Top cat not like underdog for Billick

ON THE RAVENS

October 23, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

The season of great expectations is starting to slip away.

That scenario is no stranger to football fans in Baltimore, not in the Brian Billick era.

There was the great slide in 2001, the year of the possible repeat as champions.

There was the great fade in 2004, when the Ravens lost four of their last six games. And now there is this season, with the Ravens 4-3 and heading into a grueling final nine games.

You can't write off the Ravens at this point. That would be silly, especially in the mediocre world of the NFL. But the Ravens haven't come close to fulfilling expectations of being an elite team.

Granted, the Ravens have been hit hard by injuries, but so were the Buffalo Bills, who beat the Ravens, 19-14, on Sunday.

There is something missing from last season, because a team expected to make the playoffs might have to struggle to gain a berth.

What has happened?

There are a number of issues, but one is certain: Billick is better at coaching an underdog than a favorite. No one thought the Ravens were going to win the Super Bowl in 2000, and the Ravens surprised everyone in 2002 by winning seven games after a salary-cap purge.

The Ravens were expected to be competitive last season, but the results in 2006 got everyone excited for 2007. But being the favorite doesn't fit Billick's profile.

Billick revels in being an overachiever. He likes to develop the bunker mentality and create the us-against-the-world theme. He is at his best when backed against the wall, like last season, when he had to prove himself again to owner Steve Bisciotti.

In 2006, the Ravens had a veteran-led team that wanted to prove it had one more serious title run in it. Those Ravens had an edge, but I'm not so sure about this group.

Billick is a players' coach, and he walks that fine line with discipline that sometimes gets him in trouble. We've seen where the Ravens sometimes cross from the confidence zone into the area of arrogance.

This team has talked a lot, too much in fact, about being an elite team, but the Ravens have yet to play with a sense of urgency.

"If you want to talk the talk, prove it. We have to do [that]," wide receiver Derrick Mason said after Sunday's loss.

Amen. It was good to hear Billick tearing into his team after the game Sunday. He needed to get its attention. But now the players are now going to ask, "OK, Brian, what about you, pal?"

What are you going to do to fix that sorry offense and lame play-calling? Those are legitimate questions. In the past, the Ravens' defense would compensate for Billick's weaknesses in the X's and O's with big plays that changed the outcome of the game.

But some of those great players have retired, and others can no longer dominate. The defense bailed Billick out numerous times, but now it needs him to do the same for the defense, and he can't.

His weakness is glaring, and that's why during the bye week the players will be looking to see whether Billick can come up with something, almost anything at this point.

Last year, it seemed the Ravens were destined to play in the Super Bowl. They were basically injury-free. They had a dominating defense and an offense that was effective, at least until the final weeks of the season. There was team chemistry.

But injuries in 2007 have forced the Ravens to start three rookies on the offensive line and put players such as left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, defensive end Trevor Pryce and quarterback Steve McNair on the bench.

And there are some off-the-field issues, such as the debate over Ogden's return and Terrell Suggs' contract negotiations.

Overall, it doesn't look good, especially with a tough remaining schedule. But if the Ravens come back with a different attitude and a healthy McNair, they have a shot. A more creative offensive scheme would help, too.

It's the NFL, and almost everybody still has a shot at the postseason. There are the Colts and the Patriots, and then there is everybody else.

But it seems we've been down this road before, and it always comes to a dead end because the expectation far exceeds the play on the field.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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