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See How They Run As more and more offenses get conservative, the resilient running back gets more and more important

Sept. 03, 2001
Sept. 03, 2001

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Sept. 3, 2001

NFL Preview 2001

See How They Run As more and more offenses get conservative, the resilient running back gets more and more important

Just when it looked as if the high-octane St. Louis Rams were
going to take offensive football to a new level, most of the
NFL's other 30 teams have dug in their heels. Conservative is
cool again. Simplicity is the strategy of the day. "When we
prepared for a team a few years ago, the coaches gave us a ton
of material to read," says Tennessee Titans linebacker Randall
Godfrey. "Now all they basically say is, 'Here are this team's
10 plays. This is what they run and how they run it. Now let's
stop it.'"

This is an article from the Sept. 3, 2001 issue Original Layout

More and more teams have adopted the philosophy that the best
offense is one that minimizes mistakes, and that means taking
fewer chances with the football. Can you blame them? Most clubs
have few options given the prevailing mediocrity at quarterback,
the ubiquitous West Coast offense, an influx of defensive players
with scary ability and the hiring of defensive coaches to fill
most head jobs. What's more, few teams have the dual luxury of a
patient owner plus salary-cap room to accumulate the talent
needed to run a wide-open system. Under the circumstances,
coaches are trying to dominate games with defense and special
teams. The popular offensive mind-set is: Just don't screw things
up.

The chief beneficiaries of this keep-it-simple approach are
running backs, and never have so many been so productive or
prominent. Last year a record 23 players rushed for at least
1,000 yards, up from 14 the previous season and seven in 1991.
More evidence: Ten backs caught at least 60 passes last season,
including five who led their teams in receptions. Look at the New
York Jets, for whom backfield partners Richie Anderson and Curtis
Martin caught 88 and 70 passes, respectively, to lead the team in
receptions.

"A lot of coaches have become predictable," says former San
Francisco 49ers coach and general manager Bill Walsh, with
evident distaste. "They'll hand the ball off on first down and
gain four yards. They'll run it again on second down and get two
yards. On third-and-four they'll throw out their
multiple-receiver packages, complete a five-yard pass and feel
relieved. Then they'll start all over again with the running."

Not every team is quite so deadly dull. St. Louis is the most
notable exception. Coach Mike Martz has built a multiple-receiver
attack that creates advantageous matchups for his speedy wideouts
and running back Marshall Faulk (page 106), the league's MVP last
year and the man around whom the Rams' attack revolves. The
Denver Broncos, third in the NFL in both rushing and passing last
season, have arguably the league's most balanced offense. The
49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota
Vikings each have a quarterback and a wideout with Pro Bowl
credentials and aren't afraid to throw the ball downfield.

On the other hand, while the low-risk offense may be boring to
watch, it's hard to argue against its success. Last season the
Baltimore Ravens went five consecutive games without an offensive
touchdown, yet rookie Jamal Lewis rushed for 1,364 yards, and the
Ravens' defense carried them to a championship. For much of the
season the New York Giants, the Ravens' opponent in the Super
Bowl, rode the one-two punch of running backs Tiki Barber and Ron
Dayne (1,776 rushing yards combined). The Titans (powered by
running back Eddie George), the Miami Dolphins (Lamar Smith) and
the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott) have all
won with similar styles: low-risk offense and stifling defense.
"You may not catch us on ESPN's highlights too often," George
says of a Tennessee team that was a league-best 26-6 over the
last two years, "but we're winning a lot of games with this
style."

An offensive mastermind like Walsh can't stand it. Wincing and
shifting uneasily in his chair, he says, "Your [low-risk] offense
never really has control, and you're always at the mercy of [the
defense] in the fourth quarter of close games. Any little mistake
can cost you."

