Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti shocked his team as well as Ravens fans yesterday by firing Brian Billick, the coach who brought a Super Bowl title to this football-hungry town.
A grim Bisciotti told the players the news in a 2 p.m. team meeting and called it the "toughest decision I've ever had to make." He said he agonized over dismissing Billick. Just 18 days ago, a high-ranking team official told The Sun that Bisciotti had informed the coach he would return.
"I believed that it was time for a change," said Bisciotti, who appeared to be still struggling with the decision during his news conference an hour and a half later. "I believe we have the nucleus of a team that can get back to the Super Bowl. We felt that in the next five years that we had a better chance with a new coach than leaving Brian in that position."
The dismissal comes a day after Billick finished a 5-11 season, the worst record in his nine years as Ravens coach. The Billick era was defined by the franchise's only Super Bowl title, in January 2001, years of struggling offenses and an often-arrogant coaching style.
Because Billick was fired one season after being signed to a new four-year contract, the Ravens owe him $15 million over the next three years.
The Ravens will immediately start their coaching search, headed by general manager Ozzie Newsome.
Since Bisciotti took over as Ravens owner in 2004, Billick has a 33-31 record with just one playoff appearance and no postseason wins. This season, the Ravens had lost a team-record nine straight games before winning Sunday's season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Several players said Billick lost the confidence of the locker room with his questionable play calling and stale message. According to two players, they were asked by some staff members - presumably prompted by Bisciotti - whether Billick had lost the team.
Bisciotti declined to discuss the reasons for his decision, saying it boiled down to a "gut feeling." Newsome and team president Dick Cass recommended to Bisciotti that Billick be fired.
"I just changed my mind," Bisciotti said. "I can't explain to you how tough a decision it is. It's the toughest decision I've ever had to make."
Asked whether he had specifically told Billick earlier that he would return, Bisciotti said, "There were indications but no promises."
The team is expected to focus its search on NFL coaches. Potential candidates could include Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, former San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, University of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
Newsome said Ryan would be interviewed for the vacancy, and several players expressed support for him yesterday.
"We're going to be very thorough," Newsome said. "If Rex is the best guy, he will be the third coach in the history of the Baltimore Ravens. We're going to be calling and talking to a lot of people so we can get the best coach."
No one was more surprised by Bisciotti's decision than Billick.
He had already made a list of candidates to be the team's new offensive coordinator and play caller when Cass told him at 11 a.m. yesterday that Bisciotti wanted to talk to him.
Bisciotti described Billick as "gracious" when told of the firing.
"He had a hard decision, and he did what he believes is best for the Ravens," Billick said in a statement. "We are and will remain friends."
Along with Billick, the rest of his staff was also fired.
Billick is expected to coach in the future. He will continue to live in Maryland and is building a new home on the Eastern Shore. According to one league source, Billick might be interested in coaching the San Francisco 49ers if Mike Nolan is fired.
"It has been a great ride with the Ravens and the fans here," Billick said.
But the ride didn't end on the best of terms, especially with the players.
Several players declined to comment when asked whether Billick had lost the team. Most supported the firing of Billick, who was tied with Philadelphia's Andy Reid for the third-longest current run with the same team.
"We need a change," said offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. "We need to move forward and try to take a different direction."
Billick did not speak to the team yesterday, which seemed to hurt some players. Others said they understood that it's a difficult situation.
"I'm not either agreeing or disagreeing with the decision, but I am saying that change is sometimes necessary," said kicker Matt Stover. "Our leaders on this ballclub felt like that was the way to go. I'm going to trust that."
Most of the criticism has been focused on the Ravens' lack of offense under Billick. After setting offensive records as coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings, Billick has watched his offenses finish in the bottom half of the NFL in eight of his nine seasons.
Billick created a spark last season when he fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and took over the play calling. But he failed to sustain that success this season, as the Ravens finished 22nd in offense.
A possible breaking point came during a loss at Buffalo on Oct. 21, when Billick decided to throw the ball three times, starting with second-and-one at the Bills' 49 with less than two minutes to play. All three passes were incomplete, and the Ravens offense didn't get the ball again.
Linebacker Ray Lewis later expressed his frustration over that decision on his radio show.
"I think some players just thought that he should have let Rick [Neuheisel] take over as offensive coordinator or just some of the play calling," said defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. "And some of the play calls, I think some of the guys didn't agree with that either."
Arriving in January 1999, Billick transformed the Ravens from a losing franchise to a Super Bowl-winning one.
In the first five seasons under Billick, the Ravens reached the playoffs three times, capturing their first Super Bowl title in the 2000 season and winning the AFC North in 2003.
But the Ravens hit a rut under Billick recently.
"In order to be successful, you have to take chances. In order to take chances, you have to listen to your heart and go with your gut," Bisciotti said. "You believe with a track record that when you get the answer, you go with it. It doesn't mean that you don't pray on it and it doesn't mean that you fear being wrong."
Billick finished as Baltimore's all-time winningest NFL coach, leaving the Ravens with an 80-64 record.
"I hope that over time that Baltimore views me as a quality of an owner as Brian Billick was head football coach," Bisciotti said. "So, I've got some catching up to do to the man I just asked to step down today. The jury is out on me. Brian's already got his Super Bowl. I'll try to make you all proud."
Sun columnist Mike Preston and reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.