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OWINGS MILLS — Rick Neuheisel is brimming with creative ideas, and they’ve helped him garner a fancy new job title and increasing influence at the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ training complex. What he doesnâ€™t possess, though, is ultimate control over the defending AFC North champions’ offense.
Although Neuheisel was given a promotion from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in January, there was a very big catch involved. Itâ€™s still Ravens coach Brian Billickâ€™s offense to run as he decided to retain play-calling duties he assumed last season.
Neuheisel remains the quarterbacks coach in addition to helping Billick craft game plans and offering suggestions for personnel and innovations. While his avenue for giving input has grown, Neuheisel doesnâ€™t have final say. And thatâ€™s fine with him.
â€œActually, my role hasnâ€™t changed,â€ Neuheisel said during a June minicamp.
â€œOffensive coordinator is a term than when you hear it and you think, â€˜Heâ€™s running the offense.â€™ My job here is to be a sounding board for Brian, to be an idea guy for Brian or a place where he bats his ideas off of.â€
â€œItâ€™s a bit misleading. Iâ€™m thankful for it because obviously itâ€™s a step in the right direction career-wise, but my role really hasnâ€™t changed other than maybe I have a little louder voice than before.â€
A former head coach at the University of Washington and Colorado, Neuheisel, 46, interviewed for the offensive coordinator job two years ago.
He wound up being hired as the quarterbacks coach as Billick instead tabbed Jim Fassel, his friend whom he ultimately fired last season after six games when the offense was struggling and the locker room was growing restless. Now, itâ€™s Neuheisel who holds that title as Billickâ€™s chief lieutenant on offense.
â€œI don’t know if he could have any larger role,â€ Billick said. â€œHis is as strong of a voice in that room and in what we do as any. Rick, having been a head coach, understands how important that voice is and you sort through it. You decide what to do with it and you move forward.â€
Neuheisel was once regarded as one of the fastest-rising coaching stars in college football until he was fired by Washington in July 2003 for his participation in an NCAA menâ€™s basketball tournament pool. Shortly after joining the Ravens in 2005, he received a $4.5 million settlement from the university after it was disclosed that the schoolâ€™s compliance officer had penned a memo that allowed the type of pool Neuheisel was involved with.
Being promoted to offensive coordinator could make Neuheisel more palatable to university administrators for head-coaching vacancies in the future.
â€œI have experience and would like to do it again, but those are the kind of things you donâ€™t have any control of,â€ Neuheisel said. â€œIâ€™m very happy here. Having gone through the kind of things Iâ€™ve gone through in my career, you want to be very careful. My family loves Baltimore, and itâ€™s a great experience.â€
Today, Neuheisel is content to collaborate on the playbook as a humble assistant and learn from Billick.
â€œWell, my ideas go into two categories: the ones that somebody thinks might work and then the ones that are considered a â€˜college idea,â€™ and the â€˜college ideasâ€™ get pushed off,â€ Neuheisel said. â€œAnd then I bring them back because every day Iâ€™m here, they go to being more like normal ideas. Iâ€™m always going to interject what I think might work, and itâ€™s Brianâ€™s job to say, â€˜No.’"
A lot of the schemes the Ravens are installing with the arrival of running back Willis McGahee have emphasized one-back formations, three and four wide receiver sets and double tight end alignments.
It’s a lot of change for the players to digest.
â€œUltimately, we are the ones that have to be comfortable with it, and ultimately Steve McNair has to be comfortable,â€ tight end Todd Heap said. â€œI think that really leaves it in our hands.â€
Neuheisel described his promotion as akin to going from a corporal to a lieutenant, and heâ€™s been a loyal soldier to Billick. He readily points out last seasonâ€™s results where the offense surged from 28th in the NFL under Fassel to 17th at the end of the season, including 10th over the 10 games that Billick orchestrated the offense personally.
Neuheisel wants this offense to become more explosive, adding that he wants to make the screen pass much more of a staple.
For years, though, the Ravensâ€™ offense has shaded toward a conservative philosophy. Often, the team has seemed to operate under a donâ€™t-lose mentality on offense where risks were rarely taken because the team has had such a strong defense that it didnâ€™t require a lot of points to win most of the time.
That balance wasnâ€™t struck in the Ravensâ€™ 15-6 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts as Baltimore managed only two field goals and drew criticism for having a vanilla game plan. The Ravens didnâ€™t score a touchdown in their final two games of last season.
â€œThe place we have to find a balance is to still be aggressive offensively and not play a yellow-light kind of offense and only be green light on defense,â€ Neuheisel said. â€œWe need to keep our turnovers down. Thatâ€™s always where the rubber meets the road, but the bottom line is having a happy medium.
â€œRight now, itâ€™s like being at the driving range where you can experiment. Everybody can take big cuts, but weâ€™ve got to keep our fingers on the pulse and understand those nuances.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.