In most of their first-down plays the other day, the Kansas City Chiefs, a famous running team, threw passes instead.
And that's how they ran up that 54-34 score on the St. Louis Rams, who had won their first six games with the same plan: consistent first-down passing.
Earlier this year, as well as in 1999, the Super Bowl-champion Rams had alone played this new kind of football--a high-scoring pass-first game--which nobody else in the league seemed to understand.
Now there are two teams that both understand it and play it--provided the Chiefs keep at it.
In their next two starts, the 4-3 Chiefs will be at 2-6 Seattle Sunday and then at 6-1 Oakland, and, with either Elvis Grbac or Warren Moon at quarterback, they have the firepower to win both times.
They've always had the firepower.
Their missing link until now has been the will to fire on first down.
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Rams Played Their Game
Those were the same old Rams in Kansas City.
They played their game there.
They threw passes smartly enough to beat most teams--driving to five touchdowns on pass plays--while using two different passers, Kurt Warner, who was injured, and Trent Green, who came in to throw for three touchdowns.
But for two good reasons, that wasn't enough to beat Kansas City:
The Chiefs became the first team to come at the shaky Ram defense with pass after pass--with, that is, passes on first down and second down and most other downs.
When the Chiefs shot ahead in the first quarter, 20-0, and in the second quarter, 27-7, they resisted the temptation to sit on a big lead and run the ball.
That had been their strategy previously in every game of Coach Gunther Cunningham's career.
In this game, by contrast, nearly every time they took possession, the Chiefs immediately threw the ball.
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When and Why to Throw
As the Chiefs and Rams proved alternately in most offensive possesions, first down is by far the best down for passing in today's football.
That's because NFL defenses all gear up against running plays on first down.
Even when a pass is possible, defensive teams are conditioned to also be ready for the run.
So there are fewer blitzes and other exotic pass defenses on first down.
Accordingly, it's then that NFL defenses are most vulnerable to passes.
Mike Martz's edge as coach of the Rams is simply that for two years he has been acting on that truism--which has his team on pace to break most NFL scoring records.
Martz has some great pass-offense players, true.
But so has Kansas City, among others.
Eight or 10 NFL teams, at least, could play Ram football.
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Have Chiefs Really Learned?
If Kansas City's Coach Cunningham is remembered as the NFL's first of many to come over to the new-style Ram game, the irony is that he had the farthest to come.
No one in the league in his time has exceeded Cunningham as a passionate believer in the values of a strong defense, a strong running game, and a run- first approach.
But in recent weeks, obviously, he and his offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, have been shaken by what they saw of the Rams on film and in tapes.
They noted, obviously, that you can only fight fire with fire.
Still, the question now for Kansas City fans is whether the pass-first lesson has been well enough learned there to insure that the Chiefs have really converted to Ram football.
The danger is that Kansas City's coaches will think of the Ram game as an aberration that only happened because their opponent was weak defensively.
The reality is that the Chiefs own the overall team speed as well as the overall talent--with, among others, the NFL's best tight end, Tony Gonzalez-- to keep doing what the Rams have been doing for two years.
It's all in the mind.
Thinking makes it so.
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Schedule Saved Kansas City
One thing this game illustrated is that timing is of considerable importance in NFL scheduling.
Had the Chiefs played the St. Louis game in the first two or three weeks of the season, it seems likely that they would have then run the ball as usual.
In keeping with their ingrained style, they would have run it too often until it was too late--as other Ram opponents this year have.
You can be sure that a month ago, after opening a 20-0 lead on the Rams, the Chiefs would have forsaken passes, generally, except on third and long.
For this has always been the Cunningham mind-set.
The Chiefs in that case would have been just another bunch learning the hard way that a running team can't keep up with a passing team.
Cunningham had to be persuaded that passing was the only way to go, and clearly he needed to see the Rams five or six times to make that judgment.
A schedule that placed the Ram game at mid-season rather than in the early season may have saved the Chiefs' season.
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There Is a Time to Run
For both teams, running plays were, of course, part of the game plan.
But the key to Ram football, which the Chiefs were for the first time also playing, is when do you run? When do you pass?
In the final reckoning, the Chiefs gained more than 100 yards on the ground that day--but as a rule, they were running not on first-down plays but in passing situations.
They had found that the best running play is a draw play on a passing down.
