Billick has high expectations after rough 2004

One year ago, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick stuck out his chin and boldly proclaimed his football team to be a prime Super Bowl contender. As the Ravens check into the team hotel for training camp today in Westminster, their luggage includes the hard-earned perspective of how a once-promising season unraveled into failure.

Punched in the face by injuries to key starters, running back Jamal Lewis' legal problems and a lingering chemistry issue in the locker room, the Ravens lost four of their last six games and didn't even make the playoffs.

It was a sobering experience for a team that spent the off-season examining and overhauling not only a sluggish offense, but also the more delicate issue of analyzing the inner workings of the roster.

Toward that goal of increasing the harmony of the team and understanding last season's tailspin, Billick visited a dozen players after the season to discuss the Ravens' issues and get their input.

"I think we learned a lot from last year and I think the potential for the chemistry on this team is outstanding," said Billick, who now sports a gray beard akin to Zen-master basketball coach Phil Jackson "It's something you have to nurture. It's like a marriage. It's something you have to constantly work at."

For Billick, whose team finished 9-7 as starters combined to miss 53 games, it was a way of determining what leadership path to take as he enters his seventh season in Baltimore.

The need to address the chemistry issue became public in December when cornerback Chris McAlister outlined a locker room divide. There was also speculation about locker room cliques, including one dotted with high-profile athletes such as All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

"I can't really put my finger on it, but it's not the same feeling," McAlister said. "Maybe it's because we're losing. Maybe that's what has gotten this locker room a little shifted... "It really used to be real loose, and we used to have a lot of fun in here. It's not that same way. Now it's kind of like everybody stays in their own little corner."

Billick, 51, met with a diverse group of players, including tight end Todd Heap, nose guard Kelly Gregg and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. The team also held its annual fishing derby and a paintball tournament to foster camaraderie.

"That's clearly is something we will focus on," Billick said. "This team is maturing and how that chemistry exhibits itself is different in the way you exhibit closeness and team chemistry when you're single, young and you leave this building than when you're older, more established and have two kids and a wife.

"Finding that right balance and chemistry is a challenge for this team. Ultimately, it falls back on the team where they have to embrace that mentality that we are going to be a team. What I can do to enhance that chemistry, a coach can only do so much."

Rewarded with a multiyear contract before last season by new owner Steve Bisciotti, Billick enters the season with a 61-42 record, including the postseason.

The Vince Lombardi trophy sits in a trophy case in the Ravens' lobby is the Vince Lombardi trophy, a shiny reminder of a Super Bowl title in 2000. It's waiting for company.

There's also an empty, identical trophy case located underneath a painting of former majority owner Art Modell.

Yet, the Ravens haven't won a playoff game since 2001 and haven't made the postseason since 2003 when they won the AFC North title.

The Ravens are instituting the high-risk, aggressive 46 defense under new defensive coordinator Rex Ryan while new offensive coordinator Jim Fassel attempts to upgrade an offense that ranked 31st in the league last season as quarterback Kyle Boller was the second-to-lowest rated passer in the AFC.

"Brian is very methodical when he analyzes 2005, but also 2006 and 2007 and what are the Ravens going to look like," former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. "This is a year where the Ravens' offense should be a whole lot different and better. It's also a year where I think they get back to intimidating people with their defense."

Billick considers this team to be as talented as any of his previous editions, especially after signing two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Mason and former Pro Bowl cornerback Samari Rolle to go with five returning Pro Bowl selections.

Will the Ravens fulfill lofty expectations a year after being going 3-5 against teams that finished with a winning record?

"I think we're more talented and capable than even last year at this time," Billick said. "Therefore, our expectations are the same. We certainly believe we are a Super Bowl caliber team. However, that's with the qualifier that last year we didn't make the playoffs.

"That has to change the mindset a little bit. Our expectations certainly are high, but we have an obligation to keep our focus and understand that we have a lot of work to do and we were not a playoff team last year."

NOTES: The Ravens are reportedly in contention along with the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers to sign running back Jesse Chatman, the San Diego Chargers' second-leading rusher last season who was released this week. Chatman, who rushed for 329 yards in 2004, reported overweight at 250 pounds. ... Candidates for the physically unable to perform list include tight end Todd Heap (ankle, shoulder), running back Jamal Lewis (ankle) and running back Musa Smith (leg). Also, the workloads of nickel back Deion Sanders (toe), nickel back Dale Carter (missed 2004 season with bloodclot in his lungs) and offensive tackle Orlando Brown (knee) are likely to be limited and monitored closely.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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