Strangely, as a first-year AFC coach, Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts is doing the same things that got him feared and then fired in an NFC town, Tampa.
At both places, Dungy rose to notoriety as a leader who had one of the NFL's finest and most creative defenses but no offense.
Thus Dungy's strength — defense — is at the same time his weakness. He seems to reason that he can build a defensive team so sound that he doesn't need an offense.
Again this year, he's using a good offensive team only as a weapon to help his defense. At Indianapolis, the role of his quarterback, Peyton Manning, is the same as it was for Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King: Run time off the clock with first-down ground plays and other ball-control snaps. Do not attack with first-down passes and other big plays. One of the NFL's brightest coaches, Dungy would lead them all if only he'd come up as an offensive expert. You can't win solely with defense.
Tampa or Green Bay; Raiders or Titans
SO THE COLTS are out of the Super Bowl race — not mathematically, maybe, but nonetheless certainly — though they're equipped with a coveted quarterback, Manning, plus a record-breaking receiver, Marvin Harrison, and one of the better running backs, Edgerrin James. So who leads the Super Bowl fight? Well, nobody. Who'll be there? That's easier. Going into the last regular-season week of 2002 — in a league that's become remarkable for parity — four teams stand out, if barely. The NFC will be represented in Super Bowl XXXVII by the Tampa Bay-Green Bay winner. The AFC will be there with the Tennessee-Oakland winner. The parity factor could turn up somebody else, theoretically, but that's not likely.
Of the NFC's four division champions — San Francisco, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Green Bay — no team figures to win the conference title. The 49ers don't play well east of San Francisco. The Eagles can alternate three quarterbacks to win the NFC East but not the NFC. The Buccaneers can win at Tampa Bay but not at Green Bay. The Packers can win at Green Bay but not Tampa Bay. In the AFC, only one question remains: Will it be battle-tested Tennessee or Oakland's great passing team? The two other division champions, Pittsburgh and whoever wins the AFC East, don't count. In a year of intense parity, a wild-card winner could theoretically emerge as champion, but that's not likely.
Manning Like Early-Years Bradshaw
A TEAM THAT should be there, one would suppose, is Indianapolis with Manning, Harrison and Dungy's defense. But, all year, Manning has had to struggle in almost every second half for an absurd reason: His coaches spend the first half playing ultra-conservative offense. They insist on running the ball on first-down plays and taking no interesting chances.
Repeatedly this season, Manning has been in a second-half comeback mode for the same reason that John Elway set so many comeback records at Denver in the old days: The first Denver coach Elway had, Dan Reeves, was (and at Atlanta remains) nearly as conservative as Dungy.
There's no way that Elway would be remembered as a great second-half comeback quarterback if, week in and out, Reeves had let him play in the first half. And precisely the same is true of Manning and Dungy at Indianapolis.
In last Sunday's game, for example, Dungy fell behind at the half, 10-3, only because of Jeremy Shockey's greatness at tight end for the New York Giants. It might be that Shockey is the greatest rookie the NFL ever saw. Even so, Dungy and Manning were poised to make a typical comeback until, on the first play of the second half, New York Coach Jim Fassel shot them down with the NFL's play of the day, an exquisitely timed flea-flicker touchdown.
That's the problem with trying to win with defense alone. There's no way for a good defensive team to make a successful defense against a good offense on every play.
At Denver, despite Reeves' satisfactory defensive team, Elway only won the Super Bowl after he got a passing coach, Mike Shanahan.
Colts Run Themselves Out of the Race
THE GIANT GAME will be remembered — unless the Colts somehow change direction next month — as the one that ruined Dungy's first year at Indianapolis. But it wasn't any second-half ineptness by Manning that beat the Colts, for, after the flea-flicker play, the Giants won easily by simply changing their defensive priorities to stop Manning's passing instead of James' running.
The game had been lost in the first half by Dungy's incredibly unimaginative offense, which was characteristic of all Dungy first-half offenses.
At one point, after the Colts recovered a fumble on the New York six-yard line, they ran the ball three times and kicked a field goal, thereby telling the league — once more — how a good coach manages to lose with Manning.
How About Matching Gruden vs. Callahan?
THE MOST ENTERTAINING Super Bowl matchup this time might be Oakland vs. Tampa Bay. It would pair new Raider coach Bill Callahan vs. last year's Raider coach, Jon Gruden, now at Tampa. Both men are former college quarterbacks who, in the NFL, came up in the West Coast Offense, the system originated by San Francisco Hall of Famer Bill Walsh.
