PressBox publisher Stan “The Fan” Charles sat down with Brian Billick to discuss the Ravens’ organization, the upcoming season, and how the veteran coach has had to change the way he operates.
You’re about to enter your eighth season as the head coach of the team. Do you still have the same passion for this job that you had when you first took it?
Absolutely; you have to or you’re not going to be able to sustain yourself. You always hear about the NFL being a marathon. It’s easy to get up for the games; it really is. How can you not? But if you’re going to sustain yourself through the hours upon hours of preparation through training camp, during the course of the week, that literally is a 24/7 job, particularly for the coaches. You better hold on to that passion. It takes different forms. Obviously, I hope I’ve grown as a coach from when I first took over as the head coach eight years ago. I hope I’ve changed as my teams have changed, as the demands of the game have changed, so the passion may exhibit itself a little differently.
Do you feel more pressure, or a new sense of urgency, that is different than in any previous time in your tenure as Ravens head coach?
A lot of people will ask, “Do you feel the pressure?” And my answer is, “Compared to what?” Compared to the pressures of being a first-year head coach and wanting to prove to your players, your organization, that you’re up to this job? Compared to the pressures of having won a Super Bowl and returning with a team virtually intact with those expectations, and then losing some key players in that formula? Compared to the pressures of staring into the eyes of the youngest team in the history of the National Football League? Compared to now dealing with a team that clearly did not live up to its expectations? No. The urgency has always been there, the pressures have always been there, but they manifest themselves differently.
I don’t know of a coach in any circumstance that goes into any season thinking, “You know what, this isn’t that big of a season. There’s not going to be any pressures here. We’ll just do what were going to do and however it turns out will be OK.” You just don’t do that. The profession doesn’t allow it.
It’s been a couple of months now since Steve Bisciotti went public with an organizational decision to have Brian Billick change the way he operates. Is that how you saw that decision and why did you elect to be open to doing things differently?
Well, I think if you go back and look at it, what Steve Bisciotti has provided us with is a very clear and specific mandate, and even more important, a well-defined vision for the organization as a whole. First off, when you focus on the specific disappointment of a 6-10 season, that in and of itself requires change. Ozzie Newsome, Steve, and I, late in the season when we were out of playoff contention, went about the task together. It truly was the three of us recognizing we were in a transition, and we needed to change some things. Steve was very passionate about it because, again, Steve has a very clear idea of what he wants the vision of this organization to be. Part of that vision is a matter of Ozzie Newsome and I to begin with, and then the organization as a whole, embracing that change. We have to make sure that as an organization, we are utilizing all the resources we have, not only the physical resources, but the resources of people in the organization. That means maximizing the abilities of your players, as well as your coaching staff, personnel, marketing, PR, community relations, everybody in this organization. Steve Bisciotti has built a very successful culture in his business world by fostering the horizontal model of leadership.
Now, at the end of the day, certainly critical decisions have to be made, and those critical decisions are made based on the structure that we have. You cannot take a consensus or the horizontal approach on game day, or on draft day. But what you do leading up to those critical times does have to be an inclusive, horizontal model, and that’s different in this industry.
Wouldn’t it have been easier to just say, “You know what, I can probably get a job somewhere else,” since this called for you to change some things that have been pretty successful for you?
Absolutely, and quite frankly, the peers and the mentors that I have in the industry all thought that would be a better course of action. You can look around the league; coaches that reach eight years and beyond are rare in this league, so you only have so many models to look at. One thing you learn is that if you’re fortunate to last long enough you will go through different cycles. It is absolutely unavoidable.
I value being a part of this organization. I value being with the people I’m lucky enough to be associated with: Ozzie Newsome, Kevin Byrne and Bill Tessendorf, let alone owners Steve Bisciotti and Art Modell. I’ve been very fortunate to have that caliber of ownership in two different owners.
This organization as a whole, our fans, this area, this is where I want to be. Quite frankly, to come back here, I have put myself at risk, but it’s what I committed to doing.
