Marvin Lewis is a defensive guru whose team, the Cincinnati Bengals, can't stop anybody. Brian Billick, Lewis' old friend and ex-boss, is an offensive expert whose Baltimore Ravens are suffering from an STD (severe touchdown deficiency) they can't seem to shake.
Talk about killing the mood: As the Bengals (2-6) and Ravens (4-4) prepare to slog it out at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon – a game that looked highly appealing before the season began – it's a tough call as to which embattled head coach is more frustrated about his team's increasingly lost season.
"I hear it from everybody, all the time, about what's going wrong in Baltimore," Lewis said Thursday. "I don't pay that much attention, because Brian's a fine coach, and they'll come out of this. Besides, I've got my own problems."
Lewis was laughing when he finished that quote, in a gallows-humor sort of way. Back on Sept. 10, when Cincinnati defeated Baltimore, 27-20, in the Monday night season opener, both teams seemed like sure playoff contenders. Since then the Bengals have lost six of seven, beating only the 1-7 Jets during that span. The Ravens have dropped consecutive games, most recently Monday's embarrassing 38-7 defeat at Pittsburgh, to eclipse their entire loss total from the 2006 regular season.
Each coach is facing criticism from fans and media members – and from within his own team's locker room. And don't assume that the finger-pointing subsides when they're in front of the mirror.
"Coaches are, by nature, far more critical of themselves than anyone on the outside could possibly be," Billick said Thursday. "I constantly ask myself, 'What can I do differently?' Right now, we're not getting it done, and that accountability has to lie with me."
Billick's detractors would note that, in his ninth season as Baltimore's head coach, he has run out of others to blame. Hired after serving as Minnesota's offensive coordinator during the Vikings' record-setting 1998 season, Billick, for all his successes (including a Super Bowl championship seven seasons ago, with Lewis as his hot-shot defensive coordinator), has consistently fielded teams with substandard offensive production.
After firing coordinator Matt Cavanaugh following the 2004 season, Billick turned to his old friend Jim Fassel, the former New York Giants head coach. In October of 2006, Fassel became so frustrated with Billick's insistence upon adhering to his own offensive philosophies that the coordinator told Billick he should butt out or call his own plays. Billick chose the latter, dismissing Fassel when the Ravens were 4-2 and taking over the offense.
The move appeared to have paid off as the Ravens rolled to a 13-3 record, only to fall at home to Indy in a divisional playoff game. But now, halfway through the '07 season, the Ravens' offense is stuck in its familiar rut. Baltimore ranks 23rd in the NFL in yards per game (298.9) and 26th in scoring (16.4). Some wonder whether Billick should make another move – replacing himself with offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel as the primary play-caller.
"If I thought for a minute that removing myself from the play-calling and passing it off to another offensive coach would be advantageous to this team, I'd do it in a New York second," Billick said. "Right now, I feel like the responsibility has to come back to me."
Nearly fired by owner Steve Bisciotti after the Ravens went 6-10 in 2005, Billick is feeling the heat once again. His critics point not only to the team's continued offensive struggles but to what they view as Billick's coddling of the Ravens' defensive stars, most notably linebacker Ray Lewis, who recently ripped his coach's play-calling on his radio show. Billick responded by soft-pedaling the criticism, prompting one former NFL head coach to scoff, "There can't be a coach in the league who looks at Brian Billick and says, 'That's the way to handle that one.'"
Billick certainly seemed to have a handle on offensive strategy back in '98, when as Denny Green's coordinator he unleashed a prolific attack that included a revived Randall Cunningham throwing to a trio of talented receivers (perennial All-Pro Cris Carter, Jake Reed and rookie sensation Randy Moss), with a star halfback (Robert Smith) and excellent offensive line to boot. Minnesota scored an NFL-record 556 points and rolled to a 15-1 regular season before losing to the Falcons in the NFC Championship game.
But once Billick got to Baltimore, no matter the quarterback (there have been eight different anointed starters during his nine seasons) or other personnel, the magic disappeared. Only once during Billick's tenure have the Ravens ranked in the top half of the league in total offense – in 2001, when they were 14th.
