Brees-ing Along

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The San Diego Chargers (8-3), who will send Drew Brees forth to beat 7-4 Denver next Sunday in the NFL's Game of the Week, won a shootout at Kansas City last Sunday with Brees at quarterback — and that's more than Indianapolis could do last month with Peyton Manning.

Although Manning threw five touchdown passes and for almost 500 yards on his big day in Kansas City, it wasn't enough. In a 45-35 defeat, he spent so much of the game calling running plays to set up his pass plays that he didn't have time to outscore the Chiefs.

Brees, by contrast, came out passing last week and stayed with overhead football to whip the Chiefs, 34-31.

Formerly a running team, the Chargers are now playing football in a more modern way than Manning plays it.

Instead of running to set up Brees' passes, the Chargers pass to set up runs. That's how they scored twice before halftime to stay in the Kansas City game with the Chiefs' explosive offense. Then in the second half, passing ever more aggressively, Brees led San Diego to the winning 20 points. On a pair of 70-yard touchdown drives, he threw the ball on every snap but one to catch up with the Chiefs each time they scored. Finally, after the Chargers intercepted one, their offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, a running-play expert, set up the winning field goal with an ideal third-and-five play — a designed quarterback run by Brees for 17 yards through a surprised Kansas City team that was still playing pass defense.


A Runner Can Harm His Own Team

THE NFL'S FIRST philosopher to realize that a running back more often damages his own team than the other team — as Edgerrin James frequently does in Indianapolis — was Bill Belichick of New England, the game's top coach and an authority on passing. The Belichick theory is that even though a good running back is essential, every minute he spends running the ball is a minute that can't be used for pass plays — with which a good passer can gain more ground than a good runner can, even on a muddy field.

Belichick has never committed this thought to writing, so far as I know, but it is implicit in the way he plays the game. For example, when he was the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants for Bill Parcells the year they played Buffalo in the Super Bowl, Belichick once remarked: "If Thurman Thomas has a 100-yard day, we'll win."

Thomas was then one of the NFL's great running backs — the Edgerrin James of his time — and he did gain 100 yards (actually 135) in that 1991 Super Bowl, and the Giants did win, 20-19, and Belichick was not surprised. He understood that when Thomas was running the ball, quarterback Jim Kelly couldn't throw it, and Kelly was much the greater threat. Similarly today, when James runs it, Manning can't throw it. And if the Colts lose on a day when Manning eventually throws five touchdown passes, he didn't pass enough.

When LaDainian Tomlinson ran 313 times for 1,645 yards last year, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, the Chargers finished in the cellar (4-12.) When Tomlinson changed over to become the game's leading receiver, as he was in Kansas City Sunday with 10 catches, the Chargers became the division leader (8-3). Earlier this year, it was a Tomlinson injury that forced Coach Marty Schottenheimer to rely on Brees, who, when used properly, has always been this good.


Good Runners Love Off Tracks

THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, whose parade to the AFC championship isn't likely to be rained on next Sunday in Cleveland, won a 24-3 game from Baltimore last Sunday in three inches of mud. It was the muddy field that helped the Patriots confirm two truths:

• A good pass offense succeeds in any kind of weather. The Patriots combined, as usual, Tom Brady's passes (for 170 yards) with Corey Dillon's runs (for 123 yards in the final statistics) to win it in the first three quarters on three field goals, 9-3. Then, as outlined each week as an option in Belichick's game-planning, Dillon ran the ball in the fourth quarter to hold the lead and run the clock.

• Good running backs succeed on an off track. Dillon's fourth-quarter rampage in sticky mud continued a long NFL tradition, going back to 1949 at least. It was in 1949 that a surprise rainfall in Los Angeles kept the smaller, quicker, and perhaps better team from stirring in the NFL championship game — the Super Bowl of its time. As Philadelphia won, 14-0, Steve Van Buren, a Hall of Famer, ran through the Rams and the rainstorm as if they weren't there, piling up 196 yards.

Baltimore had two problems last Sunday, the weather and Kyle Boller, who isn't enough quarterback for the otherwise sound and effective Raven team. Though an off track is an equalizer in the NFL, giving Baltimore a chance, theoretically — even without running back Jamal Lewis — the New England defense proved insoluble to Boller. It remains a mystery why coaches like Brian Billick of Baltimore and Dave Wannstedt, late of Miami, think they can win with any quarterback.


Patriots Should Have Built a Dome

WINTER WEATHER changes football drastically. The question changes from who's playing the better football to who's playing the better football-in-the-rain?

