Although Manning threw five touchdown passes and for almost 500 yards on his big day in Kansas City, it wasn't enough. In a 45-35 defeat, he spent so much of the game calling running plays to set up his pass plays that he didn't have time to outscore the Chiefs.
Formerly a running team, the Chargers are now playing football in a more modern way than Manning plays it.
Instead of running to set up Brees' passes, the Chargers pass to set up runs. That's how they scored twice before halftime to stay in the Kansas City game with the Chiefs' explosive offense. Then in the second half, passing ever more aggressively, Brees led San Diego to the winning 20 points. On a pair of 70-yard touchdown drives, he threw the ball on every snap but one to catch up with the Chiefs each time they scored. Finally, after the Chargers intercepted one, their offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, a running-play expert, set up the winning field goal with an ideal third-and-five play — a designed quarterback run by Brees for 17 yards through a surprised Kansas City team that was still playing pass defense.
A Runner Can Harm His Own Team
THE NFL'S FIRST philosopher to realize that a running back more often damages his own team than the other team — as Edgerrin James frequently does in Indianapolis — was Bill Belichick of New England, the game's top coach and an authority on passing. The Belichick theory is that even though a good running back is essential, every minute he spends running the ball is a minute that can't be used for pass plays — with which a good passer can gain more ground than a good runner can, even on a muddy field.
Belichick has never committed this thought to writing, so far as I know, but it is implicit in the way he plays the game. For example, when he was the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants for Bill Parcells the year they played Buffalo in the Super Bowl, Belichick once remarked: "If Thurman Thomas has a 100-yard day, we'll win."
Thomas was then one of the NFL's great running backs — the Edgerrin James of his time — and he did gain 100 yards (actually 135) in that 1991 Super Bowl, and the Giants did win, 20-19, and Belichick was not surprised. He understood that when Thomas was running the ball, quarterback Jim Kelly couldn't throw it, and Kelly was much the greater threat. Similarly today, when James runs it, Manning can't throw it. And if the Colts lose on a day when Manning eventually throws five touchdown passes, he didn't pass enough.
When LaDainian Tomlinson ran 313 times for 1,645 yards last year, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, the Chargers finished in the cellar (4-12.) When Tomlinson changed over to become the game's leading receiver, as he was in Kansas City Sunday with 10 catches, the Chargers became the division leader (8-3). Earlier this year, it was a Tomlinson injury that forced Coach Marty Schottenheimer to rely on Brees, who, when used properly, has always been this good.
Good Runners Love Off Tracks
THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, whose parade to the AFC championship isn't likely to be rained on next Sunday in Cleveland, won a 24-3 game from Baltimore last Sunday in three inches of mud. It was the muddy field that helped the Patriots confirm two truths:
A good pass offense succeeds in any kind of weather. The Patriots combined, as usual, Tom Brady's passes (for 170 yards) with Corey Dillon's runs (for 123 yards in the final statistics) to win it in the first three quarters on three field goals, 9-3. Then, as outlined each week as an option in Belichick's game-planning, Dillon ran the ball in the fourth quarter to hold the lead and run the clock.
Good running backs succeed on an off track. Dillon's fourth-quarter rampage in sticky mud continued a long NFL tradition, going back to 1949 at least. It was in 1949 that a surprise rainfall in Los Angeles kept the smaller, quicker, and perhaps better team from stirring in the NFL championship game — the Super Bowl of its time. As Philadelphia won, 14-0, Steve Van Buren, a Hall of Famer, ran through the Rams and the rainstorm as if they weren't there, piling up 196 yards.
Baltimore had two problems last Sunday, the weather and Kyle Boller, who isn't enough quarterback for the otherwise sound and effective Raven team. Though an off track is an equalizer in the NFL, giving Baltimore a chance, theoretically — even without running back Jamal Lewis — the New England defense proved insoluble to Boller. It remains a mystery why coaches like Brian Billick of Baltimore and Dave Wannstedt, late of Miami, think they can win with any quarterback.
Patriots Should Have Built a Dome
WINTER WEATHER changes football drastically. The question changes from who's playing the better football to who's playing the better football-in-the-rain?
New England Coach Belichick had his players ready in every respect for the kind of weather and the kind of field they had Sunday, the cold wind and the cold rain that ruined the field.
It could be that Belichick's job that day wasn't all that difficult. For good football is normally hard to play in New England, whether it's humid or freezing. But though Belichick used the usual tools, Brady and Dillon, he used them in subtly different ways. Thus Patriot blocking assignments were altered to help Dillon churn through the mud and around Baltimore's linemen on the godforsaken turf. The disgraceful thing that day was the condition of the field. Football, America's favorite spectator game, isn't meant to be played in three inches of mud.