Early returns show offense on the wane

ON THE NFL

October 14, 2001|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

More than a month into the season, in an era geared to produce big offensive numbers, there has been a selective meltdown of offense in the NFL.

The Washington Redskins are averaging a paltry 6.3 points a game. The Detroit Lions are averaging 6.7. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have yet to throw a touchdown pass among them. Three teams have yet to register a rushing touchdown.

Bad offense is epidemic, and it will afflict prime-time television tomorrow night when Washington's 31st-ranked offense will try to outscore the Dallas Cowboys' 30th-ranked offense. Keep your TV Guide handy.

Were it not for the prolific offenses in St. Louis and Indianapolis, the weak sisters of the NFL might not stand out so much. But the Rams average 31.8 points a game and the Colts 33.3, and the Redskins won't get that many points in a month.

The gap between the best offenses and the worst was never more obvious than in last Monday night's game between St. Louis and Detroit. The Rams threw 17 consecutive passes at one point and rolled up 35 points. The Lions, employing two different quarterbacks, never reached the end zone. The only touchdown Detroit's Ty Detmer threw was a 93-yard interception return by the Rams' Dre' Bly just before the half.

How bad is bad? Consider that the Redskins and Lions have scored only one offensive touchdown each this season. And consider that three other teams -- Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay -- have scored three or fewer offensive touchdowns.

In most cases, but not all, the meltdown coincides with either new coaches or new quarterbacks. Here's a quick review of bad offense, with per-game scoring averages in parenthesis.

Washington (6.3): The Redskins have a new coach, a new quarterback and a new system. But coach Marty Schottenheimer has tried to put square pegs (Jeff George, Tony Banks) into round holes (his version of the West Coast offense). Doesn't work.

Detroit (6.7): New coach Marty Mornhinweg has already flipped and flopped on his quarterbacks, going from Charlie Batch to Detmer and back to Batch. His mistake was thinking Detmer, a career journeyman, could step in and run his West Coast offense.

Tennessee (12.0): The collapse of the Titans hinges on the lack of capable receivers for quarterback Steve McNair, McNair's shoulder problems and the reduced efficiency of injured running back Eddie George. McNair's young receivers aren't disciplined in their route-running, and George isn't healthy enough to carry the load.

Pittsburgh (13.0): The Steelers lead the league in rushing, but are 29th in passing. Quarterback Kordell Stewart is averaging 5.2 yards per pass attempt and 146.3 per game. That won't worry anyone.

Tampa Bay (13.3): The Bucs thought bringing in quarterback Brad Johnson would put them over the top, but it didn't change the look of Tony Dungy's offense. It's still ultra-conservative, a nickel-and-dime attack that seldom goes downfield. Some are even questioning Johnson's ability to get the ball deep now.

Clashing styles

Push could come to shove when the New York Giants visit the Rams today. The last two NFC champions both feel like they have something to prove to one another. The bad blood goes back a few years when the Giants dismissed the Rams as a finesse team, suggesting they were more physical and could overpower St. Louis.

But the Rams have beaten the Giants by a combined score of 69-34 with 809 yards in two games the past two years. St. Louis rolled over the Giants, 38-24, last year without quarterback Kurt Warner or MVP running back Marshall Faulk.

Warner knows what to expect today. "[The Giants] have always said that we're a finesse team and a speed team and they say they're a smash-mouth team, and there is no question about that," he said.

"There have been some comments and some quotes, but those things always happen ... but so what? I know some of the guys on the Giants team, I like the guys over there, and we respect each other and what each team brings to the table and that's the bottom line."

Well, maybe. But the Rams are now known as the "Greatest Show on Earth," a characterization the Giants aren't likely to appreciate.

Striking mother lode

The loss of wide receiver Ed McCaffrey to a broken leg just means more work for Denver's Rod Smith, who went to the Pro Bowl with 100 catches last season. Through four games, Smith's 36 catches and 470 receiving yards lead the NFL. Those numbers project to 144 catches and 1,880 yards over 16 games, totals that would shatter league records of 123 (Herman Moore, 1995) and 1,848 (Jerry Rice, 1995).

Smith's four TD receptions put him on a pace for 16, far short of Rice's 1987 record of 22.

"I think it's pretty obvious he's our best player and you want to get the ball in the hands of your best player," said Broncos quarterback Brian Griese. "I mean, he's better than our other receivers. So I do look for Rod in man-to-man situations, but that doesn't mean I don't have confidence in the other guys."

Moving up

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