Sun columnist Mike Preston answers selected questions every Tuesday during the NFL season.
DeRo, Middletown, Del.: This is, without a doubt, the most disappointing season for this team since their arrival. You spoke of chemistry problems in a recent article. Can you expand on that and offer your suggestions on what they should do in the off-season?
Mike Preston: There has been a chemistry problem on this team since about the fourth game of the season. Just about every member of the media who covers this team was aware of it. But we don't always report it for a number of reasons. First and foremost, a lot of media who cover this team are paid directly or indirectly by the Ravens. They can only be so critical because they have their hands in the Ravens' pocket. Secondly, a lot of them are intimidated by Brian Billick or the players. Thirdly, some of them don't have a forum to discuss the problems like I have with The Sun.
Billick has always treated his players like men and he has their respect. But sometimes he gives them too much rope and when that happens, they not only hang themselves, but the coach, too. Billick has to re-establish himself as the leader and authority on this team. There has to be more Billick, and less Ray Lewis running this team. The Ravens need to get more leadership from some of the younger players like Ed Hartwell, Will Demps, Adalius Thomas and Anthony Weaver. Lewis, because of declining skills, needs to take a step back and let others step forward. Right now, that defense is divided among those with Ray Lewis, and those against Ray Lewis. Billick has allowed Lewis to do whatever he wanted in the past, and he became too laxed this season. Maybe it was because of the new contract extension. But Billick has to re-establish his presence, show the fire of old, or he might find himself dangling soon.
Tony, Granite: During the postgame show on Comcast, your name was a big topic of conversation. It seems that all of the commentators knew of and agreed with your version of what was happening in the locker room. Does this surprise you? They also talked about Coach Billick leaving for Cleveland since he no longer has control of the locker room. Can I have your thoughts on the subject?
Mike Preston: Once it was out that there was a chemistry problem, it was inevitable that a lot of media members would agree. Of course, the Ravens will deny it, but it wouldn't be the first time they have created a tale that wasn't true. Remember when they denied there was a confrontation between offensive tackle Orlando Brown and line coach Jim Colletto last year in Miami and then both confirmed it happened months later? Or how about Billick saying there would be no negotiations with Tony Siragusa until he reported to training camp and then Siragusa came in after he accepted a new deal. Professional sports franchises are like Pinocchio. Sometimes, their noses obscure their faces. Billick to Cleveland? Now, that there is funny and I don't care who you are. The only scenario in which I see Billick leaving is if general manager Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti force him to fire several members of his offensive staff (i.e. offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and receivers coach David Shaw). If Billick resists, then I think it's time for him to leave. The offense is horrendous, and the Ravens may have the worst offensive production over the last six years of any team in NFL history.
But you never know with this crew. Newsome likes to play it in the middle of the road instead of being decisive. He can draft players, but he doesn't have the guts to be that forceful. No one knows what Bisciotti thinks because he won't let go of Gary Williams' apron string at the University of Maryland. He doesn't return phone calls. It's time for him to speak up and weigh in like former majority owner Art Modell. Heck, even Orioles owner Peter Angelos weighs in every once and a while.
Phil, Crofton: Now that the Ravens season has landed with a hard thud, any chance we'll stop hearing about how mighty the D is? I get tired of hearing how great they are, only to watch them fold in the second half. Kryptonite? Get real! They need to stop drinking so much Kool-Aid, shut up and play ball. I don't even want to start in on the offense; we all know they've earned their low ranking. Mike Preston: Phil, Phil, Phil. You nasty, boy you. Despite the gloomy picture, this underachieving defense, the trash talking, all the dancing after tackles, the pregame dance, the preseason Super Bowl hype and the smack down by the Steelers last week, I remain committed to the legion of purple. I still have my ticket and the train is still set to head to Jacksonville for the Super Bowl. All those who lack the faith should ask for refunds. Now.
As for me, I bleed purple. To show my commitment, I changed my daughter's name to Raven after last Sunday's loss. This offense can't get much worse. After six years of offensive hell, I think the football gods are going to smile down on us and teach Mr. Cavanaugh and Mr. Billick about flooding zones, using pick plays, running counters, traps and other misdirections. I will not become negative. I will remain positive. No matter how bleak this playoff picture looks, I remain positive because I am Joe Fan, I am Joe Raven.
Jared, Baltimore: Mike, we constantly get ourselves into third-and-long situations for various reasons. When it is third-and-long, why do we do stupid 2-yard passes and hope the receiver can pick up the rest? Even though Cavanaugh didn't get the Pittsburgh job, can we count on him not coming back? Getting rid of him is our only shot of having a offense next year.
