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Colts Discover Their Calling

Special to The Times

The importance of wise, sound play selection is the least understood thing about good offensive football -- yet when top teams get together, it’s the essential thing more often than not.

So here’s the NFL question of the week: In Kansas City today, will the Indianapolis Colts attack the Chiefs the way they overwhelmed Denver last Sunday when Colt passer Peyton Manning threw so often on first down that he transformed his team into an offensive power?

If Manning comes out firing again, he can win. If instead on first down he hands off to running back Edgerrin James most of the time -- as he did throughout the regular season -- it will be a struggle.

One key to the Colts’ easy victory last Sunday was not the design of the Indianapolis plays but the order in which they were called. The Colts that day were a pass-first team.

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Another key may have been the name of the play-caller. It may have been Manning. He clearly was calling some of his own plays. It appeared as if he was calling most of them -- taking over for his conservative coaches.

To rout Denver, Manning, an extraordinary long passer, was in any case playing long-ball instead of small-ball with first-down handoffs to running back James.

Small-ball cost the Colts four games this season, including the first Denver game. It was also the principal cause of three recent playoff defeats for the Colts, all blamed incorrectly on Manning’s ineptness rather than the real criminal -- play selection.

Of the five touchdown passes Manning delivered for the Colts last Sunday, three were thrown on first-down plays that stunned Denver’s out-of-position defensive players, who kept gunning for James as Manning kept going over their heads to wide receivers Brandon Stokley, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.

It was an epochal change of strategy and style for the Colts, who had spent their recent years trying to run James on first down and trying to pass against stacked pass defenses on second and third down. This time, tipping a new game plan, Manning began the day with a first-play throw, followed by a second-down James run -- and they stayed with this rotation, as their primary game-plan format, until the good Bronco defense collapsed.

The Colts should have played the whole season that way for reasons that 1980s San Francisco 49er coach Bill Walsh made clear when he was building the five-time Super Bowl champion:

*First down is the one time when defenses can’t gear up for passes. On that down, they must also be ready for runs.

*Because most NFL teams run on first down, defensive linemen anticipate first-down runs. And they’re so big, quick and mobile today that if they anticipate a run, it’s either impossible or tough for James, Jamal Lewis or any other great back to gain on first down.

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*Measurable gains on first-down power runs are particularly unlikely in a first-half setting when defenses are fresh and rested and emotionally ready to charge through a wall to get the runner.

The winning way:

* Pass in the first half to open a lead and wear out the defensive players who must keep chasing the passer.

* As the opponents’ defensive linemen tire, run the ball in the second half.

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* Call smart plays steadily. Such plays usually pay off in more yards and more touchdowns.

A Lot of Stars

No pro club in this century has fielded better football players than Manning, James, Harrison and the other key figures in the Colt offense. The big plays they made in the Denver game weren’t an aberration. The Colts could do that every week -- making NFL history -- with an intelligent mix of runs and passes, with, that is, proper play-calling.

And that’s what haunts Colt fans as they wonder what Manning’s conservative bosses, Coach Tony Dungy and offensive coach Tom Moore, will do now.

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The Colts won’t last long in the playoffs if Dungy takes a look at Kansas City’s defensive players and says: “We can run on them.”

Run on them they might. To beat the Chiefs, though, the necessary thing is to outscore them. Both teams have suspect defenses with lively offenses.

It’s possible for Manning to out-pass Kansas City’s Trent Green, but it’s less likely that James will outrun Kansas City’s Priest Holmes. In this game -- for which the Chiefs have earned the home-field advantage only because of the Colts’ faulty play-calling in losses to Carolina, Jacksonville and Denver -- play selection will be decisive.

Kelly Did It

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The Buffalo Bills were the last team featuring a player as play-caller. He was Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. A reason they lost all four is that they were never, in that era, the AFC’s best team.

They kept making the Super Bowl only because Kelly kept throwing the ball in the formation the Bills used in their two-minute drill, which had been designed for the final minutes of any Buffalo first or second half. It was a no-huddle formation with three wide receivers, one back and a passer -- the set in which Manning was seen much of the time in the Denver game.

The feature of this plan that appealed to Kelly was that instead of his coaches, he was selecting the plays, accenting, as he did so, the great first-down difference between coach-called plays and player-called plays:

*Most coaches, fearing interceptions, want safe running plays on first down, hoping for the best even against defensive players primed for runs.

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*Most quarterbacks, fearing sacks on later downs, want to throw the ball on first down, realizing that the best time to pass is when defensive teams expect running plays, as they normally do on first down.

One Star vs. Two

The Philadelphia Eagles will showcase the NFL’s leading runner-passer, Donovan McNabb, in today’s second game against Green Bay. The Eagles’ marked man, McNabb has two problems as their quarterback:

He’s a better runner than passer, although ideally it should be the other way around since good passing is what it takes to win playoff games. And he’s still hampered somewhat by injuries.

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Bottom line, this is a game matching Green Bay’s two stars -- passer Brett Favre and runner Ahman Green -- against Philadelphia’s one, McNabb. If McNabb is physically able to run the ball the way he so often has in other years, that will nullify some of Green Bay’s edge with Green. If he can’t run much, or if he’s told to hold back, the Packers’ two-star attack might be just too much for the Eagles.

It’s all in doubt at the moment because a running-passing quarterback is the most difficult of all offensive players to stop.

On pass plays, defenses use every possible resource to mount a pass rush and still cover the opponents’ pass receivers. There’s nobody left to spy on the McNabb unless the defensive coaches take away a player they need elsewhere.

McNabb will draw inspiration and hope from that and from two other sources: The Packers lack a great defense and they don’t play all that well on the road.

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As underdogs, though, the Packers will be ready. They are used to performing in cold weather, they call plays well, they have a cleverly designed pass offense, and in Favre they have the great field leader of his time, a quarterback who is one of the finest all-around athletes ever seen at his position.


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