Passing fancy

The Bill Walsh-inspired offensive revolution has had an unexpected drawback: Every NFL team looks the same now.



Allen Barra
September 8, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Vince Lombardi's only real complaint about football was "the importance of the quarterback position. You've got 22 guys out there," he told a Sport magazine writer after the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl victory in 1967, "and they all have an equally tough job. But if your 21 other guys play their 21 other guys to a standstill, or even if you whip them, the game can still be decided by the 22nd: the quarterback. There's no other position in sports like it as far as impact on the game goes."

Lombardi understood this even if his opponents did not. While he publicly proclaimed his "Run to Daylight" philosophy, Lombardi's championship teams actually excelled at passing and pass defense -- that is, though they never led the NFL in categories like touchdown passes or passing yards, they always finished near the top in quality passing stats such as yards per throw and interception percentage.

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How important is yards per throw? Try this little trick on Monday morning: Ask someone to open the sports page and, without telling you who played or any other statistics, ask them to give you two pieces of information -- the number of passes thrown and the number of yards gained. Then divide. Amaze your friends and tell them which team won the game. It will be the team with the highest yards-per-pass average -- or at least it has been, more than 80 percent of the time, since 1970.

And probably before that. Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns, quarterbacked by Otto Graham, dominated the stodgy old NFL defenses of the early and mid-'50s, and after that Weeb Ewbank and the Baltimore Colts, led by Johnny Unitas, took over. The pass never really lost its primacy over the run, even in the '70s, when the Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers dominated. (The 14-0 Dolphins of 1972, the team famous for running backs Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris, led the league in yards per throw at 8.6.)

But it wasn't until the late '70s, when numerous on-the-field rule changes (mostly regarding the bumping of receivers near the line of scrimmage) and roster expansion enabled the San Francisco 49ers' Bill Walsh to revolutionize the game as no NFL coach since Lombardi, or maybe even Brown, had done.

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Under Walsh, the passing game wasn't merely the most important element of football, it was football. Offensive linemen were selected and trained primarily for pass-block skills; the run was essentially used to mop up, after the game had been won with air strikes. The theory was not to wear the opposing defense down by "controlling" the ball but to pass like they vote in Chicago, early and often, taking the opposition's running game out of the picture by forcing them to play catch-up in the second half while you unleashed your pass rush on virtually every play.

Old-style purists hated Walsh-ball, but I liked it because it stressed intelligence and imagination over strength. But the Walsh influence is now revealing a drawback: The passing revolution has virtually obliterated style in pro football. The last truly classic matchup of different styles and philosophies of pro football was the 1991 Super Bowl between Bill Parcells' New York Giants and the Marv Levy-coached Buffalo Bills, with the Giants representing the slow-it-down ball-control argument, which featured big backs and bigger linemen, against the Bills' small-back, fast-break, no-huddle offense. (I don't really count last year's Rams-Titans game as a clash in styles; it looked to me as if Tennessee was trying to get its long passing game in gear and Steve McNair just kept scrambling out of the pocket when he couldn't read the defense.) Parcells' Giants were the last trace of Lombardi's influence on pro football; by the time Parcells came out of retirement, he was coaching like a Walsh disciple.

Since then, an unforeseen and, to my mind, unfortunate trend has revealed itself: The reliance on the forward pass is turning all pro football teams into faded copies of the Super Bowl champion. Everybody is playing the same kind of football. Everybody looks alike. Oh, the ex-coaches and commentators still go on about "the importance of establishing the run," but on third-and-3, with the game close in the fourth quarter, you know damn well they're going to throw the ball.

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You still hear active coaches go on about the importance of the run, but no one really thinks the St. Louis Rams are champs because of Marshall Faulk -- or at least because Faulk runs the ball from scrimmage almost as well as he catches it downfield. You still hear people talk about the kicking game and field position, but who drafts a kicker No. 1? For that matter, what coach besides Mike Ditka is stupid enough to draft a runner No. 1? And who cares about field position when quarterbacks like Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning can use bad field position as an opportunity to spread out defenses and set up the big play?

Watching the Rams and Broncos score 77 points Monday night was more like watching basketball than like the NFL football I grew up with. I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy it, but the game's highlights, like those from many NFL games over the past few seasons, are starting to appear in my memory as a blur running at fast-forward. I wouldn't at all mind a few rules changes that leveled the playing field, so to speak, for defense, and I'm wondering how many people feel the same way I do.

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Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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