The Redskins were in trouble against the Ravens' stingy defense.
Washington had done next to nothing in its first six drives of
the Oct. 15 game (punt, punt, punt, field goal, fumble,
interception), and now, tied 3-3 early in the fourth quarter with
the ball at the Baltimore 33, the Skins looked as if they might
have to settle for a long field goal attempt to break the
deadlock. In the huddle quarterback Brad Johnson stared at
234-pound workhorse running back Stephen Davis as he barked out
the 18-word play. But "50 Slant" was all Davis needed to hear.
"It's the most basic running play in any playbook," says Terry
Robiskie, Washington's passing-game coordinator and offensive
game planner. "Man-to-man blocking, back reads the hole and gets
what he can. When football was invented, there was 50 Slant."
"They were putting it on my back, which I love," Davis says. "You
better want that pressure if you want to be a great back today."
Getting a seal block from left tackle Chris Samuels, Davis
jostled through the line, juked a couple of defenders, tossed
safety Rod Woodson aside with a stiff-arm and sprinted for the
touchdown. Final score: Redskins 10, Ravens 3. "We might be in a
new century with all these big offensive stars," Robiskie says.
"But this season is proving again that you have to run to win,
and to protect your lead in the fourth quarter."
This year the league is on pace to have more 1,200-yard rushers
(13) than any season in history. (The NFL record is 10.) It's no
coincidence that six of the eight teams that have or share a
division lead have such a player. The other two employ an
interchangeable pair who would fall into that category--the
Giants' duo of Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne (a projected 2,038
yards) and the Raiders' combo of Tyrone Wheatley and Napoleon
Perhaps as important as having a top-notch runner is having a
back who can take charge late in the game. Through Sunday,
Indianapolis and Minnesota had the most prolific fourth-quarter
backs, Edgerrin James (with 351 yards in the final period) and
Robert Smith (321), respectively. Davis, Marshall Faulk of the
Rams and Eddie George of the Titans were 3-4-5 on that list. The
teams of those five were a combined 32-7. Arguably the best five
teams in football are the teams that have a Mariano Rivera. "One
question," Smith said last Friday, settling into his car for the
drive home from practice. "Who's Mariano Rivera?"
He's you, Robert. The closer.
The reliance on a running back to close the deal is one of
several trends that emerged in the first half of the season. Here
are two others:
--Quarterbacks are going mobile. Heading into this year,
starting signal-callers had never averaged more than 12.8
rushing yards per game over the course of a season. Even with
Steve Young and John Elway in retirement, that number was at
15.7 yards through Sunday. The trend began in week one, when
Chicago coach Dick Jauron called eight quarterback draws for
Cade McNown; McNown and Minnesota counterpart Daunte Culpepper
combined for a remarkable 160 yards on the ground. Those two
quarterbacks, along with the Eagles' Donovan McNabb and
Oakland's Rich Gannon, all rank among the top 20 in their
conference in rushing.
--The Rams are spawning imitators of their quick-hitting passing
game. As Minnesota scout Jeff Robinson says, "You can't do what
the Rams do, but a lot of the things they do you can imitate,
like using shorter routes for the quicker, smaller receivers so
they can find the open seam."
While no other team averages as many as 30 points per game, the
Rams are putting up 41.3. How do you stop them? "We'll make them
go on long drives," says one coach on St. Louis's November
schedule. "We'll give them the 12-yard completions, as long as
we've got a safety between the receiver and the goal line. And
we'll tell our offense: Don't snap the ball until two seconds are
left on the 40-second clock. We won't stop them, but we can
control how many possessions they have."
The best solution, ultimately, is to do what Bill Parcells made
snoozingly successful with the Giants in the late 1980s and early
'90s: Play clockball. En route to winning it all in 1990, New
York held the juggernaut 49ers and the explosive Bills to a
combined 32 points by playing keepaway in the NFC Championship
Game and the Super Bowl. Jimmy Johnson turned around the Cowboys
in the early '90s with a balanced attack, but running back Emmitt
Smith was his closer. Now teams are running to save games and to
keep quick-strike offenses chilling on the sidelines. "If you
look across the board, teams are trying to keep the fast-break
offenses off the field," Robinson says. "That's why I think
everybody's emphasizing the run a little more."
