In the Zone
A fresh look and a soft opponent helped the Ravens end their
The combined weight of a three-game losing streak and five full
games without a touchdown--two quarters shy of an NFL record--was
felt throughout the Ravens' organization last week. Art Modell
called the slump the worst his team had been through in the
almost 40 years he has owned the franchise. "I haven't seen a
drought like this since the Oklahoma dust bowl," he said. The day
after the streak reached 20 quarters, two assistants had to be
separated during an argument over blocking assignments.
So how was coach Brian Billick handling it? After spending 2 1/2
hours with him while he put together an offensive game plan, you
walk out of his office thinking, This guy could make
quadruple-bypass surgery sound like trimming an ingrown toenail.
That calming influence, plus the fact that Baltimore's opponent
was Double A Cincinnati, gave the Ravens confidence going into
glistening Paul Brown Stadium. With Trent Dilfer throwing
touchdown passes on three consecutive first-half possessions,
Baltimore coasted to a 27-7 win.
Rewind to the Tuesday night before the game. In his office
Billick was trying to explain why, in the face of doubters, he
hadn't lost faith in his players. "When I was hired last year,"
said Billick, his voice rising a few octaves as he talked, "the
team had been 22nd in defense and 26th in offense. There hadn't
been a winning season in Baltimore [since the old Browns moved
there in 1996]. And coming off an 8-8 season last year, I had to
deal with the Ray Lewis situation. [Murder charges against the
linebacker that were dropped.]
"Now we're 5-4 with the Number 1 defense in the league. Anyone
who looks at our offensive film knows that what we're doing is
sound and that we've just hit a tough stretch. When I look back
on this year, I know that how we handled this streak, and how we
came out of it, will be what I remember more than anything."
When the conversation turned to Billick's use of the beleaguered
Dilfer to give the offense a lift, the coach moved to a computer
near his desk. "Let me show you something," he said, clicking on
a video program that catalogs every play the Ravens and their
opponents have run this season. The team's 16 coaches have access
to the program, but in the middle of that list of authorized
users was one player's name: Trent Dilfer. "He comes in, gets on
the computer, does hours of his own film study every week in
addition to what we give him," said Billick. "I absolutely love
working with Trent. He's ready for every situation."
Billick tried to downplay all that has been ailing the Ravens,
but their offensive shortcomings weren't hard to identify. As
Broncos director of pro scouting Rick Smith says, "They have
problems--from the quarterback's accuracy, to handling pressure,
to penalties, to making critical mistakes in the red zone. You
can point to a lot of things."
Billick made two notable adjustments against the Bengals. He cut
the number of plays in the game plan from about 110 to 88,
throwing out the ones that Dilfer didn't like. Billick also
decided he would ride rookie Jamal Lewis against the league's
25th-rated rushing defense. Lewis responded with 109 yards on 22
When it came to the passing attack, Billick decided to keep it
simple. On its first touchdown drive Baltimore faced a
third-and-seven from the Cincy 14. Offensive coordinator Matt
Cavanaugh wanted to call H Angle Return. Wideout Brandon
Stokley--who hadn't caught a pass all season and was playing only
because the receiver corps had been racked by injuries--would go
in motion from left to right, then run a five-yard route over the
Billick was skeptical, but Cavanaugh countered by saying, "It'll
put us close for the field goal if he doesn't make it." That was
enough to sell Billick. Dilfer delivered the ball perfectly. "Get
in! Get it!" Billick yelled, and Stokley did the rest, sprinting
to the pylon at the right-front corner of the end zone. Finally,
at 1:40 p.m. EST, the 41-day, 61-possession, 21-quarter touchdown
drought was over.
The Ravens can thank the 28-year-old Dilfer for helping them get
off the schneid. An off-season, free-agent pickup who was making
his second start in place of the ineffective Tony Banks, Dilfer
is a different man from the one who took personally every sling
and arrow during his mostly horrid six-year stint with Tampa Bay.
On Sunday, after having completed 23 of 34 passes for 244 yards
with no interceptions, he sounded the way a quarterback who
hasn't accomplished much else in his career should sound: humble.
"The one thing I've learned about this league," he said, "is that
it's a league of overreaction. People overreact when you win, and
they overreact when you lose. I go as hard as I can, and if I
fail, I move on. If I succeed, I move on. When Tampa Bay gave up
on me after last year, I refused to get overly emotional. I told
my wife, 'We'll be fine.' Now I wake up each morning and ask God
to help me live this day to the fullest."
On the other side of the locker room, tight end Shannon Sharpe
yelled, "Trent Dilfer for president!" Dilfer gave a wry smile as
he packed his bag.
