Brian Billick looks back — and ahead
The ex-Ravens coach reflects on leading his team to a Super Bowl title
Brian Billick looks back at the 2000 season with Sun columnist Peter Schmuck. Billick, the former Ravens coach, touched on his favorite memories, Ray Lewis' trial and what the future could hold for him. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / October 5, 2010)
It isn't easy to get Brian Billick to sit down. He hasn't missed a beat since he was replaced as Ravens coach after the 2007 season, moving into a television analyst role with Fox, writing a well-received behind-the-scenes book about the NFL ("More Than a Game") and — for no more than a couple of days a week during the football season — enjoying life at his picturesque riverside home on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
He's a busy guy, but on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the greatest season in Ravens history, he invited me into his home for an extended conversation about the 2000 regular season, the playoffs and the Ravens' 34-7 victory over the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
Question: I'll start you off with a big softball. When I say the words "2001 Super Bowl" to you, what's the first thing that pops into your mind?
Answer: Probably hard not to think of standing on that podium and holding that trophy and all that that means and represents. It's amazing. Obviously, I'm traveling a lot. There's not a day that I'm not at the airport or in town and a week doesn't go by when somebody doesn't come up and say in a very heartfelt, genuine way, "Hey, thanks for the Super Bowl," and probably someone who, at the end, was calling for my head. It's hard to imagine that 10 years removed, it affects people like that still.
Q: It was relatively early in your career. Do you think you really could grasp the significance of doing something so quickly that a lot of coaches never experience?
A: In a perfect world, in hindsight, you'd love to maybe do it like Bill Cowher. You have a career. It comes at the end. You go off into the sunset. I've told this story many times. After the win, we had the party and it's all night, and in the infinite wisdom of the NFL, they decide that they're going to get the coach to have a news conference at 8 a.m. in front of all the media. So at about 6 o'clock, I left the party went up to the suite, took a shower and tried to regenerate myself, and I had -- for lack of a better term -- an anxiety attack. I knew my life was not going to be the same. Not better. Not worse. Just was going to be different. Professionally and personally. And that idea of, first, there are so many coaches that don't have that opportunity, and if you do if you're lucky and you get one, that was going to be the benchmark going forward. Can you repeat it? And the odds of that. It does occur to you, what you're facing. You could take the same decade, win for win, flip it, and I mean point for point, win for win, and compare it to the other way around and
Q: You'd still be doing it?
A: Yeah, and it is what it is. I don't say that from the standpoint of anyone needs to feel sorry for me. It was great to have, but it does frame it in a different way than if you do it the other way.
Q: How fresh is it in your mind? I know a lot of athletes who don't like to reflect on the high points of their careers until they are done with their careers, and I'm guessing you don't feel you're at the end of your coaching career. Do you think about that season much?
A: I'm not one to do that anyway, but it is more fresh because we're on the anniversary, so it's coming up a lot. So that's probably not a fair barometer because this is the 10-year anniversary and you're hearing more about it. You're always aware of it. You're appreciative of it. I'm not one to dwell on it. There are moments to live going forward. You appreciate it, but you don't dwell on it to the point of trying to live off that single moment for the rest of your life.
Q: That season wasn't a cakewalk. It was a season you started quick, with a couple of real big wins -- high-scoring wins -- and then you slid into that streak of five games without a touchdown and replaced starting quarterback Tony Banks. Handing the offense over to Trent Dilfer turned out to be the pivotal decision of the season.
A: Yeah, I would think so. It was such an unlikely run. It's one thing to be a dominant team that you're expected to do well and you make a run to it and you live up to it. Or you're thought of in those terms. We came out of nowhere. No one expected us, and for no other reason than to win that way, and I'm not sure you can repeat it in today's game.
Q: You had an interesting cast of characters -- obviously Ray Lewis, who was bigger than life and you were still dealing with his ... situation [of being charged with murder]. You had a lot of other characters. You had Shannon Sharpe. You had Tony Siragusa. You had Jon Ogden. Plus a rookie like Jamal Lewis. You said they came out of nowhere. Did they come out of nowhere for you, too, or did you think you had a potentially special group?
