Billick fired after disastrous season

OWINGS MILLS -- The Brian Billick era ended unceremoniously after nine years with the Baltimore Ravens on Monday as he paid for a disastrous season with his job in a surprising reversal by team owner Steve Bisciotti.

Less than a month after being given private assurances by Bisciotti that he would be allowed to hold onto his post, Billick was fired the morning after concluding a 5-11 season that began with lofty Super Bowl aspirations and nose-dived into a franchise-record nine-game losing streak.

The entire staff, including defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, was dismissed, although Ryan is expected to interview for the Ravens' vacancy. Unless Billick, 53, lands another NFL coaching position, he's still owed $15 million over the next three years after signing a contract extension a year ago.

"It's a gut feeling," Bisciotti said. "I have one job here, and that's to have a leader that I think gives us the best chance. We have been losing more than winning lately. The clichés about, 'losing the locker room,' and 'message getting stale,' I didn't know I would ever have to address.

"I believed that it was time for a change. I believed that we have the nucleus of a team that can get back to the Super Bowl, and we felt that in the next five years, we had a better chance with a new coach than leaving Brian in that position."

Although Billick led the Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV, he never brought the offense to Baltimore that was anticipated following a high-scoring run as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator. Plus, the Ravens have only won one playoff game since reaching the pinnacle of NFL success and that was six years ago.

"After nine years in one place, it does get a little tiring and the message does get a little repetitive," said offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, the team's inaugural draft pick. "In the end, this organization needed a change. We need to move forward and try to go in a different direction. It's just the unfortunate nature of this business. Either produce or you're not going to be here."

During his explanation of what caused him to change his mind, Bisciotti acknowledged that he talked to personnel throughout the organization while denying that he had followed players' advice despite reports to the contrary. Billick had volunteered to relinquish play-calling duties and hire a new offensive coordinator.

Bisciotti said he followed the advice of general manager Ozzie Newsome and team president Dick Cass as well as fellow owners.

"Quite honestly, I had every intention of giving Brian another crack at this thing," Bisciotti said. "He was willing to get a new offensive coordinator and turn over the play-calling. He was willing to do that actually weeks ago and we recommended against it because the person that was going to get that charge was Rick Neuheisel.

"We knew that Rick had half an eye on the college job openings and he could get a job when we still have three games left, so he's not a good candidate. People became vocal. Some came to me and encouraged me to seek out and Ozzie to seek out and Dick to seek out some other opinions, and we did."

Billick has an all-time record of 85-67, including the postseason, but has only had a 33-33 mark since Bisciotti took over as majority owner in 2004 after buying the team from Art Modell, who hired Billick.

Over that span, Baltimore had two losing seasons and made the playoffs only once.

"We believe that we will be better with fresh blood or we wouldn't have made this decision," Bisciotti said. "We obviously wouldn't fire Brian if we through we were where we needed to be."

Bisciotti said he had already decided to fire Billick hours before the Ravens' 27-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season finale. He officially fired him Monday morning at the team's training complex with assistant coaches told by Billick immediately afterward that he was out. The players were informed shortly afterward in a meeting with Bisciotti, Newsome and Cass.

"He had to make a hard decision, and he did what he believes is best for the Ravens," said Billick in a statement that added he will continue to live in Maryland. "We are friends and will remain friends."

Added Bisciotti: "Brian gets what he deserves. His contract will be paid. He's building that farm on the Eastern Shore, and he told me that he's wealthy enough to treat me to dinner over there when the house is done."

Bisciotti memorably took Billick to the woodshed two years ago following a 6-10 campaign. He retained him with the demand that he alter his management style to become more approachable to fellow employees and less confrontational with reporters.

Billick seemed to embrace those conditions, but it wasn't sufficient ultimately to survive this brutally bad season.

"Brian made a sincere effort," Bisciotti said. "I brought a very different style of open communication into this business. I felt as the leader that he lacked some of the leadership skills, I guess, to make people comfortable to maybe give him advice. He really made an effort to change that.

"I had given him some certain goals that I wanted him to try to achieve. For the most part, he did. I guess what I can say now is that it wasn't enough and I, reluctantly but convincingly, made the decision to give him another stab."

Bisciotti declined to offer specific reasons behind the decision other than referencing the Ravens' subpar record, and offered his regrets at being asked to discuss why Billick was no longer regarded as the team's best option moving forward.

"As much as I know that you deserve answers, I can't get into specifics because we're talking about a man that I admire and flaws in his game," Bisciotti said. "We don't sit there and tell you why we cut a receiver. You have to kind of let it speak for itself."

And Billick's departure spoke volumes about the descent of a franchise with a strong winning tradition.

Billick's nine seasons tied Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid for the third-longest tenure with the same team. Eventually, Bisciotti concluded that it was time for new leadership.

Now, Newsome will lead a coaching search that's expected to include Ryan, former San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher and San Francisco 49ers assistant head coach Mike Singletary.

"You have to take chances in life in order to succeed," Bisciotti said. "I hope that our fans know that there was a lot of thought going into this and that we will work tirelessly to find that next coach to win us another Super Bowl or two. .. I said to my wife last night that there is a Hall of Fame coach out there, and it's our job to find him."

Billick took the Ravens to the playoffs in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2006, but Baltimore failed to meet high expectations this time after returning nearly every starter from last year's AFC North championship squad.

The Ravens went from a franchise-record 13-3 campaign last season to sole possession of last place in the division for the first time in a decade.

Baltimore went 76 days before winning another game after an Oct. 14 win over the St. Louis Rams, also losing to the previously winless Miami Dolphins during that span and being blown out on national television by the Steelers and the Indianapolis Colts.

With a multitude of injuries, going from first to worst in turnover differential, committing loads of costly penalties and Billick making some questionable play-calling, the Ravens ceased to be a contender anymore.

"For all we went through as a team, I think coach Billick stood in there. And for all the verbal lashings from the fans and the media, he stood in there and took it," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "That says a lot for the man, for his character. Yes, it was shocking, but the organization had to make a decision. As a player, you start to question some things, and some people might have been questioning his ability."

Billick took the high road as he left the Ravens' building and Bisciotti described his demeanor as gracious.

"The passion, the dedication and the willingness to work by the players is so appreciated," Billick said. "Even in this difficult season, they fought through it. My respect for the players, every single one who has played for the Ravens in the last nine years, is hard to articulate. They have my complete respect and admiration. It's been a great ride with the Ravens and the fans here."

The Ravens have only had two coaches in the dozen years of their existence: Billick and Ted Marchibroda.

As Bisciotti noted, being an agent of change offers no guarantees of success.

The Anne Arundel County businessman and one of Forbes' richest Americans is hoping that he won't find himself in this same position anytime soon.

"In order to take chances, you have to listen to your heart, you have to listen to your gut," Bisciotti said. "It doesn't mean that you don't pray on it and it doesn't mean that you don't fear being wrong because I do fear being wrong. I could be three coaches past Brian Billick nine years from now and trying to solve this puzzle.

"I hope that over time Baltimore views me as a quality of an owner as Brian Billick was a head football coach. So, I've got some catching up to do for the man that I just asked to step down. And the jury's out on me. Brian's already got his Super Bowl, so I'll try to make you all proud."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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