Kickers Hired Guns

Football's leaders are the only chiefs in any sport who assign some of their most important plays to people who can't play their game. Do the Lakers hire horseshoe-throwing specialists to do free throws for their center? Not yet.

But football teams routinely bring in specialists from somewhere else, usually soccer, to kick extra points and field goals. Many kick so expertly that their work is called automatic. And that's why it came as such a shock when John Carney blew that extra-point try for New Orleans last Sunday after a unique 75-yard special-teams touchdown play.

When real football players score six points, Carney "always" adds the seventh.

In 408 lifetime NFL point-after chances, he has made 403.

Thus a rule change is in order. Football ought to be played by football players. There would be more football in the NFL if kickers had to be football players. More teams would go for touchdowns than for field goals if kicks weren't automatic. Nothing else in football is automatic. Tacklers miss tackles. Running backs fumble.

In the computer era, a change would be easy to arrange. To become eligible to kick, players would have to play offense, defense, or on special teams on at least, say, 10% of the snaps in the last five games. The NFL, keeping track, would issue an eligible-to-kick list each week. You're not named? Sit down and watch the offense go for seven points instead of three.

Rams Need Much Faster Starts

THE ST. LOUIS RAMS, as coached by Mike Martz, have been attacking their opponents this year with the NFL's most inventive offense. In great part, it is their coach's ingenuity and style that will put Martz's players in the postseason with the NFC's top W-L record if they win Sunday at Detroit.

Yet as imaginative as the Rams are, they may have to be more so — in two respects — to win their way through a strong field in the 2003-04 playoffs.

• Since they have the game-time resources to start faster and more dominantly than they have in most games this season, the Rams may need to do that.

• And if they need to be more effective on the last 10 or 20 yards of a 100-yard field, they have the resources for the best of all red-zone formations: four good wide receivers (or three and a tight end) fronting a backfield with one back, the clever Marshall Faulk.

The Rams, to score their NFC-high 400-plus points this season, have had to work harder than they should have. In last Sunday's 17-point win over Cincinnati (27-10) it was that decisive only because of their defense.

A Dominating Offense Fares Best

THE IDEAL WAY for players like the Rams to perform is the way they often played in Martz's first Ram years — passing aggressively in the first half to take a dominant lead — often throwing on first-down plays — and then calling creative ground plays in the second half to protect that lead.

They got the second part of the deal right in the Cincinnati game, but not the first. For much of the final 30 minutes, as Martz called one well-designed running play after another for Faulk — each a bit different from the others — he carried the ball repeatedly to protect a lead that grew by 10 points in the second half.

Until the last :47 of the first half, however, it was a 10-10 tie, which said more for the Bengals, who were on the road in a noisy dome, than for the home team. It was that close because the Rams opened the game playing tentatively instead of assertively, handing the ball to Faulk on first-down plays and calling other safe plays instead of using quarterback Marc Bulger to throw downfield passes.

One Faulk power play failed on fourth down when his lead blocker — told to lead Faulk forward — instead led the defense into the right hole to stop the play, as the NFL's lead blockers so frequently do.

The problem for any running back in any NFL first half is that he's running into defensive linemen who are fresh and eager. They can lie in wait. For example, during Baltimore tailback Jamal Lewis' 205-yard day Sunday, he was held to 41 yards in the first half. Defensive linemen tend to tire in the second half, particularly if they've spent the first half chasing a mobile passer. The second half is the time to run a back like Faulk. The first half, ideally, is for aggressive passing.

Four Receivers in Best Red-Zone Offense

THE IDEAL RED-ZONE system is one that stretches the field horizontally with four wide receivers on first down as well as on nearly every other down — or, if the tight end is a productive receiver, with three wideouts and a tight end — in a one-back formation with a back as tricky as Ram tailback Faulk.

On quick-pass plays, four receivers could be heading anywhere. If they're good enough, as the Rams' receivers are, one of the five (Faulk among them) will often be at least slightly open, which will often be ample for Bulger.

On running plays, Faulk, facing a defense featuring smaller players spread more widely than the bulky athletes who mass in front of typical goal-line power formations, will frequently slip through a crack somewhere.

Faulk isn't a power runner. He is a fast, active hunt-and-peck runner of the most scintillating sort. If there's a hole in a stretched-out line, he'll find it. In fact, the single back in a four-wide-receiver set often walks into the end zone unopposed.

The defensive team, defending its goal line, must think run as well as pass down there. So aggressive passing best fits this red-zone approach. On first down at an opponent's 20-yard line, there is more maneuver room for four or five receivers than they'll find on first down at the 10. And on first and goal at the 10, there's more maneuver room for pass catchers than there will be on later downs closer to the end zone. For these reasons, first down is a better passing down at the top of the red zone (or at the 10-yard line) than is third and goal later almost anywhere else. And no team is better staffed than the Rams for red-zone passes.

Favre vs. Raiders: Best Passing, Worst Defense

THE GREEN BAY PACKERS presented Brett Favre as a phenomenal big-play passer Monday night in a 311-yards-passing production — in the first half. But he couldn't have done it alone. He needed a pass defense that was as inept as Oakland's. As a 30-minute parlay, it was perhaps the best passing and shoddiest pass defense in the lenthy history of Monday night football.

