Does anyone remember what happened to the great era of offensive football we were all talking about just a few short months ago? What happened to the talk about how the Rams had taken Bill Walsh's philosophy to a new level that was swamping NFL defensive coordinators and threatening to disturb the balance between offense and defense that creates tension in great football? Apparently what happened is that Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, all 670 pounds of them, sat on it.
What the NFL now has, apparently, is a complete and completely unexpected reversal of what we had last season (and thought, for the first month or two of the 2000 season, that we were going to get again). The Baltimore Ravens' defense, which allowed a ridiculous 2.7 yards per rush and a record-low 165 points this season, looks like a mirror opposite of the St. Louis Rams' record-setting offense of 1999. What a Super Bowl that would have made: the '99 Rams offense against the 2000 Ravens defense. Then again, the Rams' defense would have had to face the Ravens' offense, which is as ugly a prospect as I can imagine, so maybe it all evens out.
As it stands, this Sunday's Super Bowl between the two teams with their conference's best defenses seems likely to be decided by the last (or maybe the first) team that misses a field goal. All in all, it seems about as exciting a prospect as two giant tortoises banging into each other. What happened to offense?
Maybe nothing. The St. Louis Rams just missed the home field advantage in the playoffs, a fact largely due to injuries to Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, and despite their dreadful defense, they might well have been in the Super Bowl again if not for those injuries. The league's second-best offense, at least when quarterback Daunte Culpepper wasn't injured, belonged to the Minnesota Vikings, and they, like the Rams, were cursed with a terrible defense. What we saw this season was an incredible case of imbalance: a handful of great offensive and defensive teams, but nothing resembling the great all-around NFL teams of the '80s and '90s, like the Redskins of Joe Gibbs or Bill Walsh's 49ers, or even the Dallas Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson.
The real question isn't "What happened to offense?" but "What happened to teams with defense and offense?" And the answer, I think, is a combination of the free agency and the salary cap. The salary cap was designed, or so NFL executives told us, to restrict player movement and foster (as one of them phrased it) "fan identification" by keeping players from jumping to new teams. But of course its real purpose was to do exactly what it seemed designed to do, namely to hold down salaries. It also had one other practical effect, the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Stars such as Dana Stubblefield (who jumped from the 49ers to the Redskins) and Keyshawn Johnson (Jets to Bucs), players who might have made a big difference in their team's playoff chances, had to be jettisoned -- not because their teams didn't want to pay them their market value, but because, under the spending limitation imposed by the salary cap, they couldn't. The overall effect of the cap, along with free agency, has been to keep teams with the best eye for talent from stockpiling quality players on both sides of the ball.
The results have been seasons like the last two, which ended in playoffs where the question wasn't "Will they beat the spread?" but "Who's going to win?" Which is why, despite what purists like me would call the decline in quality (and despite the drop in ratings for regular season games), the Super Bowl is more popular than ever.
There's another reason, though, why defense has come to dominate the last two seasons: plain luck. Last year the Rams were in what was probably the weakest division in football and didn't draw much in the way of their out-of-division schedule. This year both the Giants and Ravens played ridiculously easy schedules -- the fifth and third easiest, judged by opponents' won-lost records. And the Ravens' schedule was really even weaker than that: Their pathetic offense didn't have to play against either of the NFC's toughest defenses, New York and Philadelphia, and their defense never had to face Kurt Warner, Brian Griese, Daunte Culpepper, Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb or any of the other best quarterbacks in the league. This was truly spectacular luck, and it continued into the playoffs when they got to face the Denver Broncos without Brian Griese.
I'm not saying that the 2000 Baltimore Ravens don't have a great defense. What I'm saying is that people are comparing and some equating them with the 1985 Bears (who gave up 185 points), and the '85 Bears didn't get to be the '85 Bears without playing against Dan Marino and Joe Montana.
That's why I'm picking the Giants to win -- that and the fact that I'm a Giants fan. Kerry Collins isn't a great passer no matter what he did against Minnesota (which was throw for more yards in a game than Y.A. Tittle ever did). But given the Giants' excellent pass protection and superiority in wide receivers, I think he's capable of putting more pressure on the Ravens' defense than anyone else has all season, and the Giants' defense matches up better with the Ravens' offense than Ravens' defense does with the Giants' offense.
But both teams, together, are capable of doing great damage to the Super Bowl. If the game is filled with all the sacks, penalties, interceptions, dropped passes, blocked passes, out of bounds passes, overthrown passes, punts and holding calls that usually accompany defensive struggles, then the public will turn off no matter how close the score may stay. People always watched the Super Bowl, even if they didn't care who won, even if it became a rout, because they were at least watching something being done, which (rightly or wrongly) is the average fan's perception of what offense is. And if the history of football teaches us anything, it's that the fans prefer something being done to something not being done -- though maybe not fans in Baltimore.