- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Democracy has spread to the one of the most unlikely places.

On Tuesday, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick called his team together and put an important matter to a vote: Where to practice, inside or outside? The consensus was inside. It was a chilly day, winter having finally arrived, and after a bye week prior to preparing for tomorrow’s AFC Divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts at M&T; Bank Stadium, some of the players wanted to run and sweat in more balmy conditions.

“That’s beautiful,” linebacker Bart Scott said after the workout. “At the end of the day he trusts that we know what we need.”

Make no mistake. A physically imposing man at 6-foot-5, the former Brigham Young tight end still commands respect. Just ask Jim Fassel, Billick’s close friend who became his former offensive coordinator when he was fired six games into the season. Billick assumed playcalling duties and the Ravens’ offense took off. In other ways, as well, Billick has exerted the authority he always has had.

“He’s very meticulous in what he does and very methodical in the way he goes about his business,” said veteran defensive lineman Trevor Pryce, who this season came to Baltimore from Denver as a free agent. “There’s no sugar-coating in what he says. There’s no lip-service from him. I can appreciate that.”

Yet the methods of operation have changed for the entire organization and most prominently, for Billick. It’s a more open society with added interaction within the structure of the franchise. That includes input from the players.

“He’s still the head coach,” veteran All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said before adding with a laugh: “But the inmates kind of run the asylum, almost.”

Almost.

“He’s changed a little bit, but at the same time he has stayed the same as far as his philosophies and a lot of things that he does,” fullback Ovie Mughelli said.

Billick, 52, always has treated his players like men, as the saying goes, allowing certain freedoms that many other NFL coaches eschew. Within limits, he does not cloak his team in a dark shroud of secrecy like Bill Belichick and other tightly wound coaches. He is a former public relations man who allowed HBO cameras uncommon access during the 2001 preseason and gave season-long access to a writer for a book in 2004.

At the same time, Billick is largely perceived by many as an arrogant, egotistical know-it-all not averse to lecturing reporters on how to do their jobs. He once famously ended a debate by asking, “Anyone want to ask me who my quarterback is next week? Again, that’s why owners own, coaches coach, players play and writers write.”

His posture was reinforced by leading the Ravens to an NFL championship in the 2000 season, his second year on the job. He acted as if he had all the answers. Sometimes he did.

But not last year, when the Ravens went 6-10 and appeared to be in total disarray. Billick’s job was widely reported to have been in jeopardy, although Ravens officials have since disputed that. Yet in a much-discussed change of philosophy within the organization, he became less of an autocrat and more of a democrat.

Other opinions — including and especially the players’ — were and still are heard and considered. It also helped that the Ravens had a great draft and picked up several key veterans, including Pryce and quarterback Steve McNair.

Still, few doubt the improvement to 13-3 and a first-place finish in the AFC North was partly because of Billick’s personal turnaround.

“It’s not like he’s changed his personality or anything like that,” said cornerback Samari Rolle, whose difficult 2005 season, his first with the Ravens, typified the club’s struggles. “He’s become understandable, I guess. You understand now where he’s coming from.”

Billick, in published reports, has acknowledged the change and admitted that it wasn’t easy.

“You always have to hold on to your fundamental truths of what you believe in,” he said at the end of a 10-minute press conference Tuesday. “But, if you’re not adapting and changing from year to year, you need to go do something else.”

On the specific nature of how he changed, he said, “I don’t know. You’d have to ask those around me. I hope I am a better coach. What specifically there is, you probably have to ask others. Hopefully, I’m continuing to grow, both as a man and as a coach.”

At the start of training camp in July, Billick publicly expounded on the situation.

“I had two partners that came to me at a crucial time in an inclusive way,” he told reporters. “It wasn’t, ‘OK, we decided this …’ It was, ‘Look, we need to find an answer for this. Here are the things we need to do. Do you want to be a part of that?’ And I embraced it wholeheartedly because they were legitimate observations.

