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Next Man Up
By John Feinstein
Little, Brown Copyright © 2005 John Feinstein
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-316-00964-4
Chapter One Unexpected Good-byes
January 3, 2005
FROM A DISTANCE, it looked like any other football Monday in Owings Mills, Maryland. The coaches arrived early at the spectacular, brandnew $32 million facility located at the optimistic address of 1 Winning Drive. They grabbed quick cups of coffee from the first-floor cafeteria and headed up to their offices to begin their day by preparing for their morning meeting. The players came later. Like the coaches, they stopped in the cafeteria, but they sat at the round tables in groups of three and four, eating lunch before gathering in the posh auditorium that served as the meeting room when the entire team was together.
But this was a Monday like no other in the nine-year history of the Baltimore Ravens. There wasn't a soul in the organization who had thought before the season began that this would be the day when everyone said good-bye. In his first meeting with the entire team, on the morning that the veterans' mandatory minicamp began in early June, Coach Brian Billick had made his expectations clear: "We have a two-, perhaps three-year window to win the Super Bowl," he said. "In this room, we have the talent, the experience, and the understanding of what it takes to win to get to the Super Bowl and to win it. We can do it this year, we can do it again next year, and perhaps the year after, the way we're structured. We've built to this the last two years. We're ready for it."
Billick had repeated that message at training camp and on the eve of the first game in Cleveland. He had clung to it throughout the fall as the team sputtered and the dream began to fade before it finally teetered like an aging Christmas tree and collapsed with a crash on the day after New Year's. There would be no Super Bowl; there wouldn't even be a playoff game. Instead of being one of twelve teams preparing for the National Football League playoffs, the Ravens were one of twenty teams making plans for next season.
That wasn't just a cliche, either. When football coaches say next season begins on the last day of this season, they mean it. In fact, Billick had been meeting with team owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, and general manager Ozzie Newsome since early December to discuss the team's future. By the time the coaches met at 11 A.M. that morning, two coaches - long-embattled offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and defensive assistant Phil Zacharias - were gone. One office over from where the coaches sat with schedules Billick had handed them for 2005, Cavanaugh was starting to clear out his office. Two phone calls had already come in from teams interested in talking to him about a job.
For everyone involved, this was a difficult day. The hallways in the building were quiet, no one knowing quite what to say to one another. In the locker room, players went through the ritual of putting their things in boxes to carry to their cars while saying good-bye to one another. Deion Sanders, the future Hall of Fame defensive back, limped around on a foot that would need surgery for a torn tendon and paused to sign autographs for younger teammates who thought there was at least a 50-50 chance he would not be back when veteran minicamps began again in June.
It had been less than twenty-four hours since the 2004 season had ended with a too-little, too-late 30-23 win over the Miami Dolphins. The victory had left the team with a 9-7 record. Had they been part of the National Football Conference, those nine victories would have easily put them into the playoffs. But in the American Football Conference, it left them a win short of the 10-6 record required to earn a playoff spot. "Only one team finishes the season satisfied," Billick told his players when they gathered for their final meeting before heading to their homes to begin an off-season full of questions. "But we all know we're sitting here because some of us didn't do our jobs as well as we could have or should have. We're all emotionally spent because of the energy we've put into the last twenty-five weeks.
"That's why I'm not here to put a lot on you right now. I appreciate the fact that a lot of you have played in a lot of pain these last few weeks. You're tired and you're hurt and I admire you for doing what you did. But we have to take a good, hard look at ourselves." He held up a spiral notebook. "I've got about ninety pages of notes in here about things that need to be looked at and improved upon before next season starts. About five of them are for the coaches; another five are for you guys. The rest are for me.
"The simple fact, though, is this: we didn't reach our expectations. I think we have a Super Bowl-caliber team in this room. There are any number of reasons why we're sitting here today having this talk instead of getting ready for a playoff game. What we have to think about going forward is this: how do we get from 9-7 to being an elite team, I don't mean a 10-6 team like last year, but a 13-3, 14-2 kind of team. That's the kind of team we all think we can be. But we have a lot to do to finish the job. That's our challenge for next year-finish what we began this season."
Billick had been far more blunt when he met with his coaches that morning. The mood of the meeting had been somber, almost glum. Everyone in the room knew what had happened already to Cavanaugh and Zacharias.
"A good man is going out that door because of what we and I haven't done," Billick said, referring to Cavanaugh. "There are also additional changes I need to make, and we'll talk about them starting tomorrow." He paused. "Don't get me wrong. This is a good room. There are good people in here. I don't like what happened today with Matt or what we're going to have to do. It's what will drive me out of this business eventually."
