Billick just might have to call himself out

October 10, 2007|By RICK MAESE

At this time last year, the Ravens were 4-1 and coach Brian Billick was on the verge of making the most critical midseason adjustment of his career. Over the ensuing 2 1/2 months, he reaped plenty of deserved praise for canning offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assuming play-calling responsibilities. The move salvaged the Ravens' season.

I remember at the time thinking how hard it must be to fire a close confidante, to cut loose a friend because it might serve the greater good of the team. Who could've guessed that, just a year later, Billick would again confront an eerily similar -- albeit much more tricky -- conundrum?

If the Ravens don't improve Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, they'll be facing much more dire straits than they were a year ago. And if the offense again operates like a pen with no ink, Billick might have to borrow a page from his own playbook -- and find someone else to call the plays.

Making that decision was tough enough when it was Fassel wearing the headset. But now the guy calling the plays is someone who impresses Billick much more. Such a move might not seem likely, but it's becoming increasingly necessary.

From game to game, whether it's key situations in the red zone or third-and-short in their own territory, the Ravens' play-calling has been a hybrid of nonsensical and vain, the coaching equivalent of a teenager's first YouTube production, lacking in continuity and quality.

Instead, what we've witnessed the first five weeks of the season is a coach not content with trying to outsmart his opponents. Instead, Billick outsmarts himself, not to mention the time-honored and time-tested tenets of winning football.

The end result is an offense that's managed just five touchdowns in its past seven outings.

When the Ravens opened the team vault to bring in Willis McGahee in the offseason, the shared hope was that a quality running back might open up the long-dormant passing game. Through five games, though, Billick has curiously opted to forgo a balanced attack for an offense that's so pass-happy it has every defensive coordinator in the NFL smiling wide.

The Ravens have the second-most pass attempts in the league, yet are No. 28 in yards per catch. A pass-first offense is fine if you have an able and sound quarterback. Though Steve McNair is a steady and calming presence, I'm not sure I'd trust his arm to throw a Sunday paper route, much less execute a game plan in which he is tossing the ball 40-plus times an afternoon.

Before McNair's 53-pass attempt performance in Week 4, only one of Billick's Ravens quarterbacks had attempted more than 50 in a game (Elvis Grbac threw 63 in September 2001) -- and with good reason. Teams still win games running the ball. Billick knows that, and so does McNair. In McNair's 13-year career, he has attempted 40 or more passes in a game on 20 occasions. He has lost 15 of those games.

But let's get back to the Fassel firing, because the crossroads in the not-so-distant future is not so different for the Ravens. A season ago, in Fassel's six games, the Ravens passed the ball 200 times and ran it 160. Billick took over, and the next game they ran the ball 39 times and passed it just 23. The offense was officially resuscitated.

Thus far this season, with an upgraded running back and the exact same passing personnel, the Ravens have 142 rushing attempts and 208 passing. (If you're curious, the blueprint set by the 2000 championship team included 511 rushing plays and 504 passing. The team's offensive personnel hasn't changed enough in the past seven years to justify veering so far from a winning model.)

If I'm the one signing McGahee's checks each week, I'd like Billick to explain why he uses him as though he has a lease option and he's trying to conserve miles.

McGahee is tied for third in the league in attempts and is third in yards (4.5 yards, averaging 20 carries a game). Not bad. But the numbers are deceptive, because they don't explain why McGahee is getting yanked from the action, why he's underutilized in key situations and why he's on the field for only a few plays at a time. This season, McGahee has just four rushing attempts on third-and-short. Meanwhile, McNair has 10 pass attempts on third-and-short and 25 attempts on third-and-five or fewer.

Not only has Billick's game management been suspect, but his ability to evaluate his own team also seems flawed. He doesn't sense any urgency and instead keeps praising a quarterback who so far this season looks like a shell of his former self.

It's too early to say whether the season hinges on who calls the plays, but through five games, it's fair to attribute many of the early struggles to the play-calling. The overarching offensive philosophy doesn`t match the team's talents.

A year ago, getting rid of Fassel required foresight, courage and conviction. It also required a bit of ego and the confidence that Billick was the best bet to steer the ship.

That was a good quality then but could be a dangerous one now. What was a mechanism for change is now a hindrance.

It's that very ego that could stand in the way of the Ravens' following last year's successful road map and setting a new course for a struggling team.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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