It’s Time NFL Coaches Let Their Offenses Go

Special to The Times

Contemplating last week’s game at San Francisco, you’d have to say that the 49ers can only win at Tampa, Fla., today if their coach, Steve Mariucci, gives quarterback Jeff Garcia the two things he wants.

To compete, Garcia says, the 49ers need three wide receivers in their basic formations, plus an attack mentality: Pass on first down.

Mariucci wants to play more conservatively than that. But his way -- running on first down behind a conventional fullback instead of a third receiver -- is a recipe for disaster.


Playing the coach’s way, the 49ers fell behind the New York Giants by 24 points last week.

To win, they needed three touchdowns and a field goal -- all in the last 18 minutes -- when Mariucci finally heard Garcia and put the 49ers in attack mode.

All Mariucci had to do was authorize three receivers and first-down passing with a no-huddle approach. Eighteen minutes later, Garcia had overcome the 24-point deficit and won, 39-38.

Three Receivers Best

For the 49ers, the key in Tampa, as it was in San Francisco last week, is a three-wide-receiver attack.

When Garcia has all three -- J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets as well as Terrell Owens -- it’s obviously easier for Owens to get open. And Owens is the NFL’s best today. Because each of them also requires double coverage, Stokes and Streets get open more easily too.

And because Garcia’s receivers stand 6 feet 4, 6-2, and 6-3, it’s easier for the 49er quarterback to find them when they do come open. It’s even easier for either of his running backs, Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow, to run when three receivers spread the field.

Former Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly, a Hall of Famer, figured that out a dozen years ago.

When his coaches were reluctant to go along, Kelly simply kept the Bills playing in their two-minute offense, which automatically involved one back and three wide receivers in a no-huddle format with quarterback-called plays.


In the helmet-radio era, it’s harder for Garcia to take over the play-calling. But three receivers -- in combination with one back used as a counterpuncher to run draw plays instead of first-down power plays -- gives the 49ers their only chance over favored Tampa.

Comebacks a Fluke

The wild comebacks starring Garcia and Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox last week could only have happened on teams with coaches who are so timid that for two or three quarters, they worried more about interceptions and keeping the other offense off the field than scoring with their offense.

Think of it this way: If Garcia and Maddox had come out throwing the ball in the first quarter the way they were allowed to in the fourth quarter, there could have been no wild comebacks.

The same was too frequently true not long ago for the most famous comeback passer of all time, Hall of Famer John Elway of the Denver Broncos.

Under conservative coach Dan Reeves in the 1980s, Elway often fell behind. Later with Mike Shanahan as his coach, Elway was known not as a comeback champion but as a Super Bowl champion.

Both Maddox and Garcia are better passers and leaders than the quarterbacks they opposed, Kelly Holcomb of Cleveland and Kerry Collins of the Giants, but weren’t permitted to prove it until, as the second-half minutes dwindled, all hope seemed gone.


The most maddening decisions were made by Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher, who, with the far superior team, played timidly until he fell behind by 17 points in the last half, 24-7.

Only then, on a successful long touchdown drive, was Maddox authorized to attack the Browns with nine passes in the 10-play sequence that got the Steelers going.

Attacking Wins

Attack football won all four games last week on two big days and nights of wild-card competition:

* The New York Jets, featuring top NFL passer Chad Pennington at quarterback, came out throwing against the Indianapolis Colts and scored on the fifth play of the game with a 56-yard screen pass. Thereafter, as Pennington continued to throw, only the final score (41-0) was ever in doubt.

* The Atlanta Falcons, coached by usually conservative Reeves, the man who restricted Elway at Denver, opened up for the first time this season with the big plays that surprisingly built a 24-0 halftime lead at Green Bay. Young Falcon quarterback Michael Vick, who won it, 27-7, was even seen occasionally doing the option rollout (run or pass), his best play, the one that makes him most dangerous.

* Just in time, Pittsburgh, losing in the second half, 24-7, shifted from Cowher’s cautious run-and-hope agenda into the attack mode that beat Cleveland, 36-33.


* Just in time, San Francisco, losing in the second half, 38-14, shifted into the attack mode that edged the New York Giants, 39-38.

Tab Pennington

The Oakland game today, Jets at Raiders, matches the NFL’s two most impressive attack-and-take-no-prisoners powers. Both coaches, Herman Edwards of the Jets and Bill Callahan of the Raiders, prefer first-down passing.

And both quarterbacks, Pennington of the Jets and Oakland’s Rich Gannon, excel in the science of attack football.

On some Sunday afternoons this season, Gannon has thrown the ball on nearly every snap until, in the fourth quarter, the game was clearly won.

