Baltimore’s Billick missed all signs of Ravens’ demise
Despite great defense, Ravens not living up to expectations
BALTIMORE — In the wake of Sunday’s wretched 217 home loss to Cincinnati, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Mark Clayton recalled another strikingly similar defeat.
“That reminded me of the Colts game,” Clayton said, referring to last season’s 156 postseason debacle against Indianapolis. Peyton Manning failed to produce a touchdown against Baltimore’s top-ranked defense, but Ravens quarterback Steve McNair threw two interceptions and managed only to set up Matt Stover for a couple of field goals.
When it came time to analyze the 2006 season, coach Brian Billick and the team’s hierarchy dismissed that game. After all, they reasoned, we scored plenty during the regular season and hey, the Colts were so good they ended up winning the Super Bowl.
So, in assessing the Ravens’ prospects for 2007, Billick touted a 13-3 team with 20 of 22 starters back to finish what they started.
“I don’t know that there’s that one singular issue that we don’t feel good about across the board,” Billick said in July. “It’s hard not to be optimistic.”
Turns out this edition of the Ravens (4-5) is far more comparable to the team that lost to Indianapolis than the one that averaged 22 points during the regular season.
The defense, as usual, has been outstanding. Despite being compromised by the loss of free agent Adalius Thomas and injuries to Trevor Pryce, Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, Baltimore ranks fifth in the NFL and four times has held the opposition to one touchdown or fewer.
Clayton was reminded of the Colts game because Baltimore’s defense kept Cincinnati out of the end zone, and still the Ravens lost. Therein lies the reason the Ravens almost certainly won’t be playing football in January.
McNair deserves much of the blame — he has 11 turnovers and only two touchdown passes — but he’s also had the misfortune of working within a system entirely devoid of imagination. Baltimore’s offense has scored 10 touchdowns this season, only two in the last two games. The Ravens’ average of 15.3 points per game is better than only Kansas City, St. Louis, Atlanta and San Francisco, which are a collective 10-26.
Nearly half of Baltimore’s 138 points have been provided by Stover, by far the team’s most potent offensive threat.
When the Ravens were struggling to score last season, Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and took over the play-calling. In Billick’s first game in the dual role, Baltimore amassed 16 first downs before halftime in a 35-22 rout of New Orleans.
That victory started Baltimore on a 9-1 run that ended with the loss to Indianapolis. During the offseason, Billick promoted Rick Neuheisel to offensive coordinator but insisted on keeping the play-calling duties.
The long passes, reverses, draw plays and screen passes that worked so well last year apparently are no longer part of the game plan. Running back Willis McGahee has been better than adequate as the successor to Jamal Lewis, but Billick keeps calling for short passes when a handoff would be far more efficient.
That tendency was openly questioned by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis after Billick ordered three consecutive passes when Baltimore needed 1 yard to extend a drive in the waning moments of a 19-14 loss to Buffalo.
The Ravens had a bye after that game, then returned to get hammered by Pittsburgh 38-7 on Monday night. That was precursor to an even bigger embarrassment: a loss at home to the Bengals, who came in 26 with the 31st-ranked defense.
The fans jeered the Ravens when they came off the field at halftime, and by game’s end the stadium was nearly empty. Those who remained booed some more.
It’s quite possible the 34year-old McNair is too old to be effective. Some suggest it’s time for Billick to go, even though he won a Super Bowl in 2001 and is signed through 2010. Those are the big topics of discussion around Baltimore these days, not potential playoff matchups.
Billick got the job in 1999 because of his ability to run an offense. Except for last season’s 10-game run, the Ravens have won solely on the ability of the defense during his tenure.
Billick soon may have to adhere to a do-it-or-else suggestion from owner Steve Bisciotti to have someone else to call the plays. Billick, in turn, might want to ask for a new quarterback.
The Ravens got McNair because Kyle Boller just wasn’t good enough. McNair, a former NFL co-MVP, was supposed to make Baltimore’s offense as good as the defense. Now, ironically, the fans are clamoring for Boller. Or even third-stringer Troy Smith.
Clearly, Baltimore needs to address its offense before the defense gets too old. Lewis, Pryce, McAlister, Rolle and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg are all in their 30s.