“A lot of it had to do with me, a lot of it had to do with my coaches and the way we were going about it. A lot of it had to do with the organization and the personnel. So it was very broad-based.”

The “partners,” owner Steve Biscotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome, were not available for comment, according to a team spokesman.

In July, the low-keyed Biscotti, who made remarks interpreted as critical of Billick last season, said, “I think we’ve had a great offseason and I think we’ve done some things differently, even with the coaches and everything. We got them more involved in the process and got them to communicate their opinions more. That’s really what we’re trying to do with the players, too.”

Nearly six months later, the Ravens are coming off the most successful regular season in team history and are considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The plan seems to have worked.

“He’s just opened up more,” said Scott, who emerged as a top linebacker this year. “He’s really been a pleasure to be around. It’s beautiful. This whole year has been special, man. The family environment has been great to be around, and he’s been a part of it.”

The players first became aware of something different at the start of preseason.

“We had a meeting and he said he was gonna try and change,” Scott said. “It takes a lot for a grown man to change at 50 or however old he is. It takes a big man. I mean, whenever somebody makes an attempt to change, you have to take an extra step to oblige him.”

Said Mughelli, the fullback: “The only thing that’s different is he’s allowing us to give more input, or taking more input and suggestions from us. Like when he asked us if we wanted to practice inside or outside. I think very few coaches, Dallas or the Patriots, would ask his players. It’s really our team. It’s not just game-speak or rhetoric. It’s really our team.”

What seems to have had the greatest impact, both on and off the field, was Billick’s taking over playcalling duties. The Ravens were 4-2 at the time, but the offense, which was supposed to have shifted into a new gear under McNair, was stuck in neutral. Baltimore averaged 18.3 points and 272 yards in the first six games. The Ravens gained at least 300 yards just once during the stretch.

Billick, who was hired in 1999 based on his success as Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator, helped spark the Ravens’ offense. Those averages improved to 24.3 points and 344.2 yards after he took over.

Simply put, Billick opened up the offense.

“It’s not all that complicated,” wide receiver Mark Clayton said. “It really isn’t. We love the way he sets things up for us and puts us in a position to win.”

One of Billick’s staunchest allies, running back Jamal Lewis, added, “I see it as Billick’s offense. He knows what he wants out of his offense. He uses everybody on the field. … We’re confident that he’s calling the right plays and putting us in the right position to go out and make plays. We’re just executing. Whatever he calls, we just try to go out and execute because we have a good plan going in.”

And, as McNair noted, “He has split personalities now — head coach and offensive coordinator. He can yell at himself now.”

Another positive, albeit cold-hearted, aspect to the change made a strong impression on the players.

“When he made the move to fire Fassel, one thing that said to us was that he’s not worried about friendships, he’s worried about us, the team, what’s best for the team,” Scott said. “He put a huge bull’s-eye on his chest for criticism. When a guy does something like that, you’ll lay it on the line for him.”

Some of the players came to Billick and expressed concern over the direction of the offense, Ogden said.

“I don’t know if last year he would have pulled the trigger,” the tackle said. “I think he just said, ‘This is the way the guys are feeling. It’s one of my best friends, but for the good of the team we need to do this.’ And I think that’s part of, like, his new demeanor or so. He always wants to do what’s best for us. But I think this year we felt able to voice some concerns over the way things are going.”

Ogden was asked to name one word that comes to mind when people are talking about Billick.

“Arrogant,” Ogden replied.

But is it true?

“It’s just confidence,” he said. “He’s a little arrogant, sure, but you’ve got to be. You’ve got to believe you’re the best at what you do, especially at the professional level. If you’re coaching, playing. It might come out differently with certain people, but I don’t think he’s any different from any other coach.”

Mughelli, another player whose role in the offense has expanded, added another word to describe Billick’s persona.

“His swagger,” he said. “It translates to the team. We all have that swagger — defense, offense, special teams. All coaches are confident, but he gets criticized for being arrogant. But you need a little bit of arrogance to get to where you want to go. To get to where you are.”

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