The confusion on this point is rampant in the NFL. In every game, to all four platoons (defensive or offensive) first is the critical down. And the precise question for the defense is whether a good offensive team, on any given first down, will be running or passing. On that down, provided the offense has made a mystery of its tendencies, no defense can accurately forecast what's coming, run or pass. It must, as a rule, prepare for both. (Defensive strategy on second and third down is much simpler.)
An offensive objective — staying in first down on play after play — can often be met by parlaying an assortment of long and short passes. No offense can avoid second and third down forever, of course, but the strategy should be unchanged: passing on running downs (like first and 10, third and one) and running on passing downs (second and 10, third and four.)
To succeed, a passing team needs to continuously confront the defense with a running back like Dillon or Edgerrin James, and at times the runner has to run. You can't keep crying wolf. Occasionally, you have to show the defense the wolf. The Patriots, after winning an unprecedented 21 in a row, lost No. 22 because their wolf came up with a bad foot.
Ravens Don't Have Enough Defense
THE BALTIMORE RAVENS lost a nationally televised game to McNabb and the undefeated Eagles Sunday because the Raven coach, Brian Billick, is still trying to win with his defensive team — and without enough passer. In retrospect, one of the worst things to happen to Billick was winning the '01 Super Bowl with quarterback Trent Dilfer. That gave him the notion that he could always do it with any quarterback so long as he continued to field a great defense. (Actually, Baltimore only won in '01 by knocking out two or three opposing quarterbacks in a season when NFL rules enforcement was looser, but that is another story.)
In pro football today, the problem with aiming to win with defense is that air-tight defense can't be played in every minute of every quarter. In Sunday's game, McNabb and wide receiver Terrell Owens couldn't often break the Raven defense, but they burst through once or twice — and in a 15-10 game, that was sufficient because Raven quarterback Kyle Boller was insufficient.
Although Boller looks as if he has the arm to play longball, it takes more than an arm. And for whatever reason, the Ravens have him doing something else virtually all the time. Against Philadelphia, he conducted the shortest short-pass game of the year, of any year. Recurrently, his passes crossed the line of scrimmage by no more than four or five yards. That isn't a short-pass offense as conceived by the better teams. It's a give-up offense.
Football Can Be a Game of the Mind
THE NEW YORK JETS won an easy one Monday night, outplaying the Miami Dolphins, 41-14, in a laugher illustrating that football is at times a game of the mind more than of muscle. To begin with, a week earlier, the Jets had lost by seven points to the New England Patriots when, at just the right time in the second half, the Patriot defense was ready for the Jets' favorite long pass play, quarterback Chad Pennington to wide receiver Wayne Chrebet far down the middle. The New England coach, Bill Belichick, somehow knew it was coming, and just when it was coming, and positioned two Patriot defensive backs where Chrebet couldn't get to the ball.
That, however, didn't discourage the Jets, who, certain that the Chrebet bomb is as sound as it is spectacular, hauled it out of their offensive bag again Monday night and used it to take a quick 7-0 lead. The Dolphins, like the Patriots, are a reputed defensive power — though it was clear when Chrebet darted into the end zone that they aren't as savvy as the Patriots. In fact, the Jets, remembering their troubles in New England, scored so easily on the Dolphins that they lost interest in playing on. They only woke up when, shortly before halftime, the Dolphins somehow scored the tying touchdown, 7-7.
Stung, the Jets, their heads in the game at last, retaliated with 17 points in the next 10 minutes to take a 24-7 lead. And this time, fearing Miami's erratic passer, Jay Fiedler, they kept their wits until the end and kept pouring it on.
The Miami problem is the same as Baltimore's. During a passing era in pro football, both teams think they can win with defense. Thus, year after year, they bring back the same ineffective quarterbacks. The defection of a running back can hurt, too, but not as much as misunderstanding the modern game.