The Better Team Lost

Occasionally in an NFL game, the team that plays the better football loses.

In a strange 24-21 game Sunday, for example, the winners were the 6-1 Tennessee Titans, who led in the first quarter, 21-0, but scored only three additional points.

I'd say the losers, the 6-1 St. Louis Rams, were the better team.

In the end, after three touchdown passes by quarterback Kurt Warner, the Rams got to within a missed 38-yard field goal of overtime.

For Warner, it was all a learning experience.

As an NFL player, he'd be classed as a rookie this year if he hadn't sat on the Ram bench last year; and in Sunday's first quarter, when he lost the ball twice on fumbles, Warner often played like any other rookie quarterback.

For the first time in his life, he was facing the kind of powerful, hostile pass rush he never saw in the Arena League or even in NFL Europe.

You can only learn how a rush like that feels by getting it, and Warner got it.

And learned.

His three touchdown passes came next.

And in the final minutes, he led the Ram field-goal drive that had everything but a field goal.

* * * *

One Great Quarter for McNair

The winning quarterback in the Rams-Titans game, Steve McNair, played all of his good football in the first quarter. Coming back from injury, McNair ran and passed Tennessee 80 yards to its first touchdown and earned two more touchdowns after turnovers.


Fumbling twice in two minutes, the Rams' Warner was blindsided into his first misplay, when he was sacked and stripped of the ball.

That happens to all quarterbacks but, in time, after some seasoning against NFL blitzers, the better quarterbacks develop a feel for the backside rush.

Warner hasn't yet had much of that kind of experience. Indeed, until Sunday, he hadn't had any.

On the Rams' second fumble, Warner handed off toward a new fullback who missed the signal and was, instead, about to throw a block.

Although that sort of thing also happens to good, new, young teams, it wasn't turnovers that beat the Rams, it was McNair.

* * * *

First-Down Calls Decisive

The Ram-Titan first quarter was a long illustration of the many things an experienced, highly motivated pro club can do to a promising young team that is caught off guard on its first visit to a new stadium.

The difference that day was what McNair did after the Rams twice turned the ball over to him in the first 10 minutes.

Both times, he scored on first-down plays, a 17-yard touchdown on a pass to fullback Eddie George and a 10-yard touchdown on a quarterback draw.

Those were clever, thought-provoking calls by the Tennessee offensive coordinator, Les Steckel, who had begun the game by rocking the Ram defense back on its heels for 80 yards with the same kinds of first-down plays: draws and runs by McNair and screens and sweeps with George.

Curiously, Steckel slipped back into a shell in the last three quarters when the Titans, usually running on first down against Ram Coach Dick Vermeil's defense, ran to nowhere.

The game became a field-goal duel in the fourth quarter, when Steckel's man made his placekick and Vermeil's man didn't.

* * * *

They Cheer and Cheat

One of the more enduring sights Sunday in Nashville's new Titan stadium was Titan Coach Jeff Fisher leading the cheers for the Rams.

To be sure, he wasn't the first NFL coach to do that to a visiting team.

Most hometown coaches and players encourage their fans to yell and scream to drown out the signals of the opposing quarterback. They're usually successful.

That's cheating, of course.

It's attempting to win dishonorably instead of with good, lawful tackling, running, and passing.

And in Nashville it worked beautifully, as usual, when the Rams jumped offside repeatedly on plays that the league now labels false starts.

Thus, Warner could only get in three scoring passes to wide receiver Isaac Bruce (three yards) and to running backs Marshall Faulk and Amp Lee (57 and 15 yards).

The inability or unwillingness of the NFL to solve its stadium noise problem--which is not an impossible problem in the electronic era--stands as a continuing indictment of the league's 31 club owners.

The most revealing thing about it came up last week: When the Rams developed an electronic way to blot out the Nashville noise, the Titans ran to the league office and got the plan countermanded.

In other words, the Titans wanted to cheat. And, as it turned out, that's what they needed to do to win. Because, in the last three quarters, on most series of plays, they ran twice, passed once, and punted.

* * * *

Can a 1999 Defensive Team Win?

The Miami Dolphins also played dull, conservative football Sunday, extending Coach Jimmy Johnson's season-long campaign, and again their defense was sound and aggressive enough to prevail in Oakland, 16-13.

What Johnson is attempting to prove this season is that you can win a Super Bowl in a passing era with a defensive team.

Even before quarterback Dan Marino was injured, the Dolphins played with stubborn conservatism, usually running instead of passing the ball and leaving the decision up to Miami linebacker Zach Thomas and his teammates.

And so the 1999 Dolphins have been hardly more explosive with Marino than with his backup, Damon Huard.

