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As Long as We Remember...

January 26, 2007

Not Even Trying

Edward Lulie III

Long ago there was a Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and a working-class team called the Baltimore Colts. There was John Unitas, Big Daddy Lipscomb, and a cast of characters that won the hearts of fans and left us a legacy that has survived the theft of the team and the delayed birth of a new one, The Ravens.

I still wonder why they named them the Ravens. Oh, I know all about Poe; failed West Point candidate, drug addict and sterling writer. Quote the Raven, that large dark symbol of woe and distress. Why the Ravens?

In the case of Baltimore and Maryland, the team has won the hearts of fans and this year came close to winning a trip to the AFC Championship Game. It was a game they had to win, the validation of Baltimore's grudge with Indianapolis (a city of team stealers; never mind Cleveland complaining about us because we made certain they kept their team's history and team name as well as getting them a replacement NFL team).

This was a grudge match and the game was ultimately lost by one man, who didn't wear a helmet and never played a down - the coach, Brian Billick.

Critics of Coach Billick, and there are many, point to his abysmal offensive numbers of the past years and ignore his awesome defensive numbers. Defense, it is often stated, wins games.

That may be true, but an exciting offense keeps fans buying tickets. Coach Billick doesn't seem to understand that. You may think, Ed, you are crazy; Coach Billick took the offense during the regular season and turned it around. I know that, I loved it. Finally we stretched the field and made games more exciting than field goals.

But then along came the playoffs and the old Coach Billick returned, that cautious old Granny, afraid of shadows, who uses six door bolt locks and fears the unknown. It was the old overcautious Granny Billick that we got for the playoffs, and Granny was just not good enough for the task at hand.

A few years back, after the Super Bowl win, Brian Billick got us into the playoffs again in 2002. We were on the road in Pittsburgh and our starting quarterback - Jeff Blake - had taken a pummeling and was struggling.

We were behind as the clock was running down in terrible towel land. Coach Billick had on the sidelines quarterback Randall Cunningham. Now at this point in time Cunningham was at the end of his career, but he was a master of the hurry up offense. Everyone looked to him and thought, hey, the starting QB is injured, sit him down and let Randal have a chance to make history.

Did Randall get a chance to lead the Ravens to a come-from-behind playoff victory? Nope, he got to watch helplessly while we lost because Brian Billick decided to stick with his QB.

Billick's Achilles' heel is a condition known as risk-taking aversion. He trusts his defense to stop tidal waves and solar eclipses, but he doesn't trust his offense to pick up a lunch order at McDonalds.

In the playoff game versus the Colts, his defense held Peyton Manning to zero touchdowns; but his own offensive play-calling reverted back to "playing not to lose." With almost a minute left in the first half, with decent field position, two time outs and trailing the Colts, Brian Billick orders Steve McNair to take a knee and refuses to even try to score before half time.

The fans booed, loudly. The same fans who had cheered their lungs out, frenzied and loyal fans, turned sick at the sight of QB McNair taking a knee and they loudly booed in disgust. Not at Steve McNair; he obviously shared their viewpoint.

The fans, veteran Billick watchers all, knew at that moment what was coming, and so did I; we were going to lose. Coach Billick was going to count on the "D" to score and rely on our offense to warm the benches.

All the innovative offense created by Coach Billick during the regular season went out the window. The offense that got us that playoff bye (and kept him employed) was completely forgotten in just one off week. Fans were furious over what they saw as a betrayal. If I were Steve Biscotti (the owner), this would have been packing time for Coach Billick. So what happened? We lost, of course. And Coach Billick's reward for blowing a game we could and should have won? He got a contract extension.

So, do I boo now whenever Coach Billick appears on screen? I'm not sure. I do appreciate him as a coach except for a few things, like playing so conservatively when playoffs come around. He would tell you, if you could ask him, that he's won a Super Bowl and that you (a mere fan) do not understand football like he does. He might even be right.

Yet, Coach Billick is simply woeful at some basics of the game, like clock management. Super Bowl winning coaches are supposed to be experts at managing a game clock, but Coach Billick lacks that skill entirely. His clock management skills are horrendous. He wastes time outs and doesn't use them when they need to be employed. A good clock manager can score a TD with two time-outs and 30 seconds left.

Coach Billick is more likely to call a play that takes 24 seconds and then call a time out with just 6 seconds left and the only options left are a Hail Mary pass or his preferred play for the offense, 42-hike-take-a-knee. I'm not talking bad clock management, I'm talking abysmal.

Coach Billick should have shamed the NFL into insisting that he complete and pass a remedial course in Football 101; a drunken fan, chosen at random from those that are unable to stand without help, would have done a better job.

He also subscribes to the "He's my guy" syndrome. That pledges undying loyalty to his chosen starting quarterback come hell or high water. His starting QB could throw the ball for 10 consecutive completions to the opposing team's defensive end and he would still refuse to sit him down. He simply doesn't know how to bench a struggling QB with the words, "take a seat and try again next week, this isn't your day." Leaving Randall Cunningham on the sidelines that cold day in Pittsburgh is a classic example.

Yet, despite all of his flaws, Coach Billick has one shining virtue. He loves the game of football. That, and the fact that quality head coaches are rarer than quality presidential candidates, makes him remain attractive. He also works hard to engage the community and build up the game itself at the high school level. Yet, his one glaring flaw, risk aversion, makes it hard to swallow his continued tenure as head coach of the Ravens.

In a year or two Ray Lewis will hang up his cleats and become a linebackers' coach. Perhaps in a few more years he will become a defensive coordinator and maybe then become a head coach. He has the fire and heart for the game, if only he could take his own desire and drive and give a transfusion to Brian Billick.

Now the season is over and Coach Billick will be looking at the 2007 April draft; hopefully looking to improve his secondary and offensive line. Maybe he will look for a QB to groom for the future.

Ravens fans will brood over that last game lost (at least until preseason starts next summer). Freshly etched in their minds is the image of Steve McNair taking a knee. It was the Colts. This was a game we had to win and we blew it.

A working class city can forgive a coach for risking it all and losing, but it can not forgive a coach for not even trying.

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