Longtime writer Bob Oates shares his commentary on the NFL.
One good thing about life in Los Angeles is that on fall Sundays, there are three NFL games on network TV — including two at the same time — as there were last Sunday morning, when, in the same three-hour span, L.A. football fans could compare four of the league’s liveliest quarterbacks: Eli Manning vs. Marc Bulger, and Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees.
Thus, residents here in the most widely dispersed of U.S. population centers keep telling pollsters they’d rather have what they have now than an L.A. team “of their own.” By comparison, the football fans of any NFL city are limited to two games on fall Sundays, and league rules require that the home team’s telecast, good or bad, must be one of the two and that there be no game aired on another station while the home team is playing.
That’s why much of the country beyond L.A. missed out on young Manning’s emergence as a first-rate pro quarterback Sunday or on Brees’ surprisingly easy conquest of Brady.
Although network TV isn’t the only way to bring NFL football into an L.A. home, comparatively few football fans use the other options. Moreover, network TV makes more sense than ever now in an era when standout quarterbacks lead a wide variety of pro clubs, most of the NFL’s 32. You never know which passer is going to get hot.
Since the 1980s when Bill Walsh brought it back, passing has proliferated in both college and pro ball. A quarter century ago, when there weren’t many quarterbacks in Brady’s class — or Manning’s — days like last Sunday were out of the question. This year, it was just a routine, beautiful football day.
Eli Off to Fast Start for Giants
ELI MANNING, Peyton’s kid brother, was the most surprising of Sunday’s load of clever quarterbacks, not because he won as the New York Giants upset the St. Louis Rams, 44-24, but because he’s already playing like a veteran. He’s even now one of the game’s eight or 10 best quarterbacks though he was a starter only seven times last year as a rookie — and not very successfully.
It wasn’t long ago that NFL coaches used to say if the talent is there, it takes five years to make a pro quarterback. These days, if the talent is there, it takes about five games.
In Manning’s time, passing has supplanted running as the best way to play offensive football. So he has been an experienced passer for years, and has been well-coached consistently, through prep school and college. Fortunately for him, in Tom Coughlin’s second season as the leader of the Giants, Manning is playing for a coach who has converted from conservative ground-play offense to integrated passing and running.
What’s more, Coughlin knows enough about his limitations not to run things himself. For offensive coordinator, the Giants have brought in one John Hufnagel, who has made an impressive start after gaining coaching experience on five NFL teams in five years.
At 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, Manning is clearly the possessor of NFL talent. His passing motion is sound. He can zip the ball effortlessly and accurately, and he throws with touch when he should. He is in fact more gifted than his famous brother Peyton, who is basically self-made, having worked hard to get where he is. Peyton has spent hours and years perfecting his drop, for instance, and forcing himself to be quick mentally and physically. To Eli, it all comes naturally. He and the Giants seem to have a bright future.
Predictable Ram Offense Beats Bulger
MARC BULGER, the Ram quarterback who lost to Eli, demonstrated frequently in this game that he is still one of the best passers of our generation. But he had more to beat than Eli had. The Ram defense is as weak as ever, a situation that helped Eli more than he might have realized. Meanwhile, the Giant defense could handle Bulger primarily because the Ram offense has grown so predictable.
Under Coach Mike Martz, the Rams have become a formidable downfield passing team — possibly the finest in the league — but downfield plays are all they have. They no longer own a short-passing game. Nor can they run. As the play-caller, Martz insists these days on trying to run on first down — and the Giants covered those plays so fast and easily that the Rams carried a minus-running yardage total most of the day.
Though Martz is a brilliant play-designer, he’s proving to be a phase coach. When Martz was in his short-pass phase regularly with quarterback Kurt Warner, the Rams played in a couple of Super Bowls.
Downfield passing is, however, more challenging, and Martz seems to enjoy the challenge — at the expense of all other forms of offense. In any case, the Rams run deep square-out and deep square-in passes better than any team ever has. And Bulger is also equal to the challenge of throwing that ball, difficult as it is.
