The only certain way to win NFL games in this century is to blend a talented passer with a talented running back and a strong defensive force. At San Francisco next Sunday in a Week 9 revival of an old rivalry, the Rams plan to hold first place in the NFC West with such a team.

In Week 8, the Rams ran 37 times, passed 37 times and won with clutch defense as rookie running back Arlen Harris scored three touchdowns and quarterback Marc Bulger added one by air.

Previously a wondrous passing team, the Rams were winning their fourth in a row the balance way.

The 49ers, true, can play the same kind of football.

But the 49ers have lately been erratic, losing at Arizona last week, 16-13 (when the Rams won at Pittsburgh, 33-21) as Seattle lost at Cincinnati to fall into a first-place tie with a Ram team that has been reborn this month as a leader in conventional football. The emergence of Harris, a swift, 5-10, 212-pound undrafted free agent from Virginia, has given Coach Mike Martz that opportunity.

Few pro clubs rise to the top now without a productive running back such as Harris complementing a superb passer like Bulger. The idea on every snap is to give the defensive team two contradictory things to think about.




Miami's Offense Gets a Passer

SPEAKING OF PASSING, running, and defense, the Miami Dolphins have been featuring a satisfactory defensive team this year and a satisfactory running back, Ricky Williams, but an unsatisfactory passer, Jay Fiedler. Unhappily for the San Diego Chargers, that situation changed Monday night when Fiedler, injured, was replaced by Brian Griese, lately of the Denver Broncos.

For the first time in his tour as Miami's offensive coordinator, Norval Turner, one of football's finest play-callers, could get his offense on the field.

Thus in the first 29 minutes, Griese threw three times for touchdowns. Eventually, in a game shifted to Tempe, Ariz., by the California wildfires, Griese completed 20 of 29 to pummel the Chargers, 26-10, and to serve notice that Miami will have a quarterback now for as long as Griese can hold himself together. In Denver he had come apart physically at first and then mentally.

The difference between Griese and Charger quarterback Drew Brees was that, when the game was on the line, Turner had Griese throwing on running downs — frequently first down — whereas Brees, executing a characteristically conservative game plan by San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer, had to pass on passing downs — frequently third and long — against the strongest pass-defense alignments a good NFL defensive team could make. And, unsurprisingly, Brees answered Griese's three touchdowns with three interceptions, one on the third play of the game after Schottenheimer had tried to run LaDainian Tomlinson on first and second down.

So that was one thing. The other was that the Chargers lost their home-field advantage, which Las Vegas values at three points though it was worth much more this time. For, in Arizona, they don't seem to like Californians, and from the stands they said so. Loudly.




Six-Coach Defensive Staffs

NFL DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT, which in recent years has been marked, is due in large part to a dramatic increase in the size of the coaching staffs. Not so long ago, three defensive staffers were enough for any team — line coach, linebacker coach and defensive-back coach. By contrast, NFL defenses are directed today by six coaches, on average, with some teams at seven.

What's more, there are now all kinds of defensive designations that were once unheard of: defensive-end coach, defensive-tackle coach, defensive analyst, quality control, pass-rush coach, assistant defensive backs and the like.

What this means, among other things, is more individual teaching along with six or seven heads on defensive game planning, instead of three, plus six or seven to consider game-time adjustments.

The most obvious result is that the good NFL defensive teams this year can only be taken by first-rate quarterbacks — of whom, we calculated the other day, there are 24 or so at present in this 32-team league. Journeyman quarterbacks don't luck out any more. Most pro games are battles between superior passers and superior defenses.

In such a world, competent quarterbacks can have their troubles, as Tampa Bay and Dallas proved again in Week 8 when the Buccaneers scored the only touchdown of a 16-0 game.

Dallas Coach Bill Parcells, whose five-game winning streak crashed to a halt that day, probably has the quarterback to win such a game, Quincy Carter — when Carter's had more experience — but Parcells must see by now that he needs a more helpful running back than Troy Hambrick, who hit Tampa for 25 yards net on 11 carries. If there are three legs in a winning troika (passer, runner, defense), Parcells seems to have two of the three but isn't likely to do it with just the two.