Billick's style is to apply heat; now he hopes J. Lewis catches fire


The two enduring images from the Ravens' loss to Jacksonville last Sunday were of Brian Billick screaming at Jermaine Lewis on the sidelines, and Billick seething about Lewis in his post-game news conference.

Had the frustration of losing gotten to Billick? Was his relationship with Lewis reaching the point of no return? Why was he picking on a player who had been so productive for the Ravens the previous three seasons?

Reasonable questions, considering the intensity of Billick's reactions. But if his post-game eruption was slightly out of character -- and triggered by persistent media inquiries about Lewis' performance -- his sideline outburst was not.

Nine games into his first season, a clearer portrait of Billick's coaching personality is emerging. He's not as cerebral as his mentor, Bill Walsh. Nor is he as fearsome of a presence as Jimmy Johnson or Bill Parcells.

"Everybody has their own style," Billick said Friday. "However you approach it, the No. 1 thing you have to do is be consistent. I can't be Bill Walsh. If I try to be, it's a facade. I can't try to be a Jimmy Johnson or Bill Parcells. The players would see right through that.

"What I try to do is communicate with the players, be very straightforward with them. No veiled threats. If I'm going to threaten your job, I'm going to come up and say, 'You know what? If you don't play well, I'm going to fire you.' "

Billick couldn't say that to Lewis, who is signed through 2003. And on Monday morning, he told receivers coach Milt Jackson that he wanted to speak with Lewis in his office.

It was time to find out what was wrong.

"He's at the point where he's feeling the heat," Lewis said of Billick. "He's willing to work with me just to get it turned around.

"We're both taking a lot of heat because I'm not doing anything. It really shouldn't be like that. As a professional, you go out there and perform. You can't [criticize] him because of how I'm doing, and vice versa."

Perhaps, but Lewis hasn't suddenly lost it at the age of 26. The meeting was a necessary step for a player who has lost confidence and a coach who has yet to exploit his most dangerous offensive threat. By both accounts, it was productive.

Billick wanted to hear Lewis' perspective, but no one would ever accuse him of being touchy-feely. He is direct and often blunt with his players, and even though he has toned down his act slightly since the start of the season, no one is spared.

Ask Ralph Staten, who received one last chance from Billick, then was cut after blowing it. Ask Michael McCrary, who held out this summer in a contract dispute, only to be told by Billick that the Ravens would not resume negotiations until he returned.

Ask Tony Siragusa, who was challenged by Billick to lose weight in the off-season, and recently told by the coach that the club would not extend his contract beyond 2000. Ask Matt Stover, who has incurred Billick's wrath on the sidelines more than once.

"Brian is a very passionate person," Stover said. "He is a good coach. I understand him. Because of that, I don't take anything he says personally. I'm able to understand that, hey, in the heat of the battle, this guy is heated."

He sure was heated last Sunday after Lewis jumped offside deep in Ravens territory, then mistakenly went into motion on the next play, causing quarterback Tony Banks to burn a timeout.

"It's like the 2-by-4 to the head of the mule," Billick said. "You've got to do something to get their attention. Part of it is just me and my emotion.

"I've tried to explain to them, 'Guys, I get wound up in this thing, too. And I'm going to raise my tone sometimes. And I'm going to be volatile to get my point across. If you ever think it's personal, you come see me, and then we'll talk about that. Don't think I'm attacking you, that it's personal.'

"But particularly in the framework of a game, in that short period of time, you don't have the luxury of time to walk over and say, 'Gee, come on, let's sit down, have a cappuccino, let's talk about this. You really needed to continue on your route deeper down the field.'

"I don't have that kind of time. I've got to cut to the chase -- 'You're supposed to be deeper' -- in a loud, vocal manner."

Lewis understood, saying afterward that he "definitely" deserved the tongue-lashing. The way he sees it, he needs to get stronger not only mentally but also physically.

"My strength has gone down a little bit in my legs due to certain things, and I think it's affected me," Lewis said.

The bottom line is, it's Billick's job to push every motivational button, and he seems to have struck a reasonable middle ground between the overheated Bill Belichick and the understated Ted Marchibroda, taking different tacks with different players.

"The first thing we did Monday, Jermaine came in, sat down, we had that little cappuccino," Billick said. "I said, 'OK, Jermaine, let's talk about what happened. Where are you at right now? What can I do to help you? What is it you need?' "

"He just listened to some of my frustrations," Lewis said. "We just tried to get some things ironed out so I can be productive again."

Under Marchibroda last season, Lewis caught touchdown passes of 64, 58, 56, 73, 46 and 6 yards. Under Billick, he has yet to score a touchdown, and his longest reception has gone for 28 yards.

He shouldn't be lining up in the backfield and pass blocking. He doesn't appear comfortable alternating positions. He needs Billick to run plays where other receivers clear out, leaving crossing patterns open for him underneath.

Punt returns are an equally significant concern. Lewis' average of 15.6 yards a return in 1997 was the NFL's highest in 13 years. His average of 12.3 yards per return entering this season was the fifth highest in NFL history. His 17 career touchdowns include returns of 89, 87, 69 and 66 yards.

This season?

He's averaging 7.2 yards a return with no touchdowns.

"I don't want to talk about some of the things we're strategically doing with the punt returns, and I don't know if that will be the answer," Billick said. "But we're making an effort to say, 'What can we do to free you up more on punt returns?'

"Within the body of the offense, a couple of the things we talked about we're going to implement this week to see if that helps. It has more to do with where he's going to line up, what he's going to do. We're going to see if that will help a little bit."

The best coaches, like the best managers, understand that it's pointless to maintain a doghouse -- Billick might have favored Stoney Case over Tony Banks, but if Banks proves to be the better quarterback, he will play.

As intensely as Billick reacted in Jacksonville, he knew that Jermaine Lewis was too valuable to alienate, and he acted quickly to address whatever rift existed between them.

Who knows?

Maybe last Sunday was the best thing that could have happened to both of them.

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