As of the 21st century, passer Tom Brady and pass-offense enthusiast Bill Belichick are on board to succeed the Joe Montanas and Joe Namaths and the Vince Lombardis and Bill Walshes who in the 20th century topped the NFL.
Since the 2000 season, when veteran coach Belichick and rookie quarterback Brady joined the New England Patriots, they have won two of the four Super Bowls, doing so with increasingly persistent passing in an offense that has become pro football's most aggressive.
Still, most folks continue to think of Belichick wrongly as simply a defensive genius.
Actually, he's the only one of the NFL's wise old defense-minded conservatives to shift gears and turn with enthusiasm to pass offense.
He's the only all-out pass-offense coach in the league.
And it is the Patriots' pass-play competence in an approach prescribed by Belichick and interpreted by Brady that has made them a champion and a favorite in the NFL's 85th season, which begins Thursday, Sept. 9 at Foxborough, Mass. — matching Brady vs. Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. That game will be followed on Sept. 12 by the season's first round of Sunday games setting up the first Monday nighter, Green Bay at Carolina.
Belichick's season could well depend on the way he uses new running back Corey Dillon, late of Cincinnati, among the league's finest and the first really good one he's had. Like most ballcarriers, Dillon enjoys ground-bound football, which Belichick once loved but gave up to throw the ball, finding pass offense a surer way to win. At the same time, Dillon has shown the talent for two key Patriot roles:
As a second- or third-down counterpuncher in first-half pass-first football.
As a second-half hammer after Brady opens first-half leads.
If that is their plan, the Patriots, now that they have Dillon, are farther ahead of the NFL field as the season starts than any early favorite in many years. If instead they're tempted to feature Dillon and not Brady on most first-half first-down plays, the Patriots will shortly come back to the field.
The NFL's Other Title Contenders
2 — Philadelphia Eagles
Among the teams that belong in the NFL's top 10 this year, the principal difference between No. 1 New England and No. 2 Philadelphia is that the Patriots are a team without a flaw — the only one in a league that has changed enormously, for better or worse, in the era of free agents and wage caps. The most compelling reason for elevating the Eagles to No. 2 — other than the fact that head coach Andy Reid has led them into the playoffs the last four seasons — is that they've made the NFL's most vital one-player acquisition of 2004: Terrell Owens, the sprinter-wide receiver. At San Francisco, Owens was handicapped by his bad-boy temperament, but he's the best athlete playing wide receiver today, and his speed was precisely what the Eagles needed. Otherwise, Reid's offensive talent, with Donovan McNabb running and throwing the ball, is considerable. If the Eagles raise a question, it's this: Will they give away on defense what they've gained on offense? Their defensive players, even with Jason Kearse at defensive end, aren't as impressive as their offensive personnel.
3 — Carolina Panthers
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme's surprise longball air show in the most recent Super Bowl game — after Coach John Fox finally let him throw — remains the most vivid and enduring memory of the NFL's 2003 season. Although Fox only turned on the pass-offense green light with three minutes left in the first half, Delhomme piled up 323 passing yards that day and threw three for touchdowns before the Patriots won it on a field goal in the last four seconds, 32-29. If Delhomme could do that in one game, why not 16? That's up to Fox, who last year proved to be one of the NFL's really sound coaches. Until recently, he was also known as one of the league's many devoted conservatives. But the way he authorized some Delhomme throws in the 2004 exhibition season — notably during the young passer's exposures on national TV — suggests that Fox is changing his mind somewhat. If Fox attacks more often with Delhomme this fall than with runners Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, another Super Bowl appearance is within reach.
4 — Kansas City Chiefs
Coach Dick Vermeil attacks with a beautifully integrated offense featuring Trent Green and Priest Holmes. When quarterback Green seems poised for another big pass, halfback Holmes suddenly disappears with the ball on a fast-tempo running play. When the defense seems to be overshifting against Holmes, the ball suddenly flies away from Green toward tight end Tony Gonzales or a wide receiver. In three-receiver sets, Dante Hall, the peerless kick returner, takes the slot. One of the league's great offensive lines makes all of this work, insuring that the Chiefs can play offense with any team in the league. But on defense, Kansas City is testing a theory: Is a new coach of more value than new players? Even though the Chiefs finished 30th against the run last year (in a 32-team league) and 20th against passes, Vermeil has kept all the players who did that — defying his old friend Bill Walsh, who said a winning team needs 11 stars on defense (though no more than three on offense). Impetuously, instead of changing players, Vermeil has changed assistant coaches, signing a new defensive coordinator, Gunther Cunningham — once their head coach.
