INTERVIEW: RAVENS’ OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR RICK NEUHEISEL

Street Talk INTERVIEW: RAVENS’ OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR RICK NEUHEISEL

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TL: A few seasons ago the Ravens’ receiving corps was a liability.  Today, it is one of the strongest groups on the team and it has really blossomed. Mark Clayton and Demetrius look like they are running razor sharp routes and of course there’s the solid pro in Derrick Mason.  Williams should see more snaps this season and from my vantage point, he could press Mason for more snaps.  How do you see this unfolding and what are your expectations?
 
RN: I think you need to tip your hat to Ozzie Newsome and his crew in the scouting department because you’re right, they went out and got Derrick Mason who is a bonafide big timer in this league having racked up all kinds of numbers in Tennessee.  They did that a couple of years ago and Derrick has come in here and done nothing but what we’ve asked him to do in terms of just getting open and make all kinds of plays.  He got a little frustrated last year because his touches were down and so forth but again, I go back to what we were talking about a little while ago in terms of being in a situation when you’re ahead.  You don’t throw the ball nearly as much and so consequently his numbers did go down.  We got into a situation where he was upset and we had to understand that.  But we’re moving in the right direction there and I think Derrick understands and I think we’ll have a very satisfied and happy Derrick Mason this year.
 
Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams.  Those two are excellent players.  Both have the speed to get by corners and safeties in this league.  Both have the ability to make explosive plays and they can catch the heck out of the ball.  We feel very fortunate to have them.  And we just drafted Yamon Figurs from Kansas State who was only the fastest guy at the combine.  So he might give us another bullet outside that team’s will have to pay attention to which takes away the double teaming possibilities with guys like Mason and Heap.
 
TL: I watched Figurs for quite awhile out there at the OTA’s and he seems to take to coaching very well.
 
RN: There’s no question about that.  He is a great kid – one of those personalities that lights up a room.  He’s raw.  He has not been schooled in this kind of environment yet.  But there’s no question that he’ll come and he’ll come quickly.  We’re very excited about the prospects of having that kind of speed outside.
 
TL: Devard Darling is a guy who has hung on, a former third round pick now entering his fourth season.  I watched him last year and he had a nice camp and had a couple of good preseason games yet he struggles to get out on the field.  This year I see a player really focusing in on the precision of his routes and he seems to be earning props from [receiver’s coach] Mike Johnson and you as well.
 
RN: I need to give a lot of credit to Mike [Johnson].  He’s a great guy and he demands precision in their releases and in their ability to get the right depth downfield.  Devard Darling is one of the nicest kids on the team and sometimes he gets labeled as being too nice and people don’t think that he’s as competitive as he needs to be.  But I believe that Devard can make our team and I believe that Devard can make our team better.  I really do.  He has blossomed.  Unfortunately we had Derrick get a little bit of an injured finger this camp.  We threw the ball a little to hard to him too close and he might not participate in any more of our OTA’s but that gives Devard a chance to show what he’s capable of doing and thus far he’s done that.  I’m pleased with where he is. 
 
The other key for Devard is to become a bonafide special teams player.  As you get down to that point of your roster, players need to be able to do other things so this is an important time for Devard Darling.
 
TL: Rick Clarence Moore is a player who is in my opinion extremely one dimensional.  He can’t run routes over the middle and when he does he has alligator arms and because of his physical stature, there’s very little that he can contribute in the way of special teams.  This team is going to be very deep.  How does a player like Clarence Moore make the final roster?
 
RN: Clarence is a very intelligent player.  You are correct that he probably doesn’t fit the bill from a special teams standpoint the way Devard does, given his stature and the type of player he is.  But Clarence does give you that great height and that great matchup when you get down in the red zone and you can throw the ball to the back of the end zone and hopefully let him make a play. You never ever say never.  Brian has a great saying, “Don’t cut yourself.”  "Don’t make decisions that don’t need to be made until the time they need to be made." 
 
But we’ve got a nice problem at wide receiver whereas a few years ago we didn’t have enough of players now maybe we have more than enough.  So again, just like we talked earlier about the offensive line, there’s going to be great competition.  We’re going to find out who’s hungry and who really wants to be here and that will just make us a better football team.
 
TL: Rick we talked about the flexibility that Willis McGahee affords this offense and how he enables Demetrius Williams to see the field more.  Another guy who could see more time as a result of McGahee’s comfort level in a single back set is Daniel Wilcox.  Talk about how that affects the productivity of both Heap and Wilcox and might Quinn Sypniewski be featured more in the passing game? 
 
