TWO OF THE bottom eight pro clubs, Chicago and Arizona — neither of which has seemed to be in a class with the NFL's top two dozen — will, surprisingly, put two-week winning streaks on the line Sunday in two winnable games: the Bears at Detroit and the Cardinals at Pittsburgh.
Arizona's job on the 49ers had warned Cincinnati's plucky new coach, Marvin Lewis, who, even so, couldn't handle the Cardinals' new twin-threat tandem, young runner Marcel Shipp and old passer Jeff Blake. With Jon Kitna, the Bengals can match Blake, but they don't always run well enough with aging, injured Corey Dillon and his teammates to take the pressure off Kitna.
As for the Bears, it's possible to say they have the best players on the NFL's eight worst clubs. Nonetheless, restricted by conservative leadership, Chicago has been all-out to win its last two from worst-eight peers, Detroit, 24-16, and San Diego, 20-7
On defense, the Bears, not so long ago, were the talk of the league. And on offense, they're attacking at present with a real quarterback, Chris Chandler, who is a young 38, and with a power runner with speed, Anthony Thomas, who at 26 is an established good one.
Two Chicago problems are that Thomas has been injured this year and that Chandler keeps getting lost on the coaches' depth charts. Now that Thomas and Chandler are together, it will be up to their coaches to think of a way to again topple 2-6 Detroit, which doesn't have much but a quarterback, Joey Harrington.
49er Rattay Hasn't Been Hit Yet
HERE ARE FOUR reasons why new San Francisco quarterback Tim Rattay might not perform as effectively every time hereafter as he did the other day when he completed a long series of nearly perfect passes to rout the St. Louis Rams, 30-10:
He isn't big enough or strong enough to be a great pro quarterback in this era. At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Rattay can, of course, play awhile. The question is how long. The son of a coach, he looks like most coaches' sons: studious, informed, proficient. That was enough to overthrow the Rams.
Rattay hasn't been hit yet. On 49er pass plays, the Rams never once punished him the way the 49er defense repeatedly attacked Ram quarterback Marc Bulger, who was sacked five times and smashed continuously. The only time the Rams sacked Rattay, they took him down gently, as if he were one of theirs in a training-camp scrum.
It's a given in pro football that every quarterback, no matter how wondrous he seems at first, is a different man after he's been knocked around by blitzing cornerbacks or rough-and-tumble linebackers or 300-pound linemen or all of the above. It has been truly said that every pro quarterback is jumpy, that he's never wholly free of worries that the next big hit he gets will be his last. The NFL will evaluate Rattay after he's been hazed.
Although the Rams have seen Rattay a few times in other years, they have never been properly introduced. They don't really know him, so, in this game, that hurt. Every quarterback is different and the Rams aren't familiar with Rattay's particular deportment and nuances. They know what San Francisco's first-stringer, Jeff Garcia, can do because they've played against him so often. Rattay is something else.
Against the Rams, Rattay's teammates were executing confidently and eagerly and sometimes spectacularly and hoping for the best. On the 49er team, that hasn't always been the case this season. Something deeper than pass-offense trouble has been amiss.
Saints Tell Defenses What They're Up To
IN NEW ORLEANS, the Saints are a top-24 NFL team with, it often seems, bottom-8 leadership. There may be another and better way to explain New Orleans' inconsistent behavior. But when an opponent can outscore the champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers three times in a row — as the Saints have done, last year and this — it must have competent playing talent.
And every time you see them, the Saints are showing off one of the NFL's fine quarterbacks, Aaron Brooks, as well as one of the most powerful of the game's running backs, Deuce McAllister, who combined to upset Tampa Bay again last week, 17-14, on Brooks' 142 passing yards and McAllister's 110 rushing yards.
So why don't the Saints do something like this more often? Why do they keep losing to, among others, Seattle (27-10), Carolina (twice) and Indianapolis (in a 55-21 rout)?
One explanation, I'd say, is that New Orleans Coach Jim Haslett and his offensive brain trusters don't properly integrate their three great threats, Brooks, McAllister and Joe Horn, who, in his eighth season as an NFL receiver, continues to be underrated though he's in his NFL prime.
The Saints, for example, on a typical offensive series, run McAllister twice. Then on third down, they put Brooks in shotgun formation to throw the ball. In other words, the New Orleans coaches are telling their opponents that 1) when Brooks is under center, they're going to run, and 2) when Brooks is in a shotgun position, they're going to pass. That makes it easy for any defense.
McAllister Misused in New Orleans
WHAT BILL WALSH advocated when, some time ago, he developed the West Coast offense — which most NFL teams are trying to operate today — is an integrated double threat (run and pass) on every play.
The Saints are therefore giving up one of their most threatening weapons, McAllister, whenever Brooks is in position as a shotgun passer on, say, third and five (or six or seven or even nine). For it's much harder to get a big run after a deep handoff than after taking the ball close to the line of scrimmage.
Against an opponent playing pass defense, McAllister, with Brooks under center, could get a quick handoff and run a mile on third and anything. That's much less likely for a shotgun ballcarrier.
The best thing about a successful running play on third and five (or nine) is that, next time, the defense must respect Brooks and McAllister both on third-down plays. Next time, the defensive coaches will reason that if they overload with blitzing pass rushers on third and long, they'll be playing with fire. McAllister can burn them. Few NFL coaches today seem to understand that there's a place for shotgun plays on, maybe, third and 20, but almost never on third and eight.
Bob Oates' book, Sixty Years of Winners, is available at latimes.com/bookstore or by calling (800) 246-4042 ($16.95).