Chargers Own First Place

With quarterback Brian Griese seemingly in sharp comeback form, the Denver Broncos will face Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady at New England Sunday in the AFC Game of the Week.

But regardless of how well they play, the Broncos won't be able to dislodge the San Diego Chargers from first place this week in the AFC West, the NFL's most competitive division.

For the first time in his long career, rookie San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer, who draws a bye Sunday, has a complete team that can pass, run and play defense well enough — without its best player, linebacker Junior Seau — to upset the Oakland Raiders.

The pass plays that San Diego used in Week 7 to win, 27-21, were as well thought out as they were brightly polished.

One such, called at the Oakland three-yard line, was a slow-developing play that required San Diego's linemen to hold their blocks while running back LaDainian Tomlinson faked a block until he could sneak into the end zone for quarterback Drew Brees' touchdown pass. For a team that might be en route to a new home in entertainment-capital Los Angeles, that was sufficiently sophisticated.


Schottenheimer Sees the Light

FEW FOOTBALL FANS expect the 6-1 Chargers to hold first place forever against the 4-2 Raiders or the 5-2 Broncos, who, still favored in the AFC West, defeated the 3-4 Kansas City Chiefs Sunday on Griese's passes to tight end Shannon Sharpe, 37-34.

As Schottenheimer knows, he's in a respectable division. In his Kansas City days, he coached the Chiefs into the playoffs seven times. At 59, he's been in the playoffs 11 winters in all, more than any other active coach. The difference at San Diego is that with Brees pitching, he has a pass offense now. His other teams were all locked out of every Super Bowl and into every conservative's dream world. As those people invariably say — and Schottenheimer was once one of them — their life's goal is to run the ball and stop the run.

His change of philosophy came too late in Kansas City to drive the Chiefs into the NFL championship game, which Schottenheimer has never seen. His old associates said it was in Schottenheimer's 10th and final year in Missouri that he finally identified passing as — in Super Bowl terms — the weapon of decision. You can run your way into the playoffs, they said he said then, but not into the Super Bowl. Having proved this in his first 16 NFL seasons, he's throwing a lot now with Brees. And still running, of course. With Tomlinson now. Not long ago, Tomlinson had everything but the will to mix it up with the big guys in the closeness of contact. Or so it looked. But he's changed too, along with his coach. It's a new day in San Diego.


Fines Hurt Players, Suspensions Hurt Team

ONE REASON DENVER struggled in Kansas City is that it was minus its strong safety, the player who on any NFL team is most instrumental in defensing pass plays and running plays both. A high Denver draft choice three years ago, Kenoy Kennedy was benched that day by the NFL, which ruled that while serving the Broncos as their strong safety, he has been making too many head-to-head hits. Those are not only illegal in pro football but unquestionably unsporting.

Kennedy was also fined $25,000 — not enough — and suspended for one game, too much.

Despite the predictable reaction in Denver, strong NFL action was necessary. The first game-time responsibility of the league, as Commissioner Paul Tagliabue acknowledges, is to keep its artists alive and playing football. And that can be properly done only with heavy fines that discourage scofflaws.

The problem with a suspension is that it penalizes the team as well as the player. A number of innocent people go down with the one convict. Nor, to maintain order, are suspensions required. Fines accomplish the same thing — if they're large enough.

The only reason I can think of that Kennedy keeps hitting people illegally — when he knows it will cost him a bunch of money — is that it doesn't cost him enough. He should have been fined $50,000, or more, whatever it takes. He was the one at fault, not his team, and not the football fans of Denver.


Nebraska Hangs Onto Quarterback

A COLLEGE COACH, Frank Solich of Nebraska, also faced a disciplinary problem last week, when he handled it with greater wisdom, which, perhaps, is more than can be said for his approach to Xs and Os.

In the Oklahoma State game Saturday, Solich started his first-string quarterback, Jammal Lord, despite calls for Lord's suspension after he and girlfriend Greichaly Cepero — a Nebraska volleyball player — were cited for disturbing the peace in his apartment one early morning. Solich decision was made more difficult when the volleyball coach suspended Cepero, the team's best player.

There are better ways than suspensions to discipline college athletes, so long as their infractions — parking in handicapped parking spaces or whatever — don't land them in jail. All college players have, for example, privileges that can be restricted, particularly on road trips. For some infractions, a coach can refuse to award the guilty letter-winner a letter. And there are other measures.

The Cornhuskers, true, didn't need Lord to help them lose to Oklahoma State, but if he's the best they have he gave them their best shot in a game they lost, 24-21. Suspensions are unfair to the other players on the team and to the college itself as well as to the team's fans. And they are unnecessary — in either college or pro ball.


NFL Officiating Beats MLB Umpiring

THE NFL IS continuing to do almost everything else right. For one thing, at this time of year when the football and baseball seasons overlap, sports fans can see that there are a larger number of serious officiating problems in major league baseball than in NFL games. In nearly every baseball playoff game this fall, there has been at least one obvious umpiring mistake.

Sports fans notice occasional officiating errors in NFL games as well, but surprisingly few of them are game-deciding errors despite the plain fact that football officials have it tougher than baseball umpires.

In any baseball game, a typical umpire has not much more than one thing at a time to keep track of. Thus the plate umpire spends his night watching a pitched ball. Only if it's in the strike zone is it a strike, theoretically, even though in too many instances instant replay helps television fans see that it's something else.

