Even though Kurt Warner threw five touchdown passes for St. Louis--five more than Jeff Garcia threw for San Francisco--the NFL's hottest pair of new quarterbacks seemed reasonably similar in football ability Sunday as the Rams outscored the 49ers in St. Louis, 42-20.
The wide receivers and running backs also seemed about even on a day when the Rams' Isaac Bruce caught four touchdown passes and the 49ers' Charlie Garner led everyone in ground gaining.
The difference in the game between these traditional NFL rivals was almost entirely in the other positions--at cornerback, for instance, and in the front line, where the Rams for several years have quietly but efficiently and immensely strengthened their club.
At the same time, the 49ers have been quietly going backward--until this year, when new management made about as many hurried repairs as any pro leaders could in the difficult salary-cap era.
So the Rams are infinitely more powerful now than their San Francisco counterparts, except at wide receiver and in the offensive backfield. On Sunday, this meant that the 49ers couldn't pressure Warner, couldn't protect Garcia, and couldn't win.
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Rams Better Than All of Their Opponents
As of Week 6 in the NFL the 4-0 Rams, who last year had everything but an effective quarterback, have shown everything this year except how they would handle adversity.
Warner has dispatched so many first-quarter touchdown passes that the Rams, whatever their earlier 1990s history, remain untested and, curiously, untroubled.
During pro games, sooner or later, most clubs fall at least a touchdown or two behind; and when adversity of that or any other kind comes to the Rams this season, Warner can expect to be measured by what happens.
Strange as it seems, though, the Rams would be favored this week over everyone else on the rest of their schedule.
They are on course for a 16-0 season against the teams that have been lined up for them in the next three months, opponents like Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, the New York Giants, and the bunch in the NFC West.
Even against such people, the Rams don't figure to go 16-0, to be sure, but it will be fun to see how close they get.
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Vermeil Learns Passing Game Just in Time
Nothing describes the present passing era in pro football more certainly than the way Ram Coach Dick Vermeil has been coping this season.
When Vermeil first came to prominence in the NFL as the 1976-82 leader of the Philadelphia Eagles, he was a solid ground-game coach in the tradition of the man he once worked for, George Allen.
In 1980, the Eagles got to the Super Bowl with a Vermeil team which, like most pro clubs in those days when a game was on the line, ran the ball to set up a few passes.
Vermeil's new team, which could hardly be more different, came out passing as usual Sunday against the 49ers, who were overwhelmed in a 21-3 first quarter when Warner, throwing on almost every down, completed nine for nine.
The Rams' three first-quarter touchdown passes all materialized on first- down calls.
In his seven years at Philadelphia, Vermeil almost never allowed his quarterbacks to throw on first down.
He's had to change or quit, and he didn't want to quit.
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49ers Come Out Running and Losing
It was the 1980s 49ers who, about the time that Vermeil was burning out at Philadelphia, first showed football's coaches and fans that passing is the better and even safer way to win NFL games.
Unhappily for Garcia, though, the present 49er coach, Steve Mariucci, decided to come out running the ball in St. Louis.
During the same stretch of early-game minutes when Warner was throwing regularly on first down, the 49ers were running (and fizzling) on first down.
Thus, on second or third and long, Garcia was being asked to throw the ball behind San Francisco's overmatched offensive linemen, who consistently failed to protect him against St. Louis' many talented rushing linemen and blitzers.
That made Garcia look bad.
It would have made even Warner look bad.
Garcia's three interceptions were all thrown in the fourth quarter when he was desperately trying to make something work.
You don't evaluate new young quarterbacks in those conditions.
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49er Cornerbacks Misused in St. Louis
To Warner's enjoyment, the 49ers are so weak in the defensive backfield this year that their cornerbacks couldn't cover any Ram receiver, let alone Isaac Bruce, who, whenever he has been uninjured as a pro and playing for a reasonably straight-throwing passer, has ranked among football's top two or three.
Surprisingly, San Francisco's coaches never understood that they should have been using their cornerbacks another way: to blitz the passer.
If you can't keep up with Bruce on pass routes, why not blitz Warner?
Instead, for most of the day, the 49ers kept trying to rush the Ram passer with nothing but their defensive linemen, who, opposed by talented and well-trained blocking guards and tackles, never did bother him.
The only time Warner was sacked, or even touched, was when, on one second- quarter play, the 49ers sent in a safetyman, Tim McDonald.