On every third-down longball — and Favre completed a half dozen of them in Green Bay's 31-7 first half — two or three Raider defensive backs were in position to block the shot or intercept the football if they'd had that in mind or if they knew how to do it, or if they even knew where they were. But on Green Bay's big plays, no Packer receiver was ever bothered.

To complete15 of 18 first-half passes, Favre, who finished as a 41-7 winner with 399 air yards, was putting the ball up for 20, 30 or 40 yards at a time. And it came down with rarely-before-seen accuracy, considering the great distances covered..

Even so, a good NFL defense would have put an end to all that instantly, if not sooner. Nobody can complete one long pass after another in a competitive pro football game. It was like Favre was playing with schoolchildren.

His father and former coach, Irvin Favre, 58, had died the day before the game, apparently of a heart attack, while driving a car in Mississippi. "My dad would have wanted me to play," Favre said. And play he did.

He threw four touchdowns in the first half, three on first-down plays after long third-down completions. A first-down long-pass touchdown is mostly a triumph of pass offense. A third-down long-pass completion is mostly a defeat for the pass defense — which knows what's coming and still plays helplessly. It's also a defeat for the defensive coaches, who have computers to tell them about tendencies and so forth. But Oakland's coaches weren't up against a computer. They were facing Favre.

Jamal Swiftest Big Back Since Jim Brown

THE BALTIMORE RAVENS won easily last Sunday at Cleveland, 35-0, for at least two understandable reasons. First, the 4-11 Browns, who seemed to be a title contender last summer before heading into a long, hard, disappointing season, obviously gave in after a while when their offense couldn't score.

Second, the Baltimore running back, Jamal Lewis, appears to be the NFL's fastest big back since Cleveland Hall of Famer Jim Brown in the late 1950s and early '60s.

At 230 pounds, more or less, Lewis carries Brown's weight though he's more modern in height for the good running backs, 5-feet-11 to Brown's 6-2. In today's football, few 6-2 types are agile enough to get past the game's larger, faster and more active defensive linemen.

During the Ravens' Super Bowl win four years ago, Lewis, coming off a leg injury, didn't seem that fast or agile. He's been putting on not weight but speed.

This year's Super Bowl problem for the Ravens is unchanged: Handing the ball to Lewis, can they run their way to the championship (without injuring and knocking out their opponents' best quarterbacks, which they did last time)?

As good as Lewis is, a Baltimore Super Bowl appearance this time seems unlikely. In the Cleveland game, the Ravens' present passer, Anthony Wright, completed only 10 of 18 for 90 yards. Their designated passer, injured rookie Kyle Boller, went in for one throw and completed it for 10 yards. Their AFC opponents are guessing they'll need more pass offense.

Is Denver Still the NFL's Top Team?

THE RULE OF THUMB in NFL title terms, as of the late 20th century and early 21st, is that playoff teams playing on their home fields have the best chance to reach the final game. Secondly, the better of the competing Super Bowl quarterbacks has the best chance to win.

In the AFC this year, Denver might have played the postseason in Denver if it hadn't fallen behind the other contenders when it lost its quarterback to a broken leg for much of the early season. Since last summer, the Broncos, when quarterback Jake Plummer is in there, have often seemed the NFL's best team.

That continued to be indicated last Sunday when they went into Indianapolis and overpowered quarterback Peyton Manning and the other Colts, 31-17, on a day when reserve Denver tailbacks replaced injured Clinton Portis. It is Plummer who drives the Broncos, not Portis, and not any other running back, or any other player. It is Plummer, that is, along with Coach Mike Shanahan.

Nor was it a real surprise that Denver put up 227 running yards in Cincinnati (to 78 for Edgerrin James and the other Colt runners) with substitutes carrying the ball for the Broncos. Throughout the reign of Shanahan and his assistant head coach, Alex Gibbs, the Broncos have run powerfully and productively with every back they've handed the ball to since the first one, Terrell Davis.

Under Shanahan, they're still a run-first team. They'd be better off and more consistent if they had a pass-first attack — which on many first-down plays would eliminate most of the blitzers and others who threaten Plummer at present. It would also give Denver's ballcarriers an edge on later downs.

Like the disinclination of most pro clubs to play red-zone football with four wide receivers, Denver's continuing offensive strategy is all in the head. And it's Shanahan's head. Meantime, Denver is playing more erratically than it should, losing to the Chicago Bears at home and winning sometimes on the road.

Next month during the AFC playoff series, the Broncos, unless a blizzard is raging in New England, will have a better shot against the Patriots than would Kansas City or Indianapolis or Baltimore or warm-weather Tennessee. For one thing, on a frozen field, the Denver running game figures stronger than New England's.

For another, Plummer can more nearly hold his own with the league's best quarterback, Tom Brady of the Patriots, than any rival — unless Tennessee's Steve McNair recovers wholly from his many injuries.

In the other conference, the Philadelphia Eagles could have survived into the Super Bowl had they held onto the home-field advantage. That belongs, at least for now, to the Rams. As the only pro club with a chance to beat an AFC team in the Super Bowl, the Rams, if they get there, will make it a game with Denver. They can beat any other group if they play their best football — playing dominantly in the first half, that is, and stepping up their red-zone offense.

Bob Oates' book, Sixty Years of Winners, is available at or by calling (800) 246-4042 ($16.95).