I think the 6-10 season forced this organization across the board to reanalyze the things that we’re doing. The mentoring that I have received from Steve Bisciotti in this process has been invaluable. It’s very clear what Steve is advocating; it’s some heavy lifting now, it’s time-intensive. It is easier to simply dictate and say shut up and do this, but it’s not as productive. I can already see the benefits of it. I’m drinking the Kool-Aid so to speak, but it’s not easy and we still have a ways to go with it as an organization. Clearly, at the end of the season, the focus was primarily on me. I think it’s important for the fans to know that this is an organizational process that we’re going through, and it’s a process worth going through, and we’re going to be better because of it.
In “drinking the Kool-Aid,” is part of that not talking about exactly what that process is, or is it open for the fans to get a hold of what exactly the process is that the organization is going through?
Absolutely, I think if nothing else, this organization has been transparent. We’re very proud of the process that we have. I think it gives our fans a sense of ownership. We’ve been very transparent; I think our fans deserve that.
By the same token, it’s not like you have to put all your cards on the table all the time. Do you really want Ozzie Newsome to tell you who we’re drafting and let everyone else know what our philosophy is or what our plans are going into the draft? Do you really want us to give you a blow-by-blow, day-by-day account of how the contract negotiations are going, when, in doing so, you have a chance of exacerbating it or creating difficulties with the negotiation? Do you really want to know what our opening play is, or how we are going to attack a given team?
When you talk about creating a horizontal model of leadership and interactiveness, it goes back to the basic truths of being brutally honest with one another, being able to absorb and take that honesty, being very simple in your approach in terms of what your priorities are, and being able to communicate with one another. Our mantra, very clear-cut within this organization right now, is very simply put: change it or explain it. The players, coaches, everybody in this organization, if they have a concern, if there’s something that creates angst or anxiety in their heart, they have the right to come to me or anybody else in this organization and ask for an explanation or to offer some suggestions of ways to change it. If we can be honest with one another that way, be receptive to that, we have a chance of being pretty good.
You mentioned that part of this is being brutally honest with people, and learning some hard truths about how others view you. What were the hardest things you learned about yourself and how others perceived you?
As the head coach, I am put in the position of spokesman for this team. And taking on that challenge and wanting to defend the organization, for the players, for the coaching staff, it puts you in a position where you can appear rigid, demonstrative, overly authoritarian.
There is a fine line between arrogance and conviction, and so often the difference is perception. What I had to recognize is the conviction I have for what we’re doing can be perceived as arrogance and therefore will halt or limit the interaction that you would have, whether it’s in the organization, with the media or with the fans, when you present yourself in that way. It’s incumbent upon me to make sure that I present it in a way that doesn’t stilt or halt that interaction. It’s a little incumbent on the others to recognize that it is a matter of perception, and that if I do come across a certain way, that it is not necessarily my intention. As I’ve said, we’re a very open and transparent organization. That’s important to what we do, and if I ever present myself in a way that prevents people from wanting to interact with this organization, then that’s being counterproductive.
Has any of this changed your relationship with Steve Bisciotti or Ozzie Newsome? Is there any personal angst or animosity about them wanting to make you a better coach?
If anything, just the opposite is true. How can you not embrace and appreciate the gestures of two very competent men, and the organization as a whole, that are willing to sit down and say, “Hey, lets work through this together?” It’s a very interactive process. Ozzie Newsome and I have always had a great relationship.
This process has forced Ozzie and me to communicate with one another on a level that I’m not sure we knew existed. It has done nothing but enhance the relationship, not only between Ozzie and me, which was already a very good relationship, and between Steve and me, but between Steve and Ozzie. It has created a communicative loop, and an honesty with one another, and it is a brutal honesty at times. It’s tough sometimes to look at the brutal facts, and that cuts both ways, and they’ve been very interactive that way.
Does that organizational mantra, “change it or explain it,” get down to the field, to the players themselves?
Absolutely. You’ve heard me talk any number of times about having an accountability from the players. If we’re going to be good, this has to be the players’ team. I’ll facilitate, I’ll create a structure for them, I’ll try to keep them pointed in the right direction, but when we’ve been good it’s because the players have taken ownership of this football team. With that comes responsibility and accountability. What we’re talking about, being brutally honest with one another and having this open communicative loop very specifically applies to the players. You have to be responsive to the players, you have to be respectful of their opinions, and they, above everybody else, have the right to understand why it is we’re doing what we’re doing and to have some input.
