Billick has the Ravens back in the playoffs again

OWINGS MILLS -- When it comes to motivational ploys, Brian Billick leaves few stones unturned, or methods of communication unexplored. Whether the Baltimore Ravens' football coach is displaying a film clip from the Clint Eastwood western, Unforgiven, or splicing famous quotations into his computer-generated game plans, Billick is all about imparting a message.

The disciple of retired San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh has co-authored two books and is two months shy of his 50th birthday. He's a regular on the speaking circuit. And Billick is devoted to writing e-mails and logging research on his collection of laptop computers inside his corner office at the Ravens' training complex. 

Before answering questions at weekly press conferences, Billick begins with a carefully-orchestrated opening statement that closely mirrors the Ravens' weekly press release. He's equally meticulous while standing at a podium and addressing his football team, or counseling a player in his office. "He's very good at pushing buttons," said Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, whose team hosts the Tennessee Titans in Saturday's AFC wild-card playoff at M&T Bank Stadium. "He's a speaker. He talks very well. "Since I've been here, he hasn't had a lack of words in the way to motivate us. He always come up with something, a clip from a movie, or some old story about somebody." 

McAlister was benched by Billick earlier this season when he violated curfew and missed a team meeting the next morning days prior to the San Diego Chargers' contest The Ravens won with Gary Baxter checking San Diego receiver David Boston instead of McAlister. McAlister, who apologized for his actions after meeting with Billick and general manager Ozzie Newsome, has since emerged as a first-time all-star who has shut down the likes of the St. Louis Rams' Torry Holt, the San Francisco 49ers' Terrell Owens and Cincinnati Bengals standout Chad Johnson

Whether it's Billick's influence or not, McAlister definitely seems to have matured. Billick doesn't have to say much to motivate his team this week. The story line is the AFC North champions' encounter with the Titans, a former AFC Central rival. 

On Jan. 7, 2001, the Ravens' 24-10 victory in an AFC divisional playoff in Nashville propelled Baltimore on the way toward its first Super Bowl title. Now that Billick has a 5-1 mark in the postseason and a 52-34 overall record in his fifth season as the Ravens' coach, the former offensive coordinator for a Minnesota Vikings team that set a league record for points scored in 1998, said he is better prepared for his job. "You learn a lot," Billick said. "If you remember in 2000, especially when we played [Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos coach] Mike Shanahan, my biggest concern was my lack of experience. "I relied heavily on the coaches and players to handle that experience because I feared my inadequacies. We have been down this road a few more times and I am more confident." 

That playoff run three years ago also shaped Billick's image nationally. The postseason included his temper flaring at a scoreboard clip the Titans aired of Billick talking to his team in the locker room before the game. Billick also lectured the media at the Super Bowl about focusing too heavily, in his opinion, on All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis' involvement in a double-murder trial in Atlanta the year before where the most serious charges against Lewis were ultimately dropped for lack of evidence except for a misdemeanor obstruction of justice. "If you're a president, mayor, senator or entertainer," Billick said before the Ravens defeated the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, "when you're out in front like we are, you're going to say something that people don't like. "If arrogance is someone who is confident in himself, confident in people around him and wanting all who work with him to have a similar attitude, well then, I am arrogant." 

Since the Super Bowl win, the Ravens have gone through an abbreviated playoff run in 2001 followed by a salary-cap purge that left the Ravens with an average age of 25.8 years. The nucleus hasn't changed much, though, with the focus still on a defense headlined by Lewis and an offense that's a polar opposite from Billick's Vikings days. Running back Jamal Lewis' 2,066 yards gave him the second-most prolific rushing season in NFL history behind Eric Dickerson. However, the Ravens are ranked last in passing offense. They are up to their 10th starting quarterback under Billick in former third-stringer Anthony Wright, who is 5-2 as a starter. "Billick doesn't get enough credit for what he does on offense," Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, a former Titan, told reporters in Cincinnati earlier this season. "Everybody expected him to have the Minnesota Vikings' style of offense. He's done a good job, even though he's really arrogant about his coaching. That's what people don't like." 

Heading into Saturday's playoff against the Titans, Billick has his detractors, but he also has his share of fans. Including Ray Lewis, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "He's a true players' coach," Lewis said. "Brian's going to take authority at all times that authority is supposed to be upheld, but he's going to let his players play. He's going to let us voice our opinions about certain things, on and off the field. "I think that's why so many guys relate to Brian. You don't have all these little things that treat you like a child. He treats you truly as a man." 

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue got upset this fall after Billick said the league should "dump the whole [expletive] thing" in reference to instant replay. Billick was ultimately fined, not for his condemnation of instant replay, but for criticizing referee Johnny Grier's work in a loss to Cincinnati. Beyond all the verbiage, a favorite Billick vocabulary word, a few facts remain inarguable: The Ravens have eight Pro Bowl selections, their first divison title and are back in the playoffs again. And they are still coached by Billick, who has a degree in communications from Brigham Young and was once the San Francisco 49ers' assistant director of public relations after a brief NFL career as a tight end. "This is one of those good times," Billick said. "I'm proud of this organization from top to bottom." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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