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Aggressive Play Is Paying Off for Colts, Rams

Commentary: Because defenses are stacked to stop the run, throwing the ball on first down pays dividends in the modern era.


Last Sunday's Miami-Indianapolis game could well have been the NFL's most historic of the season.

A preseason Super Bowl favorite, the Miami Dolphins (8-4), came to the end of the line, apparently, in a spectacular 37-34 shootout.

On their home field, the Dolphins couldn't outscore the longshot Indianapolis Colts (10-2), who emerged as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

The Colts' 23-year-old quarterback, Peyton Manning, had shot it out with and prevailed over Miami's 38-year-old superstar--dangerous Dan Marino--despite Marino's three touchdown passes.

In Carolina, there also was a big day for another NFL team, the Rams, who, after years of struggle and sorrow in Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis, stood as a division champion for the first time in the 1990s.

None of that was coincidental or novel. As they have for most of the year, the Colts and Rams played similarly aggressive first-half football.

The Colts got ahead of Miami by 14 points in the second quarter, when the Rams opened a 21-point lead in Carolina.

Subsequently, the Ram defense needed a big fourth-quarter play--an interception returned for a touchdown--to hang on, 34-21, and claim the NFC Western title for St. Louis.

And the Colts needed two long fourth-quarter field goals to beat the Dolphins.

Manning and Ram quarterback Kurt Warner were saved by their fast starts, and both Miami and Carolina lost because their offensive teams played safe, predictable football too long.


Form Reversal: For reasons best known only to himself, Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson has kept Marino under wraps.

By the second half of the Indianapolis game, however, a conservative effort was no longer an option.

Thereafter, Marino appeared to be the best quarterback on the field--as he normally is whenever he is allowed to throw first-down passes.

And the Miami crowd saw a striking second-half form reversal.

Attacking the Colts the way the Colts had earlier attacked the Dolphins, Marino caught up, 34-34, with a series of first-down passes to receivers Tony Martin and Oronde Gadsden that succeeded for the usual reason: On first-down plays, their opponents continued to play Miami to run the ball.

On one third-quarter move, Marino, who had spent much of the first half handing off to rookie running back J.J. Johnson, drove 55 yards on successive first-down passes, throwing to Gadsden for 22 yards and then to Martin for the 33-yard touchdown.

Strangely extending a classic form reversal, Indianapolis in the second half ducked into the shell that Miami had inhabited in the first half.

In other words, for most of the second half, the Colts played conventional NFL 1999 offense, playing into the hands of a Miami defense that Coach Johnson had built for that kind of offense.


The great Marino: In his last eight quarters, starting on Thanksgiving Day, Marino has been charged with two defeats, even though he played winning football.

The man still has almost all of his talent.

Thus, on occasional scrambles against Indianapolis, he threw the deep-out pass with all of his old power.

And on his touchdown throws--all three of them--Marino invariably illustrated that he still has whatever it takes: long-ball accuracy, medium-range zing, short-range touch.

He remains one of the great passers of the century.

In recent years, however, his coaches have had to grade him on third-down production because they prefer running plays on first and second down.

And on third down, no passer can be consistently effective. A third-down pass is a test of defense, not passer.

So the Marino story is in a sense a sad story.

Though a Super Bowl champion in ability, he may never get back there because his coach, a great one, misunderstands pass offense.


Another late hit: In Carolina last week, Ram quarterback Kurt Warner threw two of his three touchdown passes before Panther linebacker Kevin Greene smashed him after the ball was gone on another pass play.

It was the first big hit of Warner's NFL career.

He was dropped like a boxer downed for a count of four or five--and that, obviously, was Greene's intention.

Although the league will probably rule that it wasn't a late hit, I'd say it was.

Greene, head down, kept sprinting toward Warner for a long moment after he could have held up.

Shortly thereafter, Ram linebacker Todd Collins, drawing a bead similarly on Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein, held up, and only brushed the passer.

I've seen Greene do it his way before.

He should be punished.


The new Giants: What did it take to create the most surprising score of the week: Giants 41, Jets 28?

It took reborn quarterback Kerry Collins, rookie running back Joe Montgomery, and sudden signal-caller Sean Payton.

Payton, the Giants' quarterback coach, was appointed to his new role by the club's former signal caller, Coach Jim Fassel.

And in his first NFL chance, he continuously involved Collins and Montgomery, much as Indianapolis, in most games, has involved Manning and Edgerrin James.

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