Brian Billick knows a rebuilding year when he sees one and this is a clearly that kind of season for Billick's Baltimore Ravens, who opened the season with an NFL-high 19 rookies on its roster.
Even after impressive national-television wins over previously-undefeated Denver and a formidable Browns team on hostile turf in Cleveland, Billick still wouldn't stray too far from his main objective this season: The reconstruction and development of his team's roster.
"The emphasis doesn't change," Billick said the day after his team's win in Cleveland, which left the Ravens in first place in the AFC North. "It's the same thing I told you when I stood up here after getting (beat) by Tampa. My focus still comes down to are we getting better, individually and collectively?"
Early in the season, the answer is a resounding "yes" on both counts.
This Sunday, at Ravens Stadium, former AFC Central foes Baltimore and Jacksonville, two teams ravaged by the salary cap, will meet in what might be considered the "Rebuild Bowl," except the Ravens and Jaguars have played way above the expectations of teams in rebuilding years. These are two teams chasing their respective division titles.
That's exactly what Billick doesn't want to hear.
"I'm glad we're on a short week because we need to get back to it quickly so we don't languish in the self-praise too long," Billick said following his team's Monday Night Football win over Denver. "It's all about the next game and you have to stay that focused. It sounds childish but that's clearly where this team has to be. I'm kind of back in the 1999 mode. This team is such a wholly new team that they have to earn the right to even think about playoffs."
Don't let all the soft talk fool you. The Ravens still have plenty of muscle, beginning with linebacker Ray Lewis, who remains the dominant player in the game. With Lewis in the lineup, the Ravens went out to a 23-0 lead, but when Lewis left the game with a dislocated shoulder early in the fourth quarter, the Ravens nearly allowed the Browns to rally for the win.
It still begins and ends for the Ravens with Lewis. He's their star. That much hasn't changed. Most of everything else has, including at quarterback, where former third-round draft choice Chris Redman has taken over for free agency experiment Elvis Grbac.
Redman has responded with an encouraging performance early in his first season as a starter. Through five games he has a 73.6 passer rating and has thrown five touchdown passes against three interceptions.
Of course, Redman has something at his disposal Grbac desperately needed last year; running back Jamal Lewis, who has made a full recovery from a torn ACL. Lewis has rushed for 457 yards and has a long run of 75 yards.
Lewis is running behind a rebuilt offensive line but Jon Ogden is still at left tackle. The Ravens are pleased with the progress of their line and Billick only wishes his wide receiver corps would make similar progress. He has recently called out his receivers, naming former first-round pick Travis Taylor specifically.
On defense, the Ravens aren't the stop-you-dead unit of a couple of years ago. Those days are gone, but holdovers Lewis, Michael McCrary, Peter Boulware and Chris McAlister make it a formidable group. The Ravens are really excited about rookies Anthony Weaver (left defensive end), Ed Reed (strong safety) and Will Demps (free safety), all of whom are starters.
"What I'm constantly telling the players when I see something like that is, 'I've got you now. You can't go back. You can't tell me you can't make that play,'" Billick said following the win over Denver. "'You can't tell me that's not in your repertoire. I've got you there because you set the level of expectation."
This Sunday, Billick and Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin match "rebuilding" wits. Which team is farther along?