By Bob Oates
October 22, 2003
By contrast, the underdog, 2-5 Raiders should have been looking for places to gamble, to be bold, even risky. When they didn't — when in the fourth quarter they missed a splendid chance to take a chance — their timidity beat them, 17-10.
Their backup quarterback, Marques Tuiasosopo, a surprisingly good one, had driven the Raiders to the Kansas City 10 in that fourth quarter when his coaches crept meekly into a shell.
Losing, 10-0, they called two give-up running plays there, and then, on third and long, the pass they'd needed on first down. Against the Chiefs' first-down running-play defense, an unexpected Tuiasosopo pass, though risky, had actually been the Raiders' best bet. Against a defense predictably anticipating pass on third and long, Tuiasosopo missed his end-zone target, but just barely, whereupon the Raiders kicked the field goal that wasn't enough.
For, in a wild finish, Tuiasosopo twice moved the Raiders nearly the length of the field with beautiful passes, driving once to a touchdown and once into position for the field goal that would have been sufficient had his coaches played for seven points instead of three that first time at the Kansas City 10. Instead, as time ran out, Tuiasosopo, needing a touchdown, fell 36 inches short. One yard.
The Curse of John Elway
THE DENVER BRONCOS will invade Baltimore this week with a team that continues to be plagued by "the Curse of John Elway," which is beginning to take on the power of baseball's curses of the Bambino and the billy goat.
When Elway departed after quarterbacking the Broncos to Super Bowl triumphs in 1998-99, his friends said it would be a cold day before they ever got back. And sure enough, the Broncos have since then had one mishap after another.
In their most chilling calamity, quarterback Jake Plummer came down with a broken foot four days before they lost at Minnesota Sunday in Week 7 — on two strange plays — 28-20. That day, Plummer's backup, Steve Beuerlein, broke a finger on his pitching hand, empowering third quarterback Danny Kanell as No. 1 even though he'd been out of the league two years.
Earlier, in the first four years of Elway's retirement, Brian Griese often seemed to be what Coach Mike Shanahan reasoned he was — the quarterback answer — but Griese mysteriously disintegrated. Technically proficient, a good passer, he made more and more incomprehensible or plain-stupid plays, apparently forgetting, among other things, that on a broken play, the ball can be thrown away.
In other respects, Shanahan has usually had one of the NFL's great teams, sometimes the best of them all. He has produced one great running back after another along with spectacular receivers, good offensive lines and sound defenses. And this year, Plummer, who is something of a cross between Joe Montana and John Elway, seemed to be the one thing Shanahan had lacked in this century — a Super Bowl quarterback — until the Elway curse intervened.
Unbeaten Vikes Play in Luck
THE MINNESOTA VIKINGS, the only unbeaten NFC team after six weeks, are this year's example of the heights that can be reached by pro athletes when they enjoy the luck of the schedule. Next Sunday, for example, the Vikings get to play the NFC East's worst team, the 2-4 New York Giants.
Last week, true, Minnesota had to play what was probably the NFL's best team, Denver, but shortly before that game, Denver quarterback Plummer was scratched with a broken foot, reducing the Broncos to a nothing team and making a tough day simple for the Vikings — nearly as simple as their first five starts this year against opponents that were a combined 8-20.
The best you can say for Minnesota at this point is that when a not-bad pro club gets on a roll, lucky or not, it sometimes keeps rolling.
Happily for the Vikings last week, it was Plummer's replacement in the Denver backfield, Beuerlein, who threw three interceptions and, otherwise, stood around five times until he could be sacked. These eight errors, among many others, suggested that Beuerlein, a 13-year NFL veteran, has forgotten how to read defenses. Either that or, under the influence of the Elway curse, he has come down with Griese's disease — forgetting how to throw the ball away.
In any case, against even an ordinary Denver quarterback, the Vikings probably couldn't have kept their undefeated status through Week 7. Strong defensively, the Broncos, owning a good blocking line, also own a notably effective ballcarrier, Clinton Portis, who ran up 117 yards despite the fact that there was no countervailing Denver quarterback threat.
Portis is the best of the many good running backs Shanahan has had at Denver since Terrell Davis, who was so wonderful during the Elway era that he was the MVP of one of the Super Bowls. Then he too disintegrated mysteriously. The curse of Elway: Alive then, alive now.
New Rams Conventional, Still Win
THE ST. LOUIS RAMS have become a different kind of team — one that wins playing conventional NFL football — so the Pittsburgh game this week, at Pittsburgh, will test whether the new Ram team can succeed that way on a difficult foreign field.
In their great days as a Super Bowl team, the Rams played unconventionally, playing as if charged with electricity. They repeatedly whisked down the field on big plays by continually throwing first-down passes to the magnificent Isaac Bruce and as many as three or four other classy receivers.
By contrast, their new team likes to run the ball on first down, forcing quarterback Marc Bulger to pass on passing downs, ostensibly playing into the hands of any defense. Yet Bulger is so accurate that he threw only two interceptions into the stacked Green Bay defense Sunday when the Rams won, 34-24.
