The dead-end zone: Trendy defenses are deep-sixing touchdowns NFL WEEK 4

PRO FOOTBALL

September 26, 1993|By VITO STELLINO

Where have all the touchdowns gone?

That's the hottest question in the NFL heading into the fourth week of the season.

While the field-goal kickers are hitting 80 percent of their attempts in the first three weeks of the season, teams are having trouble scoring touchdowns.

In four games so far, the winning team has failed to score a touchdown. It only happened five times all last year. It happened twice in 1990 and didn't happen at all in 1989.

By contrast, the San Diego Chargers have done it twice in three weeks. John Carney had six field goals in the Chargers' two home victories against the Seattle Seahawks and the Houston Oilers. His 29 straight field goals broke the record of 25 that was set by Morten Andersen a week earlier.

There are several theories why teams aren't getting in the end zone and are settling for field goals. One is that there's a paucity of quality quarterbacks. Another is that it's just another cycle.

George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, blames crowd noise. As fans, particularly in domed stadiums, become more sophisticated, they turn up the noise level when opposing teams get close to the end zone.

"You get inside the 20 and if you're the visitor, they take away half your offense because you can't hear as well and you can't do as many audibles," Young said.

The NFL is even experimenting with a new device it would put on the 20-yard lines that would amplify the quarterback's voice near the end zone.

The most popular theory, though, is that today's zone defenses are hard to puncture inside the 20. When teams rush only three defenders and drop back eight players who crowd into the end zone, it's hard for a quarterback to find the holes.

It's not foolproof. Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Washington Redskins' defense with a touchdown pass in the final four seconds against that defense last Sunday.

Overall, though, the zones in the end zones are giving offenses fits.

"The days of playing man-to-man defense inside the 20 are gone," said Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer "Everybody plays zone done there."

Don Breaux, running-backs coach of the Washington Redskins, even suggests banning the zone defense inside the 20.

Breaux said the Giants had so much success with the zone in the mid-'80s, now all the teams are copying it.

"I think somebody should look at eliminating the zone in the red area and I promise you scoring will go right back up," Breaux said.

Redskins head coach Richie Petitbon, who coaches the defense, scoffs at the idea of banning the zone. He just thinks offenses have to play better.

But noting the way Cunningham beat the Redskins' zone last week, Petitbon said, "A lot of people think our zone defense should be outlawed."

The expansion derby

Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? That could be the story of this NFL expansion.

Baltimore could be playing the role of the tortoise, slow but steady and always moving forward.

Baltimore officials figured that once the owners heard the details of their package, the perception of the city's chances of getting an expansion team would improve. What they didn't count on was that St. Louis would make it easier, shooting itself in the foot by not selling all its luxury boxes and club seats.

Sure enough, the NFL spinmeisters changed their tune right after the meeting in Chicago this past week.

Gary Myers on HBO's "Inside the NFL," had been predicting St. Louis and Charlotte would get the two teams. But now he's saying that "people in the league office I speak to" [they don't vote, but they're happy to offer opinions on the race] are now saying it's 'too close to call.' "

Myers said: "Baltimore made a very strong presentation and could be closing the gap on St. Louis as the old market the NFL wants to go back to." He added that Charlotte has a "real good chance."

Myers then bashed St. Louis for not selling out its luxury boxes and club seats. "The Cardinals left to go to Phoenix because the fans weren't supporting them and they wonder if that's going to happen again," he said.

That's a classic example of the league office putting a spin on something that's not backed up by facts. Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill never complained about fan support. He was unhappy with the stadium in St. Louis.

But the bottom line is that commissioner Paul Tagliabue wants to go to a new city. He used the code phrase "hot market" in Chicago, which means a new city. To get a new city, he's got to torpedo either Baltimore or St. Louis, one of the two old cities.

Until last week's meeting, the league was arguing against Baltimore on geographic grounds. Now it may be easier to argue against St. Louis on the grounds it didn't sell its seats.

Even Jerry Clinton, the leader of the St. Louis effort, is worried. He said the NFL "has concerns about our ability to support our team if they give us another franchise."

The decision

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