Baltimore Ravens: In The Wings
Brian Billick still calls the Ravens' shots, but Rex Ryan and Rick Neuheisel play highly visible supporting roles.
By Joe Platania, PressBox Staff
When President George W. Bush recently underwent a colonoscopy, he invoked the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing the vice president to assume Bush’s duties due to his temporary incapacitation.
The Ravens did something similar earlier this year.
When the younger of head coach Brian Billick's two daughters graduated from high school during spring practices, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, one of the most talked-about head-coaching candidates last offseason, took over for a day.
The effusive Ryan, winner of last year’s Pro Football Weekly Assistant Coach of the Year Award -- an honor Billick took home in 1998 after coordinating a record-setting offense in Minnesota -- wasted no time making his mark.
"First of all, I'm surprised that nobody mentioned the changes that I put in today as head coach because we've got a couple of position changes we'd like to talk about," Ryan joked. "[Center Mike] Flynn is playing fullback now. The guys like the changes, I think."
Offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel, a former star quarterback and head coaching veteran at two different colleges, was one of the few people on the field who truly knew how Ryan felt.
"[Ryan] was outstanding," Neuheisel said with a laugh. "He started our clock drive at the end. He said, 'Alright, you've got eight seconds left, no timeouts and you're on the minus-3 [yard line],' which I thought was really fair for our offense. Once a defender, always a defender."
Rivalries between assistants on the same team are as old as the game of football itself.
Clashes, especially in the heat of training camp, are not uncommon, as fans have no doubt noticed during their trips to McDaniel College in Westminster over the past dozen years.
"It's not that," Ryan said. "I think what it is, especially in training camps or mini-camps or things like that, you're competing against each other. So really, that offense is the opponent for the defense and vice versa. Trust me, when we get ready to snap it for real, we're going in one direction, and we're all about the Ravens."
But even in Baltimore, that hasn't always been the case.
During the Ravens' five-game touchdown drought that marked their 2000 Super Bowl-winning season, shouting matches were commonplace between offensive and defensive coaches as the team's blatant imbalance threatened to tear it apart.
Two years ago, during a media seminar designed to familiarize reporters with the team's playbook, caustic and good-natured jabs were thrown back and forth among the staff as they addressed the press.
There seems to be little doubt that in recent seasons the combination of Billick's lower public-profile and the high visibility of his two well-known coordinators have drastically shifted the spotlight.
It's a situation that both coordinators are quite familiar with.
RYAN'S HOPE: A HEAD COACHING JOB
If ever a picture told a thousand words, this was it: There was a smiling Ryan, weighing roughly 60 pounds less than usual, nattily attired in a suit and tie, beaming as he met with the San Diego media following his February interview for the suddenly-vacant head coaching job.
In eight years with the Ravens, including the last two seasons as defensive coordinator, Ryan's resume had grown to the point that he was labeled one of the so-called "hot" candidates for coaching jobs around the league.
Last year, the Ravens ranked first in 11 of the league's 41 major statistical categories, including total points allowed (201), total defense (264.1 yards per game), third-down conversions allowed (28.8 percent), first downs allowed (236), turnover margin (plus-17) and time of possession allowed (27:12 per game).
So it was no small wonder the Chargers, a team perceived by many to be even better than the 13-3 Ravens squad that beat them in the regular season, had Ryan high on their list to replace the suddenly-deposed Marty Schottenheimer.
In the end, San Diego hired coaching veteran Norv Turner, leaving Ryan free to return to the Ravens for one more year.
"I want to be a head coach, everybody does," Ryan said. "But no question, I'm happy doing what I'm doing. If I'm going to be a defensive coordinator for anybody in this league, I want to do it right here in Baltimore, where playing defense means something."
Ryan is part of a family -- headed by legendary father, Buddy, and including Oakland defensive coordinator and twin brother Rob -- that has coached in six Super Bowls with five different teams, so he knows what he's talking about.
The Gino Marchetti-led defenses of the 1950s and ’60s Baltimore Colts eventually gave way to the "Sack Pack" of the mid-'70s and the Ravens' new-millennium dominance.