Will he finally turn the corner? Who knows? He was already
beginning to prepare for this week's game against the Titans.
Lions' Job Just Beat Him Down
Bobby Ross Resigns
The stress of coaching in today's NFL drove one of the most
respected men in the business into retirement on Monday. Bobby
Ross, who won a national championship at Georgia Tech in 1990 and
led the Chargers into the Super Bowl four years later, resigned
as coach of the Lions.
Those close to the 63-year-old Ross could see it coming, and the
last straw came when his team played sloppily in consecutive
losses, to the Colts and the Dolphins. "He's old-school enough to
think that's a reflection on him," said defensive coordinator
Larry Peccatiello. Assistant head coach Gary Moeller, the former
Michigan coach, takes over a 5-4 team that is still in the thick
of the NFC playoff race.
Ross, who was not available for comment on Monday, has felt
tortured most of the season, and not only because he was working
with a blood clot in his leg that forced him to wear panty hose.
Sitting in his office in mid-September, he told SI, "When I go
into a game now, I prepare myself for three hours of absolute
hell. The decision making, the intensity, the competition--it's
there every Sunday. I don't remember the last time I could take a
breath with five minutes left in a game and say, 'Whew, this
one's over.' It never happens."
Ross, however, should not be remembered for walking out on a
playoff contender. He should be remembered for his dedication to
the game and his players. The man will be missed.
Rushing for The Postseason
Miami Without Marino
A couple of weeks ago the phone rang in the office of Dolphins
coach Dave Wannstedt. On the other end of the line was the
previous occupant of the office, the retired Jimmy Johnson.
"You're playing just the way I always wanted to play," Wannstedt
recalls Johnson saying.
It is a painful fact of life in Miami, but Dan Marino had to go
before the Dolphins could play the way they do now. Had Marino
stuck around for another year, Wannstedt would have felt a need
to put the ball in the hands of the most prolific passer in NFL
history. In Marino's 17 years the team had only one 1,000-yard
rusher: Karim Abdul-Jabbar, who had 1,116 in 1997, when the club
went 9-7. This season free-agent pickup Lamar Smith is on pace
for a club-record 1,341-yard year. With Jay Fiedler at
quarterback, Miami is 7-2, sixth in the league in rushing and
29th in passing. Aside from one horrific defensive performance
(the 30-point fourth quarter by the Jets on Oct. 23), the
Dolphins have been one of the league's five best defenses.
On Sunday in Detroit they followed the script to near perfection.
Smith had 125 of Miami's 189 rushing yards and scored two
touchdowns, Fiedler passed for only 112 yards, and the defense
gave up just 253 yards in a 23-8 win.
"We're trying to bore everyone to death," Wannstedt says
jokingly. "Without the security blanket Marino provided for our
offense, we knew we'd have to run and play defense to win. I've
told the players that we're going to be a Giants type of team
from 10, 15 years ago--three or four yards a carry, back 'em up
with good punting, play great defense and field-position
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Billick stressed the ground game, and Priest Holmes (33) and the Ravens responded with 142 yards.
The 49ers' defense can't give its good offense a shot at winning
games. In the second quarter of New Orleans's 31-15 win over San
Francisco at the Superdome, the Saints faced fourth-and-one at
their own 29, went for it and picked up two yards. "They have no
respect for us," Niners safety Lance Schulters said. "Why should
they? If I am the other team, I'd go for it every time on fourth
Through a 20-mph wind and light rain in New England, Bills
kicker Steve Christie made a 48-yard field goal with eight
seconds left to send the game into overtime, then won it with a
32-yarder. It was Christie's 13th game-winning kick at the end
of regulation or in overtime. "Best clutch kicker in the NFL,"
said Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson. Who can argue? ...
Memo to BYU officials seeking a replacement for coach LaVell
Edwards, who is retiring after this season: While Mormon and BYU
alum Andy Reid loves the school, he has the same feeling for his
job as coach of the Eagles. Also, he also doesn't want to move
his family again after only two years in Philadelphia....
NBC is talking to Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura about doing
color on its XFL games....
After a 16-15 upset of the Redskins, interim Cardinals coach
Dave McGinnis gathered his players, told them to be silent and
said in a raspy voice, "You hear that? That's one heart
beating!" The players erupted. Look for McGinnis to have the
interim tag removed before season's end....
Oakland's lone loss this season came against the Broncos, whom
they face in a Monday-night showdown at Mile High. The Raiders
know they have to beat Denver to prove they're the best team in
the AFC West.