Base umpires on close plays are basically required to keep track of at most two players, one of whom is often stationary, or close to it. More exactly, the umps are usually obliged to watch only two feet or one foot and one hand.

By contrast, NFL officials are repeatedly confronted by 22 very large, speeding bodies flying around on every play, all bent on damaging opposing players, one way or another, every way they can.

In both large and small things, the NFL remains ahead of the curve. When coaches or players call the NFL's New York office these days, for example, one of Commissioner Tagliabue's associates still answers the phone in person. A live voice. Where else, today, do you get that?


Does 2-5 Keep Rams Out of Playoffs?

THE RAMS KEEP cutting into the 49ers' lead in the NFC West, where after starting 0-5 they are 2-0 in their last two and 2-5 in the standings behind co-leaders San Francisco and Arizona. The 49ers and Cardinals, both 4-2, are headed for an early-season showdown in the NFC's Game of the Week Sunday at Phoenix. So the question for the Rams suddenly is whether they're too far out to catch up.

They have the tools to get back, and stranger things have happened, if not lately. Their most important tool is new quarterback Marc Bulger, who in Week 7 won his second game in a row, leading the Rams past Seattle, 37-20.

One play in the Seattle game tells Ram fans most of that they most want to know about Bulger. At a key moment, he hit wide receiver Terry Holt with a deep corner throw that measured more than half the field, at least 52 yards. Setting up a touchdown, the ball was in the air a good 65 yards on a pass that was as perfectly thrown as any last year by injured starter Kurt Warner.

What's more, during a critical series in the Seattle red zone, Ram Coach Mike Martz showed that he hasn't lost his touch, whatever his critics like to say about him. With his calls in that series, Martz provided a clinic look at how to run the ball on goal-line plays when passing seems inadvisable. In a two-play sequence:

• First, the Ram coach put Bulger in an empty-backfield formation, faking pass, and had him hand off to the motion man, Marshall Faulk, who ran the ball to the three-yard line.

• Next, faking pass again, Martz sent Faulk racing into the end zone on a draw play.

The playoffs need the excitement that Martz brings to the game. It's a longshot that might even happen.


Quarterback's Immobility Bothers Bucs

AT TAMPA BAY the new coach, Jon Gruden, doesn't seem to be getting the most out of his talent — a crucial aspect of the job that helped make him a winner at Oakland. In Week 7, as the Philadelphia Eagles put down Tampa without an offensive touchdown by the Buccaneers, 20-10, it was obvious again that immobility in the quarterback position inhibits their chance to win.

Gruden's starter, Brad Johnson, though as accurate with a passed ball as some of the league's best quarterbacks, is a pocket passer strictly who, under a rush, is more statue than quarterback. The Eagle rush is pretty stout but not as stout as it looked. If Johnson can't move, backup Rob Johnson apparently can't impress Gruden.

Overall, the Buccaneers' best quarterback has always been Shaun King since they drafted him four years ago. As a passer, King yields to the Johnsons, most critics believe, but in today's football it doesn't help much if a quarterback can pass but can't move — and King moves with distinction.

In training camp last summer, beyond any doubt, the Johnsons appealed to Gruden because they both looked better than King on pass plays in dummy scrimmage. Still, in live competition, which is where the Buccaneers are now, there are few NFL dummies.

Though King wasn't enough passer for his last coach, Tony Dungy, that was because in a conservative organization the passer must complete mostly third-down passes, which takes a picture passer, which King isn't. But he's more likely than Brad Johnson to move around and win close games for Gruden.


Mr. 5 by 5: Five Guesses on Five Big Ones

BEST OF WEEK 8: An reader says that when everyone's through talking about what's happened, she'd like a message on what's ahead. That's easy for her to say. As a disbeliever in inside information, I'd rather infer or conjecture, even if, in a very good week, it leads to fewer wins than losses. So here are five guesses on the NFL's five most interesting games of the week:

• Denver by 3 over New England at Foxboro: Although at quarterback the Patriots' Tom Brady might be No. 1 in the NFL, his support network isn't as strong as Bronco quarterback Brian Griese's. And now that they've lost three in a row, the defending champions' confidence may be as shaky as their defense. If, however, they beat Denver, they'll win most of the rest.

• San Francisco by 10 over Arizona at 3Com Park: The surprise team of the National Conference — tied now with the 49ers for first in the NFC West — the Arizona Cardinals lack the defense to contain the 49ers' Big Four: Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens, Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow.

• Oakland by 5 over Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium: Will we see the Oakland that beat Buffalo, 49-31, and Tennessee, 52-25, or the Oakland that lost its last two? That is the question. Next year, the Chiefs will be a title-game contender. Not yet. Nor am I ready yet to give up on Rich Gannon or Jerry Rice.

• Baltimore by 3 over Pittsburgh at Ravens Stadium: Do you believe in Chris Redman or Tommy Maddox? That is the question. Since taking over the AFC North's co-first place teams, Raven quarterback Redman and Steeler quarterback Maddox have helped straighten them both out, or rather up. The difference here could be the Steeler defense, which doesn't yet look quite right.

• New Orleans by 7 over Atlanta at the Louisiana Superdome: Now that Atlanta's young quarterback Michael Vick has warmed up against a couple of teams the Falcons could beat, it will be of interest to see how far he can extend himself against a team they can't beat. The Saints were lucky to turn back the 49ers last week, but they do have more resources (starting with underrated quarterback Aaron Brooks) than most of the NFL's other title contenders.