Cowboys, Panthers Not Just Lucky

Special to The Times

One way to look at the 7-3 Dallas Cowboys, who are home to 8-2 Carolina today in pro football's game of the week, is to note that they restricted hard-driving New England to a single touchdown last Sunday night -- on the Patriots' field.

Statistically, they excelled against the team that leads the AFC East by two games. Although in the end the youthful Cowboys were blanked, 12-0, their young quarterback, Quincy Carter, just about held his own with Tom Brady, a quarterback who only two seasons ago was the Super Bowl most valuable player.

One way to look at the Carolina Panthers is to count their victories over good teams this year. They were the first to expose Tampa Bay. They surprised New Orleans. They won at Indianapolis. They proved they could beat New Orleans twice -- and Tampa twice -- and the truth is that slumping Tampa would be tied for the lead in the division if it had only beaten Carolina.

It's quarterback Jake Delhomme who has lately made the Panthers a sound, well balanced team. In the media age of personalities, his running back, Stephen Davis, got the final touchdown and the credit for edging Washington last week, 20-17, but Delhomme's 317 yards passing won the game.

On defense, the Cowboys will be a handful today for Delhomme and Davis, but the Panthers figure to win because they'll run the ball, somewhat, whereas Dallas can't run it much.

New Kind of 49er

The San Francisco 49ers' new leader, Tim Rattay, in his second NFL start, continued as a big-play quarterback Monday night with possibly the 49ers' longest series of well placed passes.

As someone said after Rattay's first start two weeks back when his passes upset the Rams, he hasn't been hit yet. Quarterbacks who have been are different from those who haven't, more skittish, less poised.

Still, Rattay is starting fast.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who fell, 30-14, are a passing team too, and their passer, Tommy Maddox, kept them in the game for a while.

But the Steelers have been airing it out only in this century. Through the 1990s, as coached by an old conservative, Bill Cowher, they were a traditional run-the-ball-stop-the-run team.

Against San Francisco, they looked like a passing team that doesn't practice passing enough, doesn't quite get the hang.

The 49ers, in contrast, converted to passing under their 1980s coach, Bill Walsh, and seemed much more polished, particularly with Rattay, whose six misses on a 21-for-27 passing night were mostly all throwaways.

49er Postscript

The West Coast offense, which has spread from the 49ers to much of football, college and pro, began with Bill Walsh's first quarterback in 1981, Joe Montana. At the time, Walsh was a full-service passing coach who tailored his repertoire to the short-pass West Coast system because Montana was more comfortable and more accurate throwing short than long.

Although Walsh's next quarterback, Steve Young, was a good long passer, the 49ers continued in the West Coast because it worked so successfully. The 49ers' most recent quarterback, Jeff Garcia, now injured, is a West Coast type, meaning that he can effectively play ball-control with short passes.

Rattay is something new in San Francisco, a bomber, potentially, with a knack for throwing long passes on target and on time, with some touch, though he stands only about 6 feet, and weighs no more than 200. Nor has he been hit yet.

Chiefs Monumental

The Kansas City Chiefs' setback last Sunday wasn't a momentous happening. It had to happen someday soon. The momentous thing was their season-opening nine-game winning streak. Coach Dick Vermeil's feat should be accepted for what it was: an extraordinary achievement in an era of parity.

The 1972 Miami Dolphins, the NFL's lone unbeaten team (14-0), had a much easier time of it in their year.

For one thing, they played a shorter schedule. For another, there was no league concern about parity in those days, when the '72 Dolphins played a few stiffs.

Most important, the early 1970s were a one-dimension era with little passing.

On the Los Angeles afternoon when the Dolphins won the 1973 Super Bowl, they completed only eight -- eight! -- passes. Out of 11. When they won the Super Bowl again a year later, they threw seven passes, completing six.

You can't win that way now. Since the 1980s when 49er coach Walsh opened up the game, this has increasingly become a passing league. If you think Coach Marvin Lewis has a nothing team in Cincinnati, well, a nothing team today can still throw bombs.

And it was a well-aimed bomb -- Jon Kitna's long, long fourth-quarter pass on a 77-yard touchdown play -- that brought down the Chiefs, 24-19. Nothing remotely like that happened to the '72 Dolphins. Or could have happened.

Bengal Postscript

Lewis toppled Kansas City with precisely the kind of winning football never seen by the 1972 Dolphins or their peers -- attack football.

After the Chiefs drew close to him in the fourth quarter, 17-13, Lewis, theoretically, could have retreated into a shell and tried to just hang onto his four-point lead.

Instead, Lewis attacked.

Even though, this year, he lacks one of the marquee quarterbacks, who in pro ball are numerous now, Lewis ordered up Kitna's last long touchdown throw to Peter Warrick.

This is a season that has shown up several NFL coaches who lack the nerve to do that. The difference in 1972 wasn't lack of nerve. It was lack of talent.

Plummer Returns

The Denver Broncos won't have a great deal to beat today, some insist, when the Chicago Bears come in. All the same, with the return of quarterback Jake Plummer from foot problems, Denver has reestablished itself as, I'd say, the best team in football.

