Former Ravens coach Brian Billick, who steered the Ravens to their only Super Bowl title 10 years ago, was back at M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday night. Billick, now an analyst for FOX and the NFL Network, was hosting an event for Baltimore Operation CAMO Care Package, a collaboration between Crown Royal and Operation Troop Aid to send care packages to U.S. soldiers overseas.
I couldn't make it out to the event -- probably a good thing considering my track record with Crown Royal -- but event organizers were kind enough to hook me up with a phone conversation with Billick, whose tenure in Baltimore ended a few months before my first day on the job at b.
We talked about a bunch of things, including Troy Smith's starting gig, helmet-to-helmet hits and Billick's interest in perhaps-soon-to-be-vacating coaching positions in Dallas and Minnesota. But don't worry, a big chunk of the interview focused on the 5-2 Ravens. The lengthy Q&A is after the jump.
Matt Vensel: How did the event go last night?
Brian Billick: It was fabulous. I really appreciate Crown Royal for allowing me to participate. It's such a great program, teaming with Operation Troop Aid in terms of providing the iconic purple camouflage bags that everyone is familiar with -- anybody who buys Crown Royal products -- and they're stuffing these bags with candies and mints and gum and anything that can remind the troops of home. The most important aspect is filling out these cards that add a personal touch from home to send to our troops to let them know that we care about them, that we know they're over there serving our country and serving us and that we appreciate it. In addition, Crown Royal, the first 10,000 bags that they sell, they will likewise provide 10,000 of these bags to be sent overseas to the troops via Operation Troop Aid, and it's just a great program.
MV: The Ravens are 5-2 after running a tough-early season gauntlet with road games in New Jersey, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and New England. Have they met your expectations so far?
BB: Many people thought the Ravens were a legitimate Super Bowl contender coming into the season, and they certainly haven't done anything to discourage that. I know it was a tough, close win against the Buffalo Bills and the expectations that go with that, but at the end of the day, it was a win. And to sit here at 5-2 on the break, no matter how confident you are as a coach or a team going into the season, looking at the early schedule that the Ravens had, I don't know that anybody wouldn't have said, "You know, 5-2 would be pretty good. We'll take it." They've got a tough stretch coming up. They've got to play Miami then Atlanta at Atlanta -- very good football team, obviously. They still have the Steelers, New Orleans. So they've got a tough road yet to hoe on the back end of it, but you've got to be impressed with what the Ravens are doing so far.
MV: I think Joe Flacco is the X-factor when it comes to the team's title hopes. Where does Flacco stand midway through his third season? Do you think he is on the cusp of being a top-10 QB in the league?
BB: He could be. I don't know if he's quite there yet, but you have to be impressed with what he's doing, certainly. It's an interesting league this year. Normally, it's going to take that dominant quarterback play to win it all, but this year it's a little bit different. You've got to play good defense and run the ball. It's been a while since we've been in the league where that was the most important thing compared to the quarterback play. And certainly, Joe Flacco is playing well enough within that structure for them to win a championship. And I think [he will] continue to get better.
MV: The Ravens have seven former Pro Bowlers at the offensive skill positions, and the speedy Donte' Stallworth set to return soon from a fractured foot. How challenging is it as a play-caller to juggle egos on offense and keep them all involved in the game plan?
BB: Well when you're winning, it's not hard at all because it's all about the winning. You're lucky to have … It's been a while since they've had -- probably never -- in terms of having that much firepower offensively, and they're running the ball very well. So that's going to serve them very well as they continue on. And obviously, they're playing great defense and getting Ed Reed back is a huge pickup for them. That back end was the biggest concern people had coming in with regard to the health of Ed Reed and Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington. So that's boding well for them as well, and they're poised to make a great run here.
MV: Speaking of the secondary, it was seen as the Ravens' Achilles heel entering this season and it was exposed the past three weeks. Do you agree that the secondary is the team's weakest unit?
BB: I don't know that I would call it a weakness, but certainly it's one that's their biggest concern. I think it had more to do with health than anything. … Even though he's a phenomenal player, you can't just drop Ed Reed into the secondary and say, "We'll pick up where we left off." It takes a little bit of time to get into the rhythm, and I think with every game, they'll get better and better.
MV: That dovetails nicely with my next question. There is a lot of concern right now with the Ravens defense – specifically when it comes to stopping the passing game. What do the Ravens need to do to buck that trend, and how much of that is correctable over the bye week?
BB: I think the issue for Baltimore right now is putting on a pass rush. They're in the bottom half of the league in terms of sacks -- not that that's the bottom-line barometer -- but certainly losing Sergio Kindle and him not being able to provide balance to Terrell Suggs on the outside has hurt them. They need to find a way to generate a little more pass rush and I think that would help on the back end.
