Ravens shocked, accepting of Billick's firing

OWINGS MILLS -- One day after the Baltimore Ravens concluded a dismal season, players arrived at the training complex Monday to clean out their lockers only to learn that coach Brian Billick had unexpectedly been fired. Reaction in the locker room ranged from shock and surprise to a grudging acceptance.

The players realized something had to change dramatically after the team finished last in the AFC North one year removed from a division title and a franchise-record 13-3 campaign.

"Yes, it was shocking, but the organization had to make a decision," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "As a player, you start to question some things, and some people might have been questioning his ability. It's not for me to agree or disagree. As a player, you move with the ship when the ship is going."

So, Billick took the fall after nine years, an 85-67 all-time record that includes a Super Bowl XXXV victory, following a 5-11 season that's one win shy of tying the worst record in franchise history.

What seemed to doom Billick more than anything was the perception that he had lost the players and his message had grown stale.

"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."

Added center Mike Flynn: "Brian has always been good to me. I wish him well. I can't speak for other players. I think even Brian said you can talk on deaf ears after a while. Maybe it was time. We didn't have a good year. Whenever you have these kind of years and you come in with expectations, you need to perform well. Usually, it starts with the coach. The coach will take a lot of the blame, and sometimes he'll take credit when he doesn't deserve as much."

Not every player wanted to talk about the firing as running back Willis McGahee and linebacker Bart Scott declined to comment.

Nose guard Kelly Gregg praised Billick, adding that he thought that if anyone could get the team out of its rut it was him.

That wasn't the case, though.

"Coach Billick never made a tackle," Gregg said. "Players got to take some blame, too."

That isn't how the NFL typically works, though. The head coach is ultimately held accountable, as Billick was Monday despite a string of injuries to key players, poor quarterback play and dropping to worst in the league in turnover ratio.

"This is the reality of the business," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "At one point or another, everybody will be fired one day. This is the first time I have been on a team where everybody was let go. It's a very humbling day for everybody. For all the defensive coaches, the guys who we are very close to, it's a very sad day."

The bottom line in the NFL is the record. In Billick's case, it was regarded as inadequate. So, team owner Steve Bisciotti decided to reverse course and fire him after an earlier vote of confidence that eventually wound up meaning nothing.

"I'm neither agreeing or disagreeing with the decision, but sometimes change is necessary," kicker Matt Stover said. "Our leaders on this ball club felt like this was the way to go. I'm going to trust that, and I'm going to move forward with that. I wish the best to Brian and his family, I love that guy.

"We had an unsuccessful year this year, a record of 5-11 just doesn't get it done. You can't go 5-11 in this league. When you do, change can happen and it did."

Stover insisted that Billick hadn't lost his support despite the decline of the team competitively as the Ravens only won one division game.

"He didn't lose me, and that's all I can speak for," Stover said. "I had his back, and I would've still had his back if he was the coach here. I appreciate Brian. Anybody who can treat a man like a man in this league, I respect always."

When Rolle was asked a similar question about Billick's leadership, he replied: "I am going to be respectful of coach Billick. That's not my job to speak out of line. It's his day, so I'm just going to be respectful of him."

Meanwhile, Ogden was already pondering retirement prior to Billick's departure. Now that the coaching situation is undetermined, he'll take some time before formulating his career plans.

"New system, new coach, it's a double-edged sword," Ogden said. "Some things we need to change about the offense. I have no idea what we're going to do. I will definitely wait and see and talk to whoever the new coach is and go from there."

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was noncommittal on what he anticipated regarding his personal future.

Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, the former Pro Bowl pass rusher's agent has been trying to negotiate a contract extension since April. Suggs could also be retained with the franchise tag.

"I think it's still too early," Suggs said. "I've always said and believe in my heart that I'm a Raven. I love the city of Baltimore. On the front office side, we're affected by the decisions and moves they make, on whether they see me as a Raven."

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

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