It puts a lot of responsibility on them as well to understand that in the “Change it or explain it” mode, that if it’s explained, though it may not suit your personal vested interest but best suits the interest of the team and the organization, that you have to be responsive to that.
I can’t practice 53 different ways for 53 different players. You can’t go into game day with 53 game plans and 53 different play calls. That’s chaos. In this horizontal model, there is not equal power. There can’t be, that’s chaos. But there is equal say. How can you not take the perspectives of players like Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Todd Heap? I’m very interested in the input of a Trevor Pryce or Mike Anderson, a Corey Ivy or a Gary Stills. These players come from great organizations. How can you not elicit views from them?
Getting that input from the players is a lot harder than you think. A lot of players, because of the traditional model, will be hesitant to speak their mind, thinking, “That’s not my place, that’s not for me to say.” The culture that we’re trying to create here is, yes it is. Not only is it your right to say something, it’s your obligation.
So the theory there is that by involving people to that extent, it empowers them.
Absolutely. A lot of my focus in this off-season has been basically to be a facilitator. One of my biggest jobs is to continue to push the players towards that leadership of the coaches, and make sure that the coaches are being responsive and understand what the players’ perspective is. Once we’ve made that unified decision and the players understand what the decision is, they can embrace it and now follow it by the dictates of the coaches and at every possible turn continue to troubleshoot, push and prod, make sure that we’re pushing that dynamic of a unified vision and responsibility as we go forward. That really is my primary job right now.
How does having a quarterback that you can truly trust to take care of business, and this is not meant as a knock on Kyle Boller, help you facilitate this entire vision that you have now?
This organization, these coaches, these players, have faith in Kyle Boller’s ability to perform, and would have been very confident and felt very good about going into the season with Kyle as our quarterback. Would there have been questions? Absolutely. That’s why Steve McNair was such a clear-cut and easy choice to make.
Unlike any other quarterback that came available under any other circumstances, Steve McNair represented that very clear level of proven production that this team can hang its hat on and say, “We know this exists here.” Now it’s the responsibility of the receiving corps, the line, the running game, the defense, the special teams to step up to our level of accountability to support that. I saw that when I was in Minnesota, when I had the first opportunity to have a quarterback of this caliber, when we got now-Hall-of-Famer Warren Moon. I was a young coach at the time, new to the league, and it was amazing for me to watch players like Chris Carter, Randall McDaniel and Jack Del Rio, a number of veteran players on that football team, immediately respond to the level of production. What Warren Moon represented was an immediate feeling that this man deserves a certain level of respect, and I could see it. I could see it in myself. I could see it in the coaches. I could see it in the players. They all wanted to stp up and meet that level of production. They didn’t want to be the one to let Warren Moon down because he represented that level of player.
Players on the defense, many times new players, come in and don’t want to disappoint Ray Lewis. They see the passion. Having that in Steve McNair is a huge addition for us.
Has it been frustrating for you, as a coach hired because of what was perceived as your offensive genius, that the team has struggled offensively over you tenure here?
Oh sure. But no more frustrating had it been the other way, and we had a certain level of offensive productivity, but not been able to step up to that level of play defensively, and therefore suffered the consequences for it. I’ve never heard one coach refer to another coach as a mastermind, a guru. That just doesn’t exist. We as coaches know that, but that’s just the environment you live in. So the frustration isn’t from the standpoint of ego. You get past that very quickly when you become a head coach. The frustrations are based on knowing what we have the potential to do if we can raise a certain level of productivity in any aspect of what we do.
I recognize what we need to do and what we haven’t been offensively, and I recognize that frustration. At every turn we’ve tried to do things to raise that level of productivity, whether it’s the drafting of Mark Clayton and Todd Heap, the acquiring of Derrick Mason. We hope that, for the first time, having the receiving corps that we now have, the running game that is represented by Jamal Lewis, Mike Anderson, even Musa Smith who we’re very excited to get back, and now having the proven level of production that is Steve McNair, that the pieces are in place.
