THE NFL

December 17, 1990

MOUSE'S TRAP?

Without a doubt, the run-and-shoot offense has brought excitement to the NFL since its introduction last season. In Houston, Warren Moon has 927 more yards passing than any other quarterback in the AFC so far this year, and three of the top four pass catchers in the conference are Oilers. In Atlanta, a new receiving star, Andre Rison, has been born (page 85). In Detroit, the Lions are on pace to score more points than they have in any season since 1981.

But there is doubt as to how successful a run-and-shoot team can be. After 13 games in 1989, the Oilers, Falcons and Lions were a combined 15-24. The same teams were 14-24 through Sunday's games (Detroit played Monday night against the Raiders). This is the second year that the Lions have run assistant coach Mouse Davis's peculiar four-receiver, one-back, no-tight-end attack. Houston, which used a variation of the scheme at times in '89, is committed to it this season, and Atlanta is using it for the first time. At this point, a few observations can be made:

•Implementing the run-and-shoot without having players with the right skills at key positions, especially quarterback and wide receiver, is suicide.

•Because run-and-shoot teams usually do not carry tight ends and fullbacks, the defensive units on these squads can't practice against the offensive formations they will see in games.

•The closer a run-and-shoot offense gets to the end zone, the less effective it becomes, because it's impossible to play power football with a bunch of little receivers in the lineup.

"It's a good offense," says Moon, "but you've got to have the right talent. You've got to have the small, quick receivers with good hands. You've got to have the trigger man who can throw line drives on the run. And it all starts up front with guards who can trap-block and tackles with good feet."

Here's a look at each team's struggles with the run-and-shoot:

Detroit. "If the Lions find good players at quarterback and wide receiver, they could be effective," says Pittsburgh's director of pro personnel, Tom Donahoe. That's like saying, "If that airplane finds a pilot and some fuel, it could fly." In truth, Detroit (4-8 going into Monday's game) can be a frightening team to play against—when all its cylinders are in sync, it can put points on the board as fast as anyone—but the Lions have been hurt by countless dropped passes, by their inability to settle on a starting quarterback and by their failure to use the league's most feared runner, Barry Sanders, at critical times (chart, at left).

In a nutshell, here is what's wrong with Detroit's attack: On Nov. 4, the Lions led the Redskins 38-21 with 13 minutes left, and Sanders had 100 yards on 10 carries. However, on its next three possessions, Detroit ran a total of seven plays—without getting a first down and without getting the ball to Sanders. The Lions took just 3:21 off the clock with those possessions. Meanwhile, the Redskins tied the score, and they went on to win in overtime. "You can't hold the ball at the end of the game," says Washington defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon of one weakness of the run-and-shoot. "How do you run out the clock?"

Detroit owner William Clay Ford is unhappy with the Lions' erratic play on offense, and he might force coach Wayne Fontes to make changes in his offensive staff after the season. "If he's disenchanted, then my job's in jeopardy," says Davis. Detroit is last in the league in average time of possession (25:21 per game), which has contributed to its drop to last in the league in total defense.

But Davis doesn't blame the defense's weaknesses on the offense, and he doesn't think Sanders has been misused. (Sanders did lead the NFC in rushing before Sunday's games.) "We give him great air to run in," Davis says. "The worst thing you could do is overrun him. I think it could shorten his career. If you put him in a normal two-back offense, his production would go down dramatically." Maybe, but in 1988 he rushed for 2,628 yards and won the Heisman Trophy in a ground-oriented attack at Oklahoma State.

Atlanta. Coach Jerry Glanville hasn't bought into the notion that you have to use the run-and-shoot exclusively; the Falcons now use it for 60% of their plays. "We've got two distinct systems," quarterback Scott Campbell says. "If we open the game and find we're able to run, we go to the two-back set." Indeed, the Falcons' 222-yard rushing performance against Tampa Bay on Dec. 2 was their best single-game effort on the ground since 1986.