As you can see every Sunday, the West Coast is a system in which the coach can lean in either direction — either running or passing the ball on critical downs, particularly first down.
It was Walsh who first showed that in ball-control football, passes are more effective than runs. His was the philosophy that brought passing back after many years of dull Super Bowls matching ground-play teams. It also brought an unprecedented five Super Bowl titles to San Francisco.
But in Tampa, Gruden leans toward running plays — as he did last season at Oakland — whereas Callahan prefers to throw the ball. In fact, with mature quarterback Rich Gannon in charge, Callahan's team this year has, for long stretches of some games, thrown it on every down.
That has given the Raiders the advantage over most opponents this fall, though against Tampa they would be passing into the NFL's most skilled defense — Dungy's old defense — exactly the one he built in his time there, with almost exactly the same players.
The question of a Gruden-Callahan Super Bowl would revolve around pass-play football. How well would Tampa throw it with Brad Johnson at quarterback but minus a running-play threat? How well would Oakland throw it with able short-passer Gannon focusing on an even quicker release than usual? Though the Raiders are more experienced — and experience counts in Super Bowl competition — Gruden would be favored.
Vick Update: Still the Real Deal
AFTER BEATING MINNESOTA with a long run to fix his record as an NFL starter at 7-1-1, Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick was predictably stopped by Tampa Bay, and then unpredictably stopped by Seattle before his up-and-down performance last Sunday in a 36-15 win over Detroit. That set up one of the games of this week: Atlanta (9-5-1) at Cleveland (8-7) in an inter-league headliner with a wild-card coloring.
If Vick is one of the great NFL players of all time, as some people reckon, why isn't he breezing to, at least, wild-card recognition?
The best answer is that, most of the time this season, in his first year as an NFL starter, Vick is showing NFL people what he can do — not what he's going to do. In this respect, he is much like a Hall of Fame quarterback of yesteryear, Terry Bradshaw, who in the 1970s helped deliver four Super Bowl titles to Pittsburgh.
Those of us who saw Bradshaw in his first game as an exhibition starter labeled him instantly as a Hall of Famer. Only later did it become certain that Bradshaw had been playing on instincts alone that night, totally disregarding the Steeler game plan because he didn't know how to follow it. Indeed, NFL football is so complex that even after Bradshaw learned to read a game plan, he didn't settle in as Pittsburgh's regular-season starter — let alone a Hall of Fame prospect — for several years.
This whole season has been like that for Vick. Count on it: He's the all-time run-pass quarterback even though he can't prove it yet. Worse luck, it's Vick who now has the conservative coach that once held back Elway. Give Reeves this: He's astute enough to bring in Vick and Elway both.
Ram Bulger Not Strong Enough for NFL
THE RAMS LOST for the first time with Marc Bulger last week when two Seattle Seahawks made a sandwich of the St. Louis quarterback and put him in the hospital with a back injury. The play was a reminder that in the offseason ahead, Bulger needs the kind of physical reconstruction work that will strengthen his upper body.
Bulger came into the NFL with a frame that needs another 20 pounds, at least, on top of his listed 215, if he's to be strong enough for pro football — which his Seattle accident showed he isn't. Good new poundage can be manufactured only by a physical specialist working with him continually. In an ideal world, Bulger would put on at least 15 pounds in the next 12 months and another 15 pounds a year later.
It's a great irony for Ram Coach Mike Martz that he has created the league's best two passers on a substructure of frailness. No. 1 Kurt Warner isn't quite quick enough. No. 2 Bulger, who looks to be ahead of even Warner as a passer, isn't quite strong enough. The good news for both of them is that, due to modern physical science, both can be dramatically changed and improved physically — provided only that they have the right supervision.
Five Guesses on What's Ahead
Atlanta to win over Cleveland by 5 at Cleveland Browns Stadium. If the Falcons play this one not to lose, they'll lose.
Tampa Bay to win over Chicago by 6 on Red Grange's old field at Urbana-Champaign. Great cold-weather experience for Buccaneers if they have to visit Green Bay later.
Green Bay over New York Jets by 1 at East Rutherford. The Jets might be starting to fly with Chad Pennington, who, at home, could beat any team but Green Bay this week.
New England over Miami by 1 at Foxboro. Although Patriot passer Tom Brady is short on wide receivers, the Dolphins are short on road-game wins.
Indianapolis over Jacksonville by 1 at the RCA Dome. Peyton Manning won't want to lose this one, and the Jaguars might not care.