Dec 14

Billick and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh firmly installed Banks as the starter in the 2000 offseason. Then, they signed Sharpe, who wanted out of Denver after 10 years, seven Pro Bowls and two Super Bowl victories, to improve upon the 34 catches the Ravens squeezed out of the tight end position last season. “I told Shannon that we were going to install a system that puts oxygen in the room,” Billick says with a grin.

billickThen, they used first-round draft picks on running back Jamal Lewis of Tennessee and wide receiver Travis Taylor of Florida. All of a sudden, you could see the blueprint and the brainstorms, and Billick was spending hours on his computer drafting plays around a better short passing game that widened the field.

Then when Coates, a free-agent, five-time Pro Bowler who wasn’t re-signed by New England, was brought in, you could see Billick rubbing his hands like some madman in a lab coat.

Billick, who retooled the Vikings’ offense three times in the six years he was their coordinator, is an offensive guru who can produce a solid game plan from almost any variation of personnel. But gurus are only as good as the people playing for them, and when Billick and Cavanaugh broke down the Ravens’ offense, they saw three immediate areas of concern: instability at quarterback, an average running game and the lack of a short passing attack.

“Brian has said so many times since he got here that he’s not a guru who, all of a sudden, is going to have this magic formula in which we can do it this way or that way and win every time,” wide receiver Qadry Ismail says. “But, you know, we had three quarterbacks (Banks, Stoney Case and Scott Mitchell) and never had a chance to get into sync with any of them until Tony settled in at the end of the year. Then, we started winning games.”

Though adding Taylor (who reported to camp almost two weeks late in a contract dispute and likely will open the season as a backup) and Lewis (who may miss the first two games of the regular season because of a dislocated elbow) addressed important needs, the wild card for Billick’s plans for 2000 is Banks, a former second-round pick of the Rams. It’s not lost on anyone–especially Banks–that the Rams won the Super Bowl with Kurt Warner the year after he left. The Rams grew tired of waiting on Banks to fulfill his considerable potential. They got tired of the interceptions, the fumbles, the sacks and the poor decision-making. “I knew I had to improve, I knew I had to compete, and maybe I tried to prove too much,” Banks says.

But he was furious that the Ravens had him third on the depth chart at the end of the 1999 training camp. Banks had started 43 games for the Rams over three years, and he felt he had had a better camp than Case and Mitchell.

“I told coach Billick flat out that before the season was over that he was going to need to come to me: `You’re going to need me to win some games,’ “Banks says. “I think that showed him a little bit of my personality. He gave me a way out, and I didn’t take it.”

The decision to bench Banks can be looked at two ways–it mined the Ravens’ 1999 season but might have preserved their future. Banks didn’t start until Week 7, but that might have been the best thing for him. He had more time to prepare himself in a new offense, and he avoided the pressure that would have come as the opening day starter. Limping along at 2-4 behind Case and Mitchell, the Ravens gave Banks a starting shot against Buffalo. Banks didn’t play well in a 13-10 loss, but by Week 10, he was coming of age. He helped engineer a wild 34-31 victory at Cincinnati in which the Ravens scored 31 consecutive points. They went 4-2 the rest of the way, including a 41-14 victory over Super Bowl-bound Tennessee.

“I think the way coach Billick thought about the quarterbacks and their strengths was he had a different game plan for each of us,” Banks says. “Once we got a little consistency in the position and some comfort level with me, we took off.”

Billick doesn’t disagree. When the season was over, he looked at Banks’ statistics–17 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 53 percent completion rate and 2,136 yards in just 10 starts. Not bad. Then you add Sharpe, Taylor, Lewis and Coates, and Billick’s computer mind starts buzzing. If Banks can take his 1999 stats and project them over 16 starts, you get 27 TD passes, 13 interceptions. “That’s not bad, and there’s the fact that he’s got a few more weapons around,” Billick says.

“Does that lead to more offensive potential? I like to think so. But I will tell you this: Improvement at the quarterback position is what everyone is looking at for us, why a lot of people will put an asterisk beside their predictions on us. It all comes down to how Tony Banks does.”

Billick is probably playing it smart when he says: “It’s not in the best interests of our team to yank Tony Banks if he hits a rough spot, particularly knowing he’s going to hit a rough spot.”

In the kindest and fuzziest manner Billick can muster, this is his way of saying the Ravens’ season and new offense are built around Banks, and he has faith Banks will continue to improve steadily. It’s an assessment Sharpe, Ismail and running back Priest Holmes agree with. “We’ve got a lot of plays drawn up where, with Tony’s deep-ball threat, we’re going to get some mismatches and have the middle of the field wide open,” Ismail says.

Specifically, the team will make much use of a two-tight end alignment featuring Sharpe and Coates. Billick has grand visions of getting 100 receptions from his tight ends and Sharpe and Coates throwing defenses into a scrambled mess.

“Me and Ben have made our living beating the linebacker and safety coverage,” Sharpe says. “In the meetings, we’re telling Tony to give your tight end a shot. He’s not used to throwing to the tight end, and that also comes from wanting to throw the deep ball. Picking up 15 yards to the tight end is not as fabulous as a 40-yard bomb to the wideout, but if he’ll look at me and Ben as first options, he’ll get yards.”

Cavanaugh has been working with Banks on improving his short and medium passes, a problem area since he arrived in the league in 1996. Banks often has been guilty of hanging onto the ball too long while waiting for receivers to spring open downfield. He has been reluctant to switch off and throw underneath, and his accuracy in the short game has been lacking. “I have to be honest, checkoffs haven’t been my thing,” Banks says. Cavanaugh put together a tape of passes Banks should have completed last season, and it came out to more than 30. “It was easily four a game,” Banks says, sighing.

So Billick is asking Banks to complete two more passes a game, “which doesn’t seem like much when you consider the weapons we’ve given him,” Billick says.

Taylor is an excellent over-the-middle receiver who makes big plays after the catch, and his skills should complement the outside speed of Ismail and Jermaine Lewis. Billick also envisions Jamal Lewis and Holmes finding running lanes in the two-tight end set while defenses focus on the dual receiving threat of Sharpe and Coates. Billick has a modest goal of improving the team’s rushing from 110 yards a game to about 118.

“Me and Ben are proven commodities, and defenses know what we can do,” Sharpe says. “So early on, they’re probably going to try to stop us, and the other guys will have to make plays. But once Tony gets comfortable knowing where we’re going to be and where we say we’re going to be, we’re a viable first option, and it’ll make him comfortable throwing to us.”

It’s already happening. After a recent practice series in which Sharpe and Banks were connecting like two dots on a line, Banks turned to the sideline, held up four fingers close to his chest and mimed, “Four passes a game.” Billick and Cavanaugh smiled.

Of course, this master plan reads wonderfully on paper–or Billick’s computer desktop. But whether Banks can avoid mistakes; whether Sharpe, 32, and Coates, 31, stay healthy; whether Jermaine Lewis returns to his Pro Bowl form of two years ago as a kick returner; and whether Taylor and Jamal Lewis contribute quickly will determine if the Ravens can compete in the NFL’s toughest division.

That’s a lot of ifs, ands and buts. “I’m not ready to jump up on a table and say, `Damn! We’re unstoppable!’ “Billick says.

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