Blocking criticism over suspect play calling and a struggling passing attack, Ravens coach Brian Billick came to the defense of offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh yesterday.
"I know a lot of people are speculating," Billick said, "but I have no intentions of firing Matt, nor have I told him that he ought to look somewhere else."
The scrutiny intensified after the Ravens' season-ending 20-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Saturday, when NFL rushing champion Jamal Lewis received a season-low 14 carries.
But questioning the offense goes beyond last week's wild-card defeat.
In five seasons under Billick and Cavanaugh, the Ravens' offense has finished in the bottom half of the NFL four times. The Ravens have never ended a season ranked higher than 14th.
Billick, who has guided the Ravens to the playoffs three of the past four years, said the offense is tailored to win games, not praise. Building a conservative game plan around a smash-mouth running game to complement a hammering defense is considered the best formula for this team.
"With our running profile, you're never going to have the league-leading numbers so many people want," Billick said.
Billick, who has the ultimate say in coaching changes, is scheduled to have his first staff review this week with soon-to-be sole owner Steve Bisciotti.
The Ravens had the NFL's most lopsided offense in three decades, finishing first in the NFL in rushing and last in passing. They set franchise records with the fewest yards passing (141.3 per game) and yards per pass attempt (6.07).
Defenses devoted all their energy to stopping Lewis, stacking the line of scrimmage and daring the Ravens to beat them downfield. The Ravens could never consistently capitalize, producing 31 passes of 20-plus yards (the worst among playoff teams).
Most of the Ravens' big plays came from their running game. While the passing game has been bashed for being unimaginative, the ground attack has been well-schemed, creating holes for Lewis despite blockers regularly being outmanned.
"In my opinion, those that want to focus on that [passing ranking] shows their lack of understanding of this game and their lack of appreciation for how this season unfolded," Billick said. "Go back to the early years of the franchise when they were up and down the field and had yards galore. Yet we've scored more points [this season] than at any time."
The Ravens set a team record by averaging 24.4 points, but that number was skewed by favorable field position set up by big plays from their defense and special teams.
The offense had as many scoring drives of 21 yards or fewer (12) as it had of more than 70 yards. There were five games this season in which the Ravens had one or fewer offensive touchdown.
Troubles sustaining drives can be traced back to the Ravens' problems on third downs, where many of the play calls came under fire.
When needing 1 or 2 yards on third down this season, the Ravens put the ball in the quarterback's hands more times than Lewis'. On those pass plays or quarterback runs, the Ravens converted seven of 14 attempts, with two interceptions and two tackles for losses.
"I understand the criticisms," Billick said, "but those that are trying to isolate it specifically to Matt Cavanaugh are doing so with some other agenda or a lack of the ability to truly understand how this thing works.
"You can't disassociate the success we've had and just isolate to, 'The only reason we lost [is] because we were last in the league in passing.'"
Just like the Ravens' team scoring mark, their passing numbers could come with an asterisk. In five of their blowouts, the Ravens totaled five pass attempts in the fourth quarter, choosing to run out the clock rather than pad their statistics.
Still, an offense that has five first-round picks, including three Pro Bowl selections, probably needs to show more balance. Teams are going to try to duplicate the strategies of the Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers, who held Jamal Lewis to an average of 2.2 yards on his final 34 carries this season.
"From my perspective," Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap said, "if we just at least had a passing game this year, we would have gone a lot further."
Said Billick: "Clearly, we have to increase our efficiency and our explosiveness on the outside when put in a position by those teams that have the capacity to load the box up and just flat take the run away from you."
Some of the blame can be placed on a lack of continuity.
The Ravens have had 10 starting quarterbacks over an 80-game period and have not made a decision on whether Kyle Boller or Anthony Wright will start next season.
"We think we have our quarterback of the future in both Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright," Billick said. "We can feel very good about that and the litany of quarterbacks we've gone through and the success we've had with it. I think it's a testimony to our ability to adapt to the talent that we've had."
The Ravens' offense has ranked in the bottom half of the league in all but one of five seasons under coach Brian Billick and coordinator Matt Cavanaugh (out of 31 teams from 1999 through 2001, and 32 teams in 2002 and 2003):
Category '99 '00 '01 '02 '03
Total offense 24 16 14 26 21
Rushing 16 5 11 16 1
Passing 25 22 16 27 32