Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips, who coach Michael Vick's team, the Atlanta Falcons, have always held that winning football is based on an effective running-play offense and an efficient running-play defense.
Thus Reeves, the Atlanta coach, and his defensive coordinator, Phillips, are stubbornly both still playing runball in a passball era.
Because Vick is their quarterback, however, the Falcons are 8-4-1. What's more, they're looking at 11-4-1 after their last three games against Seattle Sunday, then Detroit, then Cleveland.
But their progress in the playoffs next month will depend on whether the Falcons can modernize their game. They have a way to go. In a 34-10 rout last Sunday, it was Reeves, not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who routed Vick. Even worse, it was Phillips' defensive strategy that led to Tampa's three touchdown passes in the second quarter, putting Vick in a hole so deep he couldn't climb out. Strategically, the Falcons' game was a disaster.
Wrong Defense Lets Johnson Star
THE TAMPA PASSER, Brad Johnson, is the picture-perfect opposite of a mobile quarterback. Among NFL starters, he ranks as probably the least mobile. Nor is Johnson's offensive line well respected. Offensively, the Buccaneer asset is Johnson's arm. Near or far, he can throw a football straight. Yet, obviously, there are ways to attack good passers who can't move and who play behind offensive linemen so ordinary that no one fears their running backs. In Johnson's case, the way to beat him, his smartest opponents say, is with a two-man blitz up the middle, using either two linebackers or one and a safety. They say it almost always works. Nonetheless, that's precisely what Atlanta didn't do.
Throughout the Tampa-Atlanta game, Phillips, the defensive coach in charge of stopping Johnson, lined up the Falcons in conventional defenses designed, in the NFL idiom, to stop the run and react to the pass. And stop the run they did, for as long as the score was close. The Tampa threat, though, is Johnson, who was left alone, just the way he likes it. It's the only way he can get off a pass. Once in a while, Phillips blitzed him from the outside, but it is the multiple inside blitz that a statue masquerading as a passer can't handle. Leaving a player like Johnson free to throw those big passes was a defensive disgrace.
Wrong Offense Ruins Vick's Day
GOOD DEFENSIVE FOOTBALL is an art requiring different approaches to different quarterbacks. Against a slow-footed passer like Johnson, the defensive play that works is a hard rush up the middle that flushes him outside, where he tends to be helpless. But against a running quarterback like Vick, defensive teams want him inside.
And when Vick was on the field Sunday, inside is where he was, but it took two teams to keep him there, the other team and his own. His conventional coach, Reeves, lost by playing conventional football with the most unconventional quarterback of our times.
The players who give the Buccaneers the league's best defense are their front four, who, though awesome, can be discouraged by quick, rather long passes thrown before they can get to the passer — just the kind Vick throws so well. The best formations for that kind of offense are those with four wide receivers — just the kind that Reeves didn't use Sunday.
Falcon Play-Calling Also Hurts Falcons
INSTEAD, IT WAS orthodox football as usual for Reeves, whose play selection was as conventional as his strategy, and as detrimental to Vick's style. Unlike other quarterbacks, he is both an alert passer and an extraordinary runner whose big gainers come on scrambles, one of which, a long one, had beaten Minnesota in overtime a week earlier.
But scrambles are runs that begin as pass plays — opening up the field — and the Falcons called few passes at Tampa until the second half, when, far behind, they had to pass, and Tampa knew it, which is a wholly different problem.
In terms of Vick's future, only the first half was relevant that day when Tampa led at the break, 21-3. The second half — in which a 22-year-old neophyte was playing catch-up against the league's toughest and most mature defense — doesn't count.
At times, theoretically, Reeves could have used Vick as a designated runner in planned running plays out of the quarterback position; but fearing an injury, the Falcons frown on such plays, as most football people believe they should.
One Vick Series Tells It All
A second-quarter sequence was typical of Vick's day against the Buccaneers. After his passes had moved the Falcons to the Tampa 15-yard line, Reeves killed the drive — and his quarterback — with two conventional calls. On first down and again on second down, predictably, Atlanta ran the ball, not with Vick but with two others, totaling but two yards.
On third and eight, again predictably, Reeves put Vick in shotgun formation as Tampa's fast front four boomed in on him while their seven teammates easily covered all of Vick's receivers. Predictably, the pass fell incomplete. Pass plays often fail in shotgun formation, from which running plays are less likely to provide a countervailing threat. Finally, on fourth down, Atlanta kicked a field goal.
In the Tampa game, the thing that made Vick's life unbearable was the Falcons' running-play mind-set: running to set up passing. To shut him down, the Buccaneers, good as they are defensively, needed precisely what Atlanta gave them.
