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L.A. Fans Have It Figured Out

Special to The Times

There’s a reason Los Angeles is the best pro football town in America.

That reason? Los Angeles doesn’t have an NFL team.

The multitudes of sports fans in this community of 12 million -- only 60,000 of whom could fit into any projected NFL stadium here -- are no longer forced to take hometown losers on TV when better games are available.

For half of the 20th century, NFL owners kept pro clubs in Los Angeles -- the Rams or Raiders -- though both often struggled because that is the nature of pro football. Then, both owners ran off to other towns. This gave Los Angeles people a splendid chance to discover that with three network games each Sunday, they have multiple NFL viewing choices regularly and that they can zoom in on the hottest teams of the year -- every year.

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Thus when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders emerged as Super Bowl-bound winners last season, both became L.A. favorites. And this year, when some of us foresee the St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, Los Angeles can catch another bandwagon.

Two Challengers

Southern California football fans have noted as the NFL’s 84th season begins, the Ram machine is back in business after an injury-plagued year. They remember what went on in the 1999 through 2001 seasons when the Rams, scoring an unprecedented 500 points a year, played the best offensive football on Earth.

And this year, the club’s defense seems more than satisfactory.

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That should be enough for a group with the NFL’s two most accurate passers, Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger, and most creative coach, Mike Martz.

If the key to the Super Bowl is the home-side advantage in the NFC title game, the Rams can get there by keeping one of their two unique quarterbacks operative for all 16 regular-season games, thus holding off the league’s second-best team, Tampa Bay.

In the other conference, the Broncos are a longshot this season because no one knows what to expect of new quarterback Jake Plummer.

The guess here is that Denver Coach Mike Shanahan has stolen a winner. Plummer needs only to shake the bad habits he learned in six years of playing from behind in Arizona, where he verified his talent by pulling out many hopeless games.

As the Broncos challenge the AFC’s second-best team, the Raiders, for first in the AFC West, Los Angeles will be watching -- as it will when the season begins with a Thursday night premiere on Sept. 4: New York Jets at Washington Redskins. Fourteen other premieres are coming up on Sept. 7, then there’s the season’s first Monday night game on Sept. 8: Tampa Bay at Philadelphia.

Winners Pass

A strange truth about the NFL as it enters a new season is that a sizable gap has opened between television’s talkers and viewers on whether, in this era, runners or passers make the decisive plays.

Although the NFL has plainly become a passing league, few TV critics say so or seem to think so or even know it.

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Most of them are still talking up the necessity of running the ball and defending against the run, even though modern football has long since become a game of passing and defending against the pass.

The reality is, the power run is no longer a weapon of decision in the NFL, whatever it was in Vince Lombardi’s day. The TV myth is that it is.

The reality is, Bill Walsh, the coach who in the 1980s built four Super Bowl champions with a new kind of pass offense in San Francisco, set football on its present course.

Last season offered continuing proof that ground-bound conservative football is passe. Of the NFL’s eight division champions, six were good passing teams -- all of them unafraid to throw on first down -- Oakland, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets in the AFC and Tampa Bay, Green Bay and Philadelphia in the NFC.

The two other 2002 champions, San Francisco and Tennessee, had the capacity to win throwing but not the will. Indeed, both were led by great passers, Jeff Garcia of the 49ers and particularly Steve McNair of the Titans, each of whom was restrained by a timid coach, Steve Mariucci and Jeff Fisher, respectively.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis last year, the best of the passing machines was consumed by serious injuries to both quarterbacks and the league’s foremost running back, Marshall Faulk. To sum up as the NFL heads into 2003, three-quarters of the winners -- plus the Rams -- are dedicated passing teams.

Bucs Join In

In the most recent Super Bowl, Tampa Bay made a powerful case for throwing the ball -- making it persuasively to those willing to be persuaded. That day, the new Tampa coach, Jon Gruden, attacked and won with an aggressive passing team, lining up basically the same athletes on both offense and defense that he had used all season.

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They were also the same athletes that Gruden’s laid-back predecessor, Tony Dungy, couldn’t win with in the preceding three seasons at Tampa.

When he took over, Gruden could see that most of Dungy’s players and coaches were of championship caliber. The Gruden moves -- his winning changes -- were confined to offensive strategy and style.

Thus it was in Gruden’s version of Walsh’s West Coast offense that the Buccaneers assailed Oakland with aggressive pass plays in the Super Bowl and won going away, 48-21.

That kind of offense in combination with the Buccaneers’ holdover Dungy defense -- the other half of their winning equation -- made them unbeatable in big games.

It could well happen again this season, when Gruden’s people stand as the major barrier to Ram Coach Martz’s reappearance in the championship event, where Martz has spent Super Bowl day twice in the last three winters.

Is Plummer a Player?

Of the NFL’s division races this season, the most intriguing -- at least in the early weeks -- might be Denver’s challenge to Oakland in the AFC West. This is the first year since John Elway retired that the Broncos have chosen to strongly commit to any quarterback but Brian Griese, who is now in Miami.

The immediate Bronco future seems to depend on whether Plummer is another Elway or another Griese.

In 1997, when Plummer jogged from Arizona State over to the Arizona Cardinals, there were those who thought he was the most promising young quarterback of his time. Naturally, on the ineptly led Cardinal team, he couldn’t prove anything, one way or another.

Had John Unitas or Joe Montana, or even Joe Namath, been available that year, and taken by the Cardinals instead of Plummer, the Arizona record then (4-12) and thereafter would doubtless have been about the same.

If we still don’t know much about Plummer, we do know a thing or two about Shanahan.

For instance, the decisive difference between the AFC’s top two teams is that Shanahan knows how to integrate pass plays with runs, mixing them about equally when he has a quarterback.

By contrast, Oakland’s coaches want to pass on nearly every down. Passing is what wins NFL games, but, at the highest level, not passing alone.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

NFL’s Top 10

Although six of the best teams play in the AFC, Bob Oates believes the two best teams will meet in the NFC championship game:

*--* 1 St. Louis Rams NFC West Martz plus two great quarterbacks 2 Tampa Bay NFC South Solid athletes-leaders-method Buccaneers 3 Denver Broncos AFC West Mighthave another QB at last 4 Oakland Raiders AFC West Will throw and throw and throw 5 Philadelphia NFC East This could be McNabb’s season Eagles 6 New England AFC East Throw, defend like champions Patriots 7 Miami Dolphins AFC East Can tories win big in this era? 8 Green Bay Packers NFC North Favre far ahead in weak division 9 Tennessee Titans AFC South Conservatives can throw, defend 10 Pittsburgh AFC North Throw, catch like champions Steelers

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