A: No, conventionally thinking going into the season, we hoped we could be good. But my mindset, as was everybody's in the league and since, was that you had to have a certain presence offensively if you thought you were going to win the Super Bowl, and we didn't. We were going to run the ball well, not turn the ball over, but we didn't have the presence at quarterback or receiver to indicate that we were going to get it done, or the way you typically get it done, and it wasn't until about three-quarters of the way through the season, where you saw just how special we were defensively, that it dawned on me. You know what, looking at the landscape of the league ... keep in mind we were in a transition of great quarterback play. The Aikmans, the Elways, the Youngs, they were going out. The Peyton Mannings and, of course, Tom Brady wasn't on the scene yet, the Donovan McNabbs, they hadn't ascended yet. So, there was this void between the old and the new, to where we, and probably Tampa Bay with Brad Johnson, actually won with great defense, running the ball and adequate quarterback play. To think that formula could win, it wasn't until about halfway or three-quarters of the way into the season that I realized that, you know what, this is a special group and, looking at the horizon, we can do this thing.
Q: It's interesting when you look back at that team. During your time with the Ravens, it always seemed to be about the defense. That's the way everybody viewed it. But during your seven-game winning streak to end the 2000 regular season, you averaged 28 points a game. In the playoffs, you averaged in the mid-20s against some really good teams. There were some good offensive players on that team, and you scored points.
A: Yeah, there were. We were a solid running team, and Trent managed the game beautifully. Quarterbacks don't want to hear that. He managed the cost-benefit ratio of every throw. We made just enough big plays. It was a perfect equation to be able to win a championship. We actually were a better offense than the Giants, and going into the [Super Bowl] game, you'd have never thought that because our defense was so overwhelming. You're talking about maybe the greatest single-season defense in the history of the game. So it's very easy to forget. It's like the 49er teams. You forget how good they were defensively under George Seifert and when Bill [Walsh] was there winning championships, because of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and all the great things that happened offensively for the 49ers. You forget they were pretty darn good defensively during that run.
Q: Do you have a single moment in that season that is your favorite moment, or what you think is a watershed moment?
A: There are so many of them. There's one that comes to mind. I knew how good this defense was. We're playing the Cleveland Browns, and they're terrible. And we were all about shutouts. This team wanted to break the all-time shutout record. I forget what it was. We had like six or something [actually four], and we were going for it. We're playing Cleveland, and the guys all week thought, "This is one we're going to get," and then Cleveland comes out on the opening drive and goes 86 yards to score. We're down 7-0. At home. So I'm walking down toward the defense, they're going to come off and I'm going to do my coaching thing, and Ray -- I remember like yesterday -- Ray and Rod Woodson are coming off the field and look at me and go, "Don't say a thing." Basically saying: "We got this. Don't say a word." So I make an immediate left turn to the Gatorade, figuring: "OK, you got it. I'm out." You'd have to check the exact number. We gave up 86 yards in that first drive, and we gave up like 112 yards on the day. The rest of the day, they were pissed off. The ability to crank up to that level, that they could hold themselves accountable and knew that they were that good -- that's when I realized, wow, this is a special, special group.
Q: Moving on to the postseason, as a spectator looking back at signature moments, for me it was Dilfer to Sharpe for 96 yards and the longest completion in postseason history. That was fairly late in the playoffs. You had won a few games before that. Is there a moment like that for you?
A: For me it was the Denver game [the first playoff game]. I felt -- this is the truth -- if we could beat Denver, I didn't think anyone else could stop us. I knew we'd win the Super Bowl.
Q: Was it something about that team's makeup that made it more of a challenge than Tennessee and Oakland?
A: It was, and I told the guys: "You've got to get my back on this one. Mike Shanahan has two Super Bowl rings, and I've never coached a playoff game as a head coach. You're better than they are, but I'm not sure I'm better than he is, so you've got to cover us here." The defense was brilliant, and we did just enough offensively -- we ran the ball really well. Once we got past that Denver game -- because obviously we were confident with our ability to beat Tennessee because we had done it -- it wasn't going to be easy, but we were confident we could do it. And then, Oakland, the leading rushing team in the league. That was what they were built on, and I knew they weren't going to be able to piss a drop. And I knew they didn't know that. And the same with the Giants, and I don't mean it disrespectfully, but there was not a fraction, an iota of a second during the Super Bowl preparation that it occurred to me that we wouldn't win that game.
Q: When the game began, did you feel totally in control from the very start?