MV: Troy Smith started two games as a rookie in your final season with the Ravens. What do you expect from him this Sunday when he starts at quarterback for the 49ers against the Broncos?
BB: Troy's accuracy was always the thing he needed to work on, and we'll see how it shows up. If he can improve on that accuracy, he can help the Niners.
MV: Did you see any change in how defensive players approached the game a week ago following the NFL's edict about helmet-to-helmet hits?
BB: Oh, absolutely, and it was a change for the better. We didn't have as many of the hits. I don't think it altered the play or diminished the game in any way, shape or form the way people were all worried about. And yet, it showed a very definite ability from the players to recognize, "We don't want to put ourselves at risk and other players at risk by making these types of hits." It was a very, very positive step.
MV: You mentioned a few minutes ago that the NFL was a little different this year. This season seems to be extra wacky, especially with the balance of power shifted heavily into the AFC's favor -- so many good teams in the AFC and no one has really stepped up in the NFC. What are your thoughts on the AFC's dominance this season?
BB: There's no question [the AFC] is dominant. There's no question that if you were to [list] the top ten teams in the league, I don't know if an NFC team would crack the top five or six. So the best teams are in the AFC, in my opinion. You're looking at New York and Atlanta in the NFC being the top two teams right now, but that could all change. It's going to be a battle [in the AFC], and one of the most difficult things is you're going to end up having an 11-5 team -- say Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indy, Tennessee, one of those teams -- going to play an 8-8 AFC West division-winning team in the wild-card round, which I think will start to prompt people to discuss the idea of, "Hey, once we get to the playoffs, if we reseed totally based on record, it might be more fair."
MV: Two teams seen as preseason Super Bowl contenders in the NFC – the Cowboys and the Vikings – have had abysmal seasons so far. What do you think the problem has been for both the Cowboys and the Vikings this season and why they haven't been able to come close to meeting their very high expectations?
BB: Well, they were high expectations and it's hard to win in this league. Obviously, injuries are a factor for Minnesota, not having Sidney Rice, and defensively, they're not playing as well, and Brett Favre is not one-hundred percent. For Dallas, they get close and they just aren't able to finish it off. Obviously, now with the injury to Tony Romo and Jon Kitna stepping in, it's going to be a challenge for both of those teams.
MV: Your name has been mentioned as perhaps a potential candidate should there be a coaching vacancy in Dallas at season's end, and your ties to Minnesota make you an obvious candidate should Brad Childress be fired at some point. Would you have any interest in either of those two positions should they open up at season's end?
BB: Not at this point. Anytime you talk about changing coaches, it's premature, obviously. We'll get into that during that season, regrettably, at the end of the year. Right now, I'm focusing on my duties for FOX and the NFL Network. And there will be plenty of time for people to conjecture and speculate when we get into the firing season that happens very quickly once the regular season is over.
MV: You are interested in a return to coaching eventually, right?
BB: It would have to be the right situation with the right partnership. That's what it is nowadays. I enjoy what I'm doing. Once a coach, always a coach, though, and there's any number of situations that might be of interest. And there's some that, quite frankly, I wouldn't be interested in or they probably wouldn't be interested in me. So we'll kind of let that thing play itself out. Like I said, I'm focused on doing the job that I have now.
MV: Speaking of getting into broadcasting, is it what you thought it would be? Did you think you would enjoy it this much, taking on [an analyst] job?
BB: What I enjoy the most is every Friday, I sit in a different facility visiting with players, coaches, general managers, owners, seeing what that organization is about, doing the game and getting that little bit of energy that comes from being in an NFL game. So I've really enjoyed that. And then during the week, sitting down with Jim Mora every Monday for our coaches show that's on the NFL Network. And going up to NFL Films on Thursday and reviewing all of the games for the "Playbook" segments I do with Joe Theismann, and/or Brian Baldinger and Sterling Sharpe. It kind of keeps you connected with the game and gives you a broader view of it. When you're coaching, it's all about you, your team, your perspective and your circumstance. When you step back like this, you get a broader view of the league.
MV: Last question. Two months into the season, who do you think the frontrunners are to play in the Super Bowl down in Dallas? You don't have to give me the final two teams, but teams in each conference you think are poised to be playoff contenders.
BB: There are so many in the AFC. From Baltimore to Pittsburgh to New England. Indianapolis is still a factor, obviously. Tennessee looks very, very good. There are just a lot of teams. In the NFC, it's a little more narrow. Atlanta and New York are looking pretty good right now. I would not dismiss New Orleans; they're still on the cusp of it, as well.