It isn't just that the Broncos walloped San Diego last week, 37-8, it's the way that they did it -- with one of the league's most effective two-way threats as represented by Plummer and running back Clinton Portis.

The bag of 106 rushing yards by Portis helped set up Plummer's three touchdown passes to tight end Shannon Sharpe.

Plummer has missed so many games that the Broncos, after losing most of them, probably can't catch Kansas City in the race for first in the West. But if they make the playoffs as a wild-card team, watch out.

Weird Race

The Green Bay Packers (5-5) are back in what has become the NFL's weirdest division-title race.

They're in it with the Minnesota Vikings (6-4), who, after starting the season 6-0, have gone 0-4. The Vikings can't win -- and Green Bay can't pass.

A broken thumb bothered Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre last Sunday when the Packers won, 20-13, by running through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as if they weren't there.

Nothing heals a broken thumb but rest. And Favre won't rest.

And nothing heals a losing streak but winning. And the Vikings can't win, even against Oakland, where the Raiders somehow held on to prevail Sunday, 28-18, though Minnesota, punting only once, piled up 467 total yards.

Were the Packers in a tougher division than the NFC North, where Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit have all experienced years of trouble and turmoil, they would have to do something each week besides sending Favre forth to win while re-injuring his right thumb.

Hardly anything is more important to a right-handed passer than a right thumb. You can't launch good passes without a good right thumb. But Favre does. You surely can't win without the use of one, but Favre does that too.

He's an example of how pro football players play hurt. Most make millions playing a game, true, but starting with the first scrimmage each summer in training camp, they all hurt, more or less consistently, for up to six months, so long as the games last -- and the players last.

Some just hurt worse than others, and Favre is one of those.

Martz's One Good Call

The Rams and Seattle Seahawks are locked in one of the NFL's closest division-title races, but the Rams may have a slight edge over Seattle in the next few weeks before they meet again at St. Louis Dec. 14.

The Rams are at Arizona, play host to Minnesota and are at Cleveland on a Monday night. The Seahawks are at Baltimore, play host to Cleveland and are at Minnesota.

In Chicago last week, the Rams seemed a certain loser, by at least 14-3, right up until four minutes before the fourth quarter.

Then, Coach Mike Martz made one of his few good calls, after having spent much of the game sending running back Marshall Faulk hurtling into a big, immovable Bear line.

Faulk isn't a power running back. Even so, Martz, late in the third quarter, on fourth and one foot, Martz again called for Faulk.

You've seen other NFL running backs trying for a first down on fourth and short and sometimes making it. More often, you've seen NFL defenses stop fourth-down runs by massing players along the line of scrimmage.

The trouble with such a defensive tactic -- which the Bears, of course, adopted -- is that if the ballcarrier gets one good block and slides through the defensive line, as Faulk did when 325-pound offensive tackle Orlando Pace escorted him through, there are no opponents in the second line of defense.

Finding himself suddenly in an open field, Faulk had absolutely nothing to do but run until he was caught. And after 52 yards, he was caught, and went right down.

One good call, reminiscent of the days when Martz was the NFL's great signal-caller, had changed the game.

Ram quarterback Marc Bulger, given a reprieve, suddenly began passing with reasonable accuracy.

And before the game was four minutes into the fourth quarter, the Rams had charged to the front, 17-14, on two four-yard touchdown pass plays, Bulger to wide receiver Torry Holt and then Bulger to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.

Like Martz, Chicago's coaches had put in their afternoon trying to run the ball.

With running back Anthony Thomas, the Bears had been running it better than Faulk could. Good teams aren't defeated by opponents who run the ball in this league, as the Bears are re-taught almost every Sunday (except they never seem to learn).

For Thomas has one glaring weakness. As a running back, he can't produce in catch-up mode.

To catch up with good players who hold a second-half lead, what you need is a pass offense. So after the Rams had moved ahead by three points in the fourth quarter, the Bears, with no other options, unleashed their own passer, Chris Chandler.

And in only three plays -- all passes -- Chandler went 60 yards to put Chicago ahead, 21-20.

It was up to Bulger again, and in the last two minutes, as Martz remembered to send in some passes, Bulger paraded the Rams from their 20-yard line to a platform inside the Bear 20, where a field goal was enough for a 23-21 victory.

Ram Postscript

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when Bulger was struggling in the first three quarters Sunday, Martz conversed with his second-string quarterback, Kurt Warner, who used to be first string.

The newspaper reported the dialogue:

Martz: Are you ready to go in?

Warner: Don't do that to Marc. Let him fight his way through this.

Beyond all doubt, Warner wanted to be on the field. And he looked ready. But Warner also knows that nobody can play quarterback well in the NFL if he's afraid of being replaced for whatever reason.

Bulger has had a difficult season, particularly in recent games when he has thrown a spread of inaccurate passes.

He has seemed tentative, tense, dispirited.

Thus if he now turns around his career, he will owe it all to Warner, a man who wants nothing more than to be the Ram quarterback himself.

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