Walsh fondly looks back to the early and mid-'90s, when the NFL
was more of a passing league with systems built around very
capable--and in many cases future Hall of Fame--quarterbacks. The
49ers and the Green Bay Packers were among several teams that
thrived with the West Coast offense. The Atlanta Falcons, the
Detroit Lions and the Houston Oilers (now Titans) used the
run-and-shoot. The Buffalo Bills created an attacking, no-huddle,
multiple-receiver package to capitalize on Jim Kelly's ability to
run the two-minute drill, going to four straight Super Bowls with
their high-scoring K-Gun offense.

The statistics were off the charts. In 1990 the Niners' Jerry
Rice became only the second player since the 1970 merger to catch
100 passes in a season. Five years later the Lions' Herman Moore
caught a league-record 123. He was one of nine players to eclipse
the century mark in 1995, but by '99 that number had dipped to
two. "There was a day when every team had its own flavor, whether
it was a power game or a vertical game or whatever," says
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent, who's entering his
10th season. "Now there's a lot of copycatting."

Part of the blame for that falls, oddly enough, on Walsh. This
season 15 of the 31 teams will run some variation of the West
Coast offense, which he developed in the late '60s and early
'70s. With the controlled-passing offense in such widespread use,
defenses now tend to know what's coming. "You see the same thing
all the time, with a wrinkle or two here and there," says
Vincent. "We run it here in Philly, so we see it every day [in
practice]."

Former San Francisco assistants, many of whom worked for Walsh,
are scattered around the league (Dennis Green in Minnesota, Mike
Holmgren in Seattle and Mike Shanahan in Denver, to name a few)
in coach or general manager-coach roles, and they in turn have
taught the West Coast offense to assistants who take the system
with them as they ascend the coaching ranks. The system is
designed to be quarterback-friendly, but in a league with too
many middling signal-callers, a lack of accuracy or the inability
to make the right reads can diminish its effectiveness. So
passers, especially those who are still trying to grasp the
offense, are likely to dump off to the backs and the tight ends.

To counter the wide-open attacks of five to 10 years ago, coaches
started searching out defensive players who were gifted
athletically and had an attack mind-set of their own. They found
shut-down cornerbacks who excel in man coverage (such as the
Oakland Raiders' Charles Woodson and the Washington Redskins'
Champ Bailey), agile tackles who collapse the pocket (Warren Sapp
of the Bucs and La'Roi Glover of the New Orleans Saints) and,
scariest of all, edge pass rushers who make Lawrence Taylor look
slow (Jevon Kearse of the Titans and Jason Taylor of the
Dolphins). "At the start of my career our defensive ends were
Sean Jones and William Fuller," says Tennessee strong safety
Blaine Bishop. "Now we've got Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter. Sean
and William were veterans who knew what they were doing, but I
know they weren't running the 40 in 4.5 seconds."

Against such defensive supertalents, many offensive coordinators
have opted to pound the ball on the ground, in hopes of forcing
the defense into an eight-man front. Only then might a team get
mismatches in the passing game. "Offenses are asking more of the
running backs because defenses are taking things away," says
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. "The only way you
can create a beneficial matchup is by getting the running back
into situations against slower linebackers."

Raiders coach Jon Gruden has become a master at this strategy.
Most of his formative years as an NFL assistant were spent in
West Coast systems in San Francisco and Green Bay, but he grew up
watching his father, Jim, coach running backs with Indiana, Notre
Dame and the Buccaneers. The old man taught his son the benefits
of power football.

Last season Oakland relied on backs Tyrone Wheatley and Napoleon
Kaufman so heavily and successfully that the team led the league
in rushing and ranked third in scoring. Owner Al Davis had long
been the league's biggest proponent of the vertical passing game,
and when Gruden arrived in 1998, Jeff George, the human howitzer,
was the Raiders' quarterback. Gruden, however, didn't like
George's penchant for ill-advised throws into coverage, so the
team declined to exercise an option on his contract and signed
unheralded free agent Rich Gannon. The deep ball all but vanished
from Oakland's offense. In fact, during a 37-game stretch, from
Oct. 11, 1998, through last Nov. 26, Oakland had only one
completion of 50 yards or more: a screen pass from Gannon to
Kaufman. Nevertheless, the productive Gannon has been to the last
two Pro Bowls.