During the rest of the afternoon, his protective blockers kept the Ram quarterback yards away from any 49er rushman.
For two reasons, it was like a July day in training camp when Warner always stars in practices against a line of tackling dummies:
1. No rush.
2. More significantly, their coaches had the Rams throwing on first down, when, in every NFL game, every defensive lineman must first be concerned about running plays.
Elway Would Be 1-4 With Griese's Team
After watching rookie quarterback Brian Griese pull one out for Denver over Oakland Sunday, 16-13, I'm tempted to conclude that even John Elway would be 1-4 with this team.
Or at best 2-3.
It isn't Elway's retirement that sent the Broncos into a tailspin, it's a combination of that and many other things.
Similarly, it's a combination of forces that has also slowed down other 1999 teams that often played well last year--Minnesota notably but also Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco, Green Bay, Oakland, Miami, the New York Jets and others.
To name one force, defensive play against the pass seems to be improving somewhat almost everywhere in the league.
Thus, every pro club is struggling now except the Rams, who, in the football cliche, have been sneaking up on people against a schedule full of opponents who are obviously less talented than most of those on the Denver schedule.
Griese seems plainly good enough to win with the Broncos if they were like Elway's team last year--that is, injury-free and, before the NFL's defensive adjustments of 1999, well ahead of the class in pass-offense design.
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Critics Have the Answer in Denver
When a football team wins big for awhile and then loses for awhile, the second-guessers invariably jump up with the explanation.
And anything they come out with could be the 100-proof answer because, after a defeat or two, who can prove otherwise? After a defeat or two, who can argue them down?
In Denver this month, one of the most popular second guesses is that benching quarterback Bubby Brister and promoting Griese divided the locker room into factions for and against the coach, Mike Shanahan.
That's the sort of nonsensical second guess, based on anonymous quotations, that can always be made in football, where, on a 53-player team, there are always some unhappy, disappointed players--the angry few willing to strike out at someone, anyone, because they think they should be getting more game time than the coaches will allow.
During 32 years as an NFL beat writer, I heard from such sources every time the ballclub lost a game.
Any observer who likes to play the dissension card can find dissension on every losing football team.
Similarly, anyone who closely watched Brister during the exhibition season should understand the quarterback change.
The aspect of all this that makes second-guessing so attractive to so many is that if, for instance, you say the coach or quarterback is at fault, who, after a defeat or two, is competent to prove otherwise?
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You Never Know About New Coaches
One possibility in Chicago is that the Bears finally have another winning coach in Dick Jauron.
That is by no means certain yet because the 3-2 Bears might have simply played in good luck for the last couple of weeks, when they came from behind to beat New Orleans, 14-10, and Minnesota, 24-22.
But in football, college or pro, you never know about any new coach.
When Vince Lombardi arrived in Green Bay in 1959 after a long career as an obscure assistant elsewhere, there was nothing to suggest that he would become the greatest coach of all time.
Twenty years later when Bill Walsh arrived in San Francisco, there was nothing to suggest that he would revolutionalize offensive football with a new way of passing.
This isn't to say that Jauron is or ever will be in Lombardi's class, but neither is there anything to suggest that he won't.
As a 1970s Ivy League running back, Jauron led Yale in rushing with a yardage total that still stands as a school record; and later, as a defensive coordinator under Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville, he learned defense under a sound defensive teacher.
Although he might never be heard from again, chances are that as the seventh coach of the Bears since George Halas, Jauron at least bears watching.
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Selected short subjects:
One measure of any new quarterback is how he reacts after the first smash hit he takes from a 300-pound defensive linemen. The NFL's newest passers, Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia, have yet to learn how that feels.
The best NFL uniform of all time, in the collective opinion of pro football's 36 Hall of Fame selectors, is the one Green Bay's players wear. Second: San Francisco's. Third: the uniforms worn in the 1960s by the Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers.
After New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe had all but won in Kansas City Sunday with a last-quarter drive into field-goal position, the kicker, Adam Vinatieri, missed from 32 yards out in the final seconds to prove again that somebody should do something to insure that football players rather than kickers settle NFL games.
Suppose Los Angeles had been voted an NFL expansion team and the owners had hired someone like Carmen Policy to run it. After running down the 49ers earlier in the 1990s, Policy has put together an expansion loser in Cleveland, which couldn't even beat previously winless Cincinnati Sunday on the day the Bengals started (and won with) a rookie quarterback, Akili Smith.