Best Passing Team, Oakland, Tops AFC
QUARTERBACK RICH GANNON of the Oakland Raiders will lead the world's greatest passing team into Miami Sunday for the Game of the Week against the smart, tough Dolphin defense. Just a year ago, as coached by Jon Gruden, the Raiders were only potentially the finest. For Gruden wanted to run the ball — as he still does in Tampa, where he was persuaded to throw it last week only by the kind of defense Atlanta showed him.
In Oakland, by contrast, the new coach this year, Bill Callahan, 45, prefers passes instead of runs, regardless of down and distance. And his quarterback, Gannon, 37, has been cooperating magnificently. In San Diego last week, Gannon threw the ball on nearly every snap to build a 20-7 lead that rose in the end to a surprisingly lopsided 27-7.
So doing, the Raiders succeeded the Rams and New England Patriots — last winter's Super Bowl pair — as a the NFL's great passing machine. The Rams have lost their quarterbacks and most of their offensive line. The Patriots still have the know-how and the required passer, Tom Brady, but not Gannon's kind of receivers.
Because of Callahan, Gannon and Oakland owner Al Davis — a longtime proponent of the thrown ball — the Raiders this year are keeping alive the passball revolution that former San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh started in the 1980s. And not only that. The Raiders' 9-4 is now best in the AFC.
Gannon MVP in Montana's Offense
THE SAN DIEGO team, which may someday be the Los Angeles team, was the victim of Gannon's short-pass, ball-control offense, which resembles the offense that Walsh and his quarterback, Joe Montana, introduced 20 years ago. Those were the two people who converted the NFL (or at least the NFL's best teams) from runball to passball. Since their day, passing teams have won most of the pro championships.
Gannon, a leading 2002 NFL MVP candidate. has perfected the quarterback's role in such an offense, where the other indispensable parts are good blockers up front and good runners for change-of-pace draw plays and the like.
Ideally, one of the runners, Walsh always said, must double as super in the passing game. And at Oakland, that's Charlie Garner. Together with wide receivers Jerry Rice, Jerry Porter, Tim Brown and a tight end — frequently the big new tight end, Doug Jolley — Garner gives Gannon five first-class short-pass targets. Since one of the five is open on virtually every play, the Raiders keep moving the ball. And keep winning,
This year, unlike last year under Gruden, the Raiders don't bother to set up their pass offense with running plays. They simply come out passing. The Chargers, with one of the NFL's better defenses, spent Sunday trying to do something about it, but the truth is that few opponents can.
One Oakland bonus is that it's easier to protect a small lead in the fourth quarter with small-ball passing than any other way. On a recent Monday night, for example, the New York Jets were only six points behind the Raiders with six minutes remaining but couldn't regain possession in time to win. Instead, Gannon simply kept driving.
Raiders Excel in the Deep-Red Zone
AS RAIDER COACH, Callahan continues to show off one of the league' great red-zone offenses — except, in his case, it's more of a deep-red-zone offense. The Raiders aren't automatic touchdown makers from an opponent's 20-yard line in. Nor is any team. But in the final 10 yards this fall, the Raiders have been devastating.
Down there, they shift to a running-play offense, abandoning the pass offense that carries them down the field. The Gannon pass threat is always present, to be sure, but the Raiders have learned to run the ball in the deep-red zone. Thus at San Diego, on another 300-yard passing day for Gannon, they scored all three touchdowns with running plays.
Strangest of all, Callahan has been using three different running backs in Oakland's deep-red offense. At the 10-yard line, the Raiders rely on Garner. When they get to the five-yard line, they run Tyrone Wheatley instead. At the one-yard line, they call on their third running back, Zack Crockett.
At San Diego Sunday, after Gannon drove to the Chargers' seven-yard line, Garner ran the ball home. In the third quarter, from San Diego's one-yard line, Crockett hammered it home. In the last quarter, with Oakland at the Chargers' four-yard line, Wheatley powered it home.
If the Raiders' deep-red-zone offense is novel, so is everything else they do — at least in the view of such ground-bound NFL people as Reeves and Phillips. What's most astonishing is that so many other coaches think like Reeves, strategically. The idea of using running plays only as a change of pace is as foreign to them as it was to Walsh's opponents long ago.
Five Guesses on This Week's Big Ones
Oakland to win by one or two points over favored Miami at Pro Player Stadium. This is a must-win game for both teams.
San Francisco by a field goal over Green Bay on Candlestick Point. The Packers have Brett Favre. The 49ers have Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens.
Kansas City by one or two points over favored Denver on Invesco Field at Mile High. If the Broncos are going to win every time at home, so be it. The Chiefs, now, are better.
San Diego by one or two over favored Buffalo at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Chargers don't figure. What does figure is that their luck will change sometime soon, perhaps this week.
Monday night: New England by a field goal over favored Tennessee at the Nashville Coliseum. On a neutral field, Patriot quarterback Tom Brady, the Super Bowl MVP, would outplay the Titans' very good quarterback, Steve McNair.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times