Aggressive Offense Puts Colts, Rams on Top Columnist

To win two of the biggest games of 1999, the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams both played similarly aggressive first-half football Sunday, repeatedly interspersing first-down passes with passing-down runs.

Proving that offense-minded teams can win that way that early--in an NFL game's first 30 minutes--Indianapolis got ahead of Miami by 14 points in the second quarter, when St. Louis opened a 21-point lead on Carolina.

The Rams needed a big fourth-quarter defensive play--an interception-touchdown--to hang on, 34-21, and win the NFC West title.

And the Colts needed two, long fourth-quarter field goals to beat the Dolphins, 37-34, in the most important AFC East game of the year, one in which Miami could have tied for first.

In both Miami and Charlotte, the home clubs lost because their offenses played safe, predictable football too long and came to the party too late.

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Second-Half Form Reversal

During the second half of the Indianapolis game, Miami's Dan Marino appeared to be the best quarterback on the field--as he normally is whenever his conservative coaches allow him to throw first-down passes.

Thus, the Miami crowd saw a striking second-half form reversal:

Attacking the Colts the way the Colts had earlier attacked the Dolphins, Marino caught up, 34-34, with a series of first-down passes to wide receivers Tony Martin and Oronde Gadsden that succeeded for the usual reason: On first down, their opponents played Miami to run the ball.

On one third-quarter move, Marino, who had spent much of the first half handing off to rookie running back J. J. Johnson, drove 55 yards on successive first-down passes, throwing to Gadsden for 22 yards and then to Martin for the 33-yard touchdown.

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On 2nd and 12, Manning Can't Do It

Extending a classic form reversal, Indianapolis in the second half ducked into the shell that Miami had inhabited in the first half.

Most of the time, unaccountably, the Colts asked quarterback Peyton Manning to hand off to running back Edgerrin James on first down and throw only on later downs.

In other words, for most of the second half, the Colts played conventional NFL 1999 offense, playing into the hands of a Miami defense that Coach Jimmy Johnson had built for that kind of offense.

On one series, for example, after Jimmy Johnson's fast and nimble defensive players had thrown James for a two-yard loss on first down, Manning was required to throw on second and 12.

Predictably, that pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Play-calling had changed Indianapolis' gathering rout into an even game.

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Colts Can Beat Jacksonville

It seems likely now that the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl next month will be the winner of the Jacksonville-Indianapolis game.

The Colts in their current eight-week winning streak have come that far that fast.

When they were playing their game during the first half in Miami, nearly every Indianapolis play was either:

• A Manning pass or fake pass.

• A James run or fake run.

In a word, the Colts mesmerized Miami.

On the plays when Manning slipped the ball to James, the Dolphins' cornerbacks, having bought into Manning's pass-play fakes, were repeatedly down the field and out of position covering Indianapolis receivers.

On the first-down plays when Manning faked handoffs to James, the Dolphins' linebackers, having bought the fakes, were struggling forward to tackle James as Manning's passes went over their heads.

An offense that can do that to Miami can do it to Jacksonville.

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Edgerrin's Team Fakes Out Miami

On every NFL defensive team, the cornerbacks in every game have two priorities.

On pass plays, they retreat to cover the other team's wide receivers.

On running plays, they come forward, where, on the edges of the line of scrimmage, they are coached to force ballcarriers inside.

The force play is indispensable to running-play defense. But in Miami Sunday, when James was running the ball for Indianapolis in the first half, nobody was there to force him inside.

Miami's defensive backs were all running with Indianapolis' receivers.

The Colts' aggressive play-calling, combined with the Manning-James fakery, had removed an essential defensive ingredient.

As one result, James gained 130 yards and scored twice.

James is the NFL's great new running back--a fast 6-footer who at 216 pounds combines agility with power.

But Miami wasn't overpowered Sunday. It was faked out.

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Runs No Safer Than Passes

The play that put Miami in a 17-3 bind in the first quarter was a 25-yard touchdown run by Indianapolis strong safety Chad Cota who, instead of standing deep for the pass that might have come his way if Miami had thrown more often, was standing at the line of scrimmage as the play began.

There he picked up a Dolphin fumble and easily carried it in.

The player who fumbled that time was Jimmy Johnson's prize rookie, tailback J.J. Johnson, and it happened on a first-down play.

That's when Johnson likes to run Johnson--in part because runs are considered safer than passes.

Explaining themselves, conservative coaches sometimes say that when you throw the ball, only three things can happen, and two of them are bad.

But nothing is really safe in football. And against today's defenses, bad things can happen on running plays, too.

For example:

• Three tacklers can hit you at the same time.

