Mark Clayton's cell phone buzzed yesterday morning with a text message from a friend relaying the news that the Ravens had fired coach Brian Billick.
Clayton's reaction? "I thought he was playing around," the wide receiver said. "I said, 'Yeah, right.' "
But as Clayton, his teammates, the rest of the Ravens' organization and the team's fans later learned, this was no joke.
Billick, just the second coach in the franchise's 12-year history, was removed by team owner Steve Bisciotti less than 24 hours after the Ravens had ended a nine-game losing streak by defeating the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I think it was a very big surprise for all of us today," tight end Todd Heap said. "Only a few guys on this team have been through that with this organization. It's a tough time for me, seeing the only coaches that I've known go through that, and now it's kind of a wait-and-see mode."
Asked if there was advance notice of Billick's firing, cornerback Samari Rolle said: "No. None whatsoever. ... I definitely know that we underachieved this season. Everybody knows that, but you never thought it would happen."
While others expressed similar sentiments, they also agreed that change was inevitable. The offense's annual struggles, Billick's insistence on calling plays, and the franchise-record losing streak (which included an overtime loss to the previously winless Miami Dolphins) did not bode well for Billick.
"Whenever you have a bad year, somebody's got to be held accountable," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "By no means is it ever [the fault of] the head coach, but they take the fall unfortunately. Things happened to us this year, but it's just the unfortunate nature of the way this business is. Produce or you're not going to be here."
Added kicker Matt Stover: "We had an unsuccessful year this year. [A] 5-11 [record] just doesn't get it done, and a lot of questions were brought up, and our leaders decided to make a change for their reasons."
But players also did their best to shield Billick from all of the blame. Defensive tackle Kelly Gregg noted: "Us players, we're the ones out there that lost 11 games. That's us out there. Coach Billick never made a tackle or scored a touchdown. Players have to take some blame, too."
Some Ravens also disputed reports that they were asked by high-ranking team officials if Billick had lost the confidence of the players.
"I haven't been polled or anything," Rolle said.
"They must have skipped me," Clayton said. "I didn't get that."
Said Stover: "I never had any conversation from any of the administration. I'm sure that through time, they got a feel for it because they were involved in everything, in the meetings."
Ryan gets support
Names you will likely hear over the next few weeks to replace Billick include former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, former San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer and Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
But one man already has the backing of several Ravens players -- Rex Ryan, the team's defensive coordinator the past three seasons.
"He's a top coach," Gregg said. "He's going to have every option, but we definitely would like to see Rex get a shot."
Added Rolle: "I'd love it."
Ryan also earned a nod from the offensive players. "He's familiar with us," Ogden said. "He knows the personnel on both sides of the ball, and I think he'd be an excellent head coach. So that'll be a nice selection if they did it. I wouldn't be opposed to it at all."
"Before Rex Ryan took over full time working with me, I was pretty much a certified bust," Suggs said. "Everything that I've achieved and that I've accomplished has solely been because of Rex Ryan and the defensive staff."
Billick's firing -- or more importantly, his successor's hiring -- could determine whether Ogden returns for a 13th season.
Ogden, the Ravens' first draft pick in 1996, has contemplated retiring because of injuries but acknowledged that the team's decision on a new coach will play a large role in his future.
"Oh yeah, it will," Ogden said, laughing heartily. "A new system, a new coach, a double-edged sword. Some things we needed to change about the offense, but a whole change -- I don't know. I have no idea what they're going to do, who they're going to get. But I'll definitely wait and see. I'll probably try to come in and talk to whoever the new coach is and see what the situation is and kind of go from there."