Mike Preston: The Ravens do a lot of stupid things offensively. On a third-and-8 this year, they ran receiver Kevin Johnson on a one-yard slant. He gained zero yards. The play calling is poor, the offensive line can't pass block, the receivers can't catch and the quarterback is inaccurate.
Other than that, it's a pretty damn good offense (you've got to be positive, look at the bright side of things).
Steve, Lake City, Tenn.: After last year's draft Coach Billick said that it would be difficult for as many as three drafted players to make the Ravens roster with all the talent we have. How did we get from that position to a team that looks like it has so many needs for the 2005 draft?
Mike Preston: Most of the needs have been on offense, and it has become more glaring this season. The Ravens have the basic formula for success: good defense, solid special teams and a strong running game. They just have to upgrade the offense where it becomes more balanced with the defense. The 2000 season was an aberration. May it rest in peace.
Kevin, Baltimore: Hey Mike, Remember when the Ravens actually played with heart on both sides of the ball? Anyways, what do you see the Ravens doing in the off-season? Finding a right tackle? Recievers that can catch? Any chance you see us losing Ed Hartwell and going to back to the 4-3 defense? Thanks for your answers.
Mike Preston: First of all, bring in good offensive assistants. The defense can no longer hide the offensive problems. Then, you work from there in assessing the players - which ones should stay and which ones should go. The Ravens still need a go-to receiver, but they need versatile, athletic offensive linemen. Defensively, this is not a bad club, they're just worn down mentally and physically from having to carry this team not just from week to week, but from year to year. If the Ravens sign Ray Lewis to a contract extension, then they probably can't afford Hartwell, who'll earn good money on the free agent market. The Ravens should stay in a 3-4 because changing would force them to overhaul the defense, and they're loaded with linebackers. They need to find a big, stud defensive lineman or two up front who can stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback.
Brian, Watertown, Conn.: Why is it that the receivers always catch the ball in a position where they cannot run after the catch? Is it poorly thrown balls, or poorly designed plays? I see some balls thrown behind the receivers, but a number of other plays where the receiver is just standing there waiting for the ball and is tackled right away. We cannot go on with the same group of wideouts next year. I would say keep [Randy] Hymes and [Clarence] Moore, but get rid of [Travis] Taylor and [Kevin] Johnson. There's got to be someone on the market this off-season. What do you think? Thanks.
Mike Preston: Actually, the free agent market is poor as far as receivers. With the Colts re-signing Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokley, the best receiver on the market might be Travis Taylor. Gulp. I would doubt the Ravens bring Taylor back. He goes down as the greatest bust on the Ravens draft record barely ahead of cornerback DeRon Jenkins. Right now, the Ravens are a team loaded with No. 2 receivers who have great potential. I agree, bring back Hymes and Moore, but they also have to find a No. 1 somewhere. As for the first part of your question, I think there are a number of reasons for why they don't gain any yards. The scheme is vanilla consisting of short curls, slants and jump balls. Loyola High School has a more sophisticated passing game. Secondly, "My Man" Kyle often throws behind receivers. Even when he leads them, they're diving, trying to make catches.
Dennis, Milton, Del.: You have written how Clarence Moore is a good practice player and how nobody wants to line up against him in practice. Why does he continue to play so soft and getting the Travis Taylor bug of dropping pass after pass when he's wide open and the ball hits him in the chest?
Mike Preston: One, he's a rookie and tired. You can see it in his body posture. He is also tired of "My Man" Kyle hanging him out to dry on some of those passes where he is getting crushed. Shoot, you can even see tight end Todd Heap becoming a little more cautious about catching some of "My Man" Kyle's passes over the middle. Moore needs a year in the weight room, a better coach and 12 ounces of courage dumped in his soup. In the right situation, he will become a very productive player.
Cliff, Kansas City, Mo.: How much longer can the Ravens pretend that Kyle Boller can be a productive quarterback?
Mike Preston: Look here Cliff. No one attacks "My Man" Kyle. Haven't you heard? He's the truth. He's the answer. He is Canton-bound. When he hit Chester Taylor in the head Sunday with that screen pass, I said to myself, "Wow, another John Elway." And then when he threw to [Todd] Heap over the middle in double coverage when Heap wasn't even looking, I thought, "Only Unitas and 'My Man' Kyle could make that play." As stated before, "My Man" Kyle gets another year. If he can't get it done then he might be going to the tree with Billick.
Pat, Lombard, Ill.: Even allowing for the many injuries and absences of starting players, do you consider this an underachieving team? How much did Jamal Lewis's situation affect the outcome of this season?
Mike Preston: Underachieving is understatement. This team had eight Pro Bowl players on it from a year ago, and five from this season. For some reason, it fell apart, and it began to unravel against the Bengals. Even with the injuries, there is no excuse for the Ravens to not make the playoffs. There is and can be only one person accountable - and that's Billick.