The New England Patriots (6-0), aiming next for formidable Pittsburgh (5-1) and erratic but ever dangerous St. Louis (4-3), are still the class of the NFL for one overriding reason: Their leader, Bill Belichick, is the league's only all-out passing coach. Throwing on first down 11 times in their first 15 offensive series Sunday, the Patriots just did turn back the New York Jets (5-1), 13-7.
But the large mass audience of Los Angeles didn't see it on network TV, which presented the Chargers instead (on CBS). If the policy dictating such a decision hurts L.A. football fans, it hurts the NFL even worse. It could well cost the league TV rating points — translating, eventually, to rights-fee dollars.
That's because the huge Los Angeles area is big-game country. Sports fans here don't like to miss the very best.
Historically, Los Angeles has always had a low tolerance for second best. At the same time, of course, there are some L.A. viewers for the Chargers, Raiders and others. But to the thoughtful majority, there isn't a lot of general interest in games involving the 2-5 Raiders, the 4-3 Chargers, or even the 2-4 Dallas Cowboys, all of whom are viewed now as second-rate. How do you build NFL interest by scheduling second-rate attractions in top-rated L.A.?
L.A.'s Big-Game Phenomenon
THE MILLIONS OF people residing in or near Los Angeles and its suburbs aren't always easy to read or understand. It is often said, for instance, that to sell them anything, you have to give them a winner — but that isn't quite it. The nation's No. 1 college team, undefeated USC, which began the season attracting sellout 90,000 crowds to the historic Coliseum — and won both games — couldn't interest L.A. in second-rate Washington last week, attendance falling to 78,000.
A more famous example is the first Super Bowl, the 1967 game that was also played in the Coliseum. Thirty-nine years later, it's the only Super Bowl that didn't sell out — for reasons that are not well understood in the rest of the country. The precise problem in 1967 was that the Super Bowl, in the view of L.A. sports fans, didn't seem to be a big game. The event of that year was the NFL title game, Green Bay at Dallas, matching Hall of Fame coaches Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. Uncharacteristically, Lombardi threw the ball all day to (barely) win one of the great pro games ever played. L.A. sports fans, who watched it closely, couldn't get interested in a lesser attraction later, the Super Bowl.
The key to understanding Los Angeles is figuring what L.A. fans perceive to be big time. And in that respect, the NFL, every seven days, has a rare opportunity to build interest in its product. Each Sunday, on the NFL schedule of 13 games, one or two are likely to stand out — as the Jets at New England did last week. Short term, it may help the second-rate Raiders or Chargers to show them to L.A. But why should the NFL think second-rate or short term? The payoff is on long term and first-rate.
Jets Jarred by Patriots' Two Special Plays
THE PATRIOTS tuned up for this week's hot Pittsburgh rookie, Big Ben Roethlisberger, with their narrow victory over the division-rival Jets.
Played in Foxboro, this was the game that introduced the Jets as a team that's beginning to look like the Patriots, who have now won 21 in a row with quarterback Tom Brady. If New England's definitive ingredients are Belichick, Brady and defense, New York's are Coach Herman Edwards, quarterback Chad Pennington and defense.
And it's because these AFC Eastern division leaders are both equipped with powerful defensive platoons that a Brady-Pennington passing duel could be low-scoring.
Belichick pulled it out as the more dedicated passing coach. He was the first of the NFL's great defensive coaches to convert to passing as the way to proceed on offense. He saw the light in the 2002 Super Bowl, which, as a defensive expert, he tried to win with defense. The then pass-mad Rams caught him, however, just before the end, 17-17, after which, at the very end, Brady's surprisingly accurate passing bailed out Belichick.
Never has Belichick forgotten that day. In order to win an NFL-record number of consecutive games, he has modeled the Patriot offense on that of the Rams' great 2000-2002 passing teams while, simultaneously, continuing to tighten the Patriot defense as only a lifelong defensive master could.
In a parity era, this combination — the right offense and right defense — has enabled Belichick to win with more success than any other NFL coach in, incredibly, 85 years.
He never takes anything for granted. The Patriots couldn't have won the Jet game if after hours of studying the Jets they hadn't been ready with two big special plays aimed specifically at the New York players:
On offense, to set up their only touchdown, the Patriots went 24 quick yards to the Jet 7 on the play known as a square-in-and-go pass, Brady to halfback Kevin Faulk — a play so rare that some of the most attentive old pros had never seen it. Ordinarily, this is a pattern that develops as a square-out-and go pass designed to evade a safety when completed outside to a wide receiver. Obviously, the Patriots knew that the Jets wouldn't expect a running back catching one inside there, down the middle.
On defense, terminating the Jets' big threat of the second half, Belichick obviously knew they would opt for a do-or-die bomb to wide receiver Wayne Chrebet. Ending it all for passer Pennington in this game, the Patriots had the man double-covered.
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