One way to look at the 7-3 Dallas Cowboys, who are home to 8-2 Carolina today in pro football's game of the week, is to note that they restricted hard-driving New England to a single touchdown last Sunday night -- on the Patriots' field.
Statistically, they excelled against the team that leads the AFC East by two games. Although in the end the youthful Cowboys were blanked, 12-0, their young quarterback, Quincy Carter, just about held his own with Tom Brady, a quarterback who only two seasons ago was the Super Bowl most valuable player.
One way to look at the Carolina Panthers is to count their victories over good teams this year. They were the first to expose Tampa Bay. They surprised New Orleans. They won at Indianapolis. They proved they could beat New Orleans twice -- and Tampa twice -- and the truth is that slumping Tampa would be tied for the lead in the division if it had only beaten Carolina.
It's quarterback Jake Delhomme who has lately made the Panthers a sound, well balanced team. In the media age of personalities, his running back, Stephen Davis, got the final touchdown and the credit for edging Washington last week, 20-17, but Delhomme's 317 yards passing won the game.
On defense, the Cowboys will be a handful today for Delhomme and Davis, but the Panthers figure to win because they'll run the ball, somewhat, whereas Dallas can't run it much.
New Kind of 49er
The San Francisco 49ers' new leader, Tim Rattay, in his second NFL start, continued as a big-play quarterback Monday night with possibly the 49ers' longest series of well placed passes.
As someone said after Rattay's first start two weeks back when his passes upset the Rams, he hasn't been hit yet. Quarterbacks who have been are different from those who haven't, more skittish, less poised.
Still, Rattay is starting fast.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who fell, 30-14, are a passing team too, and their passer, Tommy Maddox, kept them in the game for a while.
But the Steelers have been airing it out only in this century. Through the 1990s, as coached by an old conservative, Bill Cowher, they were a traditional run-the-ball-stop-the-run team.
Against San Francisco, they looked like a passing team that doesn't practice passing enough, doesn't quite get the hang.
The 49ers, in contrast, converted to passing under their 1980s coach, Bill Walsh, and seemed much more polished, particularly with Rattay, whose six misses on a 21-for-27 passing night were mostly all throwaways.
The West Coast offense, which has spread from the 49ers to much of football, college and pro, began with Bill Walsh's first quarterback in 1981, Joe Montana. At the time, Walsh was a full-service passing coach who tailored his repertoire to the short-pass West Coast system because Montana was more comfortable and more accurate throwing short than long.
Although Walsh's next quarterback, Steve Young, was a good long passer, the 49ers continued in the West Coast because it worked so successfully. The 49ers' most recent quarterback, Jeff Garcia, now injured, is a West Coast type, meaning that he can effectively play ball-control with short passes.
Rattay is something new in San Francisco, a bomber, potentially, with a knack for throwing long passes on target and on time, with some touch, though he stands only about 6 feet, and weighs no more than 200. Nor has he been hit yet.
The Kansas City Chiefs' setback last Sunday wasn't a momentous happening. It had to happen someday soon. The momentous thing was their season-opening nine-game winning streak. Coach Dick Vermeil's feat should be accepted for what it was: an extraordinary achievement in an era of parity.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins, the NFL's lone unbeaten team (14-0), had a much easier time of it in their year.
For one thing, they played a shorter schedule. For another, there was no league concern about parity in those days, when the '72 Dolphins played a few stiffs.
Most important, the early 1970s were a one-dimension era with little passing.
On the Los Angeles afternoon when the Dolphins won the 1973 Super Bowl, they completed only eight -- eight! -- passes. Out of 11. When they won the Super Bowl again a year later, they threw seven passes, completing six.
You can't win that way now. Since the 1980s when 49er coach Walsh opened up the game, this has increasingly become a passing league. If you think Coach Marvin Lewis has a nothing team in Cincinnati, well, a nothing team today can still throw bombs.
And it was a well-aimed bomb -- Jon Kitna's long, long fourth-quarter pass on a 77-yard touchdown play -- that brought down the Chiefs, 24-19. Nothing remotely like that happened to the '72 Dolphins. Or could have happened.
Lewis toppled Kansas City with precisely the kind of winning football never seen by the 1972 Dolphins or their peers -- attack football.