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COMMENTARY

They're Having Bear of Time Passing Ball

October 20, 2002|Bob Oates | Special to the Times

Football fans comparing the Chicago Bears against other pro clubs this year have been struck by one obvious difference: The Bears have the least sophisticated pass offense in the league.

The problem is more than the Bears' simple insistence on running repetitiously. Clearly, their coaches also lack a deep understanding of modern pass offense.

The Bears could, of course, improve some today at Detroit, where they're favored over a team with a long current history of losing. By kickoff time, thanks to a bye in their schedule, the Bears will have had two weeks to change gears.

In the season's first five games, though, they offered little hope for much improvement. Starting 2-3 as a defending division champion, the Bears regularly presented the opposite of a well-oiled, well-coached offense.

With some above-average receivers plus Anthony Thomas at running back and Jim Miller at quarterback -- who has tendinitis in his shoulder and will be replaced today by Chris Chandler -- the Chicago talent structure is adequate. But on a daily basis, the Bears, plainly, don't practice pass plays enough.

And with any game on the line, they don't pass enough to learn what an effective passing groove is. They don't really compete.

Must Run AND Pass

For a football team to win its share of games, the requirement is an offensive system that, on most plays, challenges the defense with a double threat: running and passing. The Bears instead usually line up and run the ball with Thomas.

Or, on third and long, they stand back and throw it.

In other words, they tell the defense what's coming and then do just that.

It's a measure of how good Thomas and Miller are that they're separately proving that if they were coupled as an integrated threat, they'd really excel.

The winning teams this year are doing it with a twin threat -- San Diego, for instance, with young quarterback Drew Brees and running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

To win last week, 35-34, the Chargers confused Kansas City's defensive players on most snaps by threatening simultaneously with tough runner Tomlinson and able quarterback Brees, the San Diego passer who put it up 41 times for 319 yards -- on a team coached by Marty Schottenheimer, the plucky former conservative.

The Bears, if they understood what has been happening to them, could do the same. Their passer, Miller, has the ability of a top-five NFL quarterback. Their runner, Thomas, could run forever against a defense anticipating Miller. Bear fans need just that.

A Lesson for Chicago

The classic example of a pro club that knows how to integrate running and passing is a ballclub in Chicago's own division, Green Bay.

At the moment, the Packers are playing the best in the league with twin threats Brett Favre and Ahman Green, who have been the most effective quarterback and running back this season.

Realizing that NFL defense is better than ever this season, the Packers, however, don't run the league's best running back too often. Nor does Favre necessarily throw on every passing down. On a typical snap, the Green Bay preference, instead, is to fake a pass, then run. Or fake a run, then throw.

Characteristic of the Favre-Green offense last Sunday against New England were the two plays that led the Packers to their touchdown in the third quarter that made it 21-3 and sent them to a big victory against a team that had been outplaying them. Both times -- on plays executed several moments apart -- Favre faked to Green sweeping right, then rolled left to get a timely completion. That is integrated offense.

Sunday's final score (Green Bay, 28-10) doesn't accurately reflect a game that seemed to belong to New England through most of the first half. Only in the last three minutes of the half, after a tremendous break -- an errant Patriot lateral that put the Packers on the Patriot eight -- did Favre finally get the upper hand with an eight-yard touchdown pass, 14-3. That throw went to Green, who, in a running set, had begun as a running-play threat as usual, confusing the Patriots on both ends of the play.

The ball was thrown on first down -- a down on which, in Chicago, the Bears are usually running the ball with Thomas. And Favre threw it from a point inside the opponent's 10-yard line, where conservative teams like Chicago always seem to be running on first down.

Knox Trophy

Ahman Green -- how's that for the name of a Green Bay star? -- is often overlooked when football fans talk about the game's best runners. Yet Green has been the making of the 21st century Packers.

He has not only exceeded 1,000 yards as a ground gainer in each of his two seasons at Green Bay, he also led the club in receiving those seasons.

Speaking of classic examples, Green, who used to play for the Seattle Seahawks, is this year's candidate for what should be an annual Chuck Knox trophy. When Knox was coaching the old Los Angeles Rams to a record five consecutive division titles, he always said: "Absolutely the worst mistake you can make is to cut a good player."

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