"For those of us who were with him in Minnesota, we're shocked by that," said Carter, now Yahoo! Sports' NFL analyst. "Most of the quarterbacks he's had look the same because the results are the same. He's never been able to get one (star) receiver, let alone three. He's had, what, nine years? I'm still amazed by that."
While Billick's critics wonder if the perception that the Ravens lack offensive talent has been a byproduct of the coach's schematic shortcomings, the opposite argument can easily be made. Though Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome has been unparalleled in drafting defensive studs, the Ravens haven't developed nearly as many playmakers on the other side of the ball. Depth has been an issue as well, especially this season.
"We're playing three rookies on the offensive line, our third-team tight end and a rookie fullback, and we've been changing quarterbacks (Steve McNair and Kyle Boller) back and forth because of injuries," Billick said. "If you said, 'Let's just run the same things we ran in Minnesota in '98,' you're smoking dope. You've got to do what your personnel allows you to do. Marvin's in the same situation. It'd be foolish to think he can just run the same defense he ran in 2000."
Retained by Billick in '99 after having served as fired coach Ted Marchibroda's defensive coordinator, Lewis remembers the stinging speech delivered by his new boss that triggered the Ravens' run of defensive dominance.
"We had just won a game in '99, I think it was against Atlanta or Cincinnati, and we'd given up a bunch of big plays on defense," Lewis recalled. "Brian came into the (defensive) meeting room the next day and talked to those guys about how he'd viewed them as Minnesota's coordinator when he'd played them in '98. He said, 'You're a bunch of guys with individual talent who are worried about beating your own chests, but you don't play as a team. Do you want to go to another Pro Bowl, or do you want to go to a Super Bowl?'
"Players really took it to heart, and that was the turning point. For the next 2½ years we hardly gave up anything to anyone."
Lewis' defense set an NFL record for a 16-game season by allowing just 165 points in 2000, then got even stingier en route to its 34-7 Super Bowl triumph over Fassel's Giants (whose only points came on a kickoff return). In 2003, Lewis finally got a head coaching opportunity in Cincinnati and immediately transformed the franchise's losing culture, going 8-8 his first two seasons. In '05 the Bengals improved to 11-5 and won the AFC North but suffered a disastrous divisional round playoff defeat to the Steelers in which star quarterback Carson Palmer was knocked out with a severe knee injury.
Cincinnati had another 8-8 season in '06 but was viewed as a likely playoff team in '07. Instead, the Bengals are flailing, especially on defense – they rank 31st in yards per game allowed (397.1) and are tied with Miami for the most points given up (30.5) per contest.
Last year the Bengals received ample amounts of national scorn for a spate of off-field incidents involving various players. The misbehavior has largely subsided in '07, but many critics have questioned whether Lewis is to blame for bringing in too many players with poor character. Following a defeat to the Patriots in early October, Lewis angrily blasted his players in the locker room and referred to some of them as "selfish" in his post-game remarks to reporters.
"There's a progression guys go through," he said Thursday. "At some point you need to suck it up and be a pro and stop worrying about how much money you're getting, or not getting. Maybe our foundation here wasn't as strong as I thought it was."
Last month after a defeat to the Steelers, wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh, criticized Lewis' decision to go for a field goal near the Pittsburgh goal line late in the first half. Earlier in October, the other starting wideout, flamboyant All-Pro Chad Johnson, addressed speculation that he might be traded over the offseason, something his coach says won't happen because of Johnson's close relationship with owner Mike Brown and his family.
"I think he has a great future here," Lewis said of Johnson. "Obviously, the owner's never going to part ways with Chad. He'll be here longer than I am, believe me."
So does that mean Lewis is worried about the whispers that he'll be dismissed if things continue along this path in '07?
"No, because I know there's no truth to that," he said. "I don't know if it's a positive or a negative, but I'll be back."
So there it is: More gallows humor from a man who understands that, whatever his current struggles, coaches like him and Billick don't suddenly get stupid.