Ryan was the defensive line coach on what is arguably the best single-season defense the NFL has ever seen, the 2000 unit that was the only one in the era of the 16-game schedule to allow fewer than 1,000 yards rushing (970).
Baltimore also registered four shutouts -- the same number as the more-ballyhooed 1985 Chicago Bears unit -- and allowed a league-record 165 points, 33 fewer than the Bears.
But despite last year's unit finishing first in the league overall for the first time in team history, a quintet of Adam Vinatieri field goals was enough to knock the best Ravens regular-season team out of the postseason as Indianapolis won the Divisional playoff game, 15-6.
That game left a sour taste the Ravens would like to erase.
"We're ready to play, that's for sure," Ryan said. "Everybody in our organization is ready to get that taste out of our mouth and advance. When you have a great season and win 13 games, you feel like it's a disaster because [we lost our first playoff game]. We're ready to put ourselves in the exact same situation this year."
By all accounts, the defense has two main issues to solve.
First, the play of right cornerback Samari Rolle suffered, especially in the first half of last season.
"The one that jumps out at everyone is the Carolina [game] when Steve Smith should have been double-teamed," Ryan said. "That wasn't Samari's guy. It's unfortunate that he gets the blame for that."
Smith gathered in eight passes for 189 yards, including a game-clinching 72-yard bomb as the Panthers sent the Ravens into their bye week with their second straight loss.
However, Rolle's play improved notably in the stretch run, capped by a 44-yard interception return in a hard fought win over Buffalo in the season finale, engendering more confidence from Ryan.
"I don't know what would have happened if we had lost Rex," said cornerback Chris McAlister. "Rex is a great guy and he does a great job scheming, getting us in position to make things happen."
Safety Ed Reed agrees.
"It's huge," Reed said. "It's hard to have to change, and we didn't have to change at all with Rex still being here. I think it's big going into this season that we have everything intact. We can keep rolling."
The other main offseason issue concerns the free agent loss of versatile linebacker Adalius Thomas, who signed with the New England Patriots just as the signing period began.
Tapped to fill his role is 2003 fourth-round draft pick Jarret Johnson, a stalwart run defender who learned late last season to drop back in coverage more often.
"It's huge," Johnson said. "Look at two years ago when we lost six or seven starters and still finished fifth in the league. A loss like A.D. is huge to a defense, but you find a way to replace that loss, and we've done it time and time again."
However, the most devastating loss this defense could have suffered did not come to fruition. Ryan brought his suit, tie, smile and philosophy back to the Ravens for one purpose only.
"We just have to do our thing and show up," he said. "We expect to dominate this league and put ourselves in a position to do some damage."
A NEU(HEISEL) BEGINNING
On a spring afternoon in 2005, Neuheisel stood inside the Ravens' training complex, surrounded by a phalanx of media, thankful to be back in the game.
Outside, the weather was cloudy and damp, which had to remind him of his time as the head coach at the University of Washington. His tenure there ended after the 2002 season due to fallout that followed his involvement in an NCAA basketball tournament pool.
As the still youthful-looking Neuheisel ran his hand through his blond hair and stood before the court of public opinion in Owings Mills, he seemed relieved that his two-year exile was over.
But his future was no sure thing.
Not only had he been made a veritable coaching pariah by his peers, but he was walking into what seemed to be a no-win position, the Ravens' quarterback coach.
For most of the team's history, the words "Ravens" and "quarterbacks" have gone together like stripes and plaids. A stout defense has kept the team in nearly constant playoff contention, keeping the Ravens on a steady course as a veritable merry-go-round of signal-callers who have passed through Charm City.
But now the sun is shining brightly on Neuheisel, who was named the team's new offensive coordinator earlier this year.
"[I feel] light years different," Neuheisel said when comparing his present mood to how he felt two years ago. "I wasn't sure what to expect at that time, obviously making the jump from college ball to professional football. You hope it's going to go smoothly and in most cases, it has. I'm just much more comfortable knowing what's expected."
After predecessor Jim Fassel was fired during last year's bye week, Billick took over the play-calling as the Ravens' offense climbed out of a nearly nine-year nap and rose 12 spots to finish ranked 17th in the league.
The Ravens averaged approximately six more points per game and 70 additional yards of total offense per contest as they streaked to their second AFC North Division title.