New England Coach Belichick had his players ready in every respect for the kind of weather and the kind of field they had Sunday, the cold wind and the cold rain that ruined the field.

It could be that Belichick's job that day wasn't all that difficult. For good football is normally hard to play in New England, whether it's humid or freezing. But though Belichick used the usual tools, Brady and Dillon, he used them in subtly different ways. Thus Patriot blocking assignments were altered to help Dillon churn through the mud and around Baltimore's linemen on the godforsaken turf. The disgraceful thing that day was the condition of the field. Football, America's favorite spectator game, isn't meant to be played in three inches of mud.

Easterners keep saying winter storms bring "football weather," but that's absurd. American football was invented in New England by a group of wise and creative 19th-century college students who were only seeking a fun game to play, not any particular kind of field to play it on. With enthusiasm, they tried soccer first — they were all soccer players to begin with — then they played rugby for a year or so before inventing football, but that's another story.

The 21st-century story is that football is best played in good weather on good fields or in domes. That's why they build domes. Among old pros and modern players, alike, there has been a lot of resistance to domes, and there is much to say for their objections, but the weight of the evidence favors dome weather. It clearly wasn't in the interest of good football that the Patriots built a new stadium with an old-fashioned field that nobody can run on when it's raining — nobody but Corey Dillon.


Never Trust a Placekicker

THE TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS, one of nine 4-7 teams that might still make the playoffs, lost their best chance to knock out one of them, Carolina, when kicker Martin Gramatica blew all three of his field goal tries Sunday, bringing down the Buccaneers, 21-14. That's a reminder to never place your trust in placekickers. In due time, they'll all break your heart. Every time.

Theirs is a hit-or-miss occupation that has nothing to do with football. It uses no football skill whatsoever. Football, as every fan knows, is blocking, tackling, running, passing, catching and defending. By contrast, placekicking is an anachronism that lingers in football solely because of the perceived necessity to break ties.

Though 19th century dropkickers were the first kickers, as well as the first scorers, the precise problem in this century is that placekickers — who kick more accurately than dropkickers — now score so regularly (on field goals as well as extra-point plays) that the occasional miss is devastating to football players who are playing football well. Too often, every great offensive player and defensive player is asked to get the hell out of the way while some soccer player comes in and determines the rest of the football player's season, perhaps the rest of his life.

There has to be a better way. The best way, if enough coaches would ever vote for it, is to ensure by legislation that only football players can serve as kickers. Simple to arrange, it would bring far more misses than you see now, but that's the idea. Recurrently today, two things alter football into more lottery than game — the nearly perfect success rate, particularly on conversion kicks, and the occasional 50-yard shot at three points.


It Was Like Favre's 200th Birthday Party

ON BOTH SIDES of the ball Monday night, the St. Louis Rams played a lot of dumb football during a 45-17 defeat at Green Bay as Packer quarterback Brett Favre threw three touchdown passes in his 200th consecutive NFL start. As one of the marked men in a sport in which it sometimes seems that quarterbacks drop like flies, Favre alone has managed to survive year after year. There are NFL quarterbacks yet unborn who might not see the day this record is broken.

Favre has reached his incredible milestone by mastering the art of staying away from blitzers and other pass rushers. After taking the ball from center, he retreats so swiftly and throws it somewhere so quickly that blitzers can't sack him if they are even partially met at the line of scrimmage by Packer blockers, who don't have to be very good at it to do it.

The only other active quarterback who would seem to have a shot at 200 never-miss starts is Peyton Manning of Indianapolis, who also plays quarterback outside the conventional pocket, usually racing either left or right to throw the ball.

That's not to say that either Favre or Manning avoids physical contact. With the fourth quarter well under way Monday night, Favre, looking to extend an 11-point lead, challenged the Rams on a third-down scramble. Declining to slide, he was tackled as he strove for a first down and just missed. Had he been playing another team, he might have been terribly hurt.

All in all, it was more like Favre's 200th birthday party than his 200th football game, and nobody was there to spoil the party, least of all the Rams. Of all the dumb things they did, the most harmful to St. Louis was trying to run Marshall Faulk on first-down plays in the first quarter. Though he's a great receiver, the Rams, against all the evidence, still think he's a great running back. Some of football's finest pass-offense athletes stood around as Faulk got seven handoffs and gained a total of seven yards. That sent the momentum over to Favre, who made the most of it.


Do Not Mess with Shanahan

ONE MORE THING about this week's San Diego-Denver game. When Bronco Coach Mike Shanahan has the players, and when they play like he wants them to play, he is possibly harder to beat than any other coach. It would be in the Chargers' best interests not to take this one lightly.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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