On defense, the Rams played like and looked like Tampa Bay, which has the NFL's most respected defense — as constructed by Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy in the pre-Jon Gruden years and as brought to St. Louis by Dungy disciple Lovie Smith. But on offense, unhappily, the Rams are also beginning to look like Tampa Bay, whose quarterback, Brad Johnson, doesn't move around much and whose running back, Michael Pittman, grinds out the hard yards.
For the Rams, a rookie running back, Arlen Harris, has been grinding out the hard yards, 85 Sunday in 18 runs on a day when Bulger, who doesn't move around much, completed 22 of 34, dispatching three for touchdowns.
The Rams are not as exciting as they used to be, but their coach, Mike Martz, seems just as smart. Having built both Ram teams, Martz is betting that in a wide-open championship race, he can be successful either way.
Dallas-Tampa Game of the Week
THE DALLAS COWBOYS, 5-1, have become the most reliable winner in pro football under their new coach, Bill Parcells, who, however, hasn't beaten anybody yet. Or so his critics keep saying privately.
That could change when Dallas plays at Tampa Bay in Sunday's Game of the Week.
The 3-3 Buccaneers have had a defending champion's usual troubles, meaning that every opponent is pointing their way, the San Francisco 49ers included. The 49ers unloaded their only good game of the season last Sunday to drop the Buccaneers, 24-7, on a day when 49er wide receiver Terrell Owens showed that in the NFL, world-class footspeed is hard to beat and impossible to catch. On his 70-yard scoring run, he ran through and away from a very fast defense.
As for the Cowboys, they've won their five straight from the two fading New York teams and two other hopeless opponents, Arizona and Detroit, plus struggling Philadelphia.
Still, it's the way they've won that makes the Cowboys seem pretty good. For one thing, they seem to be proving that Parcells, before accepting work in Dallas, had identified a much better nucleus of players than most other people saw. In three prior winning tours in New York and New England, that had also been Parcells' secret weapon.
Moreover, he's had some luck. In New England, he had decided, before ownership's personnel people drafted wide receiver Terry Glenn, that he didn't want him. At Dallas he insisted, as a condition of employment, that the Cowboys bring Glenn in. And at Detroit Sunday, Glenn caught three touchdowns as the Cowboys romped, 38-7.
Nonetheless, if the Buccaneers choose to put up a fight, they can make it hard on Dallas quarterback Quincy Carter — who says he's ready. That's the Parcells effect.
You Don't Win Titles Carolina's Way
THE CAROLINA PANTHERS, undefeated until they ran into the tough Tennessee Titans Sunday, have discovered one of the controlling truths about life in the NFL, namely that the hard way to win professional championships is with a running team, even one that plays grand defense.
In a parity-bound league with many good title contenders, it is possible for any club to fall a couple of touchdowns out of it early on, or even 17 points out as the Panthers did in the first quarter Sunday.
When that happens, the best, usually the only way, to get up off the mat is with a well-rehearsed, well-respected pass offense. The Panthers, however, are a running-and-defense team under their second-year coach, John Fox, who made it a point to bring in a tiger of a running back in the offseason, Stephen Davis.
For the last month, Davis has been earning oohs and ahs from the many devoted running-and-defense analysts on the NFL beat, but in an 0-17 game he's helpless. And so in time the Titans won handily, 37-17.
Along the way that day, the Panthers learned that maybe their quarterback, Jake Delhomme, is better than advertised. By game's end, Delhomme had completed 31 of 49 passes — with no interceptions — for twice as many yards, 362, as those gained by Tennessee's renowned quarterback Steve McNair.
Delhomme's one problem, perhaps, is that the Carolina pass offense has not been rehearsed at length or in depth. Thus in Week 7, the Panthers weren't ready to make big pass plays in the first half, when they dropped off the pace, 27-3. What Delhomme showed in outscoring Tennessee in the second half, 14-10, is single-handed promise. Depending on his coaches' present interest in pass offense, there could be more progress in New Orleans Sunday.
One (Brady) Pass Tops Tory Team
THE MIAMI DOLPHINS, another bunch of running-and-defense problem children under conservative coach Dave Wannstedt, broke out with another way that such teams can lose Sunday when New England quarterback Tom Brady launched an overtime bomb to underrated wide receiver Troy Brown on the 82-yard play that settled a 19-13 struggle.
A reliable pass offense provides by far the best way to come from behind in even a low-scoring, low-interest game like this.
And Brady is the best passer in a division in which Wannstedt convicts himself of neglect by trying to win with Jay Fiedler, a nice guy from Dartmouth but no NFL passer.
Dolphin kicker Olindo Mare has been taking most of the heat in Miami for missing two 35-yard field goals at the end, but that's the way kickers are. They make some and miss some. They're not football players, they're soccer players.
In this instance, some responsibility for the misses can be charged to Wannstedt, who could have had Mare out there on his home field, day after day, practice-kicking on the bare infield. The traction that kickers need is harder to get on a bare infield, but on 35- or even 40-yard attempts it can be worked up if the kicker has worked at it.
The Raiders, who haven't won many games this year, put themselves in position to win one when they were prepared for a key, difficult 48-yard field goal off the bare Oakland infield by Sebastian Janikowski, who of course also misses some and makes some. That's the way kickers are.
Bob Oates' book, Sixty Years of Winners, is available at latimes.com/bookstore or by calling (800) 246-4042 ($16.95).
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