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COMMENTARY

McNair Rewards Titans When Green Light's On

November 16, 2003|Bob Oates | Special to The Times

The Tennessee Titans, more conservative than most NFL teams, have always preferred runs to passes. But their famous old runner, Eddie George, who is averaging a bleak 2.9 yards this season, can't move them. Neither can any other Titan runner.

So, reluctantly, the Titans have asked quarterback Steve McNair to throw.

And that simple change has turned McNair into pro football's player of the year, as should be evident when 7-2 Tennessee entertains 2-7 Jacksonville today.

That isn't the way Titan Coach Jeff Fisher envisioned the season.

Fisher had hoped George would come back from an off year with a big year.

But when you can't run, you obviously have to air it out. So, as the Titans trounced Miami last Sunday, 31-7, McNair became the offense again, advancing the Titans to their early three-touchdown lead with one well-directed throw after another.

Fisher, a 23-16 loser in Super Bowl XXXIV, could have upset the St. Louis Rams that evening in Atlanta if he'd played that game this way. But with McNair and George both available on his Super Bowl team, Fisher kept giving the ball to George, until it was too late.

Passing Pays Off

The well-disciplined Carolina Panthers (7-2) can expect, in comparison their game last week, a breather today when the Washington Redskins (4-5) come to town.

Last Sunday's assignment was the most difficult the Panthers have had this year, although they won it in the end, beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-24, on quarterback Jake Delhomme's sharp passes.

Throughout a dull 10-7 first half, Carolina and Tampa had joined forces to show the football world exactly how two good passing teams could play lousy offense.

From one play to the next, their coaches simply declined to throw the ball -- except as a last resort.

Indeed, these two talented teams, one the defending NFL champion and the other seemingly en route to a big season, joylessly continued the dull stuff through most of the third quarter, putting more than one spectator to sleep before their coaches pulled out of their slumber and let their passers go to work.

And, quickly, a slugfest developed into a passing game -- one of the best passing games of the NFL season, considering the stakes. When the throwing began, an extraordinary display of inept football vanished instantly.

Two Air Attacks

In the last quarter and a half at Charlotte, all this happened:

* The Panthers scored on a bomb, Delhomme's perfect long pass to former Ram wide receiver Ricky Proehl on the 66-yard play that put Tampa in arrears, 20-7.

* Stung, the Buccaneers rebounded with their first long scoring drive, in which quarterback Brad Johnson threw on almost every down and narrowed the score to 20-14.

* Alarmed, Carolina Coach John Fox thoughtlessly ducked back into his shell with a simple first-down run that went nowhere, leading to Delhomme's three-and-out series.

* Facing the renowned Panther pass defense, the Buccaneers took possession on their 35-yard line and again threw on every down -- for seven consecutive plays -- as Johnson completed six of the seven to take a 21-20 lead.

* Apparently scared out of their wits, Carolina's coaches then thoughtlessly played for a field goal with little pass plays, but the Buccaneers intercepted the second one at the Carolina 25 to give Tampa Coach Jon Gruden a chance to put the Panthers away. Instead, like Fox, Gruden thoughtlessly played for a field goal, got it, 24-20, and sat back.

* With the clock against him, Delhomme started his last-chance series on the Carolina 22, and when his coaches called for passes on every down, he showed what he was made of and what he could have been doing all day, completing five of six on the 78-yard move that won the game, 27-24.

Coaches Stubborn

The way Carolina and Tampa played those last few minutes is the way pro football could be played every Sunday, with spectacular pass plays replacing the usual diet of miserable running plays, if the coaches would do it.

Clearly, they don't want to.

Most NFL coaches seem sure they'd be taking absurd chances -- and putting their huge salaries unnecessarily in jeopardy -- with more passing in the first two or three quarters.

So if there's an option, they pointedly decline to put the ball up.

Rather, they prattle on about the overwhelming necessity to run the ball in order to set up their occasional passes, as nonsensical as that is. For, obviously, throwing the ball to set up runs is equally important -- though you seldom hear a coach putting it that way.

The coaches have even been able to get most of the media to go along with their self-serving propaganda. Every one of the electronic analysts follows the coaches' line, except Phil Simms.

On broadcast after broadcast, the analysts keep saying you have to run the ball to win pro games.

And, to be sure, there's a place for running plays -- but not, as a rule, on first down or other running downs when the chance for success is slim and when the chance for a successful pass play is so frequently there.

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