When you think of the beginning of the Baltimore Ravens franchise, Brian Billick comes to mind. The former Baltimore Ravens head coach arrived in Baltimore in 1999 after leading the high-powered Minnesota Vikings offense under Denny Green as offensive coordinator. Brian Billick was considered to be the right hire for Baltimore. His predecessor, Ted Marchibroda, was a sufficient placeholder, but the team was ready to take the next step.
Former Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome changed to head coach after three straight losing seasons. Billick was primed to be a head coach after his time with the Minnesota Vikings. As fate would have it, Brian was scheduled to interview the newly restored Cleveland Browns after his interview with the Baltimore Ravens. Billick never made it to his Cleveland interview. He signed a contract to become the second head coach in Baltimore Ravens history less than 24 hours after his interview.
The 1999 season was the first year the Baltimore Ravens finished with a .500 record or better. The 8-8 year was a step in the right direction and gave credibility to the Billick hire. He was exactly what the Baltimore Ravens needed in terms of a leader. He brought a new approach to the veteran-led team. Billick integrated certain aspects of Dennis Green’s leadership style with his twist. He gave leeway to his veterans, had more structured and efficient practices, and let the players be themselves. Billick embraced the personality and nuances of every player that was under his leadership.
The True Testament Of Leadership
At the end of Billick’s first season as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, his grit and toughness as a leader were put to the test. Unfortunately, this test came off the field. During the Super Bowl XXXIV weekend in Atlanta, middle linebacker Ray Lewis was connected to a double murder in the waning hours of Sunday night into Monday morning. Under the duress of constant media backlash on his star pupil, Billick stood steadfast in his support of Ray Lewis. Brian never wavered in his public support of his embattled star. He was consistent in stating Lewis’ innocence and lamented the media for its shoddy and reckless coverage of the events.
During the Ravens media scrum of Super Bowl XXV week, Billick was repeatedly pressed to speak about the events from the prior year’s Super Bowl weekend. Media pundits and analysts scoffed at the straightforward and brash statement he made on the first day of the media scrum. Billick stated, “As much as some of you want to, we are not going to retry this. It’s inappropriate, and you are not qualified”.
That last part struck a nerve with many people. Fans and pundits alike. Some saw it as pretentious or arrogant. Quite simply, he didn’t give the mass media the soundbite they craved collectively. Outside of Baltimore, Ray Lewis has been vilified for over 20 years for what happened. In the court of law, he was never charged with the murders. He was never suspended for his involvement and paid a one-time fine. As a fan of Baltimore, it was refreshing to see the head coach stand by his proven-innocent player.
The Rise Of The Billick Era
The Baltimore Ravens reached the peak of their franchise by winning their first Super Bowl Championship in 2000. Brian Billick led the team full of grizzled veterans to the promised land. The path was hardly the easy one that most teams would have preferred. Known as an offensive guru, Billick’s offense sputtered through a five-game streak without a touchdown.
During the 2000 season, it became obvious that Randall Cunningham, Robert Smith, Randy Moss, and Cris Carter weren’t on the field to create fireworks. Billick switched the identity of the offense to that of a pound-the-rock running team led by rookie Jamal Lewis and reliable backup Priest Holmes. He relied on the power run game and stinginess of the best defense to grace the gridiron. The offense was led by Tony Banks for the first eight games and was benched for veteran signal-caller Trent Dilfer midseason after Banks tossed three interceptions in one half. Dilfer became a great game manager, led the team into the playoffs, and won the Super Bowl.
During a press conference after the Tennessee Titans playoff game during the 2000 season, Billick was questioned by the local media to elaborate on the team’s “cockiness and swagger” entering Adelphi Stadium. Billick stated, “When you go into the lion’s den, you don’t tip-toe. You carry a spear, you go in screaming like a banshee, you kick whatever doors in, and say, Wheres the son-of-a-b****? If you go in any other way, you will lose”. Billick was arrogance personified. His players loved him. They were loyal to him. Veterans like Shannon Sharpe and Tony Siragusa were drawn to him.
Throughout the rest of Billick’s tenure, the Baltimore Ravens made the playoffs three more seasons. His teams finished under .500 three times and missed the playoffs a fourth time in that same stretch. Billick went 5-11 in his final season in 2007. Steve McNair was hurt the majority of the year, and he had to resort to 2003 first-round pick Kyle Boller.
The “Fall” Of The Billick Era
The heading may seem a bit facetious. Billick never truly had that moment when you know a head coach will be fired. He was relatively clean in terms of his reputation. He was abrasive and condescending at times, but he never spoke from a place of ill will. After what seemed to be good-bad-good-bad seasons as head coach, record-wise, he always seemed to make it work when the proverbial seat started to warm.
While the local media seemed to speculate that his brash wording and arrogance fell on deaf ears in the locker room, the true downfall of his tenure revolved around Kyle Boller. At this point, you may think I have an ax to grind with Boller. On-field, his play didn’t warrant the arrogance he displayed off it.
This is more so brutally honest reflection as opposed to despising him. The Ravens picked Boller because they were enamored with his rocket arm and his squeaky-clean image. Boller amazed scouts by throwing a football over 80 yards in the air from one knee. The problem was he couldn’t find wide-open receivers if his life depended on it. He was notorious for overthrowing his targets downfield. He had zero mental toughness.
Much to the chagrin of the fans, Billick stood by the maligned quarterback. Some will argue that the Ravens wasted the prime years of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jon Ogden, Jamal Lewis, and Todd Heaps’s careers, amongst many others relying on the leadership of Boller. Or lack thereof. There were many points in time over the years that warranted the benching of Kyle Boller that never happened. During his tenure as Ravens quarterback, he had one year in which he played all 16 games and two years in which he threw more touchdowns than interceptions.
The unwillingness to make a change was what doomed Billick, in my opinion. In 2003 and 2005, Billick had the chance to allow Anthony Wright to lead the team and ultimately handed the reigns back to Boller each year and the years that followed. The only saving grace was in 2006 when the team traded for Steve McNair. The “final straw” was the abysmal 2007 season when Baltimore went 5-11. Billick was unceremoniously let go and ushered in the John Harbaugh era, which is still ongoing present day.
Unfortunately, Brian Billick never gained another head coaching job in the NFL after his stint in Baltimore. He has a Super Bowl ring on his resume. Under his tutelage, Jamal Lewis ran for 2,006 yards in the 2003 season. He led two of the greatest defenses ever to play the game while coaching the team. Coach Billick ended up as a television analyst for Fox Sports, NFL Network, and ESPN in the decade-plus following his coaching exit. Billick returned to the organization briefly as a radio play-by-play broadcaster for 98 Rock here in Baltimore. Present-day, Billick is a senior offensive analyst and advisor to Arizona State University head football coach Herm Edwards.
The Brian Billick Era in the history of the Baltimore Ravens will never be forgotten. There are a few “What Ifs” in regard to potential championship opportunities. Ravens fans should be grateful for the Billick era. We could have the dysfunctional leadership of some team like the perpetual factory of sadness Cleveland Browns, after all.