By Sunday evening, one of them will seem a tiny bit smarter in the eyes of his team's grumpy fan base. Even if the victory lacks style, you can bet either coach will take it in a New York second. TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Emboldened by their victory over the San Francisco 49ers, the Atlanta Falcons will surprise the Panthers in Charlotte. … It will be very easy to get a table at this restaurant without reservations for the foreseeable future. … The next time the Bengals' Chris Henry gets into a dispute in a parking lot, he'll be the one with the red vest trying to collect the cash.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
San Diego, because I want to see if the Indianapolis Colts can bounce back against the Chargers, and if the Chargers can defeat a team with a winning record. Or perhaps I just want to see if any of those over-the-top signs that greeted Eli Manning at Qualcomm two years ago get trotted out for big brother Peyton?
LIES, LIES, LIES
2. If the AFC West and NFC West formed all-star teams, they could easily compete with the Patriots and Colts.
3. The Vikings' organization is all about compassion.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
Brandi Chastain didn't have to sweat much Monday, as the Pittsburgh Steelers jumped all over the Ravens like the U.S. Women's Soccer team on an overmatched foe back in the day. Now in her fifth week, Chastain was hoping to take the Steelers again (at home against the Cleveland Browns), but we're enforcing the no-repeat rule, so here's her audible: "I'll take the Ravens over Cincy. As much as I am a fan of Carson Palmer because he married a soccer player, I don't see Ray Lewis (as much as I'm not a fan) losing two in a row."
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
I have given some good advice in my life – suggesting in a guest column for my old college paper that the Cal band play "California Love" before the 2000 Big Game; telling Clinton Portis to do that running-into-the-goalpost TD celebration he eventually busted out at the Pro Bowl – but apparently, the greatest recommendation I have ever made was when I insisted that my friend Malibu take Adrian Peterson in the second round of his fantasy draft last September. Though his selection was drowned out by laughter, Malibu stuck to his guns, and Peterson has since been a bigger boon to his team, Beat The Gypsy, than to Zygi Wilf's. "I think I set a single-game all-time fantasy record," Malibu crowed Sunday after Beat The Gypsy's resounding, 49-point victory over 'Roid Rage. "My two running backs combined for 492 yards. Who's the man? I'm the man." With an NFL-record 296 rushing yards from Peterson and 196 from (yep, that's right) Portis, Beat The Gypsy improved to 6-3 and remained in a first-place tie with Tom Brady is God in its division. Yet that didn't stop Malibu from pointing out that the receiver I'd promised would have a breakout game, Santana Moss, continued to struggle in Sunday's game against the Jets. "You said he was due," Malibu said. "Now he's really due, I guess." This would be a good week for Moss finally to come through: Beat The Gypsy's most dependable receiver, Joey Galloway, has a bye, and the matchup with Pure Hell looks to be a competitive one. Pure Hell, whose GM, Frank, is the league's two-time defending champion, has wheezed to a 3-6 mark but looks good on paper with Tony Romo, Willie Parker, Justin Fargas, Steve Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, Dwayne Bowe and Dallas Clark. Given Larry Johnson's injury and Priest Holmes' rust and potential fragility, I recommended to Malibu that he claim Chiefs rookie Kolby Smith off waivers and play him ahead of Muhsin Muhammad. "Kolby who?" Malibu asked. "Whatever, you know I'll do it." Thank you, Mr. Peterson.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
OK, Paula Radcliffe, you just won the New York City Marathon in 2:23:09 on Sunday, your first race after giving birth in January. But what else have you done this year?