RN: I think you are right on all counts.  It helps Daniel.  We probably don’t need to ask Daniel to play fullback as much as maybe we did a year ago.  Most of our offense last year was two back.  And when we wanted to go into our two tight end formation which is “The Tiger” formation or Tiger personnel group, Daniel was asked to try and go back and be a fullback.  Now this is a guy who was a wide receiver in college.  So you’re asking him to bulk up and take on linebackers who are running downhill in a bad mood.  That’s not his cup of tea.  He did a nice job with it and was certainly satisfactory, but getting him closer to the line of scrimmage and getting him in position to be more of a threat as a wide receiver I think will help his play overall and help keep him healthy and so forth.  He is a very accomplished receiver, knock on wood so we never have to play without Todd Heap, but if Todd has to go out and get his equipment fixed, Daniel can go in and play that tight end position and play it very well. We’re fortunate to have him.
 
Quinn Sypniewski is coming along as the third tight end and a bigger body.  Quinn goes probably about 265-270.  He’s a little lean in the hips which is hard to say about a guy that is 270 pounds but he has developed and really worked hard.  He’s one of those guys that you love having on your team, so Wade’s [tight ends Coach Harman] got a nice situation there at tight end.  He’s got three guys that he can count on and go in there and make plays. 
 
And talking about Todd Heap, sometimes we take him for granted.  He’s been here a long time and he’s been a big player in our offense.  I don’t think he gets enough national recognition.  You always hear about Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.  Both are great players and certainly deserve their accolades but I don’t think there’s a guy we’d trade for Todd Heap.  He’s that kind of player.  He’s that kind of guy on your team.  He is a warrior with a capital W and I love having him on our squad.
 
TL: Rick you mentioned Sypniewski’s size.  A highly touted player in this year’s draft is a converted tight end, tackle Joe Staley.  Have there been any discussions or thoughts about beefing Sypniewski up to play tackle?
 
RN: I don’t think that his body could carry the kind of weight to make Quinn a 300, 310 pound kind of guy.  I think that would be a real stretch.  There’s no question that athletically he could handle it.  Toughness wise he could handle it.  I just don’t know if his body can carry that kind of weight.  Joe Staley is a very accomplished young guy.  I think he’ll have a long career in the league and San Francisco is very excited to have gotten him.  But I think Quinn will make a nice impact as a tight end and when called upon I think he can go down the field and catch the ball.  He made a great catch in preseason last year going down the center of a Cover 2.  Mrs. Sypniewski his Mom was in Arrowhead Stadium and made quite a ruckus when he caught his first pass last year…and the entire state of Iowa celebrated.
 
But we’re thrilled with the depth at that position and now being more one back we probably need to look to add a little depth to that position. 
 
TL: McNair has another year under his belt and should be more productive in the system.  One of the knocks on Steve is his arm strength.  Does that restrict the play calling in any way?
 
RN: I don’t know that that’s a fair knock on him.  I don’t think that he’s a heave and hope thrower.  Much like Rick Gannon in Oakland, his deep balls are going to rely on timing.  He’s got to throw it on time and let it go.  But he’s extremely accurate downfield.  Thinking back on some of the balls that he made – I remember a couple of deep balls to Mason against Cleveland in Cleveland.  He hit Demetrius Williams in stride in Tennessee late in the game.  So he’s adept at throwing the ball down the field. There was a third down long ball to Clayton against Atlanta.  He’s very accurate, he’s just not going to throw it 50, 60 yards three times a game.  We’re just not going to ask him to do that.  The throw that we got out of Boller when the Browns were here.  He threw over the top of everybody 60 yards downfield where we had Demetrius doing that. 
 
But those plays are few and far between.  In Steve we’ve got a consummate leader; we’ve got a guy as you mentioned is in his second year in our offense.  Remember a year ago he didn’t get to go through any of the OTA’s.  We had to come back in the summer just to teach him the snap count and the things that he was going to need to have – bare minimums in our offense and we grew as the season wore on.  This year he is eminently more comfortable.  The team knows exactly what to expect from him and he’s what I call the Mississippi version of John Wayne.  He just sort of saunters up there and you know the good guys are going to win in the end.  That’s the kind of confidence that our team has in him and I’m excited about this year.
 
After the sixth week last year he was close to 67% completions and his quarterback efficiency was over 90 and obviously we had our share of wins during that portion of the season, so I think more is to come along those same lines.
 
