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PASSING YARDAGE IS DOWN, BUT DEFENSIVE SCHEMES DON'T DESERVE ALL THE CREDIT

Oct. 14, 1996
Oct. 14, 1996

Table of Contents
Oct. 14, 1996

Faces In The Crowd

PASSING YARDAGE IS DOWN, BUT DEFENSIVE SCHEMES DON'T DESERVE ALL THE CREDIT

The West Coast offense is no longer the blue plate special in
the NFL. Passing is down. The quality of quarterbacking is way
down. Zone-blitzing defenses are spreading terror, and offenses
can't figure out how to handle them.

This is an article from the Oct. 14, 1996 issue Original Layout

Through Sunday, 24 of the 30 teams in the NFL have thrown for
fewer yards per game than they did at the same time last year.
O.K., you can argue that teams are emphasizing the running game,
but only 14 of the 30 are rushing for more yards than they did
in '95. Is it time to panic, to make even more rules to favor
the offense?

"What more can they do?" says 49ers middle linebacker Gary
Plummer. "Make us play 10 guys to their 12?"

"It's cyclical," Detroit coach Wayne Fontes says. "Someone's
going to come up with another fangle-dangle offense and it'll go
crazy for a while, then the defenses will catch up to that."

Right now, quarterbacking is taking the big hit. All of this
season's top 10 passing yardage leaders have thrown for fewer
yards than they had after six weeks last year. The ratings,
which supposedly measure efficiency rather than mileage, are
also gloomy. Of the 10 top-ranked QBs at this point last season,
only three, Dan Marino, Jim Harbaugh and Brett Favre, have
improved their grades. Six are down, and one, Chris Miller, is
out of football.

Are sacks way up? Not enough to be a factor. Interceptions?
Ditto. How about scoring? It's only down one point per team, per
game; no big trend there. Nope, the big change is in passing.

It's too early to tell, some people say. Free agency has
scrambled too many offenses, and the players will be getting in
sync pretty soon. Not to worry.

"I disagree," says 49ers offensive adviser Bill Walsh, who
brought all those Super Bowls to San Francisco. "These are very
telling stats. They're reliable. They're real.

"Teams are relying more on multiple formations, men in motion,
multiple receiver combinations. They're wearing themselves out
with it. So much is done for affect, rather than the effect.
They're using these spread offenses and throwing into defenses
designed to stop just that."

One of the defenses he's talking about is the zone blitz. Speed
people--linebackers and defensive backs--are rushing the passer,
linemen drop off to cover the short areas, and the zone defenses
behind them are designed to confuse the quarterback on his
reads, either eliminating the quick dump-off pass or holding it
to a minimal gain. What you're seeing are a lot of six-yard
completions on third-and-eight.

Sometimes a passer reads blitz when it doesn't really exist.
There are still only four people rushing, they're just different
people. Smaller, quicker people. Decision time is cut down.
Younger quarterbacks, less skilled than the Marinos and Elways
who entered the league in the 1980s, get rattled. The older ones
are, well, old, and their lack of mobility hurts them. And then
you have 330-pound offensive linemen struggling to block on the
move, to cut off all those arrows whizzing at their quarterback.
"You have the worst athletes on the field trying to block the
best," Patriots coach Bill Parcells says.

"Television analysts glorify those overweight linemen with the
big guts, the pants that are too tight," Walsh says, "but teams
are winning despite them, not because of them. By the fourth
quarter they're gasping, they're struggling. They can't keep up.
They'd be much more efficient if they were 30 pounds lighter."

There's still another theory to consider about the downswing in
passing--that officials just aren't calling the game the way
they used to. The cheap interference call downfield is harder to
come by this year. You know the drill: Third-and-long, the
quarterback heaves up a desperation pass, there's marginal
contact, the offense gets the call, and the drive stays alive.
This year the officials are letting more stuff go and, say many
offensive coaches, they're failing to enforce the five-yard bump
rule on defensive backs.

"They're not allowed to hit the receiver beyond five yards,"
says San Diego offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, "but
they're grabbing them 15, 20 yards downfield. In camp we bring
officials in to explain things and I say, 'That's illegal,
right?' They say, 'Well, it depends how much he grabbed him.'

"I tell them, 'Jeez, I hope St. Peter's that way, because if he
grades on the degree I've sinned, I might have a chance at
heaven after all.'"

--Paul Zimmerman

Dr. Z's weekly Internet NFL preview is at
www.sportsillustrated.com.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Quarterbacks are having to deal with defensive backs getting in their faces, and they're not coping well. [Kansas City quarterback about to be sacked]