Loyal to a fault

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti just might be the most loyal man in Baltimore. I had entertained that theory long before this past week. Bisciotti's circle of friends stretches back before his days at Salisbury State, Severna Park High and the Severn School. Heck, Mark Burdett, the Ravens' vice president of corporate partnerships and media sales, was a Bisciotti buddy way back in preschool.

As in any business, loyalty and continuity are vital to running a successful football team. But the probing question that should be asked these last couple of weeks of the NFL season around the Ravens' Owings Mills complex is this: Shouldn't loyalty have limits? Perhaps it's the holiday stress or maybe just my intellectual shortcomings (yes, documented on these pages four times a week!), but I'm failing to follow the logic surrounding the Ravens these days.


It started about a week ago. A report in The Sun, citing an anonymous source, announced that Bisciotti has assured Brian Billick that he'll coach the Ravens next season. At the time, the announcement sure felt like a vote of confidence from the Ravens' brass and a chance to tell players that they weren't playing for a lame duck these last weeks of the season.

But now, it just feels like a mistake. The Ravens did themselves no favors by committing - publicly or privately - to bringing Billick back for another year. By Sunday night, the pre-emptive announcement served as an embarrassing underscore to the most embarrassing loss by an NFL team this season. It was a chef bragging that he had spit in your soup and guess what - here's another bowl.


So, does loyalty have its limits? Yes, it should, and as far as Billick is concerned, Bisciotti's loyalty slipped rather quickly from comfortable confidence to blind faith to a danger zone that jeopardizes the team's future.

As bad as the loss to the Miami Dolphins might have felt, the limit wasn't reached Sunday, when the Ravens dropped their franchise-record eighth straight game. In fact, rarely should a single game decide any coach's fate and rarely should termination be used as punishment.

You don't part ways with Billick because he wasn't the best coach in 2007. You do so because he's not the team's best coach moving forward.

The Ravens seem to be under the impression that were it not for key injuries, they wouldn't be in this mess. That's just not the entire case. They've had ample opportunities, which have been compromised by wrong decisions. They were 18 inches away from beating the Dolphins and just 55 seconds away from beating the Patriots. Despite missing key players each week, they've had chances.

Popular thinking seems to be that Billick returns next year and is aided on the offense by someone who has more input and play-calling abilities. How can this be considered a magical solution? Do we not remember that there were others who've been given the keys to run Billick's offense, yet it still needed a tow truck to move downfield? Why would anyone expect next year to be different just because a new name and face is running Billick's system?

But that's not even what should worry fans most. Continuing a running theme since the franchise's inception, the Ravens again find themselves mired in a quarterback crisis. And even if Steve McNair fully recovers and somehow convinces his body that it's not 35 years old next season, the team needs to find a quarterback for the future. That likely means developing rookie Troy Smith or finding something in the draft.

In 16 years of coaching in the NFL, the past nine as the Ravens' coach, Billick has not developed a young quarterback. The closest he has had to a success story is Kyle Boller. Using his track record as a primary reference point, has he given Bisciotti any reason to believe that he's the right man to mold and develop the team's next quarterback?

That brings us to Smith, the former Heisman Trophy winner who has looked capable in his brief appearances. Billick and team officials publicly have stated that they're continuing with the 2007 season with an eye cast distantly on '08.


In fact, after the blowout loss to the Indianapolis Colts, it was Billick who said "there's a sense of 'Let's do something now that's going to affect next year.' "

How do you reconcile that with his decision to stick with Boller heading into the final two games of the season? Because starting Boller against the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers helps the team prepare for next season? Or because ...

"We're going to take the tack that we're going to go out and win every week," Billick said Monday, repeating that Boller offers the team the best chance to win.

So logic has limitations, but loyalty does not? That's certainly not a good way to end this season, and it sure seems like a scary way to begin the next one.