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
"Leave Bill Belichick Alone"
IF CAL WINS A FOOTBALL GAME I'LL …
I've been saving my favorite Golden Bear rock star for a special week, and with the dreaded USC Trojans headed to Memorial Stadium Saturday, it's Adam Duritz time. Naturally, he's being a bit difficult – you know how creative geniuses are – but it's nothing we won't be able to hug (and shout) out after the game at Henry's, Raleigh's, Kip's and/or The Bear's Lair. For now, the microphone is all his: "So, my fellow Golden Bears, here's my declaration: I hereby declare that we are too good a program for our fans to think they have to give things up so we can win. In fact, we're too good a program to even have rivalry games we need to get excited about except for the tree people (the Palo Alto ones, not the asses in front of Memorial) and they suck anyway so we should just enjoy crushing them over and over again. The fact is, these days every game is a rivalry game because each and every one of them is a fly on the windshield of the eventual and inevitable National Championships these great and soon-to-be legendary California Golden Bears football teams are going to bring home to Strawberry Canyon. So I don't feel I should give anything up for a win because I know my boys are going to get it for me anyway. That said, Mike Silver has asked and … well, how can you refuse a True Blue like Mike? So … I hereby declare that if, sorry, when Cal beats the snot out of $C this weekend, I will forever give up doing interviews like this as if we weren't a perennial Top 10 team these days. Those were the old days. They're long gone, we're well rid of them, and they ain't never coming back. So if any Trojans ask you for directions this weekend because they're lost and they don't know where they are, you tell them the same thing you'd tell anyone else who wandered into Berkeley: you tell the whole damn world this is Bear Territory! Do you know what today is? Today is a great day to be a Bear! (Just like every other day.) AD."
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Reading continued its struggles away from home, dropping a 3-1 decision at lowly Fulham to slip to 4-1-7 (ties listed second) and 12th in the English Premier League standings. The Royals trailed 1-0 at halftime but equalized on Kevin Doyle's header off a Nicky Shorey corner in the 54th minute. But Fulham scored goals in the 72nd and 90th minutes. American Bobby Convey, who missed the previous four games with a thigh strain, played the final 15 minutes. The Royals face first-place Arsenal Monday night in the far friendlier confines of Madejski Stadium.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
With apologies to Mr. Duritz, this one's for the other "AD" (the amazing one who plays for the Vikings), from his adoring head coach earlier in the season, to the tune of Smashing Pumpkins' "Today."
'"All Day" is the greatest
back I've ever known
Can't wait for next Sunday
The week is much too long
But I'll tear my hair out
Before I start him
He runs so hard
and even can catch
Knows my play cards
But can't pass protect
So even though
He's clearly the best
My heart's with Chester
All Day is
All Day is
All Day is
The greatest backup back
That I have ever known
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Well, reading your article that shows hope for the Colts because they played it so close I counter with this: Pats easily played their worst game of the year; the tackling was atrocious. Their A game it was not. (Joseph) Addai gashed them for over 200 yards and the Colts were at home in the loudest venue in the NFL. They'd won 14 (straight) at home. The (Patriots) got whistled for 146 yards in penalties including two 'phantom' calls on (Ellis) Hobbs and (Randy) Moss while it was obvious that the Colts were tackling the Pats receivers on a number of plays. And they still ripped the heart out of the Colts and beat them. Sacked (Peyton) Manning more than any game this year … held him to his lowest offensive output. Now if they're lucky, the Colts get to play in Foxborough, Mass., in January. That was the Colts A game, the Pats C game and the Pats still took it to them on their home carpet. That's the way I see it."
That's a very legitimate counter-argument, though those of us who enjoy suspense prefer to ignore it.
"Michael, save this email. If the Pats and the Colts meet in the playoffs, the Pats will crush them. The Pats played horribly for nearly three quarters, on the road, against the defending Super Bowl champs, hampered by lousy officiating, down by 10 points in the fourth quarter and they still won. No matter how much was in Indy's favor, they could not finish off New England. Conditions could not have been worse for the Patriots. But in the end, who won? New England now knows it can take Indy no matter how bad conditions are. That is an enormous psychological boost. When any one or more of those conditions improve, they will beat Indy all the more badly. Psychologically Indy is destroyed. The (Colts) were handed the victory by the officials yet did not have the testicular fortitude to retain it. Although incredibly talented, in my opinion, Indianapolis has benefited by very 'generous' officiating and favorable treatment over the last two years. A lot of what they accomplished was handed to them, not earned. Thank you for your time. P.S. (Bill) Polian is an incredible whiner and weasel who will stop at nothing to win."
