Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti shocked his team as well as Ravens fans yesterday by firing Brian Billick, the coach who brought a Super Bowl title to this football-hungry town.

A grim Bisciotti told the players the news in a 2 p.m. team meeting and called it the "toughest decision I've ever had to make." He said he agonized over dismissing Billick. Just 18 days ago, a high-ranking team official told The Sun that Bisciotti had informed the coach he would return.

"I believed that it was time for a change," said Bisciotti, who appeared to be still struggling with the decision during his news conference an hour and a half later. "I believe we have the nucleus of a team that can get back to the Super Bowl. We felt that in the next five years that we had a better chance with a new coach than leaving Brian in that position."

The dismissal comes a day after Billick finished a 5-11 season, the worst record in his nine years as Ravens coach. The Billick era was defined by the franchise's only Super Bowl title, in January 2001, years of struggling offenses and an often-arrogant coaching style.

Because Billick was fired one season after being signed to a new four-year contract, the Ravens owe him $15 million over the next three years.

The Ravens will immediately start their coaching search, headed by general manager Ozzie Newsome.

Since Bisciotti took over as Ravens owner in 2004, Billick has a 33-31 record with just one playoff appearance and no postseason wins. This season, the Ravens had lost a team-record nine straight games before winning Sunday's season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Several players said Billick lost the confidence of the locker room with his questionable play calling and stale message. According to two players, they were asked by some staff members - presumably prompted by Bisciotti - whether Billick had lost the team.

Bisciotti declined to discuss the reasons for his decision, saying it boiled down to a "gut feeling." Newsome and team president Dick Cass recommended to Bisciotti that Billick be fired.

"I just changed my mind," Bisciotti said. "I can't explain to you how tough a decision it is. It's the toughest decision I've ever had to make."

Asked whether he had specifically told Billick earlier that he would return, Bisciotti said, "There were indications but no promises."

The team is expected to focus its search on NFL coaches. Potential candidates could include Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, former San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, University of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

Newsome said Ryan would be interviewed for the vacancy, and several players expressed support for him yesterday.

"We're going to be very thorough," Newsome said. "If Rex is the best guy, he will be the third coach in the history of the Baltimore Ravens. We're going to be calling and talking to a lot of people so we can get the best coach."

No one was more surprised by Bisciotti's decision than Billick.

He had already made a list of candidates to be the team's new offensive coordinator and play caller when Cass told him at 11 a.m. yesterday that Bisciotti wanted to talk to him.

Bisciotti described Billick as "gracious" when told of the firing.

"He had a hard decision, and he did what he believes is best for the Ravens," Billick said in a statement. "We are and will remain friends."

Along with Billick, the rest of his staff was also fired.