the playoffs, again? Was there a running game? Was there any offense at all?

Maybe owner Steve Bisciotti didn't see the game. Maybe general manager Ozzie Newsome was on a scouting trip. But what was clearly apparent is that the Ravens lost a playoff game at home after a bye week to a rival that previously had one of the worst defenses in the league.

How does that equal a raise and a new four-year contract?

You had to give Billick more than just a pat on the back. He did everything Bisciotti demanded of him in 2006. He kept quiet and didn't fight with the media. He listened to his players and established relationships with them. He modified some of his training camp practices to make them tougher, and became his own offensive coordinator, improving an offense that had become stagnant.

The Ravens could have given him a nice bonus, or a one- or two-year extension. That would have been perfect. But four years? No way. Just because Billick made substantial changes in one year doesn't mean he can do it again. Since arriving in Baltimore in 1999, he had been arrogant and condescending. That changed this past season, but Bisciotti and Billick should have danced one more year before the four-year deal.

You see, 2007 is going to be tougher, and the window of opportunity may have closed last season. The Ravens have to play the other three division winners in the AFC and will make three West Coast trips. It's hard to believe they can duplicate 2006 as far as injuries because there were only two, guard Edwin Mulitalo and kick returner B.J. Sams, of major consequence.

The key is if this veteran team can gear it up one more time for a title run when that was its rallying cry in 2006 and it came up short. After next season is when the Ravens should have given Billick a long-term contract, not yesterday, not last month.

At their final news conference of the 2006 season, it seemed like the Ravens were downright giddy, almost relieved that they had reached the playoffs despite losing. The buzzwords then were "moving forward." Maybe this is all part of that plan, that the Ravens wanted to remove any doubt about Billick's job status going into 2007.

But let's be realistic about 2006. Billick took over the play-calling for the final 10 regular-season games, and the Ravens averaged six more points (24.3 to 18.3) while boosting their yards per game to 344.2 from 271.1. That's all fine and dandy, but they climbed only to No. 17 in the league in total offense. When you're at No. 29, there aren't too many places to go but up. And, when it counted most, the offense faltered in the regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills, and later the Colts.

Thirteen of the 22 starters have played in the Pro Bowl during their careers, which means Newsome and scouting director Eric DeCosta have done an outstanding job of getting this franchise good players. Some of these players, especially the veterans, took control of this team and helped guide it to the playoffs.

Yet this group could manage only two field goals, one of 51 yards, in the playoff loss to the Colts. The year before, basically the same group went 6-10 and was out of the playoff race by midseason. In the past five years, the Ravens have made two playoff appearances, but were one and done in each. Both playoff losses were here, which is absurd and a sign of an underachieving franchise.

The Ravens like to point to Billick's overall record, including the Super Bowl title. They like to mention his tenure of eight years, which is tied for the third longest in the NFL.

There is no question that Billick is a good coach, and the four-year deal might end up being a good thing. Billick's strengths easily outweigh his weaknesses.

But with this organization's problems during the past few years, a lot more patience was needed in making this decision. Billick was already under contract. There was no other place he could go. One more year to wait and see would have been the perfect scenario for a head coach still in transition.


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