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Facing off

For football coaches, plotting a game plan is always a chess match - a sometimes Byzantine exercise in getting into the other guy's head and coming up with a strategy that will carry the day. And when opposing coaching counterparts are as familiar with each other as the Ravens' Brian Billick and the San Francisco 49ers' Mike Nolan are, the tactical thrust-and-parry can be all that much more intriguing.

Nolan was a Ravens assistant coach from 2001 through 2004, and the defensive coordinator the last three of those seasons, before becoming head coach in San Francisco.

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But Billick and Nolan, while certainly admitting to a mutual understanding of each other's coaching philosophies, contend that the gamesmanship isn't exactly a football version of the old Mad magazine cartoon, "Spy vs. Spy."

"It's always fun to go against someone who was part of your family so to speak. It's like going against your brother," Billick said.

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"But the advantages and disadvantages are minimal. I think over a period of time, there's enough things that change with your

personnel and a number of other things that there isn't an advantage to be had. Now maybe in the first year they have a familiarity with you, but by the same token you're familiar with them. So I don't know that there's an advantage one way or the other."

As the coach of a reasonably successful franchise since 1999, Billick has sprouted a coaching tree that includes three current coaches - Nolan, the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Jack Del Rio. A former coach in Minnesota, Mike Tice, was an assistant under Billick when the Ravens coach was the Vikings' offensive coordinator. Tice is now Del Rio's assistant head coach/tight ends. In coaching matchups with former assistants, Billick is 6-7, but he contends that game outcomes often have more to do with the vagaries of life in the NFL than it does with whatever insights coaches may have into each other.

"You have to look at the larger dynamic," Billick said. "Who, when and where did we play? Where were we? What season was it?

"My head-to-head record with Bill Cowher or Marvin Lewis - you know what? We never faced off at the 50-yard line, not one time," the Ravens coach added. "It's your team against that team. Your organization against another organization. That's the way you look at it."

Former Vikings and Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green - from whose coaching tree Billick is a member - says the difference in going against a coaching counterpart with whom you are familiar is a higher level confidence you can have in predicting tendencies.

"You're always looking for tendencies [in the other coach]. But when you've spent months and years in meeting rooms with your fellow coaches and talk philosophy and strategy, you really do know what it is that he wants to do," Green said. "Brian knows very well what Mike Nolan wants to do and, conversely, Nolan knows what Brian wants to accomplish. The key is to stop the other guy from doing what he prefers to do early. ... Now, you're forcing him to do things that he's not necessarily comfortable with and if you get there, then you're probably going to beat him."

Green was in a dozen classic matchups against a former assistant, Tony Dungy, when Dungy coached Tampa Bay and the Buccaneers and Vikings were in the NFC Central Division.

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Green and Dungy split those games evenly and in 1998, when Minnesota went on a record-setting offensive tear and finished the regular season 15-1, it was Tampa Bay that managed to beat the Vikings, 27-24.

"In that one, I don't think we stopped them at all and they stopped us once," said Green, who is expected to do radio broadcasting for Westwood One later this season. "I always felt the key was to get the lead, get on top, so that we could get Tony out of his game."

At the tactical level, what the Ravens and 49ers should mutually be familiar with is the 3-4 defense that Nolan ran when he was defensive coordinator in Baltimore (he was also the receivers coach for a season). Since then, current Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has added his own wrinkles. The player who may be most helped because of his familiarity with the Nolan-style defense is Ravens veteran center Mike Flynn, who has to call blocking assignments.

"It definitely helps," Flynn said. "It has been awhile since Mike has been here but we've been running a form of that defense - that hybrid 3-4 - with Rex. Some of their nickel stuff, Rex carried over some of that, so we're similar to them with some of the schemes.

"But it's been awhile. I'm sure Mike has adapted to the personnel he has in San Francisco as well. So there will be some subtle differences. But [being familiar with] their philosophy and how they'll adjust from a 3-4 to a 4-3, that's the biggest thing that helps me."

Nolan conceded that there are times when a coach may be able to use the other side's knowledge about him to his advantage by zigging when the other team knows his tendency has been to zag. But such cat-and-mouse games are overrated, he insisted.

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"As coaches, we'll obviously set up game plans and try to put our players in the best positions possible," Nolan said. "But after that, it really comes down to players on the field getting the job done.

"It's a physical game and it's a game of physical matchups," the 49ers coach added, "and Brian and I aren't going to have a physical matchup during the game to change the outcome."

The circumstance of former colleagues competing against each other in the NFL, where each game day looms large, often puts close friends in conflicting emotional positions.

Of course, everyone operates under the prime directive of professional sports - just win, baby. But winning sometimes means that a fellow coach, whom you have befriended and whose career you may have helped nurture, will face professional peril.

Such was the case two years ago when it was widely held that Tice - Billick's friend and assistant in Minnesota and subsequently, the Vikings' coach - needed to win the final two games of the 2005 season and make the playoffs to save his job.

In the penultimate game of the season, on Christmas Day, the Ravens -playing out the string of a losing season - upset the Vikings, 30-23. Indeed, Tice was fired.

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"At that time of year, there's always somebody - more than somebody - either you or someone you care about who's in a difficult situation somewhere across the league," Billick said. "And you have to compete against them. There's a part of you that feels badly if things don't go well [for them]. But you wouldn't expect it to be any other way - and neither would they."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com



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