Ram football has seldom been exhibited more conspicuously than it was by the Chiefs at the outset of the third quarter, when, with a 27-14 halftime lead that would have seemed comfortable to Cunningham in the old days, he grounded his ball-control ballcarriers and opened an aggressive, fast-moving passing attack.
To be specific, on Kansas City's long touchdown drive that time, Grbac did nothing but throw passes, and he completed three big ones in a row.
All three went through a bemused Ram team playing run defense, and all were thrown to the same wide receiver, Derrick Alexander, the last for a touchdown that moved Kansas City from 27-14 to 34-14.
Those three plays demonstrated Cunningham's new awareness that even with a two-touchdown lead, you have to keep passing against a good passing team or, shortly, it will bite you.
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Passes Keep Rams in the Game
Had the Chiefs started the second half with their usual ball-control, running-play strategy, they might have lost the lead and, eventually, the game.
For two of Green's touchdown passes were thrown in the third quarter.
And those touchdowns were going to give the Rams the lead, 28-27, if the Chiefs had opted for ball-control plays instead of downfield passes in that quarter, and if, for whatever reason, they had failed to sustain such a drive.
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Can Green Keep Them Alive?
As for Green, the question in St. Louis this week is whether he can keep the Rams alive while Warner's broken finger mends.
And on the evidence of the Kansas City game, the high-powered Ram offense won't miss a beat with Green in control in San Francisco Sunday.
Although he hadn't played much for years, Green's passes were on target from the first.
His one interception in 30 minutes, on a day when Warner threw two interceptions in the first 30 minutes, could be explained on the following grounds:
After scoring with a 31-yard pass on an 87-yard touchdown drive---Green's first regular-season drive since his days as a Washington Redskin long ago--he was probably a bit overconfident and doubtless an eye-blink slow reading the field.
Against the two-deep Kansas City defense, Green perhaps should have realized that his best chance was for mid-range passes, not bombs.
He'll know that next time.
He'll keep the Rams moving.
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Rams Have Another Faulk
An latimes.com reader, Jim York of Nashville, notes that when and if running back Marshall Faulk slows down, the Rams can move an even faster back of the same type into their lineup.
"The young man is Trung Canidate, their first draft choice this year," York says, referring to the 192-pound Arizona sprinter who has been injured most of the season.
York, who saw Canidate in a Ram scrimmage with the Tennessee Titans last July, adds:
"He's the fastest player on the Ram team, and he comes with better hands than most wide receivers."
The suspicion lingers even so that the Rams, instead of drafting Canidate, should have taken an impact defensive player, if they could have identified one, which maybe they couldn't.
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Who Likes False Starts?
Another latimes.com reader, Dick Dulgarian of Manhattan Beach, wants the NFL to do something about the penny-ante penalties that mar football as a spectator sport.
"Both college and pro games are slowed down by all the false-start penalties and the motion penalties and the penalties for lining up in the neutral zone, things like that," Dulgarian says.
"Why not just ignore those plays--without penalizing anyone--and let the games proceed?"
If it's an idea worth considering, the best way to solve the problem, possibly, is not to ignore such penalties but for the NFL to fine the coaches whose lack of firm disciplinary measures causes most of the trouble.
In turn, the coaches can, if they choose, fine their players--who can't be fined by the NFL for such reasons because of player-union considerations.
The league's present epidemic of false starts and offside plays should in any case be controlled in some way.
In 2000, how many false-start lovers tune into football games?
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Kaufman Could Help Raiders
The Raiders, as they contemplate their game at San Diego Sunday, are still on the move--and still getting heavy mileage out of running back Tyrone Wheatley, who on 15 carries gained 156 yards against Seattle the other day.
Even so, from this distance, Raider Coach Jon Gruden appears to be under-utilizing running back Napoleon Kaufman, who was called on only six times in the Seattle game for 34 yards.
Kaufman is in many ways a Marshall Faulk-type who, if the Raiders passed half the time or more on first down, might contribute Faulk-type numbers.
Then on later downs, Wheatley could come in and do his thing.
Gruden's quarterback, Rich Gannon, isn't the Kurt Warner-type--he doesn't have the arm--but in his way, Gannon is one of the NFL's most valuable quarterbacks, a heady, self-possessed type who doubles as an effective scrambler.
Playing conservatively this season by order of Gruden, Gannon doesn't throw many first-down passes.
But if he did, Gannon to Kaufman would be a first-down weapon.
And so, on first down, would Gannon to Tim Brown.
It would all be more demoralizing to Raider opponents if interspersed with Kaufman sweeps.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times