Coach, team agree: Offense will improve

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Long before Jim Fassel began his run of NFL reclamation projects, his first job was serving as ballboy for Southern California's Anaheim High School.

If there was an errant pass, Fassel would run it down. If there were shoes to be shined, he'd grab the polish.

But if a player decided to quit, he was required to hand his jersey to Fassel's father. Bud, the equipment manager in title only, would sit down and offer some encouraging words. The next day, the kid was always back at practice.

For 30 years, Fassel's father was the conscience of the school.

When he heard someone didn't have lunch money, he would leave a sandwich in his locker. When he learned someone couldn't afford new clothes, he showed up at that person's doorstep with a sweat suit, a dozen socks and a couple pairs of shoes.

"My dad was kind of like the school psychologist," Fassel said. "He was always there to help anybody. I learned everything I know about how to relate to people from him."

In that same vein, Fassel has built his reputation on solving problems, too. His latest challenge resumes next week in training camp, where the Ravens' new offensive coordinator looks to complete another offensive overhaul.

Like his father, Fassel is just as much a caretaker as a coach.

Fassel, 55, has succeeded in this game by getting players to believe in him, and by extension, believe in one another. His track record proves that he knows offense, and more importantly, that he knows people.

Contagious confidence

A natural leader his entire life - a pitcher and point guard in high school, a quarterback in college and coach in the NFL - Fassel carries an air of confidence and finds ways to instill it in others around him.

Every offense he's coached appreciably got better, whether it was the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals or Oakland Raiders. He's tutored the likes of quarterbacks John Elway, Boomer Esiason, Jeff Hostetler and Kerry Collins, and most made striking turnarounds.

Others wished they had more time with Fassel.

"The things I learned from Jim Fassel late in my career, if I could've known those things in college, I would've been setting records," said Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback who worked with Fassel in 1991 and 1992. "As far as fundamentally teaching me how to play the position physically, [Fassel] and Bill Walsh are the best I've ever been around."

So it came as no surprise when Fassel became the confidant of quarterback Kyle Boller as a consultant last season.

They would eat together on Monday nights, chatting about everything from his throwing motion to women. Fassel offered tips on how to handle himself with the media as well as teammates. He was the one who suggested that Boller should lead the offensive meetings the night before games, pushing him into more of a leadership role.

Off limits in their conversations were game-planning and reading defenses. In Fassel's view, there were already too many opinions being thrown around.

That won't be a problem with Fassel as coordinator. Asked how many voices will be in Boller's ear, he raised up his index finger and said, "Only mine."

"He's someone I can trust," Boller said, "and someone I feel I can talk [with] about anything."

Fassel preaches about finding a comfort zone. A relaxed quarterback is a confident one. And a confident quarterback plays smarter, takes advantage of situations in games and rallies his teammates around him.

"It doesn't matter when I got them in their career, we went back to work on fundamentals and got them where they felt smooth again," Fassel said. "Tiger Woods wants a swing coach. They all do."

Another side to him

A New York reporter once wrote that Fassel looked like the Mr. Rogers of pro football coaches. The perception is he's an easygoing guy, a player's coach.

But bring up how the Giants fired him after the 2003 season in favor of a taskmaster like Tom Coughlin and the gentlemanly exterior quickly fades.

"It [ticks] me off that people wanted to portray that," Fassel said. "Show me you are not concentrating or don't care to be the best, and you will see a different side of me."

Though Fassel believes his teams have been disciplined, Giants officials rationalized the firing by pointing to how noncompetitive the team was in its season-ending eight-game losing streak in 2003.

"By the end of the year it was a joke, really," Giants center Chris Bober told reporters after Coughlin's hiring. "We had so many guys who would just go to practice, and when they were done, they'd be playing on the Internet or kind of hanging out. A guy like Tom Coughlin is going to demand more out of us, where Jim Fassel kind of left it up to us."

Others have witnessed a more volatile Fassel.