Lacking a short-pass threat, however, as well as a running threat on still another Martz team with severe defensive and special-team weaknesses, Bulger can’t beat a kid quarterback despite his (Bulger’s) smoothness and the quickness and accuracy of his pass release.
Brees Upsets Patriots with Smart Passes
DREW BREES of the San Diego Chargers became the first quarterback to outscore Brady in Foxborough in years. And though Charger Coach Marty Schottenheimer gracefully blamed the Patriots’ many injuries for what happened to them, Brees, for his part, wouldn’t give them a chance.
He’s a different kind of quarterback. To surprise the Patriots (and the NFL) this time, 41-17, Brees showed New England how a good quarterback can play great football. Not as gifted as, for instance, Bulger or Brady — or the Mannings — Brees wins by moving his team with smart plays and smart passes.
He doesn’t try things he can’t do. He doesn’t force the ball into nearly hopeless coverages like the great passers (Peyton Manning conspicuously) often do. In adversity, Brees doesn’t rattle like Peyton Manning.
He’s the essence of what is called steadiness in a quarterback. And because the Chargers have assembled the best in a supporting cast — as personified by running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates — they rank now near the top of the NFL’s many parity contenders.
Their two-game winning streak after an 0-2 start suggests that the NFL’s most mysterious quarterback situation is still on hold in San Diego.
The new quarterback to whom the Chargers pledged a fortune last year, Philip Rivers of North Carolina State, might well be as superlative as the pair with whom he was grouped at draft time, Big Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. Furthermore, Brees might well be a bad dream for the Chargers — just good enough to keep Rivers off the field. But after Brees finally mastered the Charger system last year while Rivers was holding out, he has proved to be more quarterback than most pro clubs have. It’s all very strange.
Shotgun Plays Kill Brady’s Offense
TOM BRADY was the best quarterback of the four on the stage Sunday morning — he’s the only active quarterback who ranks close to all-timers Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas and Sammy Baugh — but he couldn’t always play like it against San Diego because a change of offensive coordinators has reduced the Patriot offense from extraordinary to ordinary.
In action, Brady still leads the world in thinking clearly on his feet, in swiftly and correctly reading teammates and opponents, in sliding around in the pocket to evade blitzers, and in a passing motion that whips the ball away as quickly and accurately as if machine-produced. He’d be an ideal quarterback if authorized to call his own plays.
His problem — the Patriots’ problem as a difficult season deepens — is that their plays are now called by committee instead of by their longtime offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, who has defected to Notre Dame. And the committee has been placing Brady in shotgun formation most of the time while, week after week, the Patriots have lined up in the same offense to become a .500 team. Last year when they changed offenses frequently — every week sometimes — they were a Super Bowl team.
In the shotgun, Brady loses the running threat Corey Dillon provides when Patriot plays start under center. He also loses much of his pass offense. The upshot is that New England’s offensive staff is what is beating New England. To those who value what Brady is and can do, it’s bad news. Though stacks of injuries have harmed the Patriots on defense, it’s their offensive foolishness, not their defense, that’s beating them.
Unchanged McNaab Offense Catches Chiefs
DONOVAN McNABB’s passing and Coach Andy Reid’s play-calling for Philadelphia brought a spirited ending to Sunday’s network quarterback show, which was extraordinary by comparison with anything the NFL presented in the 20th century but routine for the 21st.
After the Kansas City Chiefs struck for early leads of 17-0 and 24-6, the Eagles played their game and nothing but to pull it out, 37-31. For Reid has devised an offense that is precisely the same no matter the score. Unlike New England, the Eagles almost never use the shotgun. And unlike St. Louis, the Eagles seldom run on first down.
Whether on the attack or defending a lead, the Eagles pass some 70% of the time and throw on most first-down plays — usually out of a one-back formation, meaning that the defense must on every play account for a running back who rarely runs.
The Eagles are very good at what they do because they’re so well-practiced. And McNaab has the courage to lead the way for the Eagle team despite a series of injuries that would have some players (some Dodgers come to mind) in the hospital.
Bob Oates can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.