Conversely, the teams that can't run late suffer. Perfect case in
point: Miami, which was trying to protect a 30-7 fourth-quarter
lead against the Jets on Oct. 23. All the Dolphins had to do was
run time off the clock on a couple of drives to keep the ball
away from the Jets. Though Lamar Smith had run for 140 yards in
the first three periods, Miami coach Dave Wannstedt chose a bad
time to rest his starter for a series. ("We just wanted to give
Lamar a break," Wannstedt says.) The Dolphins went three-and-out
on that possession, Miami's first of the fourth quarter, and on
the next two as well (with Smith picking up a total of only three
yards). Because Miami couldn't run much time off the clock, the
Jets got five fourth-quarter possessions, scored on all of them,
forced overtime and won 40-37. "The Dolphins lost for one
reason," says Raiders player personnel executive Mike Lombardi.
"They couldn't run in the fourth quarter."
The second half, and the fourth quarter in particular, is Robert
Smith's favorite time of the game. At 6'2" and 210 pounds Smith
is fairly slender for a dominant back. He looks as if he should
be a make-'em-miss runner, and he tries to play that way. But he
can also pound and mash inside. Smith benefits from Minnesota's
terrific passing game, which keeps the strong safety away from
the line of scrimmage on all but obvious running plays. A defense
can put an eighth man up to stop a great runner like Cincinnati's
Corey Dillon because it has no respect for the Bengals' passing
attack. But even when that eighth man starts to creep up in the
fourth quarter, Smith can be a terrific closer.
"The fourth quarter is the time a great back has to dominate, and
I love it when they put it on me," says Smith. The fire in his
voice is unmistakable. "There's no better feeling in football."
The Vikings were nursing a 23-20 lead in their season opener
against the Bears and had the ball on their 35-yard line with six
minutes left. Culpepper handed the ball to Smith for a seemingly
routine run off left tackle. With a Sayers-like juke at the line
Smith made two defenders miss and he was off. Fifty-nine yards
later he was finally shoved out-of-bounds. The Vikings scored
three plays later. Ball game. "There's something about a long run
versus a long pass," says Smith. "Especially late. Eleven guys
are out there on defense, sucking wind. On a long pass maybe only
two or three get beat and get demoralized. On a long run you're
deflating 11 guys. It's disheartening for a defense."
Smith and his teammates believe it's important to stick with the
run even when the offense is struggling. In the October rematch
with the Bears, Minnesota trailed 9-0 midway through the second
quarter. Smith had been bottled up, and Culpepper had completed
only 2 of 8 throws in the first four possessions. "I remember
walking up and down the sideline, telling the guys, 'Let's go to
work,'" Smith says. "We can be shut down for a long time, but the
attitude we have is, no one's shutting us down for a game."
The next time Minnesota got the ball, at its own 28, the Bears
crowded the line with the strong safety, the eighth man in the
box, cheating toward the line. Culpepper stuck with the run, but
to take the safety out of the play, he audibled so that Smith
would run left instead of right. Wideouts Cris Carter and Randy
Moss made good downfield blocks, and Smith coasted into the end
zone after a 72-yard run.
By halftime Minnesota led 14-9. The final: Vikings 28, Bears 16.
Increasingly teams are turning to the run. On Oct. 22 the Chiefs
got 96 of their 106 rushing yards in the fourth quarter of their
upset of the Rams. On Sunday, St. Louis, following that lead, ran
for 72 yards in the fourth period of a 34-24 win over the 49ers.
When the Colts needed to thwart a Lions rally, they handed the
ball to Edgerrin James, who piled up 89 fourth-quarter yards. In
Tampa, Mike Alstott rushed for all but two of his 56 yards in the
final period to close the Bucs' 41-13 rout of Minnesota.
When that last game was over, the hammers did not look good.
Smith dressed slowly, careful to maneuver his short-sleeve dress
shirt over a bloody three-inch gash below his right elbow that
had yet to be bandaged. Because the Vikings had fallen so far
behind so early, Smith was used more as a blocker of blitzers and
an underneath receiver (seven catches, 53 yards) than a rusher
(12 rushes, 61 yards). "All I know is if you had to play this
kind of game 16 weeks, you'd never survive," he said.
Alstott moved slowly around Tampa Bay's locker room. He was
walking past Warren Sapp as the defensive tackle said, "The key
to this game? The offense eating eight minutes off the clock in
the third quarter, then dominating the fourth quarter. That's
"Eight, nine men in the box, everyone knowing you'll run--that's
my kind of game," said Alstott, who picked up first downs on half
his eight carries in the fourth quarter.
Alstott excused himself for a moment to spit into a cup that was
already half full with tobacco juice. He epitomizes the tough,
stoic back who wants the game placed squarely on his shoulder
pads. "Running the football," Alstott said, "is about who's gonna
hit the other guy in the mouth all day and survive. And
Midseason All-Pro Team
He doesn't lead the NFL in rushing, and he doesn't even lead his
own team in plaudits. Still, in a poll of 20 NFL scouts, general
managers and personnel directors, the Rams' Marshall Faulk, sixth
in the league in rushing and ninth in receptions, was chosen the
MVP, edging out teammate Kurt Warner. Faulk also beat a slew of
deserving candidates to get the nod at running back. Here are the
leading vote-getters at each position.