TL: In the past the Ravens preferred to have quarterbacks that had similar athleticism so that in the event one went down, the team wouldn’t have to noticeably change the game plan.  How confident are you in Kyle to execute the game plan if needed and how much do you think he’s grown now having a year to sit back and observe McNair?
 
RN: I sometimes sound a little defensive when I talk about Kyle because No. 1 I think he’s a great kid.  I think he’s a wonderful guy to have on the team.  He exudes enthusiasm and I think he’s been given a little bit of a tough time here in Baltimore and the expectations are a little out of whack.  But that goes with the territory.  When you’re a quarterback you’re always going to get blamed too much and praised too much – it’s the nature of the beast.  But I believe that he’s a very, very skilled player.  There are still some things that I think he can work on: accuracy down field; timing his feet to the throws; slowing down some of the plays – something our fans get frustrated with when he slips dropping back; or predetermines a throw that becomes an interception when somebody else is open in other places.
 
Had Steve McNair made those throws the constituency wouldn’t have been as up in arms as it is if Kyle had done it.  That’s the nature of the beast. 
 
I think back and I look at a guy like Matt Schaub who signed a huge deal to go with the Houston Texans after having backed up Michael Vick for the last few years.  If Kyle Boller were allowed to sit and watch Steve McNair play for three or four years and had come in and with the kind of numbers that he had a year ago, both in the preseason and in the two games he played he ended up with over 1oo in quarterback rating.  In the chances that he gets to go in there and play he produces.  I think that people might then be talking about Kyle Boller the way they do Matt Schaub.  Matt Schaub hasn’t done anything in regular season play to merit the kind of enthusiasm that they’ve given him other than that he’s done it when called upon to do so and that’s all you can do.  And that’s exactly what happened with Kyle last season and towards the end of the season when he came back from his foot injury and kind of settled in.  There were some rough starts to start as he was getting his timing back but if you think back to the Green Bay Packer game and the Viking game, there were some huge numbers put up.
 
I know it’s in him and I believe great things are in store for him and I just hope they happen here in Baltimore.  We’re very fortunate to have a back up of his quality going into the 2007 season.
 
TL: Your thoughts so far on Troy Smith and are you looking forward to seeing him battle it out with Drew Olson?
 
RN: I am.  Going back to the theory of competition you love guys fighting to make your team.  It’s difficult to tell one of them that it’s not going to happen – that’s my least favorite part of the NFL game but it does bring out the best in both competitors and regardless of who we choose the other one will get a chance to go and play someplace else.  I think that what’s helping Drew is he’s over in Europe and showing that he can play. 
 
I’m very pleased with Troy Smith’s progress so far.  He came in obviously as a heralded player being the Heisman Trophy winner and he’s come in here kind of how you would hope he would come in here.  Not with the idea that I’ve already proven something but more along the lines of tell me everything that I need to know so that I can prove something.  I think he’s been well received by the team.  He hasn’t come in here with a big head and he’s been terrific to work with.  I think he’s going to be an exciting player to watch and never discount that he was the Heisman Trophy winner.  They only hand out one of those a year and somehow, someway he found a way not only to win the job at Ohio State after being the last guy signed from that recruiting class, he found a way to get them to a national championship game.  I’m excited to get him in some games and go out there and watch him run around and make plays.
 
TL: Rick, [three] more practices before the break leading into summer camp.  How will Rick Neuheisel spend his days between June 16 and July 29?
 
RN: Well I’m going to go on a little R&R trip with my family.  We’re going back to the west coast and seeing some of our friends and family back there and then we’ll get back here and be as excited as we can be to get it teed up again.  When July 30th hits it will be a seven day a week, 6 month job but I can promise you this.  There isn’t anybody who thinks of it as a job.  It’s really exciting and we all feel like we have a team that can compete for the big prize and we’re raring to go.  We’re very, very excited about 2007.  Hopefully the fans are too!
 
Photo by Sabina Moran
 
Link to Part 1
 
Link to Part 2

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Tony Lombardi

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Tony is 24×7 Networks, LLC’s founder (the parent of EutawStreetReport.com and RussellStreetReport.com) His work has been featured on various sports websites and he is a regular guest on 105.7 The Fan and he hosts “The Fanimal” also heard on 105.7 The Fan, Saturdays from 8-9AM. Among his favorite things in life are his wife, kids, family, friends, The Beatles, Breaking Bad, Gladiator, The Godfather, Guinness, orange crushes, meatballs and Key West, not necessarily in that order. Follow Tony on Twitter @RSRLombardi.

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