Somebody's been messing with the offense. And we know who.
It's the NFL's competition committee. It's the guys who call the blitzes and the bombs. It's the guys who dream up the game plans and strategies. Even fate has played a key role in reducing touchdowns and scoring in 1991.
Because the NFL keeps track of such things, we know that after six weeks there have been 302 touchdowns this season. That's down from 379 at the six-week mark a year ago, and down dramatically from the 419 touchdowns in 1989.
Another telltale sign: scoring average per game has shriveled from 42.9 in 1989, to 42.5 in 1990, to 35.4 this year. Last week, 12 games averaged 33.16 points when three teams (Colts, Cardinals, Bills) went touchdown-less and another (Eagles) did not produce an offensive touchdown.
That's not entertainment. That's defense and boredom. When the Bills get only six points, something's wrong.
"Certainly it's a trend we're concerned about," said league spokesman Greg Aiello. "Historically we want 40-point games. That's the barometer. Below that, we get concerned."
The NFL is concerned. And contemplating its next move. But there are a lot of reasons why offense has gone in the tank this year:
* Two years ago the competition committee, reacting to a rising number of four-hour games, made some rules changes designed to streamline things. They adopted the 45-second clock and decided to start it after incomplete passes and plays out of bounds. That shortened the game all right, but at the cost of losing plays. Right now there are 10 fewer plays per game than there were before the rule change.
* There are repercussions of last season's Super Bowl. When the New York Giants showed how to deflate Buffalo's no-huddle offense by controlling the ball and the clock last January, a light went on in a lot of underdog minds. It's the NFL's answer to the four-corners offense in basketball. If you run 42 seconds off the clock between plays, that's 42 seconds your opponent won't be marching down the field on you. Blame ex-Giants coach Bill Parcells for this one.
* One thing George Young has noticed is a subtle change in strategy. "A lot of teams, instead of blitzing you when you get inside their 20, are playing zone and playing it cozy," said the Giants general manager. "They're willing to let you get three points."
* Then there is fate. Randall Cunningham of the Eagles and Joe Montana of the 49ers, who threw for 56 touchdowns between them last year, are out for the season with injuries. So is the Cardinals' Timm Rosenbach (16 TD passes). Jim Everett of the Rams threw for 23 touchdowns last year, but hasn't thrown for any this year. And the Giants have benched Phil Simms (15 TD passes). That's 110 touchdowns right there.
* Maybe it's because so many quarterbacks are out or having off years, but more teams are emphasizing the running game. After six weeks last year there were only 18 100-yard rushing efforts. This year there are 36.
* DON'T GO, JOE: The rumor mill worked overtime as the Joe Montana story unfolded this week. When the 49ers' quarterback flew to Houston to get another medical opinion on his ailing right elbow, one Bay Area TV station reported that Montana was about to be traded to the Oilers. Oops.
Then there was this gem -- from Hollywood, of all places. A Los Angeles TV gossip reporter said Toronto Argonauts owner Bruce McNall has offered Montana $21 million to jump to the Canadian Football League. That's not all. According to KTTV entertainment reporter Mitchell Fink, the offer would allow for Montana to become an executive with the Argos or possibly commissioner of the CFL once his playing days are over. McNall, of course, stole Raghib "Rocket" Ismail from the NFL just before the draft last spring. He would appear to be a little late in going after Montana, however.
* BUILDING BLOCK: The Ed Block Courage Award Foundation Inc., will dedicate a courage house for abused children in the name of the late Art Rooney Sr., founder of the Steelers, at the Holy Family Institute in Pittsburgh before an Oct. 20 game against Seattle.
The goal of the foundation's donorship program is to dedicate a courage house in each NFL city through national donorship networking. The foundation's national donor is AT&T in Baltimore.
Since 1978, more than $1.65 million has been raised by the foundation, named after the late trainer of the Colts. The 14th annual awards banquet is set for March 3 in Baltimore.