5 — Green Bay Packers
Quarterback Brett Favre keeps testing another theory: Can a tough old quarterback with a big arm play forever? At Carolina in the season's first Monday night game on Sept. 13, Favre, who is about to turn 35, will make his 209th consecutive NFL start, a record that may never be broken unless he breaks it. His strength as a football player is also his weakness: He never gives up on a play. If this leads him into trouble sometimes, it also leads to 3,000 Green Bay passing yards every season — as well as 30 touchdown passes — a pace Favre has maintained, as he keeps getting older, for seven consecutive years. Part of the reason for his success (and part of the reason for running back Ahman Green's success) is that Favre and Green are a two-threat, two-edged sword — a sharp one. And both benefit from their sharp offensive line. After starting his coaching career with four winning seasons at Green Bay, Mike Sherman has taken on a new defensive coach, Mike Slowik.
Rounding Out the 2004 Top Ten
6 — Denver Broncos
Jake Plummer has proved to be what Coach Mike Shanahan predicted: a quality quarterback. And Plummer should improve this season, another 12 months away from Arizona, where, in the course of losing seven years out of his life, he picked up a load of bad habits. This year's problem position is wide receiver. But with some new folks in their offensive backfield, the Broncos (who always run well) appear to be running well again. And with Champ Bailey in their defensive backfield, they're better where they need to be to contend. As the only NFL coach who effectively integrates runs and passes without committing to run-first or pass-first football, Shanahan has coached well enough in the last five years to add to his Super Bowl collection of two. Injuries, however, have ravaged him regularly since Terrell Davis first went down years ago. It's true that in a rough contact sport, all teams have injuries, but they don't all match Denver in number of injury losses in key positions. Last season, for example, when the Broncos finished 10-6, they were 9-3 when Plummer played and 1-3 when he couldn't.
7 — Baltimore Ravens
The leadership combination of Ozzie Newsome, the club's general manager, and Coach Brian Billick keeps the Ravens in contention. If their problem can be stated numerically, it's this: Although Billick has been able to keep 82% of Newsome's draft choices, Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller has completed only 52% of his NFL passes. In other words, the way they draft, the Ravens should be nearing the top of the mountain whereas they're still in the valley. One result is that the Ravens continue to play run-of-the-mill, run-the-ball, defense-the-run football. That will get them in the playoffs but not to the last big game, for, assuming their goal is the Super Bowl, Jamal Lewis won't run them that far. The Ravens' strength is that they have strength in all departments. Their offensive line was built, however, for the running game, and their defense was also wired for runs. In a passing league, how far can the running Ravens get?
8 — Indianapolis Colts
If the NFL enforces downfield illegal-hands and holding penalties this year, as advertised, and as it should, the people who will benefit the most are Colt quarterback Peyton Manning and his troop of little receivers — notably Marvin Harrison, who has been a tower of strength for this team even though he goes no more than 6 feet, 175 pounds. The two or three other gifted Colt receivers about his size could be (and were) manhandled as well last year — and held to far fewer completions than they really earned — by defensive backs who lack the skills to cover them legally. All this is crucial to the Colts, for Manning is a great downfield passer when a target is in the clear and he has time to unload. In those circumstances, he is unsurpassed. Even so, Manning tends to be regularly less effective against good players and good teams. That is largely because his coaches don't observe the five commandments of offensive football as outlined in the next (Tennessee) section. Though the Colts are built for pass-play offense, they always want to run the ball — sending Edgerrin James into 8-3 defenses repeatedly on first down. What's worse, the weak Colt defense appears to be even weaker this season, although Coach Tony Dungy is a defensive expert.
