A simple formula: chemistry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When players report for training camp tonight, the Ravens will begin their march to the regular season as an older, and in their estimation, wiser team.

One only has to catch a glimpse of coach Brian Billick's newly grown beard to get that message.

"You know I never had any gray before I became head coach," he said with a chuckle.

Only seven months ago, questions -- not smiles -- filled the Ravens' locker room. A self-proclaimed Super Bowl contender failed to make the playoffs, losing four of its last six games to finish 9-7. It was a late-season tailspin never before seen in Billick's six-year reign, leading many to wonder why it occurred.

Was there a problem with team chemistry? Or was it simply a bad run of injuries?

Billick's search for answers this offseason took him from an International House of Pancakes in Oklahoma City to a high-end restaurant in Las Vegas' Venetian hotel. It was a marathon, one-day road trip that included visits with Kelly Gregg in Oklahoma, Deion Sanders in Dallas, Todd Heap in Arizona and Jonathan Ogden in Las Vegas.

In total, Billick has had two-hour sit-downs with a dozen players since the end of last season, speaking openly about the practice structure, film study and the makeup of the team. He called the meetings upbeat and enlightening.

"There is not a man in this organization that doesn't feel like we came up short last year," Billick said. "The injuries we suffered are well-documented [starters combined to miss 53 games] and could very well be the reason we ended up the way we did. But we just can't dismiss it as that. You have to dig a little deeper.

"If there was a mistake I made last year, it was underestimating the youth and the experience of this team. Now, we're a year removed from that. It may very well be that same approach, in terms of vesting them with part ownership of what we're doing, will be more successful."

The Ravens are banking their season on that.

This will essentially be the same locker room as last year, with close to 40 players expected to return this year. It's the same locker room that cornerback Chris McAlister described as "shifted" last season.

"We definitely have a lot of egos on our team," Heap said. "But it's a lot of egos that want to win."

In defending the closeness of his team, Billick makes the point that a majority of his players think like Heap and have been positive about their chemistry.

But a few others have painted a different picture.

McAlister was the first to point out a problem, saying in December that "everybody stays in their own little corner." Even linebacker Ray Lewis disclosed this offseason that "there was a lot of personal stuff going on, petty stuff, in the locker room."

Whether you believe the locker room was divided or unified, everyone seems to agree that there was a different atmosphere.

"It was a situation where a team some picked going to the Super Bowl ended up 9-7," said center Mike Flynn, one of the players who had a face-to-face meeting with Billick. "I think it was more frustration on the season, and it wasn't directed at individuals."

Nevertheless, Billick said the team has to be more "vigilant" about the issue.

"The challenge for this team is to make sure we are inclusive with one another and recognize how important that team chemistry is," he said.

Facing a new look

New beard or not, this season already had a different look for Billick.

For the first time, he is dealing with a team that underachieved.

Billick won a Super Bowl in his second season. He delivered his best coaching performance by leading the salary cap-ravaged Ravens to a 7-9 record in 2002. And he captured the franchise's first division title in 2003.

So, if the Ravens fail to meet expectations again, is it justified to question the job security of Billick, a coach who owns a 61-42 record (including the postseason)?

"Every year, every coach has to deal with the volatility of this profession, justified or not," Billick said. "Larry Brown got fired from the Detroit Pistons. Are you kidding me? If that tells you anything, you better not get too comfortable in any situation.

"If you're asking am I concerned about my job security, like every coach, you're always mindful of that. But does that create any more pressure, or do I think I'm on that kind of a bubble? No."

Doubts about where coaches stand always arise whenever a new owner takes over. A recent story on Sports Illustrated's Web site, without citing any sources, described Billick's relationship with first-year owner Steve Bisciotti as "occasionally rocky last year."

Billick admitted there was "a great deal of tension" when Bisciotti replaced Art Modell in January 2004. He detailed a feeling-out period in which Bisciotti wanted candid answers, encouraging his coach to speak his mind and argue his points, expletives and all. The result was several "healthy" discussions.

Bisciotti ultimately rewarded Billick with a new multiyear contract before last year's training camp. It is believed Billick is among the highest-paid coaches in the NFL.

"Those who view it as a strained relationship, they would be wholly mistaken," Billick said. "It was a growing process that made us closer as evidenced by the new contract. The relationship I have with Steve Bisciotti today is infinitely stronger than it's ever been."

Toward the 'same goal'

Reinforcing relationships has been the theme to this offseason.

For many players, Billick's visit was more about finding ways to improve, not finding out what went wrong.

