When their offensive team is on the field this year, the St. Louis Rams are making the kinds of plays that no other teams are even attempting.
And that's one reason why they're winning most of the time.
At a critical moment Sunday, for example, the Rams' two key players, Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, combined to score on the New Orleans Saints with a new kind of draw play.
On first and goal at the New Orleans six-yard line, quarterback Warner, football in hand, raised his arm high to throw a slant pass, seemingly, then pulled it down and slipped the ball to running back Faulk, who slithered easily into the end zone.
It was perhaps the most complete draw-play fake ever made.
And at the time, the Rams needed it, or seemed to, after a 15-12 first half.
But as they won for the ninth time in 11 starts, the rest was a rout in a game that ended 43-12.
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The Case for Misdirection
During the mid-century years when former Ram coach Clark Shaughnessy invented the modern T formation, his running game was based on two-back deception.
On most plays, by design, Shaughnessy's quarterback faked a handoff to the fullback before handing off to a halfback.
Or he handed off first and then faked.
By contrast in recent years, most NFL coaches have focused increasingly on one featured running back, usually an I-formation tailback running with Spartan simplicitly behind a blocking fullback.
This year the Rams have brought back Shaughnessy's two-back artistry, and that's another explanation for their success.
On offense, they keep attacking aggressively with misdirection plays involving Faulk and underrated fullback Robert Holcombe.
For instance, as the Saints chased Faulk after fake handoffs or pitches Sunday, Holcombe ran for several first downs and a touchdown, proving again that deception in football can be more powerful than a power play.
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They're Aiming at the Rams
Surprising the league, the 1999 Rams have started so fast, and have generally scored so handily, that every opponent has been studying them in detail and devising new ways to slow them down with new kinds of blitzes and other defensive schemes.
Thus, in the last two weeks against strategically well-prepared San Francisco and New Orleans, the Rams made little headway in either first half.
Warner only seemed to be experiencing an off day Sunday, when the problem originated in the Saints' consummate blitzing defenses, not Ram imperfections.
By the second half, Ram offensive coordinator Mike Martz had figured it all out, and the rest was effortless with all those weapons he has, Warner, Faulk, Holcombe, receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and, among others, the club's many undervalued blockers.
The Rams' trouble area this year is their defense, which would have been in real trouble this time if the Saints, on one long drive after another, could have scored touchdowns instead of four meaningless field goals.
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On How to Discipline a Team
In any team sport, the worst way to discipline any athlete for any kind of infraction--serious or minimal--is to bench him.
That disciplines the whole team.
New England's second-best player is wide receiver Terry Glenn, who spent the first quarter on the bench meditating a minor misdemeanor Sunday as Buffalo opened a 3-0 lead that grew to 10-0 at the half and 17-7 at the end.
The last 7 was contributed by Glenn, who by then had been pardoned.
In the Patriots' only impressive offensive thrust, he scored on a 45-yard fourth-quarter pass play.
In any final result, first-quarter touchdowns count for as much as fourth- quarter touchdowns, but only if you're on the field to score them.
The lesson is that as a disciplinary tool, a fine beats a suspension every time.
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On Why the Coaches Are Timid
In annual salary, NFL coaches now average well over $1 million, leading them to become overtly predictable and conservative as play-callers.
Clearly fearing the loss of job income, most seem more timid this year than ever.
In nearly every NFL game, both sides have come out trying to execute identically simple game plans with a simple run on first down, another simple run on second down, a shotgun pass on third down--and more of the same the next time it's first and 10.
With such calls, Coaches Jimmy Johnson and Chan Gailey of Miami and Dallas dulled up Thanksgiving Day for most viewers through a 0-0 first half.
Both defenses, heartened by the predictability of offensive design, rushed the rushers violently on first down and blitzed the passers brutally on third down.
The game was going to be won by whoever ran back an interception for a touchdown.
As it turned out, that was Dallas.
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His Coach Tipped Off Flutie Run
The coaches in Sunday's Buffalo-New England game, Wade Phillips and Pete Carroll, borrowed the Miami-Dallas game plans in almost every simple particular.
That made for another farce until, nicely placed by a pass-interference penalty, the Bills landed at the Patriot three-yard line late in the first quarter after two failed running plays.
There on third and goal, for the only time all day on third down, the Buffalo coaches lined up quarterback Doug Flutie under center instead of in a shotgun stance.
As the world knows--as even New England knows--Flutie when under center in that situation typically runs a bootleg sweep.
When he ran it that time, the Patriots nailed him instantly.
It was the most predictable result of a predictable day.
What makes coaches think that way?
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Inexcusable Turnovers Beat Raiders
The NFL is a league in which the passers keep taking the blame for other people's errors, as Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon did again Sunday when Kansas City came from 14 points behind in the fourth quarter to win, 37-34.
On two Raider pass plays that went bad, Kansas City scored the two decisive second-half touchdowns on two long runbacks by cornerback Cris Dishman, who went 47 yards with an intercepted pass and 40 yards with a fumble.
In order, this is what happened:
Oakland running back Tyrone Wheatley wasn't fighting hard enough for the pass that Dishman intercepted. If Wheatley had kept going for the ball, Dishman couldn't have made that play. But the big fellow--Wheatley weighs 235- -didn't seem to want to keep going.
If Oakland tight end Derrick Walker had carried the ball properly-- instead of carelessly with one hand on the fat part of the ball--he wouldn't have dropped it in front of Dishman. It was the most inexcusable turnover of the month.
Even though Jon Gruden has made the Raiders one of the NFL's best-coached teams this year, good teams don't as a rule lose like that.
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Manning Peaks in a 13-7 Victory
Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning's game Sunday seemed to him and others to have been his weakest of the season.
But on a day when he led the Colts past the New York Jets, 13-7, that game had to be either his best yet or one of the best.
The 4-7 Jets minus many starters are out of the race, true, but their coach is Bill Parcells, whose defensive coach is Bill Belichick.
If you are Peyton Manning, with all the attention that has come to Peyton Manning this season, you don't beat Parcells and Belichick--when they're ready for you in the 11th week of the season--unless you're pretty good.
I am one of those taking Indianapolis over Miami and Buffalo for first in the AFC East.
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Selected Short Subjects
Although the Chicago Bears went home thinking they lost the game in the second half at Detroit Thanksgiving Day, 21-17, they actually lost it in the first quarter. With their improved pass offense, they kept trying to run the ball in those opening minutes--wasting their best chance to throw it. In any first quarter, defensive linemen are fresh, determined and unbeaten, meaning it's harder to run early than late in an NFL game.
Wide receiver Terrence Wilkins, whose catches kept Indianapolis en route to the winning points Sunday, has scored this year carrying a punt, a kickoff, and a fumble as well as Manning's passes. Only three other NFL players have ever scored four different ways in one calendar year: Terry Metcalf, Billy (White Shoes) Johnson and Brian Mitchell.
The three best quotes in NFL history as determined by pro football's Hall of Fame selectors: Joe Namath's "I guarantee it"; Vince Lombardi's "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing", and former coach John McKay's comment on his team's execution: "I'm in favor of it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun