Great Coaching

Coaching seems to be the decisive variable in the development of a successful football team, although, in New Orleans as well as in Philadelphia on Sunday, that might not be apparent.

One game doesn't make a career.

The odds are that Jim Haslett of the New Orleans Saints and Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles are two of the fastest rising coaches in the game--college or pro--yet that's hard to prove every time out.

This time particularly.

In the NFL's two games of the week:

• The Denver Broncos, who are also superbly coached, will be at New Orleans, which Haslett has led to the top of the NFC West.

• The Tennessee Titans, who are first in the AFC Central, will be at Philadelphia, which Reid has led to first in the NFC East.

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The Better Coach Wins

More than any other American pastime, football, I'd say, is a game of coaching.

Across any reasonable period of time, good coaches win, the others don't.

Thus, the upward surge of a good new leader is one of the more exciting realities of life in the NFL.

And Haslett and Reid seem to be surging.

Haslett, the rookie conqueror of the St. Louis Rams Sunday, is 7-1 in his last eight games after turning around one of the most determined losing franchises in the 81 years of the NFL, a New Orleans team that went 16-40 under its last two coaches.

Reid, who is 8-2 in his last 10 after after a last-place finish as a 1999 rookie, can become one of the few in NFL history to rise in one season from worst to first.

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Good Coaching: Good Passing

The great coaches always choose, or develop, great quarterbacks.

It was in the 1960s, for example, that Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi promoted an obscure, low-round draft choice: eventual Hall of Famer Bart Starr.

Twenty years later, San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh discovered not one but two young winners: third-round draft choice Joe Montana, an eventual Hall of Famer, and NFL castoff Steve Young, a probable Hall of Famer.

That isn't to say that New Orleans' new quarterback, Aaron Brooks, and Philadelphia's, Donovan McNabb, are Hall of Fame-bound.

But in Sunday's upsets, they played at that level.

McNabb, one of the NFL's many rookie-or-virtual-rookie quarterbacks this year, ran and passed Reid's Eagles to a 23-20 victory over the Washington Redskins.

Brooks, an extraordinary young talent making his second NFL appearance and first start, ran, passed and thought Haslett's team to a 31-24 victory over the Rams, who were also led by a backup quarterback, Trent Green.

Brooks outplayed Green.

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Defense Hurts Rams' Offense

When quarterback Kurt Warner returns from injury to replace Green Sunday at Carolina, he will have, altogether, three games to get set for the Ram-Saint rematch in the Superdome Christmas Eve.

Two of the three will be as tough as they come: Minnesota Dec. 10 and Tampa Bay Dec. 18, a Monday night.

Nothing, however, could be much tougher than St. Louis at New Orleans in the regular-season finale if the NFC West is then on the line.

The Saints have been a non-winning nonentity since the day they were born, 33 years ago.

If, now, they are suddenly to have a champion's chance with a bright new coach--who inherited most of the players who could hardly win for losing last year--the insane roar of a Superdome crowd is not what Warner would prefer to hear on what has always been, for him, the quiet night before Christmas.

His basic problem is that the Rams don't have much defensive talent.

Should they fall out of the race now, after winning it all in 1999, it will be obvious that they blew 2000 in the offseason when their front office refused to spend for defensive improvements.

Warner's greatness obscured the defensive weaknesses of the Rams last year and early this season.

No more.

His opponents, now, will just be waiting around for him to score fast so they can score, too.

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Haslett's Saints Get Physical

One defining thing about the Saints is the aggressive, physical way they play offensive, defensive and special-team football under unknown new coach Haslett.

He sees the game as first of all a test of manhood.

In this, Haslett has aligned himself with the great offensive philosophers of all time--with, particularly, George Halas of the bad old Chicago Bears, who popularized the intellectual T formation; with tough-guy Lombardi, who could for eight hours lecture amusingly--four hours before lunch and four after--on one offensive play, the Green Bay sweep, and most of all with Walsh, whose 49er players were widely acclaimed as West Coast finesse players.

Walsh loved that label because it disguised their true nature as members of an overtly physical, aggressive powerplant.

Haslett seems to be as wise as any other forward-looking football intellectual today, calling, among other things, first-down passes and first- quarter onside kickoffs as well as beautifully timed blitzes.

Still, the decisive ingredient in the Saints' success so far has been their unremitting physical dominance.

There is a great gulf even so between Haslett and the modern Neaderthal types who also coach a rough game.

The difference is that the Saints' aggressiveness merely underpins their intelligent approach to offense.

Although Haslett football isn't as wide open as that of the Rams, it's smarter and smoother than the Neanderthal game that most of his victims play.

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Play-Action Hurts Manning

The season's case example of a group playing apparently unwise offensive football--after drafting obviously gifted offensive players--is the Indianapolis Colts, who are 7-5 today with what should be about a 10-2 team.

