Decisive moves

Coaches: Teams still in the running were 4-for-4 in drastically changing a weakness that had kept them down in the past.

Nfl Playoffs

Pro Football

January 27, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The four teams still alive in the NFL postseason can thank their quarterbacks, their defenses and their good karma for reaching championship Sunday.

Better they should thank their coaches, though, for a series of masterstrokes that blazed a trail converging on the 36th Super Bowl and New Orleans.

Across the board today - when the New England Patriots play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game and the Philadelphia Eagles meet the St. Louis Rams for the NFC title - every member of the final four can trace its success to a watershed decision made by its head coach.

For Pittsburgh, it was Bill Cowher's liberating decision to change his offensive coordinator and hire his first quarterback coach. Those moves allowed quarterback Kor- dell Stewart to become a legitimate passing threat and the Steelers' offense to achieve balance for the first time in years.

For New England, it was Bill Belichick's deft touch with inexperienced quarterback Tom Brady once Drew Bledsoe was injured, as well as his judicious handling of troubled wide receiver Terry Glenn, that enabled the Patriots to overcome an 0-2 start.

In St. Louis, second-year coach Mike Martz cleaned house after his 2000 defense gave up a staggering 471 points. Martz fired the coordinator and most of the starters on defense, brought in Lovie Smith from Tampa Bay to install a new system and then went shopping for reinforcements. The result was readily apparent in a defense-inspired, 45-17 whipping of the Green Bay Packers last week.

And in Philadelphia, Andy Reid retooled the Eagles' passing game in the off-season. He dumped the team's two leading wide receivers, Charles Johnson and Torrance Small, and found upgrades in free agency (James Thrash) and the draft (Freddie Mitchell). Thrash became quarterback Donovan McNabb's go-to receiver and Mitchell, after a slow start, came on late.

The Eagles' West Coast offense became a potent complement to a rock-ribbed defense that could give Rams quarterback Kurt Warner fits today.

Just like last year's Super Bowl champions, the Ravens, this year's final four used change as a launching pad. The Ravens' masterstrokes a year ago were signing free-agent tight end Shannon Sharpe for his red-zone prowess and leadership, and drafting running back Jamal Lewis to get the tough yards.

No one made more changes this season than the Rams. The upheaval started when Martz fired defensive coordinator Peter Giunta after a wild-card loss to New Orleans last season. Martz's choice to rebuild the defense was Smith, who coached linebackers at Tampa Bay. Smith not only brought the Bucs' two-deep zone scheme to St. Louis, but two starters as well - defensive end Chidi Ahanotu and linebacker Don Davis, both free agents.

"I was pretty confident knowing Lovie, knowing the system and knowing the type of guys he had here in Aeneas [Williams, acquired in an earlier trade] and London [Fletcher], that those guys would pick it up really fast," Ahanotu said.

Six starters on the Rams' defense weren't on the team a year ago. In their Week 1 win at Philadelphia, the Rams debuted with nine new starters. Still, as Ahanotu suggested, the Rams caught on quickly. They were third in the NFL in total defense and rush defense, 10th in pass defense, and allowed 198 fewer points this season.

Their defensive speed helped them to six interceptions against Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre last week, three that were returned for touchdowns, two by Williams.

The Rams added two rookie starters through the draft (linebacker Tommy Polley from Dunbar and strong safety Adam Archuleta), and filled a leadership void with Williams, a 10-year veteran cornerback acquired from Arizona. Williams' impact on the team is sweeping.

"He's such a professional player," reserve linebacker O.J. Brigance said of Williams. "In practice, he picks up a ball, he's running to the end zone every time, whether it's 99 yards or 10 yards. He picks up a fumble, he runs to the end zone. This is every day now. Same thing happened in the game. It's just awesome to see his work ethic."

The Eagles will need to be precise in their passing game if they're going to hang close to the heavily favored Rams. That passing game had to make up for the absence of a running attack during the regular season. Thrash, who defected from the Washington Redskins, tied for the team lead with 63 catches worth 833 yards and eight touchdowns.

Reid not only scored a coup by signing Thrash, but allowed his West Coast offense to grow in a natural progression. It wasn't until near the end of the regular season that McNabb began to consistently make big plays in the passing game off scrambles. Earlier in the year, he tried to be strictly a pocket passer.

Equally important, McNabb has used all his receivers. Running back Duce Staley, for instance, tied Thrash with 63 receptions.

"When you spread the ball around, now the defense has to respect the whole field," McNabb said.

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