9 — Tennessee Titans
With Steve McNair at quarterback, this could be a Super Bowl team if the Titans learn to integrate runs and passes in accordance with the five commandments of Hall of Famers Bill Walsh and Johnny Unitas, who recommended:
(1) Take what the defense gives you;
(2) Remember that first down is the best passing down because, on that down, defensive teams must line up against the possibility of a run and a pass both;
(3) Therefore, pass more than you run on first down, a lot more, but keep the defense off-balance with occasional first-down runs;
(4) Note that, on first down against a typical NFL defense, you can as a rule call your whole repertoire of pass plays: bombs, slants, screens, 18-yard turn-ins, quick passes to tight ends and backs, and all the rest;
(5) Unless your offense is much better than the opponent's defense, don't ever pound the ball on first down — that is, never pound it against an eight-man front when the defense is going to line up only three players in the secondary.
10 (tie) — Seattle Seahawks
On paper, these Seahawks appear to be the best of Mike Holmgren's six Seattle editions — the first five of which have been, in the aggregate, somewhat disappointing to a Seahawk public that expected more of a head coach who on his past-performance chart can point to, among other things, a Super Bowl victory (when he led the Packers). The two reasons for Seattle optimism this season are Matt Hasselbeck and Ray Rhodes. A productive quarterback, Hasselbeck played Pro Bowl football last year and should be even more confident and aggressive this time. A nonesuch defensive coach, Rhodes should get even more out of his side now that his system and style are better understood on the Seattle team. Finally, Holmgren is a pass-play exponent who plays Bill Walsh football as well as any disciple ever has. In other years, there were times when the Seahawks seemed about this good but faltered. It's up to Holmgren to prove that the problem isn't chronic.
10 (tie) — St. Louis Rams
A new defensive coordinator, Coach Mike Martz's friend Larry Marmie, inherits last year's players, meaning this is the least physical good defensive team in the league. A high-scoring offense is thus mandatory. And the Rams still employ many matchless pass-offense players — a quarterback who can throw it everywhere, Marc Bulger, and receivers who can go get it anywhere, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk, among others. The problem is that on first down and other running downs, Martz wants to run the ball now with Faulk and first-round draft choice Steven Jackson. Last year when the Rams were playing that kind of run-first football, Bulger was forced so often into third-and-long and other unfavorable passing situations that he threw 25 interceptions. In earlier years when the Rams were a Super Bowl contender, they played pass-first football. As a passing team, following Walsh-Unitas principles, they were and can again be a big winner (see the Tennessee Titan section above).
American Conference, by Division
Kansas City Chiefs: In a two-team race that might not be settled until mid-December (Broncos at Kansas City), the Chiefs, 13-3 last year, need only a somewhat better defense to win it all this time. Coach Dick Vermeil's bold decision to bring back his predecessor as defensive coach may suffice.
Denver Broncos: Coach Mike Shanahan's quarterback, Jake Plummer, is a shade better than Kansas City's Trent Green. Secondly, the Broncos are counting on a change of injury luck.
Oakland Raiders: The most consistently successful club owner in NFL history, Al Davis, had the Raiders in the second Super Bowl (II)—and the second from last (XXXVII). And in between, he won three (XI, XV and XVIII). But the Broncos and Chiefs are too tough now.
San Diego Chargers: After LaDainian Tomlinson, not enough players. And not enough coaching.
Indianapolis Colts: Always weak defensively, the Colts are still trying to win with offense alone. They don't even bring in reinforcements for the defensive starters they lose to free agency.
Tennessee Titans: Can challenge Indianapolis with Steve McNair and Jeff Fisher — their handy quarterback and a coach who has shown that he is one of the league's top defensive strategists.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Will ensure that promising young passer Byron Leftwich develops slowly if they continue with their old philosophy — "run and defense the run" — which resembles Tennessee's.
Houston Texans: After the Texans tied Jacksonville for third last year (5-11), the question now is whether they've gone as far as they can go until they get young passer David Carr more help.
Baltimore Ravens: One of the NFL's best all-around teams except at quarterback, the Ravens seem to have enough power to beat the others in this division.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Their quarterback of the future, first-round draft choice Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (OH.), has the talent to push veteran Tommy Maddox. New runner Duce Staley is a good fit.
Cincinnati Bengals: Another new quarterback, Carson Palmer of USC, is the centerpiece of Coach Marvin Lewis' impressive rebuilding program. Good receivers Peter Warrick and Chad Johnson and a good offensive line will help Palmer adjust to the NFL.