Simultaneously, Pennington’s passing has made the Jets a winner in eight of their last 10 since Nov. 3, when they delivered that 44-13 shocker at San Diego against the Chargers, who were then 6-1 after victories over New England and at Oakland.

The Jets’ edge this week is that they are the better long-passing team with Pennington and three fast little receivers, Laveranues Coles, Wayne Chrebet and Santana Moss.


The Raiders’ edge is that they are playing at home.

Raider owner Al Davis’ best team since the Super Bowl days also has the more experienced pass-play artists, Gannon and receivers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, along with the trickier running back, Charlie Garner -- whose edge over New York’s Curtis Martin, though slight, should be evident on a field Garner knows so well.

On another clear day like last week’s in the Bay Area, Pennington wins in an upset.

Edwards’ Way

The Edwards edge as the Jets’ second-year coach was clearly delineated at halftime last week, when, with a 24-0 lead over Indianapolis -- coached by his old friend, Tony Dungy, and quarterbacked by the great Peyton Manning -- he was visibly excited not about the score but about what the Jets “must do now” to win.

Said Edwards in the most revealing halftime interview of the season, “We’ve got to come out [in the third quarter] and keep scoring. [The Colts] can score a million points in the second half. You can’t score enough points against those guys.”

That is the attack mentality that has made the Jets what they are. Most coaches with a three-touchdown lead in the second half -- especially defensive coaches like Edwards -- rein in their quarterback. Edwards goads his.

When Edwards’ team stayed on the attack until it had a 41-0 lead -- throwing a touchdown pass in the third quarter and executing a 64-yard touchdown drive in the fourth -- some folks in Indiana thought he was “pouring it on” old friend Dungy.

And maybe he was, though unintentionally. For when your mind-set is attack, you attack.

Manning Jumpy

Of all the problems Dungy has in Indianapolis, where he has bolstered the defense enough to make the playoffs -- he still doesn’t have a clue about offense -- the most annoying is Manning’s habit of calling audibles (or faking such calls) on most plays.


After lining up under center, the Colt quarterback spends much of his time jumping back, then left, then right, and sometimes retreating to visit his running back.

Presumably bothered by the NFL’s noisy stadiums, Manning, at such times, is busily shouting his audible changes to the blockers on each side of center and to the running back -- or faking all that.

Thereafter, all too often, Manning isn’t in position for the snap until only a few ticks remain on the play clock, when the question is: When he’s doing all that running around, how can he remember where his receivers are, and what he has to do himself?

That’s what’s wrong with audibles, anyway, particularly pass-play audibles.

For on every pass play, every receiver has a different designated place to be at the end of his route, and nothing is more important to any passer than remembering precisely where each of his receivers is supposed to be when he’s ready to unload.

Manning’s continual jumping around keeps him from focusing sharply on his teammates’ whereabouts. That has to be unsettling both for him and the rest of his team.

In considerable part, his inconsistency and interceptions can be attributed to his pre-snap foolishness.


Lot of Holcombs

In the end, Cleveland quarterback Kelly Holcomb was on the losing side in the Pittsburgh game, but when he was picking on the Steeler defense with the passes that produced a surprise 17-7 lead in the first half -- a lead he expanded to 24-7 in the third quarter -- he looked to be all the passer any team needs to be a Super Bowl team.

This was a reminder that the football world is full of:

* Very good passers.

* Cautious coaches who hate to throw.

Few football fans had known a lot about Holcomb until that game, in which he was making only his fourth NFL start in a career that is now 6 years old.

The Holcomb question: If he’s that good, and I’d say there’s not much doubt about that, why isn’t he some team’s starter?

The answer, you can be sure, is that most of the 32 NFL teams are already equipped with passers who can do what Holcomb can do.

What’s more, there are other talented passers on the practice teams in almost every NFL city.

Even though Holcomb has had more chances than some, how can a man prove he’s an NFL passer if he’s playing for coaches who don’t want to pass much?


Holcomb’s career has been like that of many other great passers who have been hidden by conservative coaches.

To begin with, he was drafted by Tampa Bay, a team that still doesn’t like to throw the ball if there’s another way.

Next, waived out of Tampa before he had any real opportunity, he was acquired by the Colts, who, since the John Unitas years, have never known what to do with a good quarterback -- even Peyton Manning.

Next, Holcomb was acquired by Cleveland -- a team committed to Tim Couch, who is probably in Holcomb’s class as a quarterback. The people who lead the Browns have their personal egos invested in Couch, whom they drafted ahead of any college player in the country a few years ago.

They would bench Couch for Holcomb only if Couch broke a leg, which finally happened.

So Holcomb will be in demand between seasons -- based on what he did to the Pittsburgh defense in the playoffs -- and many of his suitors will be the same teams that waived him out of the league four times when he was at Tampa Bay.