Future not now

Finalists for coach indicate club's long-range focus

On the Ravens

January 17, 2008|By RICK MAESE

Maybe it's all of the political rhetoric that monopolizes the headlines and television airwaves during an election season, but I'm starting to buy into the idea that we're really on the verge of a new day. At least around Baltimore. Which is why the incessant yammering doesn't exactly make sense.

Think about it: When a new sheriff dons the badge, everyone else learns the new set of rules and abides by them. The popular question around town, though, seems to be, "How will the Ravens' next head coach mesh with Ray Lewis & Co.?"

Consider that question voided. As the coaching search drags into Day 17, the Ravens have tipped their hand slightly, at least revealing what type of coach they're looking for. Now that they've apparently focused their search on two front-running candidates, does anyone really think that, as team officials delved through interview questions and team priorities, Lewis' name was near the top of the list? Perhaps player sentiment played a role in Brian Billick's downfall, but in hiring his successor, the Ravens need not tailor their search around aging stars.

This search isn't about any immediate payoff. It hasn't been focused solely on the 2008 season or on giving a graying group one last shot to taste whatever magic propelled it to the Vince Lombardi Trophy what seems like a lifetime ago.

In short, saying goodbye to Billick alone didn't signal a changing of the guard. But expect the hiring of the next coach to erase any lingering doubts: This franchise has its eye cast on the distant horizon. Though no one is about to give up on next season, the goal is to build something that will sustain and thrive for years to come. Owner Steve Bisciotti was clear: He wanted a coach like Billick, someone who can build his identity with the Ravens while building the Ravens' identity around him.

The new coach will be a part of the long-term vision; players such as Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Steve McNair, Chris McAlister, Derrick Mason probably will not. Their feelings might be an ancillary consideration, but the Ravens' hire does not hinge on whether Lewis can split barbecue with the coach or whether Ogden is willing to participate in a more rigorous training camp.

Jason Garrett is 41. John Harbaugh is 45. While the latter has bounced around between assistant coaching jobs at the college and pro levels, the former has spent most of his life on the sideline holding his helmet, not a headset.

Neither man has head coaching experience. Neither man has ever entirely coordinated and operated his own system. And neither man has faced the ego-juggling act that awaits the next Ravens coach. But you know what? Either man might be the right choice.

There are a couple of ways you can approach such a search. The Ravens could have determined that it was Billick and Billick alone who kept the Ravens from success. In such a scenario, you're essentially looking for a coach swap, plugging a hole and hoping the new face can inspire something in the troops that the old one didn't.

But the Ravens seem to have determined that more was needed than simply a swapping of nameplates on an office door. A change of culture is in order. We know that not just from the finalists they've chosen to focus on, but also from the one candidate whom they apparently haven't.

By far, the simplest move - the most sweat-free transition imaginable, in fact - would have been to fire Billick, interview a handful of candidates and then drop the crown on Rex Ryan's head. After all, he is the guy who has the players' support. He is the guy who understands the system, the coaching staff, the front office personnel. He is the one whom the Ravens have been grooming for a head coaching job. The guess here is that Ryan will be a good NFL coach, perhaps someday very soon. But for the team brass, the possibility of Ryan's simply changing offices didn't suggest that massive change.

A couple of weeks ago, it felt very important and urgent to hear what Lewis thought of the change of coaches. For better or worse (usually better), he has been the face of the locker room. His opinion has always carried weight, and his silence these past 2 1/2 weeks speaks loudly. (Especially when you consider that the fired coach defended Lewis as loudly and passionately as anyone for many years.)

When Lewis finally does speak, it'll be noteworthy, sure, but not earth-shattering. All indications suggest that the future of the Ravens revolves around a young head coach, not an aging linebacker.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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