Ravens polluted by ego system

Ravens

October 24, 2007|By RICK MAESE

Practically speaking, the bye week is a chance for the Ravens to catch their breath, heal their injuries and refocus on what remains of a season that has been about as satisfying as a dinner buffet of saltines and tap water.

Symbolically, however, we're really talking about one of two things: The Ravens have either reached a crossroads, the point at which they'll salvage a playoff berth or jockey for the best draft position; or they've merely reached another mile marker on the path to futility.

I won't pretend to know the future here, but this much is painfully obvious: It might be too late this season to alter the most glaring problem with this club. Not surprisingly, last season's magic elixir is this season's poison. Which is to say that the culture that serves as a backdrop for all things purple is pure touch-the-stars euphoria during the good times - and painful, inevitable doom and gloom during the bad.

Well, here we are at the bad, and the wheels aren't just coming off. Spiritually and emotionally, this team has been coasting on nothing but rims for a couple of weeks now.

Don't take my word for it, though.

History shows that little good comes from the two biggest Ravens - Ray Lewis and Brian Billick - squaring off in opposite corners. This week, we again learned what happens when we mix a 50,000-watt voice with a 500-watt brain and a 5,000-watt radio signal.

"You can't make oranges be peaches. It doesn't change. It will never change," Lewis said on his weekly radio show on 1300 AM, criticizing the coach's decision to pass on a critical short-yardage situation against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. "That's what Billick has to ask himself, why we keep putting ourselves in those situations."

It's a fair point, and even Billick says he has questioned some of his play-calling. But Lewis should be asking himself this: When your team is struggling and searching for identity and leadership, what good comes from publicly second-guessing the coach?

The radio wars lost some momentum last night, when on Billick's show on 1090 AM - yes, they all have radio shows - the coach said: "I certainly don't find any fault with Ray being honest and straightforward. There are a lot of things to be frustrated [about]. ... There are a lot of things that are going to affect the outcome of the game that we want to address, and the play-calling is one of them. I have to constantly analyze what I am doing, and I have no problem with what Ray said."

That's a delicate toeing of the line on a very public platform. Privately, Billick is well aware of the power Lewis wields and how influential the team's veterans can be.

The Ravens are teetering - just a light puff of air away from a long free-fall. You can't help but question why Lewis would be so eager to provide that puff.

The answer, of course, isn't especially tough to discern. We've been on this ride too many times to pretend this is just about Lewis or just about Billick. In this organization, it's much bigger. There's a dangerous culture of egocentricity that for many years has touched every corner of the Ravens' locker room. We giggle and laugh at the dancing and celebrating when the team is reeling off wins, but it's times like now that we see just how toxic it can be. It's when you're a bit removed that you see the real hazards of a system designed and cultivated by Billick and Lewis.

"People there wanted the limelight," former Raven Adalius Thomas told Sports Illustrated. "People sought out the limelight, starting with the head coach."

Billick predictably scoffed, noting that Thomas was elbowing his way under that spotlight as much as anyone. (Billick failed to mention that Thomas entered the league in 2000 with the Ravens and never knew anything different. He was fostered in a system that accepts - even promotes - such behavior.)

Thomas had to leave Baltimore to gain perspective on what ails the locker room here. The problem with the current Ravens is that for many of them, this system and culture is all they know. So they all consider themselves a star. They all need a radio show. They all have important opinions about the offense, defense, special teams and coaching. Unfortunately, while they're thumping their chests, other teams are thumping them everywhere else.

For the most part, I'm not interested in hearing a linebacker try to coach any more than I'm interested in watching a coach play linebacker. But over the years, the roles on this team have become blurred. Everybody knows everything. You'd think with so many smart people running around, this team would perform a bit better on Sundays.

Sounds like a decent topic for next week's round of radio shows.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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