• The first man in can tackle you while the second goes for the ball.

• The first man, gambling, can throw his head into the ball.

This time, three Colts hit Johnson. Simultaneously. That can hurt.

* * * *

Marino Great As Ever

The Miami-Indianapolis crowd saw a vintage Marino performance.

The man still has almost all of his talent.

Thus, on occasional scrambles against Indianapolis, he threw the deep-out pass with all of his old power.

And on all three of his touchdown throws Marino invariably illustrated that he still has whatever it takes: long-ball accuracy, medium-range zing, short-range touch.

He remains one of the great passers of the century. But in recent years, because Jimmy Johnson prefers running plays on first and second down, the coaching staff has graded Marino--downgraded is more exact--on third-down production.

And on third down, no passer can be consistently effective.

A third-down pass is a test of defense, not passer.

So the Marino story is, in a sense, a sad story.

Though a Super Bowl champion in ability, he may never get back there because his coach, a great one, misunderstands one thing only: pass offense.

* * * *

Coaching Is the Difference

The quarterback of the future is, in any case, Peyton Manning, who has one advantage on Marino: an understanding offensive coach, Tom Moore.

Even though Moore goes into a shell occasionally, he does understand that it takes a constant run-pass threat to budge a modern defense.

Hence when Moore is on his game, you never know whether the next Colt play will be a Manning pass or a James run.

By contrast, you nearly always know that the next Miami play will be a run--unless it's third down.

Amazingly enough, the Indianapolis head coach, Jim Mora, is as conservative as Jimmy Johnson.

When he was in New Orleans, Mora's offense was as predictable as Johnson's.

But with a 93-78 record in New Orleans, he was a winner there--the only one the Saints have had--so you know he's head-coach material.

And you can surmise that after Mora employed Moore for one year in New Orleans, 1997, he realized that at last he had an offensive brain on his staff.

The Colts are where they are largely because, on offense, Mora defers to Moore.

* * * *

Greene's Late Hits Hurt NFL

In Charlotte, North Carolina, Sunday, Ram quarterback Kurt Warner threw his first two (of three) touchdown passes before Panther linebacker Kevin Greene smashed him after the ball was gone on another pass play.

It was the first big hit of Warner's career.

He was dropped like a boxer downed for a count of four or five--and that, obviously, was Greene's intention.

Although the league will probably rule that it wasn't a late hit, I'd say it was.

Greene, head down, kept sprinting toward Warner for a long moment after he could have held up.

A few minutes thereafter, Ram linebacker Todd Collins, drawing a bead similarly on Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein, held up, and only brushed the passer.

I've seen Greene do it his way before.

His late hits hurt the NFL as much as the passer.

He should be punished.

* * * *

New Trio of Giant Winners?

What did it take to create the most surprising score of the week--maybe of the year?

That score, in Sunday's battle for New York: Giants 41, Jets 28.

And the explanation lies in an amalgamation of three new Giant performers: reborn quarterback Kerry Collins, rookie running back Joe Montgomery, and sudden signal-caller Sean Payton.

Payton, the quarterback coach of the Giants, was appointed to his new role by the club's former signal-caller, Coach Jim Fassel. On Sunday, he involved Collins and Montgomery in the offense in much the same way that Indianapolis, in most games, has used Manning and James.

Payton got three touchdown passes from Collins and 111 yards from Montgomery, the Giants' second-round draft choice from Ohio State who, with perfect 1999 dimensions--228 pounds, 5 feet 10--was making his first NFL start.

The big winner, with 341 passing yards, was Collins, the despised quarterback who had been hounded out of Carolina and New Orleans.

Collins hasn't really been the same since he took an illegal hit two years ago that was much like the hit Kurt Warner took Sunday from Kevin Greene.

Some quarterbacks need longer than others to get over such a trauma.

Collins, perhaps, is over his at last.

* * * *

Raiders Turn Back a Good Team

The 6-6 Oakland Raiders beat a solid team Sunday when they took care of 8-4 Seattle, the conqueror this season of Buffalo, Green Bay and Kansas City.

The Seahawk drive to a third-quarter touchdown, which closed Oakland's lead to three points, 17-14, seemed to be the beginning of something pretty good.

Or, for the Raiders, not so good.

The Seahawks set up that touchdown with a barging first-down run by Ricky Watters out of a four-receiver formation, and they scored it on a slick Jon Kitna pass down the middle to erstwhile holdout Joey Galloway.

But in that crisis, the Raiders regained the momentum with a touchdown of their own, then held on to win, 30-21.

This has been something of a hard-luck season for the Raiders, who, if you could change three or four plays, could be a division winner.