A: Yeah. You could tell. Jim [Fassel, Giants coach] and I were both wired, and it was interesting to look at those wirings afterwards because -- and it was really a good show -- because they could see the yin and yang of what Jim was talking about and what I was talking about at the time as the game was progressing. And there's a time early on, and it was prophetic because it was right at the same time I was realizing it, he was talking to his guys about "Guys, they are beating us to the punch. They're just a step ahead. We've got to do something." And I could see, defensively speaking, they just couldn't account for our quickness. We were a little like I played Barry Sanders all those years when I was in Minnesota, and there are teams that had a tough time with Barry Sanders like teams that have a tough time with Peyton Manning right now. If you haven't played them before, you can't simulate it. You get into the game, and it's like, you can't believe what Barry Sanders does. You can't believe what Peyton Manning does. You have to play them a lot, and we did when I was in Minnesota. I knew teams that hadn't played us, they didn't realize how fast we were, how good of tacklers we were in the open field and that would catch them off guard. And again, you're talking about an Oakland team that led the league in rushing. New York swept through the playoffs and just killed people. They beat Minnesota, 41-6, or something [actually 41-0], so they're feeling pretty good about themselves. It was a perfect storm for us to face a team that felt really good about itself but had no idea about what they were about to face. They couldn't. And that's not a criticism of them. They just couldn't know.
Q: Is it the athlete's discipline -- you played football at BYU -- that keeps you, when you're in that situation, from getting swept up in it and allowing yourself to start thinking, "Hey, I'm winning the Super Bowl here"?
A: No, it's like no game you've ever been a part of until kickoff, and that's what you try to prepare your team for. The week is different. Pre-game is different. The way you warm up is different. The stadium feels different because you're neither home nor away. It's kind of an odd stadium. You're used to being someplace where everybody hates you or everybody loves you, but neutral because there's yours, theirs and a whole bunch of others, so it's an odd feel. Everything about it is different until the kickoff, and then it's just the game. It's what you've prepared for your whole life. Unlike others, and you talk with coaches about the unbelievable exhilaration of, you win the game, well we knew when Jamal scored. Actually, when they returned the kickoff for the touchdown and we turned around and Jermaine [Lewis] did the same thing, it was over. They knew it. We knew it. So you had about a quarter and a half to really -- you want to say you wouldn't let yourself go there -- but it was kind of hard not to take it in knowing, "This is pretty cool." You don't allow yourself that intellectually, but emotionally -- I can only speak for myself, and, fortunately maybe, my players didn't -- but you knew what was going to happen.
Q: That week started with your press conference, which was pretty dynamic. I was there. You kind of put the media on their heels with your passionate defense of Ray Lewis in the wake of the Atlanta scandal. We [the media] didn't like it much. If you had it to do over again, would you have done it the same way?
A: I don't know. There was a purpose for it. I was obviously trying to deflect as much away from the players and Ray as I could and take it on myself. I don't know that it served any real purpose at the end of the day. You've got to remember, every time we went on the road, it started anew, because it was new for them. At home, it was easy. Done. We've done it. You've had your pound of flesh. You've had at Ray. It's a nonstory. Even in the division. But when we went on the road, this -- in fairness to them -- this was their story. We didn't cover it before, so we're going to cover it now. So you dredge it all up again. And you walk out in the stadium behind Ray and you hear some of the things people -- idiots -- can say, and it does galvanize you. That "us against them" was very, very real. So we're going down to the Super Bowl, and it was really rather a calm week. The national media was kind of done with it because they had already done the story a thousand times over. And there was always the asterisk. Ray Lewis, asterisk, arrested in so-and-so. That was his name, "Ray Lewis/arrested." But that weekend, that Sunday, I gave the players Sunday off and we traveled down on Monday, and ESPN, Jeremy Schaap had rerun his story putting that young 15-year-old man -- young kid -- calling Ray Lewis a murderer again, even though all the things that had transpired and come to light. I got mad and probably overreacted in terms of "OK, this is what it's going to be. This is what they are waiting for. I'm going to take care of this right from the get-go." In fact, [Ravens senior vice president of public and community relations] Kevin Byrne and I joke, because Kevin and I talked about it. News conference. What do you want to get done? Here's what you might think about doing. Talked a little bit about, OK, bring it on yourself a little bit. Bring the focus there. Shield the players from it. Set the tone. So I go in there and do my thing, and afterwards, when I'm walking off, I said to Kevin, "Did that about do it, Kevin?" and he said [sarcastically], "Yeah, pretty much." And had I taken it a step too far, probably. Do I regret it? One thing I will say, I remember, because I never left the hotel, other than to go to practice, except the Commissioner's Ball because I had to, so I'm sequestered all week long. So, you can't help but watch the TV and read the paper, and it was funny to watch the reaction. Obviously, everybody was up in arms, and how in the beginning of the week it was: "The Ravens are choking. This coach is choking. It's too big for him." And then by the end of the week, it was: "No, it's pretty much these guys. They're loose and ready to go." And there was an evolution of how they viewed it to how we got to the end but -- I don't know -- looking in hindsight, certainly to no small degree, that's the way people look at me.