As head coach at the University of Utah in the late 1980s, he got his message across at halftime by throwing a briefcase through a chalkboard and a Coke can against a wall. The Utes, in fact, came back to win that game.

Then, in his first season as coach of the Giants, he was so upset by a loss that he singled out players in front of their teammates after the second game - of the preseason.

Yet if anyone else criticizes his players, Fassel is the first to rush to their defense.

In November 2000, after the Giants had lost two straight games and had fallen out of first place, he told the media to put the heat on him and raised "the stakes" by guaranteeing they would make the playoffs.

"That epitomizes the kind of guy he is," said Jeff Langford, Fassel's lifelong best friend. "He protected his team by telling everybody to lay off them. And he was right - they went to the Super Bowl."

Mr. Fix-it

Fassel prides himself on repairing what's wrong. His initial change with the Ravens is to add quicker throws and more motion.

If only fixing life were that straightforward.

Fassel and his wife recently separated after 32 years of marriage. They have five grown children, all out of college.

Having his family around had been the one constant for Fassel. Though football jobs regularly changed, the family always stayed together, moving around the country a dozen times.

"It's part of those facts of life," Fassel said. "Change is always difficult. But this change is very difficult."

Fassel can barely get the words out before choking up. He is more at ease discussing his task at hand with the Ravens. Changing his system to suit the team's strengths is a more familiar transition for him.

In 13 seasons as either an NFL head coach or coordinator, Fassel has remained flexible, producing a top 10 rushing team four times and a top 10 passing attack seven times.

He's tailored an offense around a tight end before when he had Shannon Sharpe in Denver and Jeremy Shockey in New York. He's highlighted a dink-and-dunk passing game when he had fullback Larry Centers in Arizona. And he's broken out a deep passing attack when he had big-armed quarterback Collins in New York.

Fassel said it's too early to predict the personality of the Ravens' offense. What he does know is, with a healthy Todd Heap and the additions of Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, this offense will be less predictable.

"That's the secret to coaching: Adapt to your utilization of personnel," Fassel said. "It's not about plays. It's about players."

Getting creative

The Ravens might have needed to change coordinators as much as their attitude.

Matt Cavanaugh, the team's coordinator the previous six seasons, was a Brian Billick disciple who worked hand-in-hand with the head coach on the game plan. Fassel is a Billick contemporary, a fellow Super Bowl head coach whose stature warrants more creative freedom.

In his first meeting with the players, Fassel made it clear that the expectations have changed drastically with the offense. The priority of the offseason was stripping away the don't-screw-it-up mentality and starting a swagger.

Fassel has taken charge from the beginning, playfully trash-talking the confident defensive players. By the end of the minicamps, the offensive players were doing the same, following Fassel's lead.

"You've always got to have a little cockiness about you," said Fassel, who is convinced he will land another head coaching job but realizes his stay here might extend beyond this season. "There's a constant attitude about being successful in the way you talk to them."

Success and the Ravens' offense have rarely been linked since Billick took over as coach in 1999. In six seasons, the offense finished in the bottom half of the league five times and never ranked higher than 14th.

"At times last year, you would get into third-and-longs and you had no confidence that you were going to get this play," Ravens center Mike Flynn said. "When you have more confidence and have faith in what you're doing, you're more aggressive."

And that's where Fassel comes in.

If he has mastered anything - from his days with his father through three decades of coaching - he knows how to make a team believe in him, its quarterback and itself.

"I have a lot of high expectations, and I think they're warranted for Kyle," Fassel said. "I think he's going to be an outstanding quarterback in this league. We just have to get a mentality about us now.

"The phrase I use is, 'When the bullets start flying, we can't get sweaty palms.' We've got to be an offense that dictates what it wants to do."

Struggling attack

Jim Fassel takes over a Ravens offense that has ranked 21st or worse in the NFL in yards per game the past three seasons:

Year Rank Ravens NFL avg.

'02 26th 289.9 328.4

'03 21st 308.1 318.3

'04 31st 273.4 327.2

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°