ST. LOUIS -- Ever since the Ravens hired Brian Billick in January, he has displayed all the characteristics of a high-quality head coach. He is disciplined, a motivator and organized almost to a fault, and he communicates well with players.
His charisma and articulation have played well in the community, increasing permanent seat license sales by nearly 3,000 for a franchise that has only won 16 games in three previous seasons.
But as the Ravens travel to the Trans World Dome today to open the 1999 season against the St. Louis Rams, a city that has been starved for winning football for more than a decade will get to see if Billick can match strategies every Sunday with the Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnsons and Mike Holmgrens.
Today, it's Billick vs. Rams coach Dick Vermeil. Billick is aware of the expectations. He has his own: playoffs.
"I can't imagine a team in the NFL right now not thinking that they can make the playoffs, and that being their goal," said Billick.
"I can't imagine a guy with any competitive effort in his body that would give up to that right now and say, 'Boy, you know what, we're not going to make the playoffs this year.'
"I think this team has had a little hesitation in the preseason with regards to their enthusiasm for our wins because this team has been through a 4-0 preseason, and it didn't translate into the regular season," he said. "Ten out of the last 11 years, a team that went 4-0 in the preseason has gone to the playoffs. The one year they didn't was last year. It's my job to see if we can take this momentum from a 4-0 start into the regular season and then into the playoffs."
The players certainly believe in Billick. It was evident during the preseason when the Ravens rallied at the end of the final two exhibition games to pull out wins against the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants on the final play of each game. Despite six new starters on offense including quarterback Scott Mitchell, fullback Chuck Evans, right tackle Harry Swayne, left guard Everett Lindsay, tight end Aaron Pierce and wide receiver Qadry Ismail, the Ravens still think they will find a way to win.
"The offense may have their problems early in the season, but we'll have a winning season," said Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary, who signed a five-year contract extension Thursday that will pay him $38 million over the next six years. "Billick will find a way to win. Honestly, deep down inside of my heart, I believe he will find a way for us to win games."
Today will be the debut of Billick's West Coast offense. It won't be what football fans around the country saw last season in Minnesota, where Billick was the offensive coordinator and had such players as receivers Randy Moss, Cris Carter and running back Robert Smith.
What Billick has with the Ravens is another experiment. Just as he tutored Brad Johnson and helped turn around the careers of Randall Cunningham and Jim McMahon in Minnesota, it's Mitchell's turn in Baltimore. Mitchell lasted only two games in Detroit last season before he was benched in favor of rookie Charlie Batch.
Mitchell progressed well during the preseason with a generic offense, but that changes today. The offense is now centered on him.
"The preparation is so much more detailed now," said Billick. "The game plans are wrapped specifically for an opponent, for an entire game, specifically for the people you have. This will be the first time a game plan will be wrapped around Scott Mitchell. And I know Scott is looking forward to it. Successful or not, it is going to be his first opportunity to implement the system in its entirety, and everyone is looking forward to that."
Mitchell said: "He is going to run the things I feel most comfortable with. Personally, I like to mix things up, have balance. I don't feel as though I'm limited, but that I can make any throw. Most of all, I just want to play well."
Stopping St. Louis' offense can be another problem. The Ravens are expected to blitz quarterback Kurt Warner often today. Warner, filling in for injured starter Trent Green, has thrown only 13 regular-season passes. The Ravens would like to get most of their pressure from the front four, but their top two pass rushers are not 100 percent.
Strong-side linebacker Peter Boulware will only play in passing situations because of an injured right shoulder. McCrary is not in game shape because of limited workouts in the preseason as a result of off-season knee surgery.
The Ravens will want to get to Warner early. The Rams have several big-play performers in receivers Torry Holt and Issac Bruce. Ricky Proehl can cause a lot of problems in the slot. And then there is running back Marshall Faulk.
His style is the kind that gives the Ravens problems. Last year Faulk, with the Indianapolis Colts, rushed for a career-high 192 yards on 17 carries against the Ravens. The Ravens have spent a lot of time working on pursuit angles since training camp started.
"With our linebackers, we all try to make every tackle," said weak-side linebacker Jamie Sharper. "Because of our aggressiveness, all teams try to cut back on us. It's a great weapon. Jack [linebacker coach Jack Del Rio] has worked with us on pursuit. He doesn't just want us running, but pursuing with a purpose."
"Conventional wisdom says you have to go after Warner," said Billick. "You know Issac Bruce can beat you. You know Torry Holt can beat you. You know Marshall Faulk can beat you. Given the option, you have to make Warner beat you."
Regardless of what happens, the Ravens are going into 1999 with a different frame of mind. They aren't the Denver Broncos, but they aren't the same old Ravens.
"At this point in Denver last season, we were already talking about where we wanted to be and that was in the Super Bowl in January," said Swayne, who spent the last two seasons with the two-time Super Bowl champions. "We weren't talking about winning games, but dominating teams. But we had players who had been in the same system for four years. We started in training camp at a different level than these guys.
"But this is a young team and they want to win. The desire is here," said Swayne. "There is a lot of competition for jobs and it's going to take a game or two for our offense to click. Once that happens, then we'll find our roles. That's when you start becoming a team. Until that happens, we can't start talking about playoffs."
NOTE: Wide receiver Patrick Johnson (calf) and left guard James Atkins (hamstring) are not expected to play.