"I see [Billick's] desire and his want to be good," Heap said. "I know a lot of coaches who believe it's their way or the highway. ... I think by coming out and seeing guys, it makes everyone working toward the same goal, and we are partners in this together."

Other players viewed Billick's meetings as much a mission of urgency as unity.

"He knows we have two or three years with this salary cap situation," Flynn said. "So, I think the time is now to be aggressive and win a Super Bowl."

Ravens camp

Today: Players report to McDaniel College, Westminster.

Tomorrow: Practice 8:45 a.m. to 11 a.m., and 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Starting lineup changes

Pos. In Out Jamison Hensley's skinny

WR Derrick Mason Travis Taylor Mason caught 23 more passes last season than Taylor did the past two years combined.

RG Keydrick Vincent Bennie Anderson The more athletic Vincent won't be the pass-blocking liability Anderson was.

LDE Kelly Gregg Marques Douglas Gregg, whose strength is underrated, shifts to end after starting the past three seasons at nose tackle.

NT Maake Kemoeatu Kelly Gregg Kemoeatu's nearly 350-pound frame is the big body the Ravens need to occupy blockers.

OLB Tommy Polley Ed Hartwell With the opposite playing style of Hartwell's, Polley relies more on quickness than strength.

CB Samari Rolle Gary Baxter Baxter had a physical presence against the run, but Rolle is a major upgrade in coverage.