"The coaches and players, the way they adapted and accepted and contributed to what happened those last 10 games was pivotal," Billick said. "It was very much a collective effort and Rick was in the forefront of it."
Despite the change in titles, Neuheisel's job description isn't really changing that much.
"Rick's job, to a large degree, besides focusing specifically on the quarterbacks, is to make sure we're moving along in what we need to do to prepare," Billick said. "Whether it's in [organized team activities] or training camp or the season, it's Rick's job to make sure we stay on pace that way."
While Billick will be the principal game day play-caller, Neuheisel will have plenty to say during the week.
"I don't know if he could have any larger role," Billick said. "It's huge. He's as strong a voice in that room in what we do as any. That's one thing I can count on. Rick, having been a head coach, knows how important that voice is."
This year, the Ravens' run-first offense is undergoing its biggest change in the last eight years.
For the first time in five seasons, Jamal Lewis will not be lining up at tailback, having left for Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent. The Ravens traded three draft picks for Buffalo's Willis McGahee, who could lend more versatility to the unit.
"You look at their strengths," Neuheisel said. "Jamal likes running behind a fullback and with Ovie Mughelli here, it was a natural marriage. Because of that, we were efficient, we got a lot of first downs, we were high in third-down efficiency because our third-down yardage was shorter.
"With McGahee, we'll probably be more in one-back. Ovie is no longer with us and Justin [Green], our fullback-in-waiting, is coming back from knee surgery. But that's just his style. He's more of a draw runner, outside, zone runner, able to use his speed. Our personnel will adapt to the style of the runner. We'll have a chance to be more explosive and get four receivers down the field fast."
Neuheisel is confident in his theories, having brought 15 years of college-level coaching experience at UCLA, Colorado and Washington -- the latter two as head coach -- to the table in Baltimore.
His abbreviated professional playing career in the USFL and with the San Diego Chargers didn't prevent him from posting a 66-30 record with the Buffalos and Huskies.
Neuheisel has stated a desire to return to Saturday afternoon work and the recruiting wars, but he knows that's something he can't dwell on very much right now.
"Those are the kinds of things you have no control over," he said. "I got my first head coaching job after being the quarterback coach [at Colorado], having just moved into my first house, and [head coach] Bill McCartney resigns, and nine days later I'm the head coach. There's no way of knowing that, so you have to stay ready.
"I have experience, and I'd like to do it again, but I'm happy here. When you've gone through the things I've gone through in my career, you don't want to spend time thinking about the future. My family's enjoying Baltimore, and it's a terrific experience."
LEADERS OF THE PACK
For the second straight training camp, Billick did not address the media on report day as his players checked in at the team hotel in Westminster.
That was no accident.
That said, the Steve Bisciotti-mandated tone-down seemingly hasn't changed the way the team is run on the inside. The buck will always stop with the head coach, no matter who it is.
But on the outside, the voices and faces of the team are decidedly different, even as everyone on the staff tries to put their own stamp on the team under the hot Westminster sun.
"It's not my stamp. It's our stamp," Ryan said. "We are ready to play, that's for sure. We're getting ready to find out [how good we are]. In Cincinnati [in Week 1], we'll open up, and we'll find out what happens. There is a great comfort with the players that we do have … the fact that they do know the system. So, when you get like that you have a chance to really become special, and that's definitely going to be our intent this year."
Neuheisel brings similar bravado to his side of the ball.
"Overall, I think we feel really good about ourselves," he said. "We certainly have some weapons to get the ball to all the positions. [Quarterback Steve] McNair is who McNair is. He's going to be a great player for us. He's going to help us win a lot of games, hopefully.
"Offensive line depth is at an all-time high since I've been here. We have a lot of young guys working hard to learn what's going on. So it will be fun to watch those guys go through two-a-days and get lots of snaps in the preseason games and see who our best five are. Beyond the best five, we'll have six, seven and eight that are very confident players also. I'm very encouraged. I'm looking forward to what lies ahead."
Hopefully, another invocation of the 25th Amendment won't be needed in the next few months. But if it is, the Ravens have the situation more than covered.
Issue 2.31: August 2, 2007