Beyond the blame game

The Baltimore Sun

At the Ravens' headquarters, the fashionable colors this fall are black and blue.

No, it's not an easy time to be a Ravens player, coach or fan. National analysts are questioning the team's quarterback, the head coach of nine years finds himself on the proverbial hot seat and the NFL playoffs are starting to feel like a swanky restaurant that isn't taking reservations.

"Our fans deserve better than what they saw yesterday," said coach Brian Billick, one day after the Ravens suffered a second straight embarrassing defeat, this time at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals. A week earlier, the Ravens were victimized on national television by the Pittsburgh Steelers, playing on Monday Night Football.

Losing a pair of games -- actually, the streak is now three in a row -- might not be cause for alarm in some NFL cities, but the precise fashion of the Ravens' recent stumbles has Baltimore sports fans banging their heads against the wall. On Sunday, the Ravens failed to score any points against one of the league's worst defenses until the final minutes of the game. By the time the team finally found the end zone, most fans were already sitting in traffic.

The booing started in the first half, and the mass exit from M&T; Bank Stadium took place early in the fourth quarter. Those who did stick around to watch the Ravens score their only points in a 21-7 defeat were reduced to perverse laughter by their team's late turnovers.

"Yeah, it bothers me, because I don't particularly know who they're booing," linebacker Terrell Suggs said after Sunday's game. "They're booing us. These are my brothers, all of them. Offense, special teams, left tackle, the kicker. We're a team. No one man is exempt."

Their record is still close to .500, but fans and analysts alike know the toughest portion of the schedule is just around the corner, and given the little life the Ravens have shown in recent weeks, this season could quickly turn into the longest in the franchise's short history. Already, their struggles feel amplified. In his regular Monday news conference, Billick was asked whether he remembers a time when the mood surrounding the Ravens felt worse.

"It certainly feels that way right now," he said. "And I understand that, I appreciate that. I'm very, very much aware. I have been at this long enough. I think I have a very real sense of what this game's about, what it means to the fans, what our responsibility is as an organization and what we need to do to go forward. I'm very, very much aware of that. And I very much want the fans to get a better return on their time and energies than they're getting right now."

There are plenty of explanations for the Ravens' downward spiral -- from costly turnovers to a series of unfortunate injuries (which include valuable starters Trevor Pryce, Jonathan Ogden, Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle). But unlike past years, most of the blame is funneling in just two directions -- the head coach and the quarterback.

Yesterday, Billick refused to announce a quarterback change, even though Steve McNair has committed five turnovers in the past two games, even though McNair was yanked from Sunday's game and even though McNair suddenly has a shoulder ailment that puts his status for this weekend's game in jeopardy. Meanwhile, a nation of Monday morning quarterbacks howls.

"Football is a cruel business, and when a former star -- or close to a star, in this case -- comes to the end of his career, nobody wants to admit it, especially the player," wrote senior writer Pete Prisco of "But if the Ravens are to save their season, they better admit it. Steve McNair simply can't do it anymore."

McNair conceded after the Bengals loss that teammate Kyle Boller should perhaps start Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns, which certainly casts doubt on McNair's future in the Ravens' starting lineup.

"If not for bad luck, we wouldn't have any luck at all," McNair said. "Especially myself."

While the quarterback's merits are debated from the barstools to the Internet message boards, talk of Billick's fate is being bandied about. Unlike most teams that rely on an offensive coordinator to call the team's plays, Billick has assumed those duties himself this season, and the result is a team that's ranked 28th in the 32-team league in scoring, averaging just 15.3 points per game.

In addition to keeping local radio show hosts busy, Billick was a hot topic yesterday on ESPN Radio's Mike & Mike in the Morning, as well as Dan Patrick's syndicated afternoon show, both national broadcasts. For his part, Billick deflected the criticism yesterday afternoon.

"You're judged one way as a coach -- one way and one way only -- wins and losses," he said.

Billick is partly a victim of his own successes. He brought a Super Bowl championship to Baltimore in the 2000 season, and each fall since, the expectations of him and the franchise have been to reach that level of success. Easier said than done.

The Ravens have just one playoff victory since hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Perhaps no loss was as crushing as last season's playoff defeat by the Indianapolis Colts, which came after an impressive 13-3 Ravens regular season but also marked a turning point for a franchise that has fans demanding major changes with seven weeks of football remaining.

"We've been here before, and if you're lucky enough to survive as long as I have -- maybe that's the right term -- you're going to go through the ups and the downs," Billick said.

"Just keeping it at arm's length is something you've got to do. It's not being naive," he said. "I'm not dismissing my duties in that regard. But emotionally, you've got to keep at it arm's length. ... There's no upside to being drawn into it emotionally, not when you've got to come back and go to work on Wednesday. But it's hard not to, because everywhere you go you're going to be peppered with it to a certain degree."

There's only one way to change that -- to win.

"I don't care how bad it is, the group that we have in this room, we're never going to fade," said linebacker Jarret Johnson after Sunday's loss. "We're never going to flinch."

Said safety Dawan Landry: "We still have seven games left, and it's a long season."

As we've learned from watching the Ravens these past couple of weeks, if the Ravens don't find some answers soon, we'll find out just how long the season could be.

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