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They Are Playing It Close to Vest

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Inefficient, ultraconservative play-calling by the coaches--Pittsburgh’s Bill Cowher and Atlanta’s Dan Reeves--influenced last Monday night’s NFL game in these two ways:

* It dulled up the evening for most spectators.

It made the Atlanta Falcons a 13-9 loser.

During 60 tedious minutes, the play-callers gave defensive opponents a predictable, fun-filled night.

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On the early downs, the team on defense lined up against the run they expected and stuffed it.

Then on most third-down plays, when the team on offense lined up in the shotgun, the defenses broke up the passes they expected by blitzing the passers and bumping their receivers.

It wasn’t incompetent quarterbacking that ruined that game. It was incompetent play-calling.

*

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Four Falcon runs: Coach-called plays, good and bad, tend to be critical to game results.

If you have wondered how, for example, John Elway could lose three Super Bowls on teams coached by Dan Reeves--before winning the last two for Mike Shanahan--the explanation lies largely in the contrasting ways those coaches call the plays.

Shanahan’s big call during his most recent Super Bowl victory was a first-down, 80-yard pass play, Elway to Rod Smith.

When Reeves was sending in the Denver plays in the 1987 Super Bowl, Elway passed the ball downfield to a first down at the New York Giants’ one-yard line, where the Broncos ran unsuccessfully three times--as one of the greatest passers in NFL history was asked to keep handing off--before the Bronco kicker was summoned on fourth down.

The only difference in Pittsburgh Monday night, with Reeves now coaching Atlanta, was that the Falcons unsuccessfully ran four times after quarterback Chris Chandler had passed for a first down at the Steeler seven-yard line.

In most respects, Reeves is a great coach, but his conservatism, which hurt Elway, is devastating the Falcons.

*

How Jeff did it: Jeff George, the passer who revived the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday and repulsed the San Francisco 49ers, 40-16, has always had the arm.

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He is the living example of the truth that it takes more than a great arm to make a great quarterback.

At 32, George, who will be playing at Denver today, won his first Minnesota start because as the new leader of a talented bunch that finished 15-1 a year ago, he doesn’t have to carry this team.

Protected by a great blocking line, he only has to get the ball out there now and let the four best receivers he’s ever had--Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Jake Reed and underrated Matthew Hatchette--make the plays.

*

Threes aren’t enough: Although the 49ers are hopelessly deficient this year in two places--their offensive line and defensive backfield--their starters played last week as if they expected to win.

Their problem could be stated mathematically: The San Francisco offense rolled threes--a field goal in each of the first three quarters--while Minnesota was making sevens.

The pattern was set in the first quarter when, after long drives, both sides tried to run on first and goal and failed.

Then Minnesota gave San Francisco the old 1-2:

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1. The 49ers’ pass defense buckled on George’s 10-yard, third-down throw, which led to Minnesota’s easy touchdown on fourth and a short one.

2. The 49ers’ pass protection broke down on their third-down play, which led to their first field goal near the end of the 7-3 first quarter.

The rest of the game was, for the 49ers, a continuously depressing reprise of all that.

*

Just Wants to Play: 49er quarterback Steve Young’s advisors--those at home as well as in the national media--are urging him to retire before he has another concussion.

And they’re still saying the same things: Young has done it all, he’s won a Super Bowl, he’s won six NFL passing championships, he has been the NFL MVP twice, etc., etc.

Why, they ask, does he want more?

Everyone seems to be missing the point.

He doesn’t want more honors, he just wants to play more football.

No other way of life is remotely as satisfying to those who play football well.

*

Deion’s moxie: Dallas cornerback Deion Sanders made Steve Young’s point again last Sunday when he came back from a first-half concussion to take a second-half punt to the touchdown that put the Washington Redskins away.

Sanders, for example, could make a decent living, and stay in the game longer, as a baseball player.

The world’s finest active athlete, he once led the National League in triples and batted well enough to stay up there.

By contrast, basketball player Michael Jordan, often acclaimed for his greatness as an athlete, couldn’t hit minor league pitching.

As between baseball and football, the difference to Sanders is that he can hit home runs only in football, where they’re called big plays.

In his primary role as a cornerback, he is also a scientific tackler.

The next time old football players question his courage because he doesn’t make macho tackles the way they did, think of the kind of player it took to get off the floor Sunday after a 290-pound Redskin, Dan Turk, had knocked Sanders out.

His comeback was foolish, the advisors will tell him, but hardly lacking in moxie.

*

That color line: There is nothing but admiration here for Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ mid-century Hall of Fame baseball player.

But it wasn’t Robinson who broke the so-called color barrier in big league sports, as the baseball people were saying again this week, it was Robinson’s UCLA teammate, halfback Kenny Washington.

In 1946, Washington began his NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams, six months before Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers.

Another old Robinson teammate, end Woody Strode, was also on that Ram team.

Other great African American players simultaneously joined the Cleveland Browns--but in 1946, the Browns weren’t an accepted major league team.

The color-barrier pioneers weren’t exclusively Robinson and Brooklyn executive Branch Rickey but also Washington and the 1940s Ram owner, Dan Reeves.

They have never been so recognized in the East because the New York media, content with three baseball teams in that era, didn’t recognize football until the Dodgers and Giants left town for California in 1958, long after Los Angeles was drawing 100,000 NFL crowds that have never been matched elsewhere.

*

Broncos crippled: Denver Coach Shanahan was missing all three of the principal stars of his 1998-99 Super Bowl-winning teams, passer Elway, runner Terrell Davis and receiver Shannon Sharpe, as well as his best young linebacker, John Mobley, in New England last week.

All four, among other Denver starters, are gone for the year.

Yet the Broncos misfired by a single digit, 24-23.

If they had the schedule that has been lined up for the St. Louis Rams this season, Shanahan’s athletes, now playing a champion’s schedule, might be first in the AFC West instead of last.

His new young quarterback, Brian Griese, was again one of only two pro passers over 300 yards Sunday, when the Broncos again seemed to be getting it back.

But it isn’t easy being a champion.

*

Selected Short Subjects:

* It’s no coincidence that the team with the season’s most imaginative play-calling, the St. Louis Rams, is the NFL’s only unbeaten team. Their play-caller is offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who gets a tougher test Sunday at Tennessee.

* When the Tennessee Titans were the Houston Oilers in 1960, their club owner, Bud Adams, got in line to pay $25,000 for the franchise. This year when Houston put up $700 million to outbid Los Angeles for the NFL’s next franchise, Adams got in line to collect, as his share, $23.3 million.

* The NFL’s funniest moments of all time, as voted this year by the Hall of Fame selection committee, were Minnesota end Jim Marshall’s wrong-way run in 1964, Miami kicker Garo Yepremian’s Super Bowl pass at the Coliseum in 1973, and defensive end William (the Refrigerator) Perry’s runs as a 1985 Chicago fullback.

* Of the passers who have thrown for 300 yards or more in a single game, Steve Young holds the NFL record for most wins: 21-7 (.750).


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