I don't know about Indy being handed its championship – coming back from 18 points down in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots was pretty legit – but I understand your points. And I'm grateful for the relatively civil responses I've gotten from Pats fans.
"Your such a scumbag, why don't you wright a non-bias article about the Pats and the Colts. It's obvious you are a Colts fan, but guess what they lost. Hey maybe the reason the Colts were 'no pushover' is because they cheat and blast noise in their stadium when the other team's offense is on the field. Get a life and pluck your eyebrows …"
It's obvious you are a smart, well-adjusted fashionista. I'd hate to see what you "wright" when your team loses.
"Michael, isn't it incredulous that your article speaks about New England as though it was the team that walked to a Super Bowl championship last season. If a bully existed in the NFL, my vote goes to the Colts! And yet, you paint them as the undermanned heros against the villainous powerhouse! What is the psychological problem you have that you cannot appreciate the brand of football demonstrated by the Patriots? It seems that only the players on the Colts understand the excellence of Patriots football demeanor as shown by their comments after the game."
Falls River, Mass.
OK, Mr. Goodfellow and all you other discerning readers out there, let me state this yet again: For the record, I have nothing but love for the Patriots, their owners, their front office, their head coach and their players. However, I will not always write exactly what you want me to write about your favorite team. Can you live with that?
"Hey Michael you sound bitter about the Pats winning. What's the matter: team evil beat your angels again? You really think the Colts can win in cold Foxborough in January? Haha. You can take the Colts out the dome in the playoffs, but you can't take the dome out the colts in cold weather. Stop with the excuses: 'this guy's hurt, that guy's hurt' and what ifs. That's for teams that haven't won it all. I don't see Manning crying about who's out. Maybe it's (Bill) Belichick that you don't like?"
You Pats fans slay me. Really. You're watching an incredible team compete for what likely will be its fourth Super Bowl championship in seven years, and all you want to do is lash out at people who don't portray that greatness in precisely the way you deem acceptable. Take a deep breath. Smile. Your team is 9-0. .
"I am amazed that all the Patriots lovers out there fail to even mention that a decimated, banged-up Colts team without its arsenal – most importantly Tony Ugoh – outplayed the wunderkind and his posse. Reggie Wayne dropping a TD and the Colts D dropping an interception was huge. I couldn't help but notice that the Pats' running game was virtually non-existent except for a few draws around (Dwight) Freeney and company. If the Colts were healthy, they would've won that game by three touchdowns … granted the Pats tried to copy the Raiders with numerous penalties and the Colts had no answer for Moss. But losing (Anthony) Gonzalez and all the other injuries – they were without six starters most of the contest – was devastating … yet no one mentions it in the pro-Patriots world of Michael Silver. One question for you: as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, do you consider these Pats as good as the great Steelers teams of the '70s?"
To answer your question: no, not yet, but let's reassess at season's end. As for the rest of your email, I have this question: Now I'm a Patriots fan?
"It's very obvious how much you favor the Colts. I must say it's sad that your article is full of your opinions more than facts."
Thanks for your opinion, Jennifer, but here's the deal: I'm a columnist, which means that by definition I am telling you what I think. And I think I am starting to consider renaming my column, "I Love All 32 Of Your Teams Equally."
"Hello! Why you didn't wright about terrible (possible changing the final score) mistakes of ref."
Why didn't you write in a language I understand?
"You sure show how much you hate New England … and they call you idiots sports 'Reporters'. … What a jerk you are … You sure do know how to write a one-sided column … and it is almost always against the 'good guys' … Keep the bad work coming 'Darth.' "
Tarpon Springs, Fla.
(I'm not actually responding. But that is me breathing heavily in the background.)
