Longtime writer Bob Oates shares his commentary on the NFL.
Here come the Chicago Bears. Impressive runaway winners of their first two games -- each a division game -- the Bears will be on their way to a second consecutive NFC North championship if they can defeat a third straight division opponent Sunday in rebuilding Minnesota. After showing second-city citizens how a well-led pro club bounces back from years of uninspired offensive football, the Bears are now playing the game just right.
They put a championship defense together last year in Lovie Smith's second season as their coach, and this year they have fixed the offense -- by getting quarterback Rex Grossman off the injury list and throwing the ball. Known for long years as a running team, the Bears say they've meant to pass throughout the tenure of Smith and his offensive coordinator, Ron Turner, but, during their last two years together, Grossman couldn't play.
If effective signal-calling is the least understood part of modern football, the Bears quite suddenly seem to be one of the few pro clubs with a real understanding of the art.
Following an easy 25-0 win over Green Bay last week, Grossman threw often on first down Sunday to dispatch the Detroit Lions, 34-7.
He cashed the first of his four touchdown passes on a three-yard play after a Lion fumble. Then with passes on five of seven plays, he set up a field goal. In the second quarter, Grossman passed on four of five plays to score the 17-0 touchdown. And before halftime, with passes on five of eight plays, he produced the 24-0 touchdown.
None of this surprised Smith or Turner, two of the few NFL coaches who seem to understand that passing is the optimal way to play today's football. In an era when defensive teams have caught up with ground plays, it's obvious that, in any case, running plays take too long, wasting too much offensive time.
On pass plays, Grossman has been standing in with style to remind Bear fans why he was their first-round draft choice four years ago when he came in from Florida. Hardly the largest of NFL quarterbacks, Grossman, 6 feet 1 and 210, prospers for two other reasons: He thinks fast and throws fast.
And Smith has surrounded him with talent -- notably at the receiving positions with reliable Muhsin Muhammad, speedy Bernard Berrian and athletic tight end Desmond Clark.
Moreover, if Grossman has the bad luck someday to go down again with another injury, the Bears are ready with the veteran quarterback they've imported, Brian Griese.
Few fans or critics think of this team as a national power these days, but in pro ball, as in other pursuits, there's a changing of the guard from time to time. And that's what's happening now in Chicago, among other places.
Counting them up, at least six NFL teams have started the season playing modern, pass-first football -- the Cincinnati Bengals with Carson Palmer, New England Patriots with Tom Brady, Pittsburgh Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, Philadelphia Eagles with Donovan McNabb, Seattle Seahawks with Matt Hasselbeck, the Bears and the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning -- sometimes.
It won't be much surprise if, several months hence, two of these six clubs are in the Super Bowl.
Manning Premise: Runs Set Up Passes
THE COLTS are segueing into something of a mystery team this year. Against a good opponent like the New York Giants, they came out passing to get the lead. Against hapless Houston, they ran. That is doubtless the doing of their veteran quarterback, Peyton Manning.
As Colt coaches freely confess, Manning has veto power over the plays called from the bench, and he's not too bashful to change the calls -- usually favoring ground plays.
He seems to believe, against the bulk of the evidence, that runs are necessary to set up passes.
In this fashion he has in recent years succeeded in most regular-season games, but lost his way at the end of the schedule. His big-game record is not good.
The Colts would be harder to beat if Manning passed most of the time, though that won't happen if he continues as the decision-maker. A great passer, he fancies himself a strategist -- against the evidence.
The 2006 Fight is Over for Gibbs
THE DALLAS COWBOYS won a forget-it game against the Washington Redskins the other night, 27-10, when the better quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, dropped elderly Mark Brunell to 0-2.
In his second coming to the nation's capital, Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs has a problem. He paid insufficient attention to the passing game, and to passers, during the offseason when he decided to bring back Brunell for a 14th NFL season. So Gibbs still doesn't pass well enough.
Last time Gibbs was in the league, pass plays weren't that important, and pass-play design didn't have to be that complex. Nor does he seem to realize that times have changed. In the pass-offense league that the NFL has become, Gibbs appears to have no knowledge of how to play that game. Even after bringing in veteran offensive coach Al Saunders as associate head coach, Gibbs still can't get it.
The Dallas coach, Bill Parcells, has a better understanding of the new game. To beat Washington, he lined up the Cowboys in one-back passing formations -- the most modern in the NFL. And even though the uncommon Dallas receiver, Terrell Owens, broke a finger in the first quarter, a passing team can continue to perform with common receivers.
Washington is a running team, and it's harder to replace good runners. Since the night that Gibbs lost Clinton Portis in a meaningless game last summer, he has been lost.
Fans of the Redskins, including the many in two nearby chambers, the House and Senate, can only hope that Gibbs doesn't waste too much more of their time before making the leap into the 21st century.
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