The coaches looked at one another. Each was scheduled to meet individually with Billick the next morning. The message was clear: others would be going out the door, too. In front of them, in addition to a schedule that told them their responsibilities from now until the first day of training camp, was the team's roster. On the right-hand side was a list of fifteen players who would be free agents. Some would not be back. The coaches would meet on January 17 along with Newsome and his staff to talk about every single player who had played for the Ravens the previous season. Newsome and Billick had already reached the conclusion that they had not been aggressive enough the previous season. "The question we need to ask," Newsome said, "is, did we take the safe route last year by bringing back twenty-one of twenty-two starters? Did we allow continuity to become more important than upsetting the applecart and bringing someone else in who might be better than what we have?"
The questions were rhetorical. Newsome and Billick had won a Super Bowl together following the 2000 season and they wanted to win another one. Both now believed that they had overestimated some of their players based on what they had accomplished in 2003. "The biggest mistake I made was thinking that the experiences we had last year, winning the division and going to the playoffs, made us a more mature team than our collective age would have indicated," Billick told his coaches. "We were still a young team this season and we didn't handle some things that came at us very well. That's why we have to take a hard look at ourselves and at our players. I want you guys to tell me exactly what you need at each position to get better. You want a better player, find him, tell us who he is and why he's better than what we've got, and we'll go get him. We're in great cap shape. We're going to attack in free agency."
The Ravens have never been a team that makes headlines in March with big-name free-agent signings. They probably weren't going to make any major headlines in March of 2005, either, but Billick's message was clear: we need to get better. It didn't take a football genius to know that the Ravens were lacking at the wide receiver spot or that the offensive line had been through a disappointing season. The defense would be reconfigured to try to make life easier for Ray Lewis, the heart and soul of not only the defense but the entire team. Hard decisions had to be made on good players who were about to become free agents and might not be worth the money they could command on the open market. There were a number of older players, men who had been solid contributors throughout distinguished careers but simply couldn't perform at the same level anymore.
There are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL. The only money a player is guaranteed is the money in his signing bonus. From the moment that check is cashed, contracts go in one direction: the team's. A player who signs a seven-year contract is committed to that team for seven years. Once the bonus check is paid, the team isn't committed to the player for seven years, seven months, seven weeks, or seven days. That's one reason why there is no job in professional team sports as insecure as that of an NFL player. Players frequently go from starting to cut in one year because a team decides he isn't worth what he will be paid for the next season or because a team has to off-load salary because of the salary cap. Often players are asked to restructure contracts for less money. When that happens, most players are given two options: take a cut or be cut.
That was why the mood was somber when Billick met with his players that day. "We want you all back," Billick said. "But we know that won't happen. We all know the realities of this business. We talk about them all the time. We didn't reach expectations, and we now have to figure out why. We have a lot of work to do before we know about who we're going to want back. Some of you have to make decisions about whether you want to come back here.
"I have faith in the talent and the emotional makeup in this room. But this was a disappointing year. There's no getting around that. Everything we're going to try to do next year starts with the unfulfilled feelings we all have right now. Think about that in the off-season. Get rested. Get healthy. Come back here ready to finish the job we didn't get done this year."
Two weeks later, when Billick and his staff met with Newsome and his staff to go through the roster player by player and begin making decisions for the 2005 season, there were a number of missing faces. Cavanaugh had been named the offensive coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, his alma mater. Jim Fassel, the former New York Giants coach, sat in his seat. Chris Foerster sat in what had been offensive line coach Jim Colletto's seat. Colletto had been with Billick for six years, but Billick believed he needed to bring in a fresh face to coach an aging offensive line. Mike Nolan, the defensive coordinator, was also gone, but for happier reasons: he would be introduced the next day as the new coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Newsome's top scout, personnel director Phil Savage, was also absent: he had become general manager of the Cleveland Browns.
As the coaches went through each player, there were some whose reports were read strictly as a courtesy to the coach who had written it. "You wrote it," Newsome said. "We should at least listen to it."
So they listened. In some cases the end of the report said simply: "We need to improve at this position for 2005."
In the case of one longtime veteran, linebacker Cornell Brown, Billick said quietly, "All I can say is God bless him."
In the NFL, that is what passes for a eulogy. Next Man Up.
Excerpted from Next Man Up by John Feinstein Copyright © 2005 by John Feinstein.
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