McNair Rewards Titans When Green Light's On

Special to The Times

The Tennessee Titans, more conservative than most NFL teams, have always preferred runs to passes. But their famous old runner, Eddie George, who is averaging a bleak 2.9 yards this season, can't move them. Neither can any other Titan runner.

So, reluctantly, the Titans have asked quarterback Steve McNair to throw.

And that simple change has turned McNair into pro football's player of the year, as should be evident when 7-2 Tennessee entertains 2-7 Jacksonville today.

That isn't the way Titan Coach Jeff Fisher envisioned the season.

Fisher had hoped George would come back from an off year with a big year.

But when you can't run, you obviously have to air it out. So, as the Titans trounced Miami last Sunday, 31-7, McNair became the offense again, advancing the Titans to their early three-touchdown lead with one well-directed throw after another.

Fisher, a 23-16 loser in Super Bowl XXXIV, could have upset the St. Louis Rams that evening in Atlanta if he'd played that game this way. But with McNair and George both available on his Super Bowl team, Fisher kept giving the ball to George, until it was too late.

Passing Pays Off

The well-disciplined Carolina Panthers (7-2) can expect, in comparison their game last week, a breather today when the Washington Redskins (4-5) come to town.

Last Sunday's assignment was the most difficult the Panthers have had this year, although they won it in the end, beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-24, on quarterback Jake Delhomme's sharp passes.

Throughout a dull 10-7 first half, Carolina and Tampa had joined forces to show the football world exactly how two good passing teams could play lousy offense.

From one play to the next, their coaches simply declined to throw the ball -- except as a last resort.

Indeed, these two talented teams, one the defending NFL champion and the other seemingly en route to a big season, joylessly continued the dull stuff through most of the third quarter, putting more than one spectator to sleep before their coaches pulled out of their slumber and let their passers go to work.

And, quickly, a slugfest developed into a passing game -- one of the best passing games of the NFL season, considering the stakes. When the throwing began, an extraordinary display of inept football vanished instantly.

Two Air Attacks

In the last quarter and a half at Charlotte, all this happened:

* The Panthers scored on a bomb, Delhomme's perfect long pass to former Ram wide receiver Ricky Proehl on the 66-yard play that put Tampa in arrears, 20-7.

* Stung, the Buccaneers rebounded with their first long scoring drive, in which quarterback Brad Johnson threw on almost every down and narrowed the score to 20-14.

* Alarmed, Carolina Coach John Fox thoughtlessly ducked back into his shell with a simple first-down run that went nowhere, leading to Delhomme's three-and-out series.

* Facing the renowned Panther pass defense, the Buccaneers took possession on their 35-yard line and again threw on every down -- for seven consecutive plays -- as Johnson completed six of the seven to take a 21-20 lead.

* Apparently scared out of their wits, Carolina's coaches then thoughtlessly played for a field goal with little pass plays, but the Buccaneers intercepted the second one at the Carolina 25 to give Tampa Coach Jon Gruden a chance to put the Panthers away. Instead, like Fox, Gruden thoughtlessly played for a field goal, got it, 24-20, and sat back.

* With the clock against him, Delhomme started his last-chance series on the Carolina 22, and when his coaches called for passes on every down, he showed what he was made of and what he could have been doing all day, completing five of six on the 78-yard move that won the game, 27-24.

Coaches Stubborn

The way Carolina and Tampa played those last few minutes is the way pro football could be played every Sunday, with spectacular pass plays replacing the usual diet of miserable running plays, if the coaches would do it.

Clearly, they don't want to.

Most NFL coaches seem sure they'd be taking absurd chances -- and putting their huge salaries unnecessarily in jeopardy -- with more passing in the first two or three quarters.

So if there's an option, they pointedly decline to put the ball up.

Rather, they prattle on about the overwhelming necessity to run the ball in order to set up their occasional passes, as nonsensical as that is. For, obviously, throwing the ball to set up runs is equally important -- though you seldom hear a coach putting it that way.

The coaches have even been able to get most of the media to go along with their self-serving propaganda. Every one of the electronic analysts follows the coaches' line, except Phil Simms.

On broadcast after broadcast, the analysts keep saying you have to run the ball to win pro games.

And, to be sure, there's a place for running plays -- but not, as a rule, on first down or other running downs when the chance for success is slim and when the chance for a successful pass play is so frequently there.

John Madden is one of the majority of TV announcers who, sheep-like, constantly lobby for runs and against passing -- as did all three of the announcers on last Sunday's Carolina-Tampa Bay broadcast: former pass-offense stars Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth, both of whom should know better, and young Joe Buck, who, in such distinguished company, can be forgiven.

During the fourth quarter and afterward last week, neither Aikman nor Collinsworth nor Buck mentioned, even once, that it was the sudden abundance of pass plays that made it a different game -- that made another ordinary pro game suddenly exciting, and, more important, gave each team a splendid opportunity to win.

None of the three announcers apparently noticed that Gruden lost all chance when he hid in a running-play shell at a crucial point of the fourth quarter, instead of calling the plays that had worked best for the Buccaneers earlier that quarter: Johnson's passes.

And so the running-play deluge that continuously harms pro ball continues.

Play-Calling Vital

The San Diego Chargers might not be able to show Denver today that they've finally learned how a smart pro club can win. For Denver is too tough. But last week, in a 42-28 upset, the Chargers showed Minnesota.