Q: You're on the stage after the game, and you know your life has changed, but I'd like to look at it from another angle -- the whole Art Modell aspect of it.
A: I got to tell you, we all dream selfishly. I know I do. I'm assuming we all do. When you dream of that moment, it's about you and what it means to you and your career. We all do. But when that happens and when your hand touches that metal, I got to tell you, it's humbling. You can't help but think about all the things and all the people it took for you to be doing that, but I guarantee you, to a man, your thought had to go to Art. It did. Anybody that knows and loves Art the way you do. And what this had to mean to him after all those years and all that he had gone through. And when he addressed the team afterwards -- and it's in the highlight film -- there was not a dry eye in the house. It was emotional, heartfelt, and even for those young people who sometimes find it hard to appreciate things in a larger scope, it was really special.
Q: Obviously, the biggest decision you made after the Super Bowl was the quarterback decision, which was another controversial decision.
A: It was, but keep in mind, like we did everything, it was an organizational decision. It's my job to represent that decision, but this was not me waking up one day and saying, "You know what, we need a new quarterback." This was done over a monthlong period of time, like you do every position, "What are we going to do to repeat?" Trent was one of several free agents, so we had to consider we might lose Trent to another team. What's out there and can we be better and what's available? It would be a bold step, but clearly, what we did offensively had to be better. To think we were going to repeat the all-time greatest scoring defense in the history of the game was to ask a lot of our defense. We needed more offensive production. How do we go about doing that? We did it collectively and individually. Ozzie, Shack Harris, Matt Cavanaugh, Phil Savage and myself, and I wanted it to be that way. I didn't want a group mentality. We all assessed the situation separately. Ranked the available free agents as to who was the best, second-best, and factored in the money, what's it going to cost. That's all part of life in the NFL. And we came back and individually saw it the same way -- created the collective plan this is how we go about doing it. The consequence was Elvis [Grbac].
Q: If you had it to do over again, would you do it the same way?
A: You know, any decision that didn't yield the Super Bowl, so is that wrong? People have got to remember: We weren't as good defensively. We were good, but not as good. We lost Jamal Lewis. Lost Leon Searcy. We went to the divisional round, and [it] was one of the best offensive years we had. That dropped on Elvis Grbac's shoulder. He had to throw us to the playoffs. Now we ran the ball. Remember who we had. We had [ Jason] Brookins. We brought Terry Allen back, which was great. To look at what we did offensively, would we have done that with Trent Dilfer? (Long pause) Trent had never done that and generated that kind of offense. That might have been ambitious.
Q: OK, let's wrap up with the $10 million question. Will you ever stand on that Super Bowl stage again?
A: Wow. So many things would have to happen. Having this ring makes a difference. For me to go back -- and I'm a coach and always will be a coach -- there are parts that I miss. And I've spent three years every Friday sitting in a different facility. I've talked with virtually every coach in this league via my coaching show. It's been an incredible perspective. If I come back to coaching, I'm going to be a hell of a lot better coach, just for doing what I've done. I've looked at every game. When you take the blinders off of your team, your circumstance, it's amazing to do. But it's got to be in the right situation and with the right people, and that's a narrow bandwidth. What am I going to do, work for Al Davis? Not going to work. Out of respect for Mr. Davis, I don't think we would work well together. Why would I put myself in that situation? The people that I would go back to work with, that would want me to work for them, creating the right partnership, because that's what it is. Ozzie Newsome and I had an incredible partnership. That's what it takes to win. To duplicate that. Would I love to do that again? Sure, I would love to do that again, but I've been around this long enough to know that's a narrow, narrow set of circumstances. If it presented itself, absolutely. Will it? Odds are probably against it.
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