WR RANDY MOSS, Vikings 15
WR MARVIN HARRISON, Colts 8
TE TONY GONZALEZ, Chiefs 17
T JONATHAN OGDEN, Ravens 12
T ORLANDO PACE, Rams 6
G LARRY ALLEN, Cowboys 12
G BRUCE MATTHEWS, Titans 5
C KEVIN MAWAE, Jets 12
QB KURT WARNER, Rams 13
RB MARSHALL FAULK, Rams 10
FB LORENZO NEAL, Titans 4
E HUGH DOUGLAS, Eagles 13
E MARCO COLEMAN, Redskins 7
T WARREN SAPP, Bucs 19
T LA'ROI GLOVER, Saints 11
OLB DERRICK BROOKS, Bucs 13
OLB DONNIE EDWARDS, Chiefs 5
MLB RAY LEWIS, Ravens 11
CB SAM MADISON, Dolphins 15
CB CHAMP BAILEY, Redskins 10
FS KURT SCHULZ, Lions 6
SS JOHN LYNCH, Bucs 6
K MIKE VANDERJAGT, Colts 7
P CHRIS GARDOCKI, Browns 8
Ret. DARRICK VAUGHN, Falcons 3
Offensive rookie: MIKE ANDERSON, Broncos RB
Defensive rookie: BRIAN URLACHER, Bears LB
Coach: DENNIS GREEN, Vikings
Executive: RANDY MUELLER, Saints G.M.
The Crystal Ball
It has been a strange season, in many ways. Look at the
standings. The Saints are a game better than the Broncos, and
the Giants and the Eagles two better than the Bills and the
Jaguars, respectively. Which is why it's folly to try to predict
the playoff seedings and forecast how the postseason will play
out. But we're not going to let that stop us.
1. TITANS (13-3) Any team with Eddie George running and safety
Blaine Bishop hitting is a threat to win it all. The schedule in
the last six weeks (Browns twice, Bengals, Jaguars and Cowboys)
makes it clear: The AFC road to the Super Bowl goes through
2. RAIDERS (12-4) They finally seem to be off their roller
coaster. The one-two punch of Tyrone Wheatley and Napoleon
Kaufman is the reason. This team can run on anyone.
3. COLTS (11-5) Peyton Manning is on pace for a 4,876-yard
passing season, which would be the second highest in league
history. Imagine what he could do against his own defense.
4. JETS (11-5) An underrated defense will keep them close every
week, but they're doomed if quarterback Vinny Testaverde
continues to play at his best for only parts of games.
5. RAVENS (9-7) Coach Brian Billick may pull out all his hair
before the Ravens host the Jets on Christmas Eve in the
6. CHIEFS (9-7) They'll go a long way toward locking up a
playoff spot by winning two of three on a swing through
California (at Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego) in
November. The December schedule is soft.
1. MINNESOTA (13-3) It's a tough road, with two divisional
showdowns against Green Bay and road trips in December to St.
Louis and Indy, but Daunte Culpepper will be up to it.
2. WASHINGTON (12-4) Quietly, and with subpar receivers, Brad
Johnson is playing lights out. With running back Stephen Davis
healthy and a vastly improved defense, the Skins have a recipe
3. RAMS (12-4) This seeding is not so far-fetched when you
consider that Kurt Warner may miss a month and that the defense
has given up 31.5 points per game, 30th in the league. Bud
Carson, work your magic.
4. BUCCANEERS (10-6) The rout of the Vikings shows they'll be a
force in January--provided offensive coordinator Les Steckel
remembers to open things up every week.
5. LIONS (10-6) The blueprint is simple: Pound with a monstrous
line until the opposing defense wears down, then let running
back James Stewart win games in the fourth quarter.
6. GIANTS (10-6) They'll edge the surprising Saints for the last
playoff berth, but a New Year's Eve trip to St. Louis will
dispel any illusions about how good they are.
AFC WILD-CARD ROUND: Colts 31, Chiefs 26; Jets 19, Ravens 3
NFC WILD-CARD ROUND: Bucs 20, Lions 10; Rams 48, Giants 17
AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS: Colts 35, Raiders 20; Titans 24, Jets 22
NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS: Bucs 24, Vikings 23; Redskins 33, Rams 30
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Titans 31, Colts 20
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Redskins 20, Bucs 11
SUPER BOWL XXXV: Titans 25, Redskins 20