Atlanta, which is 3-10, doesn't have four good receivers, and its No. 1 quarterback, Chris Miller, struggled mightily with the run-and-shoot before going down for the season with a broken collarbone sustained during that game against the Bucs. Like the Lions, the Falcons have been done in by an awful defense (No. 25 in the league) and by poor production once they get near the goal line.

Houston. The 7-6 Oilers have generated more yardage than the 49ers, but they've committed 30 turnovers and dropped seven passes in the end zone. They even mishandled 10 throws in one game, a loss to the Steelers in Week 2. This kind of sloppiness has left Moon frazzled. "No team has stopped us yet," he says. "It's not the offense; it's the people. In this offense, you can't afford to make the crucial mistakes, and we've made them."

The Oilers have scored only 27 touchdowns on 50 trips inside the opposition's 20-yard line. They need to forgo the run-and-shoot for their Jumbo Offense-backup tackles Dean Steinkuhler (287 pounds) and Doug Dawson (288) are inserted as tight ends with fullback Victor Jones (212)—more often when they get in scoring range.

The big tests for Houston come Sunday at Kansas City and Dec. 23 at Cincinnati, potential tundras at this time of the year. Another rap against the run-and-shoot is that it's a warm-weather offense, because you can't pass well in wind and cold. "Some people wanted us to run it," says Bills general manager Bill Polian, "but there's no way you run that offense in Buffalo in November and December."

In sum, run-and-shoot advocates stand by their offense. Everyone else hates to face it, but no one is lining up to play Mouse's game.

THE END ZONE

Last April, at the funeral of Ryan White, the Cicero, Ind., teenager whose campaign for the rights of AIDS victims received national attention. Colt general manager Jim Irsay wondered what he could do to raise money for the battle against the disease. Irsay, who met White briefly at an Elton John concert in Indianapolis, decided to call on some of his friends in the rock-music business and help them write a pop tribute to White.

The musicians, including Kenny Aronoff (drums) and John Cascella (keyboards) of John Cougar Mellencamp's band, recently recorded the song, Colors, in Indianapolis, and it was released last week. The Colts will give away 25,000 cassettes of Colors before facing the Redskins at the Hoosier Dome on Dec. 22. The recording is being distributed to increase people's awareness of AIDS and to help generate donations to the Ryan White Children's Fund.

Asked what kind of songwriter Irsay was, the 5'8", 150-pound Aronoff laughed. "If Jimmy's a songwriter," he said, "I'm an NFL linebacker."

Ray Donaldson told me after the game," Smith said, "they were supposed to double me on every play, but apparently they were screwed up on their blocking schemes."

On one sack, no one blocked him before he buried Indianapolis quarterback Jeff George. With three games left, Smith, who has 19 sacks, needs 3½ more to break Mark Gastineau's NFL single-season record.

NOW DON'T GET EXCITED, MIKE
Nowhere is the new, low-key Mike Ditka more evident than on the postgame podium. After the Bears intercepted Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien five times but lost 10-9 on Sunday, Ditka stepped up in front of the assembled media and delivered his postmortem in a cool, even voice:

•"It's a tough game to lose. But sometimes these things happen."

•"That's life. We tried."

•"I'm proud of the whole team. I believe in 'em."

STATS OF THE WEEK

•Dan Marino passed for 365 yards in the Dolphins' 23-20 overtime win against the Eagles. It was his 38th 300-yard passing game but his first this season.

•Steve DeBerg moved ahead of Joe Namath on the career passing-yardage list by throwing for 254 yards in the Chiefs' 31-20 victory over the Broncos. DeBerg, who is now No. 20 alltime in passing yardage, has 27,722 yards to Namath's 27,663.

•In the 48 quarters preceding their game against the Browns, the Oilers had four rushing TDs. In the first three quarters of its 58-14 win over Cleveland, Houston running back Lorenzo White had four.

