Kiss it goodbye

Where was team's discipline when it was needed?

Ravens vs. officials

December 05, 2007

I'll be the first to admit that when I first saw the coach's puckered lips, I laughed.

From the press box, we can see only the backs of the Ravens players and coaches, so, like most fans, I saw coach Brian Billick blow three kisses to the New England Patriots' Rodney Harrison on television.

And I laughed -- in a shocked and confused, I-can't-believe-what-I'm-watching, aren't-these-two-men-married? kind of way.

It didn't take long for the humor to fade. As the heartbreaking loss to the Patriots wore on and the conversation and controversy spilled into yesterday, I kept going over the Ravens' Monday infractions, and, each time, I kept coming back to the image of Billick blowing kisses.

Chris McAlister blew coverage and committed pass interference. We're to believe, though, that his team lost because of the officials.

Bart Scott hurled an official's yellow flag into the end-zone stands -- something you don't even see on a Pop Warner field -- and his penalty yards cost the Ravens field position on their closing-seconds desperation dash for the end zone. Yet it was the officials who were out to get them.

Samari Rolle showed some rust, and his illegal contact on fourth-and-six gave the Patriots an automatic first down and eventually set up the game-winning score. The officials, we're told, unfairly targeted the Ravens.

I could keep going -- from Willis McGahee's muscle-flexing to Ed Reed's refusal to protect the football to Jamaine Winborne's defensive holding when the Patriots' final drive was ready to die on fourth down -- but every single time, I come back to that same image: The coach of an NFL team teasing an opposing player with blown kisses.

This team's problems don't revolve around the officiating crew; they revolve around its lack of discipline. They continue to fight -- and lose -- battles against their own instincts, knee-jerk reactions and failing common sense.

A disciplined Ravens team wins Monday's game and hands the Patriots their first loss of the season. An undisciplined team keeps giving the Patriots chances, loses its franchise-record sixth straight game and has to watch its coach play kissy-face for an entire news cycle the next day on ESPN.

Billick is 53 years old. Like Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, he's a grown man. I don't care what Harrison said to him, screamed at the Ravens bench or scribbled in his diary. As the leader, the coach of a football team sets the example for his players and establishes their professional boundaries.

This certainly isn't to suggest the Ravens lost because the boss in the headset was having a bit of fun on the sideline. But the way his players responded when the game situation called for level heads and later when the post-game situation called for cautious words wasn't surprising at all.

In front of a nation of football fans, in what should have been their most admirable performance of the year, we all watched a team slip from miserable to embarrassing.

Oddly, the only implosion from which I can discern a tiny bit of sense was Scott's impromptu pitching performance. I won't put too much weight into the conspiracy theorists who think the officiating crew is intentionally plotting to remove Baltimore from the NFL map. But Rolle's accusations that one official repeatedly called him "boy" should have made some ears perk up in NFL offices.

Apparently, this was the spark that ignited Scott's fuse. Scott's behavior was indefensible, but if what he and Rolle are charging proves to be true, his actions are at least a bit understandable. There's no place for such racially charged language at a football game, especially coming from someone responsible for enforcing rules and maintaining order.

No, it wasn't a particularly great showing for the refs or the Ravens. Then again, whenever these two groups get together, you need to shield the children's eyes.

Just about every season, it seems, the Ravens are among the league's least-disciplined teams. Monday, it was 13 penalties for 100 yards. This season, they've managed to rack up the fourth-most penalty yards in the NFL.

When you're talking about a chronic problem, it's important to note foolish penalties are rarely the root of a crisis. However, they are an easy conduit through which deeper-seated issues can surface.

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

In fact, it all starts with the coach -- discipline, accountability, professionalism. No doubt Billick understands these concepts intimately. He's among the NFL's best at preaching them and using them as talking points.

But by now, with the Ravens, we all know it's their actions that speak the loudest. And there's this one image that I just can't shake, the one of the Ravens kissing away their season in such unbecoming fashion on national television.

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