The Game Is Better Than Ever

Longtime writer Bob Oates shares his commentary on the NFL.

The ever-increasing high quality of football is one of the NFL stories of the new century. Asked to explain what’s going on, Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb said, “Big-time players are making big plays in big games.”

In other words, in the midst of the gripping 2006 baseball playoffs, some of the NFL’s most spectacular athletes -- from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to Drew Brees -- have started fast.

And so 10 or 12 of the league’s leading teams are now playing the game about as well as it has ever been played, among them Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and even Chicago.

It is, of course, the passers and their creatively designed offenses that are making the principal difference.

Among the style leaders are San Diego with new passer Philip Rivers, the rising Chicago team with new quarterback star Rex Grossman, defending champion New England with Brady, and even upstart New Orleans with imported quarterback Brees.

In the same league are the Manning brothers as well as Marc Bulger, Brett Favre and, among others, Ben Roethlisberger.

It’s a world of star quarterbacks that has arrived, not by chance but by design. Two forces made it inevitable.

First, the NFL’s club owners have been tinkering with the rules of football for years, steadily making a good game better.

Second, within the context of all that, the coaching of football players and teams has for years steadily improved -- on all three levels: pro, college and high school.

NFL coaching staffs now often number 20 or 21 different experts who have devoted their lives to football.

Their product is out there for everyone to see every weekend, and, it’s worth seeing.


By Contrast, Has-Beens Wallow in Denver Rain

THERE ARE STILL A FEW NFL games that by contrast are hardly worth seeing -- though not as many as there once were. One such dud was this week’s Monday Night Game in Denver, played in a heavy rain, and matching quarterbacks who might not have contributed much on a fair day on a good field.

Neither Steve McNair of Baltimore nor Jake Plunkett of Denver is the quarterback he used to be, and McNair was constricted by layers of heavy bandages and equipment protecting his many injuries. Moreover, the featured Baltimore back, Jamal Lewis, has lost the spark of his greatness, leaving on offense only one professional playing his usual superb football that night, running back Tatum Bell of Denver.

The result was a meeting of has-beens, a game that was 3-3 or less most of the way in the downpour and in which the only touchdown was finally pushed over in the fourth quarter after a turnover.

Historically, it stands as a contrast to the NFL greatness you see most of the time this year on fair-weather NFL fields -- and even at Mile High on a clear day.


Reggie Bush Lights Up Payton Place

THE NEW ORLEAMS SAINTS are plainly the surprise team of 2006 football with three new principals, passer Drew Brees, receiver-runner Reggie Bush and Coach Sean Payton. One of the finest ballcarriers on USC’s bright list of great running backs, Bush has brought a new excitement to Payton Place, formerly the Superdome.

One of the questions of the new NFL season, as phrased in many ways and many quarters, was whether Bush’s accomplishments as a peerless college runner would translate to the pros.

He gave several good answers Sunday against Tampa Bay on several plays, including the game-winner, a punt return runaway to a 65-yard touchdown.

Even more impressive was a shorter Bush run that showcased the toughness he has at 203 pounds to compete with much larger people.

That time on third and eight, cornered after catching a swing pass in the left flat, he smashed head-first into a defensive player and carried him along until he had a first down.

Bush does it that way only when he has to. Where possible, along with other great backs, he typically manages to slip out of bounds, avoiding a hit. As a USC predecessor, O.J. Simpson, used to say, no sense taking on any tackler needlessly.

On the game-winning punt return, the football ability that Bush displayed is the same one that made the other good ones from Hugh McElhenny and Jim Brown to Simpson -- speed to burn.


USC’s Man Leinart Lights Up the Desert

USC MADE ANOTHER IMPACT Sunday in Arizona where last year’s Trojan quarterback, Matt Leinart, started with six consecutive completions, including a throw to wide receiver Anquan Boldin on a 49-yard touchdown play. That score materialized on an audible, symbolizing that Leinart is taking over.

When, he moved the Cardinals ahead, 14-0, they had an 87% chance to win. Those are the odds the Elias Sports Bureau calculates as favoring any pro club scoring 14 unanswered points in a first quarter.

Arizona, however, being different, very different, managed to lose -- as the Cardinals usually have over all the years, even when they lined up as the Chicago Cardinals and St. Louis Cardinals. They’re the oldest pro club of them all, and always a faithful doormat.

At the end of the game, Leinart drove the Cardinals from their own 10 to the opposing 33, where the Cardinals kicker missed a long field-goal attempt. Despite their sad-sack history, with Leinart now on the scene, the Cardinals will bear watching in the Chicago game Monday night..