Ravens' coaching job best opening in NFL

The Baltimore Sun

Of the three NFL head coaching jobs available, it's not difficult to identify which one is the most attractive: the Ravens'.

The facts speak for themselves. The Ravens have great facilities and rabid fans. They have a wealthy owner in Steve Bisciotti who is hungry to win, but one who doesn't like to meddle and prefers to stay out of the spotlight. The general manager has a history of drafting well (though admittedly less so on offense), and a high draft pick to use in April. The team has a talented group of veterans and a track record of weathering rough waters in the interest of long-term stability.

The Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, hasn't made the playoffs since 2001 and will soon have their fifth head coach in five years. The Dolphins' owner is rumored to be interested in selling the team.

The Atlanta Falcons are facing a major rebuilding project and are still reeling from the public relations nightmare of a quarterback sent to federal prison for dogfighting, as well as a coach who bailed on the team in the middle of the night so he could take a job at Arkansas.

"If you want to take a job for the beaches, then Miami's the right job," said Sean Salisbury, an NFL analyst for ESPN and former NFL quarterback. "But if you want to win, the Ravens job is extremely attractive. They have great facilities, a great fan base, a great location and a great nucleus in Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Bart Scott. There are some pretty good people there. You can make it happen quickly."

But the Ravens job doesn't come without a few caveats. For nine years under Brian Billick, Baltimore was the place where average quarterbacks went to get, improbably, even worse. And the window of opportunity to win, while open, could be small, according to former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese, now an analyst for ESPN.

"The biggest concern that I would have is that it appears a bunch of guys are nearing the end of their career at the same time," Reese said. "If you look at [Derrick] Mason, Lewis, [Jonathan] Ogden and a bunch of guys in that group, if they all retire, within a year or two, that's a lot of Pro Bowl-caliber talent you have to replace at once. That would be tough."

For now, though, there are pieces in place to rebound from a 5-11 season. The Ravens have a 1,000-yard rusher (Willis McGahee) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Mason). They also have one of the best tight ends when Todd Heap is healthy and one of the best offensive tackles if Ogden decides not to retire. Outside of Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, the top candidates around the league - Jason Garrett, Jim Caldwell, Tony Sparano and Rob Chudzinski - have offensive backgrounds and could see potential in the often-criticized Ravens attack.

"I've been shocked at how putrid their offense has been in recent years," Salisbury said. "But the players have to take accountability, too. I think Brian is a good coach, and a change was necessary, but coaches get too much credit and too much of the blame. I know a lot of genius coaches who had great players and they stayed geniuses. And I've know a lot of geniuses who didn't have the players, and suddenly everyone didn't think they were so smart anymore."

If the Ravens expect to rebound from a poor season, they understand they need to drastically improve their production at quarterback. The Ravens seem to be banking that Steve McNair will return to his 2006 form, although the team will let the new coach evaluate the roster, especially the quarterback position.

"They absolutely have to get more production from the quarterback position," Salisbury said. "I don't know if they have anyone right now who is the answer."

There are fewer question marks on the Ravens' defense, which has finished in the NFL's top six in eight of the past nine seasons. The Ravens have one of the league's best playmakers in safety Reed and one of the top field generals in Lewis at linebacker. When it comes to stopping the run, the Ravens rely on Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata to dominate the line of scrimmage, and, when healthy, cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle can shut down opposing receivers. Even with injuries, the Ravens' defense managed to finish No. 6, which is significantly better than Miami (23rd) and Atlanta (29th).

That the Ravens can rebound by relying on a talented group of veterans is one of the reasons Reese believes Ozzie Newsome and Ravens president Dick Cass will likely recommend that the team hire a more experienced coach who will have control of the locker room immediately.

"You have so many well-respected guys in that locker room, at this point in their careers, [and] they've earned a voice," Reese said. "When they talk, they feel like they deserve to be heard. You'd worry about a younger guy coming in with no experience. I'm not sure he'd understand what he was getting into."

Salisbury says a college coach would be a disaster waiting to happen, especially in Baltimore's situation.

"I wouldn't touch a college coach with a 10-foot pole," Salisbury said. "Even Pete Carroll at my alma mater USC, and I love Pete Carroll. The veterans would eat him alive, and in two years, he'd go right back to the college ranks."

Reese said he believes the Ravens' biggest asset in their search will be Newsome, who is widely respected for both his playing career and for what he has accomplished as an executive.

"Ozzie has been there forever," Reese said. "He provides stability and experience. There are a whole group of owners in the league that don't have someone like that to rely on. They end up bouncing around and just doing the opposite of what they did before. They just fired a dominant, intense coach? They hire a passive players' coach. Two years later, they're hiring a coach with a dominant personality. Ozzie is better than that. He will have a good feel for what they want."

Bisciotti, as much as it clearly pained him to fire Billick, seemed at least excited by the opportunity to put his stamp on the franchise with this hire.

"I have to take chances. You have to take chances in life in order to succeed," he said Monday. "There is a Hall of Fame coach out there. And it's our job to find him."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jamison Hensley contributed to this article.

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