Like most conservative coaches, Indianapolis' Jim Mora sees the forward pass as a frail instrument to be resorted to only after ground plays have softened up the enemy.

Hence, each week, Indianapolis passer Peyton Manning finds himself confined in a play-action straightjacket.

Typically, he first gives the ball to halfback Edgerrin James to establish the Colts' running-play offense.

Next, before throwing it, Manning typically fakes a handoff or pitch to James.

In other words, the Colts this year are passing off fake runs.

A more modern coach would tell Mora that they'd be more effective if they'd run off fake passes.

In that case, on any first down, for example, Manning would usually be passing into defenses stacked against James.

And on second and eight--or third and five--James would be running into pass defenses waiting for Manning to throw.

By doing things backward, the Colts lost to Miami the other day, 17-14.

Numerically, James can expect that whatever he gains Sunday against New York Jet ground defenses would be doubled if, instead, he were running mostly draw plays into Jet pass defenses.

And if Manning were passing against defensive players whose minds were on running back James, his pass yardage would, no doubt, more than double.

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Billick Coaching Makes Dilfer

The season's case example of the difference coaching makes in NFL football is the Baltimore Ravens, who promoted quarterback Trent Dilfer to their starting team four games ago, and who, after winning all four, are 9-4 going into their open date Sunday.

What's more, in the loss column, the Ravens are but one game back of 9-3 Tennessee now that Dilfer has won again--44-7 over Cleveland--the team they could only beat with four field goals in October, 12-0, when they went five weeks without scoring a touchdown.

This is Dilfer's first season under Brian Billick, the Baltimore coach, but if you didn't know that--if you hadn't seen him stumbling around at quarterback for six years at Tampa Bay--you might rate him up there with the great passers of the 1990s.

In 1994-99, as Dilfer's critics expanded their national membership from year to year, he was on only two winning Tampa teams in six seasons.

Successively, he was then in the charge of two Tampa coaches, Sam Wyche, whose personnel was otherwise inadequate, and Tony Dungy, the great head coach who is still there and who still lacks an offensive clue.

All those years in Florida, what most critics always misunderstood while talking down Dilfer is the nature of quarterbacking.

It's a two-man profession.

Quarterback Otto Graham and Coach Paul Brown made that evident long ago, as did Starr and Lombardi later, not to mention Montana and Walsh still later.

In almost every instance, to win, the nominal NFL quarterback needs a dedicated offensive thinker backing him up on the bench.

Dilfer has that now with Billick, who, just by understanding the many, many details of quarterbacking--and conveying that to Dilfer--has made him a winner.

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Another Buc Critic: Bucs' Sapp

Coaching is so much the key to football success that for years, I've been critical of the Buccaneers for playing old-fashioned run-first football despite the kind of offensive talent that, with modern pass-first play-calling, could make them a champion.

As I've insisted, the Buccaneers have just what it takes to join the party: good passing, with Shaun King now; good receiving with Keyshawn Johnson, Jacquez Green and others, and good ballcarrying with Mike Alstott, who is temporarily injured, and particularly with Warrick Dunn.

And on the Tampa team this year, as you may have heard, I have an ally.

He is the best Buccaneer player, defensive lineman Warren Sapp, who stood up at a team meeting last week and, singling out offensive coach Les Steckel, knocked him by name--knocking Steckel's offensive system and play-calling.

It takes some courage for a football player to publicly criticize his coach, but the Tampa problem is clearly Steckel or head coach Tony Dungy or both.

Although Dungy is the NFL's foremost defensive coach and an asset as a head coach, that, in pro football, is not now enough.

Sapp knows.

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Three Plus Four: Seven

So, believe it, football is a game of coaching.

At Denver, for example, the Broncos, with all their injuries, would be dead today if they had been led last year and this by--instead of Mike Shanahan--any of 25 or 30 other current NFL head coaches.

It is Shanahan's leadership and nothing else that has Denver at 8-4 this week after the loss of quarterback Brian Griese and running back Terrell Davis and so many other talented Broncos.

It is Dennis Green's leadership that has Minnesota at 10-2.

And at Oakland, Jon Gruden's leadership has lifted the Raiders to 10-2.

The NFL surprise is that four other head coaches have joined the top bunch in just this one season: Billick, Haslett, Reid and the Rams' offensive philosopher, Mike Martz, who is doing it with offense alone on a team whose front office gives him less help than anyone else in pro football's top seven or eight.

You can bet that Gruden, for example, gets the support he needs at Oakland from Al Davis, who won three Super Bowls without him.

Their relationship now, you can bet, is one of mutual need and assistance.

Long-range winning demands that kind of relationship.

The other major surprise this year is that when the Saints brought in Haslett a few months ago, they reportedly gave him only a one-year contract.

Before the dawn of 2001, that's going to cost them--or somebody--a bundle.