Johnson's defensive work against a good Oakland offensive team doubtless encouraged him to believe that he's now still on a winning tack.

There are still at least three good NFL passing teams, Washington, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. Almost certainly, Johnson will see at least one of them in the playoffs.

* * * *

Peyton Manning Is the Future

The past met the future in Dallas on Sunday, and the future won.

Quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys were outscored, 34-24, by what is possibly the AFC's best passing team, the Indianapolis Colts.

The field leaders of the Colts are second-year quarterback Peyton Manning and first-year running back Edgerrin James, who again were carefully coordinated by Colt offensive chief Tom Moore and his line coach, Howard Mudd.

By contrast, Aikman and Smith often seemed to be playing in different offenses.

The Cowboys tried to run Smith on first-down plays, and frequently they were so successful that they ran him again on second down, too, confining Aikman to a third-down offense.

That's the hard way against a team with a passer as effective as Manning, who in the Colt offense uses James correctly as a counterpuncher when the defense gears up for pass plays.

With their new players, the Indianapolis front office, operated by CEO James Irsay and President Bill Polian, could be changing the face of the AFC.

Do you want a classic test of defense against big-time pass offense?

Watch the Kansas City-Indianapolis game this Sunday.


If Miami Coach Johnson can get away, he'll love it.

* * * *

The Yankees Are a Disgrace

Allow me a brief departure from football for a comment on baseball.

After the way the New York Yankees played again this season--when they reached the World Series for the 36th time in 78 years--it's time to conclude that they're a national disgrace.

Their insistence on hanging onto nearly all the revenues they generate in New York is one of the biggest things wrong with big league sports in America today.

Over the years, the Yankees have learned neither fairness nor unselfishness nor even good business sense from the NFL team in their town, the New York Giants, whose wisdom and selflessness are largely responsible for the truth that in this half of the century, football has overtaken baseball as the national pastime.

It was in television's first decade, the 1950s, that the owners of the Giants led the campaign to share most NFL revenue equally among all the teams in the league, enabling small places like Green Bay and eventually Jacksonville and Indianapolis, among others, to compete for championships.

And it's revenue-sharing that has produced the league-wide parity that has increased NFL attendance and TV ratings again this year.

Since 1950, every pro football team with an able owner has had a chance to compete continuously.

By contrast, the annual pennant races in baseball have been and still are a joke--or a disgrace.

With rare exceptions, only the rich can compete in baseball--and the Yankees, sitting in the nation's biggest and richest city, are the richest.

Of course they're the team of the century. With brighter owners, they would have been in all 78 of the most recent World Series, not just 36.

* * * *

Ironic Time for Outrage

The most astonishing thing about the recent public reaction against Jim Gray, the TV announcer accused of insulting former ballplayer Pete Rose, is the extent of the outrage.

The man badgered Rose, complain sports fans from coast to coast.

Apparently these people are so insulated in their little sports cocoon that they believe Gray is the first media person who ever hectored a celebrity.

The reality is that, in recent years, dozens of public figures from Congressman Hyde and President Clinton to Denver Coach Mike Shanahan have been similarly tormented by media persons without provoking similar outrages.

For example, even Shanahan's two Super Bowl champioships--in the last two years--couldn't save him from the badgering he has had to endure this year from representatives of the media in Colorado.

It happens that Gray's way is the way it is today in the media world of 24-hour news-and-rumor dissemination.

He was doing what almost everybody does nowadays: persist in a line of questioning until there's an answer or a reaction.

Sure, Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame, but that shouldn't protect him from interrogation.

The cry that Gray chose the wrong time and place is unrealistic if not insane.

When else is baseball going to make Rose available for questioning on a national broadcast?

Why should Gray have to apologize to anyone?

* * * *

Selected Short Subjects:

• The Chicago Bears' rookie quarterback, Cade McNown, threw three second-half touchdown passes on Washington's field Sunday, which was more than Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas threw anywhere in his rookie season. That first fall, Unitas was waived out of the NFL and spent most of the season playing sandlot football. So who's surprised that McNown and the other rookie quarterbacks this year are struggling?

• The Hall of Fame selection committee has voted for Green Bay's Lambeau Field as the NFL's all-time best stadium. Second: Washington's old RFK Stadium--where on a winter day, the outdoor press box was hardly the nation's second best, or even 30th best, for football writers. Third: Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.

• All year, the East-leading Washington Redskins have been starting the same 22 players, reaffirming that in most NFL games, injury luck is decisive.

• The explanation for the Rams' failure to use a hurry-up offense, which would have been the percentage offense in Sunday's fourth quarter, is that they've had enough trouble installing a basic offense this year with a new quarterback and other new hands.