Ravens' staff makes subtle changes to approach

Under Brian Billick, the Baltimore Ravens have established a tradition of allowing their most venerable veterans to occupy first-class seating on team charter flights. It was a nod of respect for the longevity of elders like Tony Siragusa, Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe.

Yet, it was only another telling sign of the Ravens' current state of affairs when tight end Todd Heap, Sharpe's 22-year-old successor, jokingly told Billick during a June minicamp that he might be qualified for first-class status.

Billick's answer to his baby-faced tight end: "You may be right."

A Super Bowl team of two seasons ago has fallen prey to two of the NFL's most formidable opponents: advancing age and the salary cap.

The youth movement is definitely in vogue in Baltimore. The average age on the roster is 23.7 years.

With the loss of 12 starters from last season's playoff team in one of the largest-scale dismantling of a roster in league history, change is the theme of the Ravens' upcoming season.

 With the different makeup of this roster, Billick and his coaching staff are feeling a lot of nostalgia from their days on college campuses, when they shepherded unsure young players on football Saturdays.

"The style won't be substantially different because you are who you are, but the focus will be different," Billick said. "When you have a veteran group replete with the leadership that we had you kind of point it in the right direction and refocus it every now and then.

"With these young kids, we are constantly going to have to remind ourselves whenever there's the first inclination of, ‘Oh, geez, I wonder if I have to cover this,' cover it because these guys aren't going to know it."

While Billick doesn't plan on doing much hand-holding and will only tolerate so many repeats of the same mistake as the season approaches, the coaching style has taken on some subtle changes.

Billick and his staff actually have to consider whether a player can handle constructive criticism or aggressive coaching, of how they will respond. Some players are motivated by a raised voice and a mean look. Others may go into a shell.

 Many players don't want the coaches to decrease the decibel level or the intensity one iota.

"Since we are a young team, the coaches are going to be a little more excited about coaching us and they're going to demand a lot," said cornerback Gary Baxter, a starter for the first time entering his second season. "I think we're going to make mistakes because we're a young team, but to make the same mistake twice or three times is unacceptable.

"We need to take our jobs very seriously."

This isn't exactly the kinder, gentler era of Ravens football. Still, expect some adjusting to the unproven youngsters who populate this roster.

Baltimore features over 40 rookies, and Billick said that a comparison of the Ravens and the expansion Houston Texans' final roster would probably give Houston the edge in overall experience.

"I don't think the coaches will change too much. I do think it's going to be a little bit more disciplined," said new starting quarterback Chris Redman, 25, who has thrown only three NFL passes. "I think they're going to be hard on us, but other than that, it's going to be a normal camp."

The challenge is coaching young players who will make their fair share of mistakes.

 "The coaches in terms of the actual way they have to interact with players need to be demanding and patient," Billick said. "Ultimately, between now and the opening game, they have to evolve from a, ‘Yeah, this is right, this is OK' to when you make a mistake in the season-opener that's unacceptable. There's a transition."

Billick spent over a decade coaching at the college level, including three years at Stanford. Most of his staff has spent time on mentoring players as they make the transition from prep football on Friday night to Saturday afternoons on campus.

 The coaches will also rely upon veterans like All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis. On a team that has lost a lot of leadership and elder voices, some of them quite outspoken in the case of Siragusa and Sharpe, it's time for leaders to lead and followers to follow.

Lewis has apparently received the message from Billick on his added responsibilities loud and clear. "I think he's going to let a lot of veteran guys lead," said Lewis, 27.

Asked whether he was ready for such a role, Lewis smiled and said, "That's never a problem. No extra effort."

Because so many veterans are gone, the young players share the burden of setting an example for one another, and they may feel more comfortable voicing their opinions.

 "I don't think there is any intimidation factor here," Redman said. "People are going to establish themselves. I don't think anyone is intimidated by me and I'm not intimidated by anybody on the team.

"I think that's good. I think people feel comfortable and relaxed."

The words from his mouth almost sparked laughter from Heap as he pronounced himself a young veteran with one year of NFL experience under his belt.

 "It's definitely a different atmosphere," Heap said. "It's a totally new team."

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