They're one of two AFC West also-rans who will be heard from next year. The other is Denver, which lost strangely again Sunday, 16-10, on an 80-yard Kansas City punt return by a fading specialist, Tamarick Vanover, who was reportedly about to be cut.

* * * *

At Last: A Tip on the Broncos

Media reports out of Denver that quarterback Bubby Brister lacked an adequate knowledge of the Broncos' playbook four months ago, when he replaced retired John Elway, do more to explain the defending champions' plight this season than almost anything else that's happened--including Elway's retirement.

During the exhibition games that Brister played for Denver last August, as any observant sports fan could see, he seemed repeatedly tentative and confused.

In brief, after occasionally outperforming Elway in 1998, he didn't appear to be ready for 1999.

That was, at the least, surprising--given the fact that Brister had known for six months that he was Coach Mike Shanahan's man.

Shanahan has been criticized in Colorado ever since he gave Brister the hook two weeks before the regular season began.

One writer wrote: "Any veteran player evaluated exclusively on exhibition-game performance is being unfairly evaluated."

Yes, perhaps, unless he's a quarterback who doesn't know the plays.

* * * *

It Isn't Just Elway

Considering Shanahan's record in Denver--where in his third and fourth seasons as a head coach he won the last two Super Bowls--the verbal abuse he's had to take there only a year later has set a precedent that ought to discourage other bright, young football men from aspiring to be NFL coaches.

The conventional wisdom in Colorado is that Elway's departure brought on a Bronco collapse, but that is a gross oversimplification.

If he were with the team now, Elway couldn't be doing a great deal better than any other passer minus running back Terrell Davis and the other injured Bronco starters, among them wide receiver Shannon Sharpe and the three Bronco defensive leaders who are on injured reserve and gone for the year: linebacker John Mobley, free safety Eric Brown and defensive lineman Alfred Williams.

Add in three other handicaps there--the year's toughest schedule, improving NFL pass defenses (which are all much better than Elway faced for most of his career) and the fact that every opponent is pointing for a rare two-time champion--and you have a recipe for just what's happened to the Broncos.

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Selected Short Subjects

• The 8-4 Buffalo Bills, the league's bye club this last Sunday, will get running back Thurman Thomas back from injury for their upcoming game with the Giants and, presumably, for the rest of a December schedule of games that the Bills can win. Their big one will be played on Jan. 2 at home against Indianapolis. If the Bills are no worse than a game behind the Colts--on the second day of 2000 in blizzard-prone upstate New York--they may have a shot that afternoon at the AFC East title.

• The Rams' best 1976-95 blocker, Jackie Slater, played in 259 games in various U.S. cities, setting a league record that Tennessee's Bruce Matthews broke Sunday. Though the Titans fell in Baltimore, 41-14, Matthews became the first-ever offensive lineman to play in 260 NFL games. A 1980s All-American at USC, Matthews is the most durable and efficient of the many blockers the Trojans have sent to the pros. Consider both him and Slater as future Hall of Famers.

• Matthews on life in the NFL: "What I enjoy most about being an offensive lineman is the anonymity."

• One of the more curious stories of a curious year exploded this week out of St. Louis, where the Rams charged that executives of both the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans wired up their stadium loudspeakers this season to pump in louder crowd noises than their in-person fans could create. The Rams said an NFL spokesman confirmed it--and if true, it's a violation of NFL rules. In any case, one of the major offseason tasks confronting the league is how to level the playing field for the hundreds of visiting players who can't hear their own quarterbacks now because so many thousands of hollering hometown people are guilty each week of unsportsmanlike conduct.

• The Green Bay-Chicago game Sunday may have lacked some of the glamour it had long ago when it was the USC- UCLA game of pro football, but it's seldom been played with two better casts of receivers. One reason Chicago has won more often this season than any other cellar dweller is that Coach Dick Jauron and his receivers coach, Mike Borich, have developed three of the NFL's finest wideouts: Curtis Conway, Bobby Engram, and the third-year pro who stands third in NFL passing yards gained, Marvin Harrison. The Packer three are Antonio Freeman, Bill Schroeder and Corey Bradford. On a miserable, windy, rainy day in Chicago, where Green Bay won, 35-19, five of the six caught at least one pass each--all but Harrison.

Explaining things with a reference to his new receivers, Packer quarterback Brett Favre said: "They're not as talented as (Minnesota's) Randy Moss, but they're close."

And now in the NFC Central, Green Bay is close. The Packers, still a Super Bowl threat, have reached an eminence one game behind the leader, Detroit, a team that can be beaten occasionally in its next four--at Tampa Bay, at Chicago, at Minnesota and against Denver.

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