Final four teams using the pass to make their Super Bowl runs

Just as in regular season, QBs are key to success

Nfl Playoffs

January 17, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In a season when NFL teams passed more often for better results than ever before, it is fitting that Sunday's conference championship games promise to come down to the quarterbacks.

Don't they always?

Well, not really.

The past two Super Bowl champions were defense-powered teams with run-inspired offenses. For the Ravens in the 2000 season and the New England Patriots the following year, the pass came after the run. Both teams tried to protect their quarterbacks - Trent Dilfer and Tom Brady - and win with defense.

That will change this postseason, when passers once again take precedence over runners and defenders.

That's because it will be the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Brad Johnson in the NFC championship game, and the Oakland Raiders' Rich Gannon against the Tennessee Titans' Steve McNair in the AFC title game.

In that upper-crust group, you have the league Most Valuable Player and second-rated passer (Gannon), the NFC's top-rated passer (Johnson) and two of the most dangerous quarterbacks to scramble out of the pocket (McNabb and McNair).

"This year, more so than other years, the key is to follow the quarterbacks," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "You've heard the phrase, `Follow the money?' Well, this year it's follow the quarterbacks.

"I think we're looking at the four who may be the best quarterbacks in terms of what they're doing for their teams."

They range in age from 26 (McNabb) to 37 (Gannon). All four have career winning percentages of .590 or higher. All four have been Pro Bowl selections. All four were drafted, although McNabb and McNair were top-five picks, and Gannon and Johnson were second-day choices.

They also fit the trend of the day.

"My feeling - always has been and always will be - is that the quarterback will make a difference," said New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "More than anything else, it's a passing league and, ultimately, the better quarterback will win."

This year, it was more of a passing league than ever. Quarterbacks attempted the most passes in history (17,292) for the highest completion percentage ever (59.6) and the most passing yards combined per game (656.7) in seven years.

Not coincidentally, there were more points (11,097) and touchdowns (1,270) scored in history. It was an offensive revolution, led by Gannon's 4,689 passing yards and 10 300-yard passing games.

"What's happening is it's easier to find receivers than cornerbacks," Accorsi said. "You put four or five receivers on the field and force [the defense] into playing four or five corners. That's why it's so much easier to pass. You can't find enough corners to counter the receivers."

The running game has become integrated into the passing game with the proliferation of West Coast offenses. Now teams use the short pass in the flat in place of a run off tackle.

The Eagles have the only top-10 rushing offense among the final four, ranking seventh in the league. Much of that is the ad-lib ability of McNabb. Running back Duce Staley averaged 3.8 yards a carry this season, but caught 51 passes.

As it turns out, Staley gouged the Bucs for 152 rushing yards in a 20-10 Eagles victory in Week 7, while McNabb threw for a modest 127 yards. But without question, McNabb is the biggest key to the Eagles' chances of reaching San Diego and the Super Bowl.

"To me, the evolution of the Eagles from a good team to a team with a chance to win it all has been the evolution of the quarterback developing into a pocket passer," Accorsi said. "We know he can do all the rest. Now he's making plays from the pocket.

"[Dan] Reeves said this, [Bill] Walsh said this: Sooner or later, you have to make big plays from the pocket because you can't win a championship with legs at that position. You have to win with the arm."

Interestingly, while the offensive rankings of the final four teams show a broad imbalance, the common denominator on defense is stopping the run. Each of the four teams ranks in the top 10 in rushing defense.

"That means it's tough to run and these teams will have to throw to beat you," Billick said. "They've all got quarterbacks who can do it. They have different styles, but they're all capable."

Accorsi disputes the long-held dictum that defense wins championships.

"I never bought that, I never will buy that," he said. "Why, then, didn't [Hall of Fame linebacker Dick] Butkus win 10 championships? Why did [Hall of Fame quarterback Terry] Bradshaw win four?

"Defense makes you competitive, but you win championships with the quarterback. A great quarterback will beat a great defense. I'm not saying defense isn't important. There are exceptions to what I'm saying, including the Ravens."

And neither does Accorsi buy into the idea that you must have a running game to win a championship. "I think it's a factor," he said. "But you can stop the great back; you can't stop the great quarterback.

"Jim Brown never won a title until 1964, and it took [quarterback] Frank Ryan throwing three touchdowns to do it."

NFL playoffs

Sunday's games

NFC championship

Tampa Bay (13-4) at Philadelphia (13-4), 3 p.m.

TV: 45, 5.

Line: Phila. by 4.

AFC championship

Tennessee (12-5) at Oakland (12-5), 6:30 p.m.

TV: 13, 9.

Line: Oak. by 7 1/2 .

Quarterback comparison

A look at the four quarterbacks starting in Sunday's championship games:

Player, team Att. Com. Pct. Yds. TD Int. Rat.

Rich Gannon, Oakland 618 418 67.6 4689 26 10 97.3

Steve McNair, Tennessee 492 301 61.2 3387 22 15 84.0

Brad Johnson, Tampa Bay 451 281 62.3 3049 22 6 92.9

Donovan McNabb, Phila. 361 211 58.4 2289 17 6 86.0

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