Ravens in flux as search begins

OWINGS MILLS -- Hours before Rick Neuheisel boarded a UCLA university jet to Los Angeles to be introduced as the Bruins' head coach, he issued a cryptic thought regarding the Baltimore Ravens' outlook. Standing in the Ravens' locker room, the outgoing defensive coordinator expressed hope that carnage wasn't about to ensue in Baltimore following a nose-dive into the AFC North cellar.

"I hope there isn't any major implosion here, because I think that would be a mistake," Neuheisel said Sunday following the Ravens' 27-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season finale. "I hope there aren't so many changes that you can't even recognize it."

It turned out that Neuheisel's worry only applies so far to Brian Billick, who was fired by team owner Steve Bisciotti Monday morning along with the rest of the coaching staff.

What happens next with a roster still expected to remain relatively intact will depend heavily on the results of the Ravens' coaching search headed by general manager Ozzie Newsome.

The quest for a new head coach is expected to consider potential candidates such as former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, former San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who Newsome said will be interviewed for the vacancy, New England Patriots offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, San Francisco 49ers assistant head coach Mike Singletary and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.

Ryan was enthusiastically endorsed by several players and has remained silent on his plans. He nearly landed the Chargers' job that went to Norv Turner last year.

Unprompted during a press conference to discuss Billick's firing, Bisciotti insisted that he hadn't already interviewed Cowher despite rumors to the contrary that they've already met several times. Meanwhile, the Ravens haven't asked the 49ers for permission to speak to Singletary yet.

And with no coach or staff in place currently, the Ravens' roster is essentially in limbo with decisions to be made on several key veterans, including oft-injured former Pro Bowl quarterback Steve McNair, who's recovering from surgery to repair his non-throwing shoulder's rotator cuff.

"First of all, it's going to be important that we get the new coach, we get the new staff and we let them evaluate the football team," Newsome said. "That's going to be first and foremost before we start to make any decisions about who's going to be on our team in 2008. We need to get the advice of those people, which we don't have right now.

"Steve is two weeks, three weeks post-surgery and is due back at the end of January for a checkup. At that point, we will be given a report from our medical staff as to where he is. But you leave here knowing that whoever the next head coach is going to be, next offensive coordinator is going to be, next defensive coordinator is going to be, is going to have a lot of input as to what to make of the 2008 roster."

Part of Bisciotti's message to the players when informing them of Billick's dismissal was to have confidence in themselves.

He emphasized that a roster dotted with standouts such as middle linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and running back Willis McGahee will be an attractive position for coaches to pursue.

"Because of our talent, we think that we will be on any potential head coach's list at the very top," Bisciotti said. "I think that we have a very good organization. I think that any potential head coach that looks at Ozzie's history of drafting Pro Bowl players and sees the Pro Bowlers that right now are not in uniform -- they were on our sideline for the most part this year -- when they're all healthy, I think that these potential candidates will look at ours and put us on top of their list."

Several players expressed confidence in the front office's ability to find a new coach as well as their prospects for bouncing back following a calamitous season.

"I trust Steve Bisciotti," kicker Matt Stover said. "I trust Ozzie and his staff to bring in a replacement that will do a great job. If you remember back when we replaced Ted Marchibroda, within the second year of that, we won a Super Bowl."

To a man, the players acknowledged that a new coach will have his own ideas about what to do as far as shaping the team.

An uncertain future looms on the horizon.

"There will be changes," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "It's not going to be the same way next year as it was this year. But as a player, the only thing you can do is go out and prepare yourself to go out and have a very productive and injury-free season.

"You can't necessarily get yourself all caught up on worrying about who they're going to bring in, because, ultimately, whoever they bring in is going to be best for the team. Whether his philosophy is the opposite of what coach Billick's was or if his philosophy is close to it, as a player, you've just got to prepare yourself for any coach that they bring in and be ready to adopt that coach's philosophy."

Center Mike Flynn, who said he's not considering retirement and wants to return for another season, is bracing for upheaval over the months to follow. With Billick out and old loyalties no longer relevant with a new coach, anything can and likely will happen.

"This will be topsy-turvy for about two months," Flynn predicted. "This coaching change, obviously they'll bring in new coaches, the personnel evaluations, so what anybody's going to do or who's going to be here or who's not going to be here is so far away. There's so much more they have to do.

"Change, it's always going to be different. A lot of these guys have never been through a coaching change. A lot of these guys don't know any other way. Fortunately, I've had a different coach, I've been through a change. It's going to be different for guys and some guys will adapt well to it. Some guys, it may be a big change and they may not adapt well. They better be prepared when the new guy comes in here."

Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, who's pondering retirement after a dozen seasons, said he's maintaining an open mind about potentially returning.

"A new system, a new coach, a double-edged sword," Ogden said. "Some things we needed to change about the offense, but a whole change -- I don't know. I have no idea what they're going to do, who they're going to get.

"But I'll definitely wait and see. I'll probably try to come in and talk to whoever the new coach is and see what the situation is and kind of go from there."

Wide receiver Mark Clayton echoed Neuheisel's parting sentiment, which included a prediction that the Ravens would engineer another turnaround akin to the 13-3 season last year that followed a 6-10 finish in 2005.

"I don't think we're going into a state of flux," Clayton said. "We have a group of men on this team who are great guys and great players and know the talent that this team possesses. We're just sitting back and waiting for the new leader."

NOTE: Backup safety Gerome Sapp was arrested Dec. 29 and charged with second-degree assault. He was assigned a Feb. 8 court date in Baltimore City District Court. The complainant on the arrest report is listed as Joe Maese, a former Ravens long snapper.

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

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