Tip for players: the party's not for you

Marv Levy admits Super Bowl coach Brian Billick of the Baltimore Ravens might be on the hot seat about his team's less-than-flashy offense. But Billick shouldn't worry, Levy says.

"Is Brian Billick going to be subject to a lot of criticism because he doesn't 'open it up,' 'take a risk?' Maybe. But he's doing exactly what he should do," Levy says.

He should know. The former longtime Buffalo Bills head coach and current Fox Sports announcer made the trip to the Super Bowl four consecutive times himself in the 1990s.

While sports pundits and spin doctors comb over every aspect of the Baltimore Ravens-New York Giants Super Bowl game this Sunday in Tampa, Fla., only coaches and players that have been there actually know what it's like to navigate the briar patch of distractions and play the game.

From trash talking that ends up as inspirational bulletin-board material for the opponent to after-hours fetes, players have to be careful not to lose focus.

Former lineman Randy Cross, who helped lead the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowls in the 1980s, says Super Bowl week has an "utter and complete lack of normalcy. It's suddenly a week-long road trip."

Says Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Reeves, whose team played in the Super Bowl two years ago: "The biggest distractions are family members being there."

Coach Levy says he told his players: "Fellas, the party is for the people attending the game. Not for you."

This week, Ravens' coach Billick will not impose a curfew on his players until Saturday night, while Giants coach Jim Fassel set a 1:30 a.m. curfew beginning this past Tuesday.

Trash talking - boasting your own prowess and putting down your opponent - is another pre-game staple that has been elevated to an art form.

Players "want to have more attention. They're not willing to let what they usually do on the field give them the attention they need," says Cross, who is an analyst on CBS Sports' "The NFL Today."

Distractions aside, Levy says the Ravens have an intangible that was a key ingredient in his Bills' Super Bowl runs: team camaraderie and high morale.

"The four Super Bowls that we attended, Ralph Wilson, our team owner, took every single person at his expense ... the security guards, the clean-up ladies, everybody. There was a morale within that organization that was wonderful."

Both of this year's teams do one thing well: overwhelm opponents with great defense, Levy says. The teams that have been eliminated this year, he says, were "great offensive teams, but they had lousy defenses."

Not the Ravens. With swarming linebackers and interior linemen as big as barn doors clogging the middle, the Ravens defense has been compared with Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" of the 1970s, which allowed only nine first downs to Minnesota in the 1975 Super Bowl.

Baltimore's defense has also been compared to Buddy Ryan's famed "46" defense with the Chicago Bears, a defense that turned New England Patriot running backs into lunch meat in the 1986 Super Bowl. The Bears held the Patriots to a measly 123 total yards that day - only 7 of them rushing.

This season, the Ravens held opponents to 165 points, the fewest ever allowed by a team in a 16-game season.

The Baltimore offense "is not going to lose the game for [Billick] because his defense can win the game, and his kicking game," Levy says, referring to the Ravens' stellar combo of placekicker Matt Stover and punter Kyle Richardson. Richardson led the league this year in pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line.

"I don't know if there's ever been a Super Bowl team that hasn't played good defense," says Atlanta coach Reeves. "Everybody talks about the 49ers with great offense, but when we played them, their defense was extremely tough."

Cross says the real story of this Super Bowl is not the Ravens defense - It's the Giants defense against Baltimore's offense. "That's where you have more unknowns. In my mind, there are very few unknowns in the other matchup," he says.

The spotlight on defenses is a far cry from last year, when the St. Louis Rams' offense bedazzled opponents, capped by a 23-16 Super Bowl win over Tennessee. "A year ago everybody ooh-ed and ah-ed about St. Louis's offense," Levy says. "But they [also] ranked 8th in the league in defense. I know it's an old and almost trite [saying, but] defense wins championships. It does, it does, it does."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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