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'Offensive genius' moniker could be Billick's undoing

The Baltimore Sun

To the best of my knowledge, the very first person to link Brian Billick with the term "offensive genius" was - drum roll, please - Brian Billick.

I know, I know - but please temper your shock and bear with me here. Speaking with the Minneapolis Star Tribune the day he was promoted to offensive coordinator in 1993, he said, "My job, literally, is offensive coordinator. Not offensive genius, not offensive mastermind, not offensive guru."

While Billick might not have been so overt as to pass out business cards advertising his football intellect - he's more the wink-and-nudge sort, don't you think? - genius is a title that he's had to live up to, a title that's come to define him.

It's still uttered today, a lifetime removed from his days as offensive coordinator in Minnesota. But it lacks the sincerity, subservience and admiration. When we hear it now, the tone is mocking, a verbal jab that's culled from stomach acids and never makes it past the lips without first dodging a tongue planted in the speaker's cheek.

Billick enters today's game against the New York Jets under the sharp glare of the spotlight. Fans and critics have hung the past two losses largely on his shoulders. As much as any uniformed player, Billick will be looked at today to show noticeable improvement. Another bad outing and another round of suspect play-calling will result in the kind of howls and jeers that are usually reserved for late in the season.

Actually, they've already started. After just one week of football, Mike Florio declared in The Sporting News last week that Billick belongs on the hot seat this season. Florio runs, one of the most popular and influential NFL blogs, read by team executives and fans alike.

"Really, what has Billick done to deserve a continuous pass?" he wrote in his Sporting News column. "Through a string of stellar coordinators running a system that Billick didn't devise and a Hall of Fame linebacker leading the charge whom Billick had no role in drafting, the Ravens have become known primarily for their performances on defense."

Billick happens to coach in the one sport that has the shortest memory of them all. Never mind the Super Bowl run more than six years ago. We've already forgotten the offensive turnaround from last season, when Billick took over the play-calling and in the final 10 games drastically boosted the team's points and yards per game.

Past success has zero bearing on the next game. As illustrated by Billick's perceived genius, it's often foolhardy to put too much stock in old accomplishments. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, Billick hasn't done enough. Fans will remember the playoff loss against the Indianapolis Colts until he gives them a reason not to. Similarly, they'll cling to the problems in the season opener until the coach shows improvement.

Buoyed by 13 wins, Ravens management prematurely handed Billick a contract extension after last season despite the fact that he hasn't won a playoff game since 2001. And then they gave him a roster that everyone from seasoned football analysts to owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome feels should be in the playoffs. With Billick calling the plays this year, there are no built-in excuses.

A snowball can roll downhill fast in this league. The Ravens need something to help them forget last week's performance and rekindle the optimism that surrounded this team before the season. Fans need to remember what a win feels like, and the team executives need to remember why they thought Billick was worth a four-year extension.

Despite Billick's stellar resume and despite last season's successes, you have to prove yourself every Sunday. In last week's season opener, it felt as if Billick was trying too hard, forcing unnecessary wrinkles and nonsensical plays. (Seriously, putting the game in Kyle Boller's hands instead of Willis McGahee's? Being unpredictable isn't always a good thing.)

Only 25 of the Ravens' 67 plays came on the ground. In the Ravens' Super Bowl season, running plays accounted for more than half their offense, which probably isn't such a bad formula to follow.

So is Billick really on the hot seat this season? It's early still, and no team or player deserves to be judged solely on one outing, but any coach who underperforms in today's NFL is vulnerable. By assuming such a hands-on role in the offense, even more of the accountability will funnel its way toward Billick.

The funny part about it is the Ravens don't need an offensive genius, someone trying to catch his own reputation like a pet chasing his tail. Similar to what Billick said so many years ago, the Ravens don't need a genius, a mastermind or a guru.

His contract extension - the details of which still feel murky - is not protection enough. The lone solution is winning, which means the best protection could be Billick himself. Unfortunately, that might also be his worst enemy.

To read Rick Maese's Points After, go to /maese.

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