Ravens roster

Coach: Brian Billick

No. Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Age Yr. College Acquired

2 Anthony Wright QB 6-1 215 29 7 South Carolina FA '02

3 Matt Stover K 5-11 178 37 16 Louisiana Tech PB (NYG) '91

6 Jesse Ohliger P 6-4 224 24 1 Murray State FA '05

7 Kyle Boller QB 6-3 220 23 3 California D1b '03

8 Darian Durant QB 5-11 225 22 R North Carolina FA '05

11 Patrick Johnson WR 5-10 196 28 7 Oregon FA '05

12 Derek Abney WR-RS 5-9 180 24 2 Kentucky D7 '04

13 Fred Stamps WR 6-1 180 24 1 Louisiana-Lafayette FA '04

14 Derek Anderson QB 6-6 245 21 R Oregon State D6 '05

15 Dave Zastudil P 6-3 215 26 4 Ohio University D4 '02

16 Rhys Lloyd K 5-11 231 22 R Minnesota FA '05

17 Curtis Williams WR 6-2 204 23 R Maryland FA '05

18 Tommy Manus WR 6-4 222 23 R Morgan State FA '05

20 Ed Reed S 5-11 200 26 4 Miami D1 '02

21 Chris McAlister CB 6-1 206 27 7 Arizona D1 '99

22 Samari Rolle CB 6-0 175 28 8 Florida State FA '05

23 Jamaine Winborne DB 5-10 202 24 1 Virginia FA '05

24 Dale Carter CB 6-1 194 35 12 Tennessee FA '04

25 Keith Burnell RB 5-11 213 26 1 Delaware FA '05

26 Calvin Carlyle DB 5-11 186 25 1 Oregon State FA '04

27 Cash Mouton CB 6-0 193 22 R Louisiana-Monroe FA '05

28 Jarvis Johnson S 5-10 195 22 R Rutgers FA '05

29 Chester Taylor RB 5-11 213 25 4 Toledo D6 '02

30 Alex Haynes RB 5-10 225 23 R Central Florida FA '05

31 Jamal Lewis RB 5-11 245 25 6 Tennessee D1 '00

32 Musa Smith RB 6-0 232 22 3 Georgia D3 '03

33 Justin Green FB 5-11 251 23 R Montana D5 '05

34 Ovie Mughelli FB 6-1 255 24 3 Wake Forest D4 '03

35 Tellis Redmon RB 5-10 210 26 1 Minnesota FA '04

36 B.J. Sams RB-RS 5-10 185 24 2 McNeese State FA '04

37 Deion Sanders CB 6-1 198 37 14 Florida State FA '04

38 Bill Alford CB 5-9 180 23 R Vanderbilt FA '05

39 Alan Ricard FB 5-11 237 28 5 NE Louisiana FA '00

40 Mark Estelle CB 5-9 180 24 R Utah State FA '05

41 Tyson Smith ILB 6-2 237 23 R Iowa State FA '05

42 Zach Norton CB 5-11 183 23 2 Cincinnati FA '04

43 Rob Abiamiri TE 6-2 240 22 R Maryland FA '05

44 Matt Sinclair ILB 6-1 244 22 R Illinois FA '05

45 Chris Kelley S 6-2 204 23 R Maryland FA '05

47 Will Demps S 6-0 205 25 4 San Diego State FA '02

49 Chad Williams S 5-9 207 26 4 Southern Mississippi D6 '02

50 Tommy Polley LB 6-3 230 27 5 Florida State UFA (St.L) '05

51 Mike Smith LB 6-1 235 23 R Texas Tech D7 '05

52 Ray Lewis LB 6-1 245 29 10 Miami D1 '96

53 Dan Cody OLB 6-5 255 23 R Oklahoma D2 '05

54 Roderick Green LB 6-2 245 23 2 Cent. Missouri State D5 '04

55 Terrell Suggs LB-DE 6-3 260 22 3 Arizona State D1a '03

56 Jim Nelson LB 6-1 230 30 7 Penn State FA '05

57 Bart Scott LB 6-2 240 24 4 Southern Illinois FA '02

59 Joe Maese LS 6-0 245 26 5 New Mexico D6 '01

60 Jason Brown OL 6-3 320 21 R North Carolina D4 '05

61 Gary Gibson DT 6-3 294 22 R Rutgers FA '05

62 Mike Flynn C 6-3 305 30 8 Maine FA '97

63 Thatcher Szalay C 6-4 303 26 2 Montana FA '04

64 Edwin Mulitalo G 6-3 345 30 7 Arizona D4 '99

65 Drew Caylor C-LS 6-5 280 25 1 Stanford FA '04

67 Dante Ellington T 6-6 354 25 1 Alabama FA '05

68 Keydrick Vincent G 6-5 325 27 5 Mississippi UFA (Pit.) '05

69 Brian Rimpf G 6-5 319 23 2 East Carolina D7 '04

70 Matt Katula LS 6-6 272 22 R Wisconsin FA '05

71 Marques Ogden OL 6-5 336 24 2 Howard FA '04

72 Walter Curry DL 6-4 275 23 R Albany State FA '05

73 Lester Brown T 6-4 304 22 R Louisiana Tech FA '05

74 Phil Hawkins G 6-4 325 23 R Houston FA '05

75 Jonathan Ogden T 6-9 345 30 10 UCLA D1 '96

77 Orlando Brown T 6-7 360 34 10 South Carolina State FA '03

78 Adam Terry T 6-8 330 22 R Syracuse D2 '05

79 Tony Pashos T 6-6 320 24 3 Illinois D5 '03

80 Randy Hymes WR 6-3 211 25 4 Grambling FA '02

81 Devard Darling WR 6-1 215 23 2 Washington State D3 '04

82 Terry Jones TE 6-3 260 25 4 Alabama D5 '02

83 Daniel Wilcox TE 6-1 245 28 3 Appalachian State FA '04

84 Clarence Moore WR 6-6 220 22 2 Northern Arizona D6 '04

85 Derrick Mason WR 5-10 192 31 9 Michigan State FA '05

86 Todd Heap TE 6-5 252 25 5 Arizona State D1 '01

87 Darnell Dinkins TE 6-2 255 28 4 Pittsburgh FA '04

88 Trent Smith TE 6-5 245 25 3 Oklahoma D7 '03

89 Mark Clayton WR 5-10 195 22 R Oklahoma D1 '05

91 Aubrayo Franklin DT 6-1 320 24 3 Tennessee D5 '03

92 Maake Kemoeatu DT 6-5 350 26 4 Utah FA '02

93 Dwan Edwards DT 6-3 315 23 2 Oregon State D2 '04

94 Matt Zielinski DT 6-2 302 24 2 Duke FA '04

95 Jarret Johnson DE 6-3 285 23 3 Alabama D4 '03

96 Adalius Thomas LB 6-2 270 27 6 Southern Mississippi D6 '00

97 Kelly Gregg DT 6-0 310 28 6 Oklahoma FA '00

98 Anthony Weaver DE 6-3 280 24 4 Notre Dame D2 '02 99 Patrick Goodpaster DE 6-2 280 23 R Colorado State FA '05

D-draft, FA-free agent, PB-Plan B free agent, UFA-unrestricted free agent

Directions from Baltimore via I-695 Take I-695 (Baltimore Beltway) to Exit 19 onto I-795 (Northwest Expressway), and continue to its termination. Follow signs to Westminster via Route 140 West to Route 31 South; at blinking traffic light, turn left (Route 31); at first traffic light, turn left onto Main Street. Go up the hill; the entrance to the Ravens' visitors' parking is on your left. Follow the drive around Bair Stadium and follow the signs.

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