The Week Ahead

Bills at Giants. When Bill Polian became Buffalo general manager before the 1986 season, he knew he had to build a weatherproof team as well as a talented one. "When you play in this part of the country," he says, "you'd better be able to run the ball in November and December to survive the wind and cold." The AFC East-leading Bills (11-2) are still trying to find their polar legs. They're 4-6 at cold-weather sites in December and January since '86. During the same period, the 11-2 Giants, who have built their conservative, smash-mouth team to play well in the frigid Northeast, have gone 14-4 at cold-weather sites.

Oilers at Chiefs. When the wind comes whipping down the plain and into Arrowhead Stadium, you've got to like 9-4 Kansas City's chances to win its first AFC West title since 1971, with 260-pound Christian Okoye and 240-pound Barry Word leading a ground-oriented attack. Houston, on the other hand, gains an NFL-high 76.8% of its yards through the air and prefers the cozy setting of a domed field. To prevail over the Bengals and the Steelers in the AFC Central race, the 7-6 Oilers have to prove that they can win under adverse weather conditions.

Bengals at Raiders. Before these teams met in '89, Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche was so impressed with Bo Jackson that he said he felt like getting Bo's autograph. Wyche was even more impressed when Jackson had the longest run from scrimmage in Raider history-92 yards-while piling up 159 rushing yards in a 28-7 win over Cincy. Bo & Co., 8-4 entering Monday night's game at Detroit and trying to keep pace with K.C. in the AFC West, must be relishing the rematch. The 7-6 Bengals are allowing 4.7 yards per rush, the second-worst average in the NFL.

HE CAN HANDLE IT

It's a sad fact of football life in Detroit that Barry Sanders doesn't handle the ball all that often. He has a better average gain per play (rushing attempts combined with pass receptions) than any other running back in the NFL. Yet heading into Monday night's game with the Raiders, the 4-8 Lions were getting the ball to Sanders less this season (17.5 times per game) than in 1989 (20.3), when he was the league's No. 2 rusher and was voted Offensive Rookie of the Year. You figure it out. Among the 26 running backs with at least 150 combined rushes and receptions this season, here are the 10 who are averaging at least five yards per play.

PLAYER, Team

Rush Atts.

Rec.

Total Plays

Avg. Gain

BARRY SANDERS, Lions

184

26

210

6.09

BRAD MUSTER, Bears

118

40

158

5.96

THURMAN THOMAS, Bills

215

41

256

5.86

ALBERT BENTLEY, Colts

127

57

184

5.72

GARY ANDERSON, Bucs

145

31

176

5.63

JAMES BROOKS, Bengals

146

24

170

5.48

KEVIN MACK, Browns

120

37

157

5.40

JOHN L.WILLIAMS, Seahawks

155

62

217

5.39

LORENZO WHITE, Oilers

135

30

165

5.26

NEAL ANDERSON, Bears

227

39

266

5.21

THE DAMN PEDESTAL AWARD

"Everybody's putting them up on such a damn pedestal," says Bengal safety David Fulcher of the 49ers, who he thinks are overrated. Whatever, they sure have Cincinnati's number. The Bengals have led or been tied in the final two minutes of their past four games with San Francisco and lost all of them. Here's how:

DATE

SCORE

COMEBACK PLAY (TIME REMAINING)

11-4-84

23-17

Solomon 4 pass from Montana (1:39)

9-20-87

27-26

Rice 25 pass from Montana (0:00)

1-22-89

20-16

Taylor 10 pass from Montana (:34)

12-9-90

20-17

Cofer 23 FG, to tie (:57)
Cofer 23 FG, to win (8:48 of OT)

HEY, MARV LEVY! BOTTLE THAT PERFECTION

The Bills' inside-the-20 offense must be one of the most efficient ever. On its 50th foray of the season inside an opponent's 20-yard line, Buffalo committed its first turnover in that zone: Running back Don Smith fumbled at the Colt one. It didn't matter. Buffalo won 31-7.

TRIPS INSIDE 20

TD

FG

MISSED FG

TURNOVERS

52

33

13

5

1

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)