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OWINGS MILLS — In the wake of the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ rapid elimination from the playoffs following a resurgent season, coach Brian Billick reached an immediate conclusion. Although he promoted quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel to offensive coordinator, Billick will continue to call the plays.
Continuity is the answer, Billick thought, a point reinforced by team owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome unsurprisingly deciding to retain Billick for next season after the Ravens (13-4) won the AFC North title and generated the best regular-season record in franchise history.
Billickâ€™s vision for next season is to virtually maintain the status quo with few personnel or other changes in the offing. Most notably, that includes Billickâ€™s personal role in directing his adaptation of the West Coast offense despite widespread second-guessing of his game plan since the Ravensâ€™ 15-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC divisional playoff round.
â€œThe way it has provided me to connect and stay connected to the players, itâ€™s not something that I would readily give up,â€ Billick said. â€œAnd at the end of the day, quite frankly, I enjoyed it. Itâ€™s been a long time since I enjoyed myself that much.â€
The Ravens went 9-1 after Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel after six games and installed himself as the play-caller to rejuvenate a dormant attack and appease a grumpy locker room. Baltimore averaged 24.3 points under Billick, the ninth-most in the NFL, while averaging 344 yards of total offense to rank 10th during that period.
Now, Billick has granted Neuheisel the title of offensive coordinator even though heâ€™ll maintain his duties as quarterbacks coach. As he did after Fasselâ€™s removal, Neuheisel will continue to help craft game plans, provide input on personnel choices and work with starting quarterback Steve Mcnair and backup Kyle Boller.
The 45-year-old, guitar-playing former University of Colorado and University of Washington head coach joined the Ravens two years ago.
"Rick and I were able to communicate very readily with one another, it’s a great working relationship," Billick said. "He deserves that mantle, and I have no doubt it can be a platform for Rick at some point to be a head coach again at some point. He’s eminently qualified.
"Rick’s abilities are well-documented. He’s a very established coach. He’s got a great rapport with the players, he’s very creative, and he’s developed a great relationship with Steve and Kyle."
Billick left open the possibility that he could turn over the task of calling plays to Neuheisel if he ever became overwhelmed by the added responsibility.
"Certainly, he is prepared to call plays, if that were the case," Billick said.
Since the loss to Indianapolis, Billick has drawn heavy criticism for a game plan that only produced two field goals while turning the football over four times. His approach was labeled as far too conservative or vanilla, with many observers wondering aloud why he didnâ€™t use running back Jamal Lewis more against the NFLâ€™s worst run defense.
Billick acknowledged that heâ€™s engaging in a fair amount of hindsight of his own.
"It will be many a night before I’m not waking up at 2 and 3 in the morning, seeing plays in my head, second-guessing calls,â€ Billick said. â€œThat’s just the nature of it.â€
Regardless of the outcome in the season finale, Billick expressed confidence that a veteran-laden team is still designed to contend in 2007.
Even with offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden pondering retirement, middle linebacker Ray Lewis a year older along with McNair, who will have an entire offseason to get further acclimated to the offense after being acquired two months before training camp in a trade last year, Billick has reason to believe that the formula can work again.
"We are going onto a time that, at least in the nine years that I’ve been here, the least amount of possible change is to come up," Billick said. "We have a very small number of players that are up contractually. I am very confident we will be able to keep the integrity of this team going forward. We would like to keep this team intact.â€
Despite having 11 players over age 30, Billick expressed optimism that they can still perform at a high level. Plus, the Ravens won’t resemble a senior-citizen center because of the presence of so many promising young players like Demetrius Williams, Haloti Ngata, Sam Koch and Dawan Landry.
â€œThereâ€™s not a one of them that I donâ€™t believe is not capable of coming back next year and playing as well, if not better, than they did this last year,â€ Billick said.
Just a handful of starters are expected to become unrestricted free agents, including Pro Bowl outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, fullback Ovie Mughelli and offensive tackle Tony Pashos. Jamal Lewis is expected to either restructure a contract that includes a $5 million option bonus before free agency begins in March, or go elsewhere.
The nucleus of the team will remain the same regardless of whether the team decides to not retain Lewis or Thomasâ€™ asking price gets too high, or if the front office decides not to retain him as its franchise player by a Feb. 22 deadline.
â€œWe have fewer unanswered questions going forward than any time since I’ve been here with regard to our personnel, our quarterbacking situation, the direction of the offense, the personnel that will be staffing it," Billick said. "There are a lot of things to be optimistic about, and I’m excited about it going forward."
Billick went out of his way to emphasize that his optimism shouldnâ€™t be misinterpreted as a lack of profound sadness at losing to the Colts, whom many fans hold a major grudge against for leaving Baltimore nearly a quarter-century ago.
â€œThis organization and I are very aware and mindful of the disappointment that the fans have, and hopefully they can appreciate the disappointment we have for not living up to our potential last Saturday,â€ Billick said. â€œYou saw the despair, the disappointment, the shock on the faces of the players for not living up to that potential. I hope no one misunderstands the optimism that I have going forward for dismissing the huge disappointment.â€
Billick began this season under heavy scrutiny after nearly being fired after last seasonâ€™s 6-10 campaign before being retained under Bisciottiâ€™s change-or-go mandate. He altered his management style and was less combative with reporters, and was credited by players for becoming more approachable and open to suggestions.
Although Bisciotti isnâ€™t scheduled to hold a news conference until Jan. 30 along with Newsome, Billick thanked them for their vote of confidence.
"I’m excited about coming back for my ninth year as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens," Billick said. "I’m extremely thankful to be a part of this organization and very appreciative to Steve Bisciotti, Dick Cass and Ozzie Newsome for the opportunities theyâ€™ve provided me and their commitment they’ve made to me going forward as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.â€
Billick is reportedly under contract through the end of next season with an annual salary of $4.5 million. He declined to elaborate on his contract status, or whether he expects a contract extension rather than enter next season in what’s believed to be the final year of his contract.
â€œBeyond the personal side, itâ€™s not very comfortable to sit and pick up the paper and read your personal finances all over the page,â€ Billick said. â€œBeyond that, a coachâ€™s situation can be a distraction to the team, positive or negative. I am very fortunate and very grateful to Steve Bisciotti and Dick Cass for creating a structure that allows for that to not be a distraction at any point.
â€œWe have a mechanism in place that makes it about a two-minute conversation that allows stability going forward. Itâ€™s very clearly defined, and itâ€™s a non-issue.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland