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Two Unbeaten Passers

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Big Ben Roethlisberger vs. the distinguished Donovan McNabb: Now there's a matchup made in heaven. In a game to be presented on Pittsburgh's Heinz Field next Sunday, McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles' veteran quarterback, will lead pro football's only 7-0 team against the 6-1 Steelers.

Like McNabb, Roethlisberger is undefeated this season. Astonishingly effective for a rookie, he has made five starts as a pro and won them all since coming over from school at Miami (Ohio). Most recently, Roethlisberger presided during Pittsburgh's surprise 34-20 conquest of New England, which ended the Patriots' record winning streak at 21. It happened for two reasons:

First and most meaningful, with running back Corey Dillon injured and out, the Patriots lost their vital ground-game threat.

Second, Roethlisberger gave the Steelers what they have missed most since Coach Bill Cowher began to open up his offense:

They've needed a quarterback with superb passing skills and the instincts of a born leader, and that seems to be Big Ben. The Steelers, heading into 2004, could block, run, catch, and defend. They could do it all but throw the ball with consistent brilliance, and lately they've been doing that. Their upset win could only have materialized, to be sure, in a passing era. Running teams can't do what the Steelers have done. And it could only have been accomplished by a coach with a double-barreled pass-run threat. That, surprising his old friends, is Cowher.


Is Roethlisberger Better Than Waterfield?

THE STEELERS almost certainly aren't yet on the same road the old Cleveland Rams traveled in 1945 when they wound up in the NFL championship game — the 1940s equivalent of the Super Bowl — and won it with a rookie quarterback, Bob Waterfield. But so far, Roethlisberger has been playing better football than almost any other rookie since Waterfield. And he's a better passer than Waterfield, the great all-around athlete who made the Hall of Fame as a leader.

In another respect, Sunday's Patriot-Steeler game was also unique. When Roethlisberger carried the Steelers toward a 21-3 first-quarter lead with well-placed passes, two for touchdowns to wide receiver Plaxico Burress — and when, later, Cowher opted for a bunch of running plays to protect a lead that grew to 34-13 in the third quarter — the sports fans of Los Angeles didn't see any of it on network TV.

For the second week in a row, CBS, whose executives keep saying they have more viewers than anybody, shut L.A. viewers out of the NFL's big game. And these weren't merely big games. They were historic games. No NFL team had ever won 21 consecutively until last week, when New England set a record that has defied all other pro clubs for 85 years. And on Sunday, Pittsburgh became the only team in the NFL's 85-year history to beat a 21-game winner.

Those were the two most historic events of the season in pro ball; and if CBS could keep them out of the L.A. market, it's a good thing that Sunday's Roethlisberger-McNabb matchup has been awarded to Fox.


Talented QBs Mature Faster Now

FOOTBALL IS A sport that changes markedly from year to year and from decade to decade, unlike baseball, which is pretty much the same game it was in the days when the Red Sox won the last time (with Babe Ruth).

A rookie who had Roethlisberger's skills couldn't have found himself on an NFL winning streak 30 years ago when quarterbacks called their own plays. The coaches who since then have taken on that job have effected a decisive change in modern quarterback play. In the years when quarterbacks made the calls, Hall of Fame passers Sammy Baugh and Johnny Unitas used to say that play-calling was well over half their job.

The 1964 NFL champion, Dr. Frank Ryan of Cleveland, who upset Unitas that year in the title game, said the making of a pro quarterback takes seven years. When he said it, he was in his fourth year in the league. He was traded to Cleveland that year, and he was in his seventh NFL season when he finally beat Unitas.

Coaches have often insisted that it takes five years — at least — to make a pro quarterback. So how could Roethlisberger do it in five games?

The first part of any answer is that he has the talent as well as a coach who believes so much in pass offense that he will let a rookie throw. But more than that, football, as a game, is strikingly different from what it once was. During the ironman era, for example, when NFL rules prohibited unlimited substitution, many of this season's best receivers — including Roethlisberger's — couldn't have participated. They simply lack the skill and size to play defense.

Only in recent years, moreover, have college coaches embraced pass offense as the most certain way to win. They used to say that when you throw a football, only three things can happen and two of them are bad. Today, by contrast, college coaches teach passing — from Miami, Fla., to Miami, O. — as diligently as they once taught blocking and tackling. So there are good passers everywhere today.

On every major college and pro team in the land, quarterbacks now have their own personal coaches who, over the years, have learned passing first-hand. One NFL team hires no fewer than three quarterback coaches who are on the job either full or part-time. In Vince Lombardi's day, pro clubs hired a total of no more than five or six coaches. Today they have 19 or 20. The upshot is that quarterbacks can mature in a hurry these days if they have Roethlisberger's talent, and if they have a coach who believes in pass offense.


Double-Barreled Threat Mandatory

DILLON'S ABSENCE from the Patriot lineup Sunday demonstrated again that football teams need a prominent two-way threat to even think of winning big games. His absence didn't prove that running is more important than, or even as important as, passing. What it graphically showed is that a great pass offense isn't sufficient unless, simultaneously, the offense can threaten with a first-class runner. That's why Patriot Coach Bill Belichick brought Dillon in this year.

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.)

A significant reason why passing has supplanted running as the route to NFL success is that since former San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh brought pass offense back to football in the 1980s, most of the game's champions have found that defensive teams are more vulnerable to pass plays on first down than at any other time. And because of the nature of first down — requiring defensive players to think run and pass both — that will indefinitely be true.

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.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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