With 41-years-young Doug Flutie at quarterback, they proved that wise play selection makes all the difference in football.

Flutie's coach, Marty Schottenheimer, one of the NFL's soundest -- except, perhaps, as an offensive strategist -- let his little old quarterback call most of his own plays that day, according to several of Flutie's teammates.

Although the plays were the same ones San Diego had used to lose seven earlier games, they were astonishingly effective as rearranged according to Flutie's priorities.

Calling a bunch of early-down passes and late-down misdirection runs, Flutie, who completed 21 of 29 for 248 yards, used running back LaDainian Tomlinson as a counterpuncher -- instead of as a heavy-duty power runner, his usual role -- and got 162 yards out of Tomlinson.

The veteran quarterback set the stage in his opening series, throwing four times to receiver David Boston on San Diego's first seven plays and calling Tomlinson's number only once. The strategy produced a three-yard scoring pass play to Boston.

In prior Charger appearances this season, Tomlinson was often seen four or five times in such a series and Boston not at all.

With a surprise 7-0 lead, Flutie, making note of the Vikings' hectic, impromptu pass-defense changes, soon slipped the ball to Tomlinson for a 73-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 lead. And before the first quarter was half over, Flutie had taken over, winning with the most reliable formula in football: a pass when the opponents expect a run, and a run when they anticipate a pass.

On First Downs

The Oakland Raiders used to win Flutie's way in the old days, when Hall of Famer George Blanda, then well into his 40s, came in as a relief pitcher once in a while to salvage a game that starting quarterback Ken Stabler seemed to be losing.

Blanda did it with the same plays other Raider passers used. He simply called them in a different order.

"Play-selection makes the biggest difference in winning and losing," Blanda once said after 25 years of playing, and studying, the game. By play-selection, he said, he meant: "When, where and why you run or throw the ball and who gets to run or catch it."

Thus, Blanda preferred to throw on first down because, he said, NFL defenses must be positioned for either a run or pass -- meaning the linebackers are less likely to blitz the passer. Similarly, in the Minnesota game, Flutie was throwing first-down passes -- sometimes even first-down dunk stuff that was often good for a few yards. It made everything else possible: from Tomlinson's runs on second down to reverses on third down to Flutie's trademark jump passes to surprise short quarterback runs for two touchdowns.

It wasn't Flutie who won the game, it was Flutie's play-calling.

Spurrier's Trick

The Washington Redskins also changed signal-callers last week, Coach Steve Spurrier abdicating that responsibility so he could step back for a better view of the whole picture.

His team went on to upset Seattle with the other good way to win pro games: a trick play.

Spurrier's trick, which the Redskins said he sent in himself, was a misdirection play that started toward Redskin quarterback Patrick Ramsey's left with two minutes to play, continued with a lateral pass back to wide receiver Rod Gardner, who passed it to a running back, Trung Canidate, for the game-deciding touchdown.

Such plays have to be rehearsed in practice and Spurrier makes the time to do that, leaving the Redskins less time for bread-and-butter work.

Even so, on balance, fool-'em plays seem to pay off, though most coaches are still reluctant to chance them.

Spurrier, improving to 4-5 with his trick call, is heading into a game today against Carolina that he probably can't win. But the surprise he dropped on the Seahawks also dropped Seattle into a first-place tie in the NFC West with the 6-3 Rams.

Against Baltimore's well planned defenses, the Rams played with great difficulty, winning only because Baltimore doesn't have much offense.

Chances are, the Rams and Seahawks will still be tied after today's games, in which they'll face Chicago and Detroit, respectively. As everybody in the NFC West has said at least once this year, thank goodness for Chicago and Detroit.

Wild Monday Night

The Philadelphia Eagles' banged-up quarterback, Donovan McNabb, still recovering from three injuries, was the star of the Monday night game, making slick passes to set up two touchdowns in the last nine minutes of a victory on a stormy night at Green Bay.

In the first 51 minutes, disappointingly, the two coaching staffs had played not to lose, treading carefully for three quarters and nearly half of the fourth.

After the Packers had scored the only touchdown in all that time, the Eagles scored the only field goal of a dismal 7-3 struggle.

In the few remaining minutes, it was only because Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid had to do something that he finally called the bomb that McNabb threw to launch a wild finish in which he and the banged-up Packer quarterback, Brett Favre, playing with a broken right thumb, passed the ball madly.

Performing as if it weren't a rainy night on a slippery field, with a slippery ball, in a Wisconsin freeze, the teams suddenly took off on long drives.

First, after McNabb's surprise bomb, the plucky Eagle quarterback carried the ball in himself on a third-down, one-yard scramble, ramming into an assortment of 300-pound Green Bay linemen at the goal line.

Score, Eagles, 10-7.

Next, Favre regained the lead for Green Bay with a pass-play drive to the Philadelphia 45, from which point Packer running back Ahman Green, continuing a big 192-yard night, burst through an ill-designed Eagle short-yardage defense on fourth and one and raced the 45 yards unimpeded.

Score, Packers, 14-10.

Then, mounting another long drive as Philadelphia's coaches called pass plays on every down, McNabb moved the Eagles 65 yards to the winning touchdown, throwing the winning pass to wide receiver Todd Pinkston, who, encircled by Packers, was six yards down the left sideline when he saw the ball.

Final score, Eagles, 17-14.

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