Last year’s team finally had the receiving corps that allowed us a certain level of productivity in throwing the ball that we haven’t had in a while, but then the running game, for any number of different reasons, was not there. For the previous six years we’ve never not run the ball well. As ineffectively as we might have been offensively over the past seven years, we have run the ball well consistently. If we can get back to doing that, and now the pieces we have in place to throw the ball, we think we have the complete puzzle put together to be very good.
When an organization hires a coach thinking, “this head coach will make us a better offense or defense,” I think they’re making a mistake. You better hire a man that you think is going to be a good head coach, and can do those things that a head coach needs to do or basically you’re overpaying a coordinator and hoping that the other side of the ball will match up, and that’s a mistake.
What you know now, just purely from a football character standpoint, do you still think you made the right call to jettison Trent Dilfer?
Let me isolate it this way, and I always want to be careful because any time you look back and comment on something of this nature, it’s very easily misconstrued as a criticism of individuals. I’ve verbalized this before and I don’t know that it’s been readily accepted, and I don’t know that it will be now.
After the championship season, we knew that 2002 was going to be a huge fundamental change in personnel because of the cap. That had already been committed to, so we could either start to dial back even in 2001, sitting there with our Super Bowl rings, to try to mitigate the effects of 2002. We decided that we were far enough along in the process, and we felt like it was a team that was in tact to a large part, and was capable of coming back and maybe making another run, so that’s the course we decided. Some people I think still have the perception that what we followed up with in 2001 and how we held that team together brought about the 2002 cap purge. No, that was already defined, so we decided to maintain the course we were on and make another run and hopefully work at back-to-back Super Bowls.
We also made a fundamental organizational decision, and when I say that I hope no one misconstrues that I am trying to defer the responsibility or the accountability of the decisions that were made; I’m not. We made a very conscious decision that it was going to be very difficult for us to return and win a Super Bowl in the same profile that won it the year before.
Our consensus was that we needed a higher level of productivity from the quarterback position. That’s not to say that Trent Dilfer was not going to deliver that. We had options available to us. We rated those options and then pursued them, as you do in any free agency situation. Trent Dilfer was a part of those options. We collectively felt like Elvis Grbac’s level of productivity, what he’d been able to do physically, offensively, gave us the best opportunity to increase that level of productivity. Unfortunately, in the first day of training camp we lost Jamal Lewis, we lost Leon Searcy, two major components that we had counted on going in to maintain this profile of running the ball and increased ability to throw the ball. That now fell on Elvis’s shoulders.
I think it’s important for people to recognize and look at what happened. We went to the playoffs. We went to the divisional round. We had a level of offensive productivity, without a substantial running game, that I think to this day is as much offense as we’ve produced in any given year, and it had to fall on the shoulders of a quarterback that had to step up to the responsibility and challenge and I think Elvis did a great job with that. So, I think what transpired in 2001 reaffirms why we did what we did.
The question was, given what you knew about character, would you have still made the same decision? It’s interesting how Elvis, for whatever reason, elected not to play football again after that year.
That was part of the equation, quite frankly, we weren’t aware of. You know when you go through the decision making process you go through all the factors, not appreciating that that’s where Elvis was in his mindset, and for all the legitimate reasons that he said. Certainly that would have changed the equation. Trent Dilfer provided great character, great leadership for us, but at the end of the day leadership stems from production. Had we gone into the next season, and, for any number of reasons, such as the lack of the running game, whatever, Trent was not able to duplicate or do some of the things that we were subsequently able to do, I think the views of Trent would have changed dramatically. I don’t know if that would have been fair to Trent.
I don’t think you’re a guy that’s overly sentimental, but does it bother you that you have no relationship with the guy that led your team to a Super Bowl?
Yeah, there’s a business side to this game that, quite frankly, sucks. I wish I could change that. That one aspect of it is regrettable. There’s any number of different things that I probably could have done, but at the end of the day the fact was that a change was going to be made. I wish I would have done something differently to try to put that into better perspective. It wasn’t fair to Trent. I wish that’s not what this industry is about. I’m sure the people in Tennessee feel badly about the fact that Steve McNair has to leave Tennessee. I know the affection that they have for Steve and Steve has for them. Sometimes the business aspect of what we have to do can put you in a very unfortunate set of circumstances.
Issue 1.13: July 20, 2006