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COMMENTARY

No Free Passes in This League

September 19, 2004|Bob Oates | Special to The Times

The Carolina Panthers, who in the Super Bowl last winter seemed to be an NFL comer, will see if they can avoid an 0-2 start today in Kansas City.

In a 24-14 game that wasn't that close, they lost the first one Monday night to a Green Bay team that operated most efficiently in one-back formations.

The Panthers had much the best of the statistics but hardly any passing attack. In the Super Bowl last February, new Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, uncharacteristically, hit on long passes and nearly upset New England.

When Monday night's game was on the line, Delhomme, throwing to good receivers Steve Smith and Ricky Proehl, hit only a few key throws. His performance was an indication that his coach, John Fox, needs to bring in a good pass-offense coach.

The Packers won convincingly by threatening through the night with a modern two-front attack mounted by passer Brett Favre and runner Ahman Green.

On Green Bay running plays, Favre was always threatening to throw. A statistical result was 119 yards gained rushing in 33 carries by Green, an average of 3.6 yards a run.

On Green Bay passing plays, Green was a constant threat to run. Favre passed for 143 yards on a 15-for-22 night, an average of 6.5 yards a pass and 9.5 yards a completion.

The way Green and Favre interspersed runs with passes -- while their teammates held off Carolina's blitzers -- added up to a lesson in how to play winning football. To watch the Panthers, though, is to question whether they're well enough acquainted with pass offense to get the lesson.

One-Back Time

In the NFL, fullbacks are passe. One-back football is here now, and Clinton Portis will be the back on one of the NFL's new one-back teams, the Washington Redskins, in the attack on the New York Giants today in Giants Stadium.

Portis, undertaking his first run for the Redskins last week, scored from 64 yards out -- on the third play of the game -- heading left, then, at the line of scrimmage, cutting away abruptly to his right.

In Coach Joe Gibbs' first game back, that was almost all the offense Washington could muster. But in a 16-10 game, it was enough because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after Joey Galloway was injured, played without their top three receivers and their top running back, Michael Pittman.

Gibbs brought one-back football to the Redskins in his first Washington tour, 1981-92. In the same era, Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly rode the one-back to four consecutive Super Bowls. But as a power formation, it had been catching on slowly. Then, on opening night, Corey Dillon and Edgerrin James ran wild for the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts in a game New England won, 27-24. It's a one-back league now.

Fullbacks Useless

The mystery is why any team uses a blocking back. Even if he makes a perfect block, there are two bodies in the ballcarrier's way, the blocker and the man he's blocking. Those bodies just make it harder for a runner to slip and slide into the line.

There's inevitably a small opening somewhere in the line if a fullback isn't there shutting out the view. And in Week 1, Portis, Dillon, James and Green all squeezed through little gaps for big yards.

With an extra tight end instead of a fullback, there are always two directions in which to run power plays. Alternatively, when a team attacks with one tight end, one back and three wide receivers, an offense can be even more disruptive.

When wide receivers or tight ends replace fullbacks, they provide the offense with more experienced pass catchers than most fullbacks are, and they're faster.

It has taken too many teams too long to figure this out.

Can Portis Take It?

The Redskins overused their new tailback in the opener. After beginning the day with his 64-yard touchdown, Portis, who stands 5 feet 11 and carries not more than 205 pounds, ran 28 more times and was pounded a lot on most plays. At that rate, he'll never last the season.

In the NFC East, teams want to run the ball and beat the stuffing out of ballcarriers, and that is Portis' fate now.

It was also John Riggins' fate when Gibbs had him in the 1980s, but Riggins, unlike Portis, was a big, tough guy.

Against the Buccaneers, Portis was usually running on first and second down and usually failing to get a first down, meaning that Redskin quarterback Mark Brunell was usually passing on third and four or more. That is Gibbs' passing down, but Brunell made no big hits.

In fact, after their early touchdown, the Redskins scored only three field goals. Considering that Gibbs is basically an offensive coach, that wasn't much offense in a game that could well have ended 6-3 (either way) if not for Portis' dramatic, broken-play touchdown.

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