More Ravens: Observations from Westminster, Md.
WESTMINSTER, Md. – Is there enough distraction surrounding the Baltimore Ravens to help them keep their focus?
OK, this may sound as logical as a drunken Mel Gibson rant on a Malibu highway, but the Ravens were the team that defined focus in the face of controversy during their 2000 championship season.
While nothing will ever match the aftermath of linebacker Ray Lewis' trial in 2000 related to a double-slaying on the streets of Atlanta, there is a swirl around this team. Not the storm of controversy of 2000, but a lot of serious funnel clouds.
From coach Brian Billick's job status to offseason comments by Lewis that sure sounded like he wanted out of Baltimore to the June arrival of quarterback Steve McNair and his need for a quick study of the offense, the Ravens have been a study in intriguing news.
But is that the type of news that bands a team together or the type that pulls it apart? For his part, on the day that Ravens players reported to camp, Billick had a simple message: For now, focus on football and football only.
To that end, Billick is practicing his sermon, having already turned down a book project that was pitched to him. Still, conjuring up the type of concentration his team had in 2000 won't be easy.
"I want to be careful not to sound mercenary about the tragedy that Ray dealt with [in 2000]," said Billick, who is under enough scrutiny from owner Steve Bisciotti after last season's 6-10 record that the Ravens felt compelled enough to do a DVD interview with the two men addressing the situation. "But, clearly, that event and what was surrounding Ray created a very narrow focus. [The attitude was:] 'This is our life right now. All the things that we have dealt with this offseason, the tension, it's going to follow us all year long.'
"You could not pick up a Sunday paper on the road where that was not the story. 'Ray Lewis, after being in …' So it was going to hang with us all season … It was a focal point. It was a catalyst to keep our focus pure because there were so many things outside that wanted to divert it. As a coach, it lent itself to [maintaining focus]. Again, I don't want to sound cruel or mercenary, but it did lend itself to that goal. You try to do the same thing every year. Right now, every coach in the league is trying to get his guys focused on the task at hand."
Lewis said the comments he made in February on ESPN and with the local Comcast affiliate were misconstrued. The headlines ranged from Lewis wishing to be traded to wanting a new contract.
"I never expressed going somewhere else. What I was saying was very simple. What I expressed is that I need to win. My window is this big," Lewis said, holding his thumb and forefinger a couple of inches apart. "I'm not like an owner. I don't have 20 or 30 years. We're talking about my window. I've played 11 years. God willing, God keeps me healthy, I've got five more years. Like five powerful, strong years. Seven, give or take. But with my mentality, if I'm not clicking the same, I'm done.
"So my thing is simple, very simple. I've been here 11 years, so for me to go through things that we went through as an organization last year, I wasn't ready for that. The brutality of it is that, as a leader, sometimes you're the one who has to take the hit. But I'm OK because it would never affect me when I step on the field and when I entangle my teammates. It would never affect that because one of my greatest traits is the way I lead my teammates. My job is to put us in the best position to win and if I didn't do that, I'm wrong. I'm wrong for just sitting here that many years just going through it."
Lewis missed 10 games last season with an injured hamstring that eventually had to be surgically reattached to the bone. Between the downtime and media bantering after his comments, Lewis had plenty of time to stew.
The result, he said, is a focus similar to 2000 when Lewis retreated to football as his haven from his trial and the resulting criticism.
"This offseason already took me there because everybody who was writing about me was speculating about something they didn't know," he said. "Same thing in 2000. They said, 'I'm mad about my contract. I'm mad about this. I'm mad about that.' The only thing that surprised me about all the people who wrote about me is I have never had lunch, never had dinner, never prayed with any of these people. So how do they know what I'm thinking about?"
There is little question that the Ravens can't be distracted if they are to compete in the balanced AFC race. They are one of as many as 10 teams that look to be a good bet to win the conference if things fall right.
The first thing that must fall right is McNair's impact on the offense.
McNair arrived in a trade with Tennessee after spending the first 11 years of his career there, and he has lots of wonderful qualities, such as toughness, experience, athleticism and leadership. But none of that matters if you don't know the offense well enough to run it effectively. To accomplish that goal, McNair has spent the past six weeks taking a crash course in the Ravens' offense, which features a combination of terminology from Bill Walsh's famed West Coast offense to Joe Gibbs' attack in Washington.
Having arrived late in the offseason for extensive work with his new teammates, McNair has tried to make up for lost time. During the two weeks before training camp, he came in three days each week to meet with offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, who took breaks from his vacation in Montana to meet with McNair.
To learn, McNair has immersed himself in the language of the offense.
"I know the concepts. I know the philosophy. I know the design of the National Football League," McNair said. "Now, it's about learning the verbiage of the call. Everything is the same concept, it's just different language. It's not hard, but it's definitely different language."
But speaking in a new tongue is sometimes a twisted affair.
"Now that we're in camp, it has to be total immersion and you have to hold him to that and it's hard," Billick said of McNair. "He has called a couple of things out there where it was, 'Huh? Oh, that was the old language.' But in the meetings, it is a matter of literally sitting in a meeting room and saying, 'Give me the call.' "
Billick snaps his fingers to emphasize the point.
"He's connecting it quicker mentally than verbally. You can see him say, 'I know what this route is and I know what to do.' But getting it out of his mouth is the next thing."
It's no easy feat. Then again, the Ravens have handled much bigger problems.