Changes begin on offense

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Matt Cavanaugh won't return as the Ravens' offensive coordinator after the struggles with the team's attack reached an all-time low, coach Brian Billick announced yesterday.

The first major change came 19 hours after the Ravens wrapped up a disappointing 9-7 season and ranked 31st (out of 32 NFL teams) in offense, the worst finish in the franchise's nine-year history.

In an 11 a.m. face-to-face meeting with Cavanaugh, Billick said they reached a "mutual" decision for his longtime assistant to leave the team.

"Matt felt very strongly, and I concurred, that it was time to change," Billick said. "He recognized that, given the current circumstances, the best chance of going forward with success precluded him from being with us."

Cavanaugh, the only offensive coordinator in Billick's six seasons as coach, could not be reached to comment yesterday.

Billick, who would not rule out further changes to his coaching staff, insisted he did not ask Cavanaugh to step down.

"I have not fired anybody today, including Matt Cavanaugh." Billick said.

Billick said the search for a new coordinator will begin immediately and that he'd prefer to hire someone over the next couple of weeks.

A league source said there is common interest between the Ravens and Minnesota offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Because the Vikings are in the playoffs, the Ravens would have to wait for their season to end before interviewing him.

Linehan's offenses have ranked among the NFL's top four for three consecutive seasons. His contract expires after the season. The Ravens probably could lure him with a substantial offer, especially because he reportedly makes less than $300,000 on the NFL's lowest-paid coaching staff.

Another possible candidate linked to the Ravens is former University of Illinois coach Ron Turner.

Billick said he doesn't have one candidate in mind and acknowledged that offensive consultant Jim Fassel would be a "natural thought" if he was not hired as an NFL head coach elsewhere this offseason.

Billick's intention, however, is to bring someone in from outside of the organization.

"I typically like to promote from within staff, but certainly in this circumstance that's not the prudent thing to do," Billick said. "We need a change of focus, we need a change of energy, and I don't think that can be accomplished on staff - notwithstanding Jim Fassel."

The Ravens are seeking a change in offensive philosophy for a team that traditionally fields one of the best defenses in the league. The Ravens' defense ranked sixth in the NFL this season and will send four starters to the Pro Bowl.

In six seasons under Cavanaugh - which included the 2000 Super Bowl campaign - the Ravens' offense finished in the bottom half of the league five times and never ranked higher than 14th.

The often-criticized attack also failed to score a touchdown in 17 of 96 games under him (17.7 percent). Their 24 offensive touchdowns this season were the fewest in the AFC.

There were some strides made under Cavanaugh last season, when the Ravens scored a franchise-record 391 points and ranked first in rushing. But they continually slumped in passing the ball, finishing 32nd in 2003 and 31st this season.

Billick informed the team of Cavanaugh's departure during his 20-minute, end-of-the-season talk.

"A lot of times it's not all about X's and O's," center Mike Flynn said. "The offensive coordinator is the one who's going to get blamed, but there were a lot of execution problems."

Meanwhile, the Ravens also might see some movement in their front office.

Director of player personnel Phil Savage interviewed with the Cleveland Browns about their general manager position yesterday in Baltimore. He is considered to be on their short list of candidates.

Savage did not return phone calls yesterday.

As for the Ravens' players, they cleaned out their lockers, and some didn't know if they were doing so for the last time.

Seven key veterans are unrestricted free agents: cornerback Gary Baxter, linebacker Ed Hartwell, receiver Travis Taylor, center/guard Casey Rabach, guard Bennie Anderson, defensive end Marques Douglas and fullback Alan Ricard.

Taylor, the former first-round pick who did not play the last two games, avoided reporters before leaving the complex.

The Ravens have taken the first step in keeping Baxter from leaving, contacting his agent about a new contract before he can talk to other teams in March.

"It's one of those things that doesn't seem real right now," Baxter said. "Not being here ... I don't even want to have that thought in my mind right now."

Hartwell was not as nostalgic.

"It's a business and you've got to see what's going to happen," Hartwell said. "I would have thought they would have come and talked to me by now. They didn't."

In his final address of the season to his team, Billick emphasized using the disappointment of this season as motivation. The Ravens had talked since training camp about being a Super Bowl team, but four losses in their final six games stopped them from reaching the postseason.

"Obviously, we fell short of our goal," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "We've just got to savor that flavor in our mouths and use that to fuel our ambitions for this offseason. [Billick] left us with: 'When we're training this offseason, we've got to remember how we feel today.' "

Billick's theme to his players and the media was looking toward a brighter future instead of a murky past.

"The bottom line is, we need to be substantially better," Billick said. "We need to be among that elite group - that 13-3, that 14-2, that favored team - going into the playoffs. We have that kind of capability.

"I wish I could mourn this [past season]. I don't have the time to cry in my beer. This organization is about moving forward today. That's what we have to do, as evidenced by some of the things that have already happened. That's the challenge."

Losing ground on offense

The Ravens' offensive ranking slipped during coordinator Matt Cavanaugh six years with the team:

Year ................ Rank ................... Yds.*

1999 ................. 24th ................... 298.6

2000 ................. 16th ................... 313.4

2001 ................. 14th ................... 320.3

2002 ................. 24th ................... 289.9

2003 ................. 21st ................... 308.1

2004 ................. 31st ................... 273.4

*-Per-game average

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