Cleveland Browns: This team hasn't come on under Coach Butch Davis (having lost seven of its last 10 last year in Davis' third year). But Kelly Holcomb and Jeff Garcia are quarterbacks enough.
New England Patriots: In an otherwise weak division, the Patriots can lap this field.
Buffalo Bills: Though the Bills don't figure in 2004, they have maybe the NFL's best longshot chance. With one of the AFC's good defenses, new Coach Mike Mularkey has the players to turn the Bills around if he plays Walsh-Unitas pass-first football with quarterback Drew Bledsoe and, later, J.P. Losman.
Miami Dolphins: With Coach Dave Wannstedt, this team will have a defense but not much else.
New York Jets: Coach Herman Edwards hasn't yet lived up to his great promise, but he has a bright quarterback, Chad Pennington, and some other talent here and there.
National Conference, by Division
Seattle Seahawks: Have the resources now to replace the Rams and 49ers of yore.
St. Louis Rams: Seattle is in trouble if the Rams change gears and resume as a passing team.
Arizona Cardinals: Could finally challenge the above with new quarterback Josh McCown, new backup Shaun King, and key receivers Anquan Boldin (who starts the season injured) and Larry Fitzgerald. They need more defense.
San Francisco 49ers: The ex-champs are entering a down year and possibly a long down era.
Carolina Panthers: Now that they've learned that passing pays, all they have to do is keep at it.
New Orleans Saints: Against all the evidence, some of us keep expecting the Saints to emerge. Their talent load is headed by quarterback Aaron Brooks and a great runner, Deuce McAllister.
Atlanta Falcons: May have upgraded their leadership more than any other NFL team with line coach Alex Gibbs, late of Denver, and offensive coach Greg Knapp, a West Coast Offense expert, on the staff of new coach Jim Mora. But slight, slick-running quarterback Michael Vick, who doesn't like the pocket, might not be big enough or strong enough for NFL football.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: On the defensive line, Anthony McFarland is an improvement over Warren Sapp. And the offensive line is also better. The question is whether the new general manager, Bruce Allen, and the young old coach, Jon Gruden, should be relying on quarterback Brad Johnson at 36, on runner Charlie Garner at 32, on some of their receivers, and on some of their defensive people.
Green Bay Packers: Again the class of a division they always seem to dominate.
Detroit Lions: Poised to improve if Coach Steve Mariucci doesn't hold them back. In all his years in San Francisco, Mariucci apparently didn't learn much about pass offense. He still wants to run the ball though his strength is his pass-offense talent with quarterback Joey Harrington and wide receivers Charles Rogers, Az-Zahir Hakim, Roy Williams, and Tai Streets, among others.
Minnesota Vikings: On this team, running back Michael Bennett needs some of quarterback Daunte Culpepper's immense size. And the defense needs some of wide receiver Randy Moss' immense talent. The coach, Mike Tice, is still in a learning-on-the-job mode.
Chicago Bears: New coach Lovie Smith is a clear improvement, but Rex Grossman has never seemed enough quarterback anywhere. There's also a talent shortage at too many other positions.
Philadelphia Eagles: When the coach, Andy Reid, is a pass-first philosopher and when the passer, Donovan McNabb, is a big-play expert, you win. But in the NFL, it's very, very, very hard to win it all.
Washington Redskins: During Joe Gibbs' first Redskin tour (1981-92), he was the NFL's all-time top coach in a rating system devised by Peter Hirdt, vice president of Elias Sports Bureau. Along with most coaches, Gibbs favored running-play football then. And this summer, through the exhibition season, he was still practicing running plays, using his best quarterback, Patrick Ramsey, to hand off on first and second down at a time when young Ramsey and his receivers needed, above all, pass-play experience. Thus in a different era in which the best teams are passing teams, Gibbs may not start fast this fall. But he's a fast learner, and he's playing one of the NFL's softest schedules. He will finish fast, particularly if, strategically, he moves toward Walsh-Unitas football.
New York Giants: Another running-play coach, Tom Coughlin, has some of the NFL's best receivers (Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard and Jeremy Shockey) and a hot new passer, Eli Manning.
Dallas Cowboys: In a coaches' division, it will really be a miracle if Bill Parcells wins with this bunch.