"It's obvious by your column that you are just hoping for the Patriots to fold. In your column, you call the Patriots the NFL bullies that ran up the score. You of all people should know that any lead is not big enough in this league. The Patriots know that you have a team on the ropes you put them away. End of story. To say they ran up the score is looking at football threw the eyes of a child who doesn't know (expletive). You claim that Baltimore almost has the Pats' number. Are you forgetting they are the defending Super Bowl champions. Baltimore should be the favorites: they are playing at home, defending champs, very loud fans and you are coming off as if Peyton Manning and his team of poor loosers are the underdogs. Baltimore better remember they are the Super Bowl champs not chumps. Peyton Manning should spend more time practicing then selling cars and fresh fruits and vegetables on TV commercials. Have you ever met a more stoned cold killer then Tom the hit man Brady? You didn't see Tom sitting in the corner in the fourth quarter whining like a (expletive) baby. He came out swinging, slugging and throwing touchdowns. Tom Brady is so far ahead of Peyton Manning it is comical. Is Peyton Manning that money hungry that he needs to do that many commercials? Doesn't the team and fans find it embarrassing to see his face on every commercial during game time? Tom Brady is asked to do twice as many commercials than Manning but he feels it will interfere with his game and his players. I think that shows the character difference in both men. Finally, you are a one -ided reporter who happens to be on the loosing side."
Baltimore? Dude, this just in: Baltimore lost the Colts in 1984. There's a new team in Baltimore now – the Ravens, who've been there since 1996. They won Super Bowl XXXV, which I suppose is the opposite of loosing. Thanks for weighing in, and I hope you enjoyed your nap. Or are you just too "stoned cold" to have been paying attention?
"I hate to say this, but I think I'm starting to understand your thinking on the Chargers. Although many times I don't agree with your opinions, I generally respect your football knowledge. I believe that the Chargers are definitely not playing up to their potential, and many Chargers fans will be upset when you give them a poor rating. But after the game against Vikings, for them it is well deserved. At some point, a team needs to stop being based on potential and based on production and I thank you for helping me see that. I wouldn't go as far as saying that their record was overrated, especially if you would've read the article on LaDainian Tomlinson in ESPN magazine a couple months back. But I want to know, where do you honestly see the Chargers finishing their season?"
I see them going anywhere from 9-7 to 7-9 and battling it out with Kansas City for the AFC West title. And that article on LT by Seth Wickersham was, in fact, an excellent piece of journalism.
" 'I've been hard on Norv Turner all season, and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell' … Haha, you said 'hard on.' Heh. Keep up the good work."
Thanks. I knew I was popular with the Beavis and Butthead crowd.
"Michael, I love your columns and the fact that you are so anal about spelling and grammar. It is, therefore, a little surprising that I have to write to inform you that Carlos Valderrama is not Columbian, but Colombian. Thanks for joining the campaign to educate the US on how to properly spell Colombia."
You: Bueno. Me: Malo. Thanks for pointing that out so politely.
" 'Columbian' is an incorrect spelling, unless of course you are referring to a soccer legend of DC United. The nation of Colombia is spelled with a second 'o.' not with a 'u.' Please, Michael … if our journalists can't spell the word correctly, how can we ever reasonably expect anyone else to get it right? Especially if that journalist has spent an entire mailbag going over the nuances of being a stickler for correct spelling, and is surely checking his writing twice to make sure he's got his own house in order. Don't blow this comment off by saying Colombia isn't important enough to know how to spell, that'd be American arrogance at its grossest. And please don't deflect my comment by nitpicking for some spelling error of mine; that wouldn't really get to the heart of the matter … your own flaws. Your a hypocrit, just addmit it and lets move un."
I deserve to be slammed for that mistake, certainly.
"Pioli v. Polian? Excellent! You see, I love articles like this. I can watch games just like you. I can develop opinions, just like you. But this behind the scenes stuff is literally impossible to witness without a press pass! Thanks for being the guy for letting us know what's going on … I knew those two teams hated each other!"
No problem. Thanks for being the one of the few guys (and gals) who acknowledges that I may know a bit more about the subjects I cover than the TV watchers and fantasy GMs. As Donald Sutherland said in "Animal House": I'm not joking; this is my job.