Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick appears worried. The Ravens still have a winning record 6-4 following Sunday’s loss to the Cleveland Browns but Billick announced that his players no longer are allowed to comment on the performances of their teammates.
Billick’s gag order provides an interesting contrast to the situation in Washington, where the Redskins have won four straight tying the New York Jets for the NFL’s longest current streak largely by not losing faith in each other during an 0-5 start.
A month ago, the Redskins were coming off a dreadful 9-7 loss at Dallas on “Monday Night Football.” The two teams were battling to avoid being called the league’s worst team, and Washington exited with the embarrassing title.
It was time to start pointing fingers. The offense clearly was not doing its share and it was making the defense look bad. Washington couldn’t hold onto the ball and was playing constantly from behind, and the defense, in turn, was allowing 100-yard rushers each week.
Players were given ample opportunity to unload verbally on the parties at fault on and off the record. It would have been very easy to be honest and state which players were to blame. Folks around town certainly had no problem saying it.
Somehow, the Redskins did not point fingers at teammates. And they did not need coach Marty Schottenheimer to make a public announcement that they should not do so.
The Ravens, in contrast, apparently needed some instruction. The furor began Sunday when tight end Shannon Sharpe said the obvious about quarterback Elvis Grbac, who had just thrown four interceptions to bring his season total to 13.
“He was brought here to do a job and the job is not getting done,” Sharpe said. “Elvis has to be the guy who pulls the trigger. The organization spent a lot of money on him. Right now, I’m very disappointed in the offense’s performance.”
On Monday, Billick issued a new rule, saying: “This team is not going to engage in any conversation, speculation and comments on another team member. … It serves no purpose whatsoever. This team very much wants to stay together and not point fingers.”
The fact that Billick thought he needed the edict says something either about his opinions of his players, or the pace at which the team is coming apart.
Players naturally shy away from criticizing teammates on-the-record, and some negative comments particularly statements of the obvious are to be expected. Character guys keep criticisms to a minimum, and high-character guys keep their thoughts to themselves.
The Redskins fell into the latter category somewhat surprisingly, considering the 2000 team had a mercenary persona and finger-pointers like Albert Connell and Deion Sanders.
This year defensive players maintained confidence in offensive players. One month later, the offense is doing its part and Washington is finding ways to win.
The credit goes to the stand-up guys who set the example: older guys like Marco Coleman and Darrell Green, and younger guys like Jon Jansen and LaVar Arrington, who emerged as leaders during the difficult stretch.
There was controversy during the poor start, but not of the player-vs.-player variety except when Bruce Smith called Schottenheimer’s imports “5-0s,” or spies. But that dispute was really a player-vs.-coach issue. And there were plenty of those.
It took the Redskins a while to trust Schottenheimer. It didn’t happen during training camp. It didn’t happen during a dismal 1-3 preseason. And it certainly didn’t happen during an 0-3 start in which the team was outscored 112-16.
Players privately complained during the 0-3 start that running back Stephen Davis wasn’t getting the ball enough and that the offensive play-calling was too conservative. Following the third defeat, 45-13 at home against a bad Kansas City club, there were meetings between coaches and players and among players alone. Exiting them, players began focusing on themselves, not on the coaches.
Then the most impressive part of the Redskins’ turnaround occurred: They lost. Twice. In the fourth quarter. At that point, most players would have given up.
One month later, the Redskins are one win away from .500 and from being official playoff contenders. And it is largely because they didn’t need their coach to tell them not to criticize one another.

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