"Our philosophy is that you have four downs to make 10 yards, and
if you can get three yards on every down, you're in good shape,"
Gruden says. "If we get Rich into a third-and-four, we like our
odds because he's very efficient in those situations. I know it's
boring to some, but a seven- to nine-minute scoring drive is
exciting to me. In fact, whenever I hear people ask why we don't
throw more bombs, I tell them to come to the game early enough
and they'll see plenty. We throw them all the time in pregame
drills."

Another factor in favor of cut-and-dried offense: Free agency and
the salary cap, which cause heavy roster turnover from year to
year, have made it difficult for offenses to establish
continuity. With personnel changing so often, the offensive
players face the tougher transition. Two of Oakland's top
free-agent acquisitions this season bear this out. Defensive end
Trace Armstrong will be a situational pass rusher, just as he was
in Miami last year when he racked up 16 1/2 sacks. His job is
unchanged; it is simply to get the quarterback. On the other hand
Rice, who is moving to split end after spending his career with
the 49ers as a flanker, has struggled to grasp new
responsibilities and new terminology in Gruden's system.

Such excuses, though, don't fly with impatient owners who have
watched the last four Super Bowl participants--the Rams, Titans,
Ravens and Giants--come off nonwinning seasons and march straight
to the NFL title game. "The days of saying you're going to build
a program are over," says Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt. "It may
sound good when you get the job, but I don't think it's
realistic. If you don't show some success in a couple of years,
you're going to get fired."

When that's happened of late, the replacement has usually been a
man who made his reputation coaching defense. Twelve of the last
16 head coaching positions have been filled by former defensive
coordinators who tend to load up on defense and craft a
conservative offense. Wannstedt fits that bill; the six
highest-paid players in Miami are defenders. (The Dolphins ranked
sixth in the NFL in total defense last year.) With playmakers Sam
Madison and Patrick Surtain at cornerback, Miami appeared set at
that position, yet the club used its first-round draft pick in
April on Wisconsin corner Jamar Fletcher. Never mind that the
Dolphins ranked 26th last year in total offense and 27th in
passing.

New Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis, who followed Wannstedt as
defensive coordinator in Dallas in 1993, needs to upgrade an
offense that ranked 30th in the league in both rushing and
passing, and last overall. So with the third selection in the
draft, Davis chose Florida defensive tackle Gerard Warren.
"Players at a couple of positions rarely come around in the
draft--franchise quarterbacks and dominating defensive linemen,"
says Davis. "Teams draft for years and never come up with guys
who can dominate the line of scrimmage."

Adds Wannstedt, "I think defensive coaches better appreciate what
loses games than offensive-minded guys do. I'm talking about
turnovers, passing too much, bad field position. There's a lot to
be gained from running on third down and punting instead of
dropping to pass and possibly taking a sack." In other words, get
used to the boring offenses. They could be around for a while.

"Everybody would love to score 40 points," says Titans general
manager Floyd Reese. "But when you look at somebody like St.
Louis, you have to get a great quarterback, three or four
top-notch receivers, a great running back and probably a pretty
good tight end. It's too costly, so you turn to the other side.
Does that mean you give up? No. There are other ways to win. You
play it close to the vest and don't make any mistakes."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL O'NEILL Eddie George TENNESSEE TITANSCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL O'NEILL Lamar Smith MIAMI DOLPHINSCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL O'NEILL Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber NEW YORK GIANTSCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL O'NEILL Warrick Dunn TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Part of the blame for the copycatting falls, oddly enough, on
Walsh. This year 15 of the 31 teams will run a variation of the
West Coast attack.
"Offenses are asking more of the running backs," says Bettis, a
nine-year veteran, "because defenses are taking things away."