To win his first 13 games again this year, Peyton Manning, the conscientious Indianapolis quarterback, will have to beat better teams than he met last year. But he can win most of the time if he plays as he did opening night, when he came out as an aggressive passer to turn back brother Eli's good football team, the New York Giants, 26-21.
Although aggressive passing is the key to success in this era of the game, Manning, despite his skills as a passer, has spent his recent seasons hoping to win with handoffs to running back Edgerrin James --- a strategic notion that has kept Indianapolis from winning big games.
Some of us have believed that what Manning needed most was a James trade to another town. And that happened this year, when Manning will miss James' pass-blocking but not his runs.
Suddenly on his own, the Colts' leader came out throwing in the Giants game. Four of his team's first five plays were Peyton passes --- and thereafter he threw often on first down --- as his team surged to his first goal, a head start of 13-0.
Conventional thinking is that the Colts need a potent running game. But in truth, when a team passes as effectively as the Colts do, running plays simply waste good downs.
Moreover in football, an early lead is more helpful than some fans realize. The Elias Sports Bureau, pro football's fact-finder, has shown that teams pulling out to 13-0 leads will go on to win 85% of the time. That was good enough for Peyton, whom Eli couldn't catch in his own stadium.
The recent history of the game provides the proof that most big winners are pass-first teams. Although the urge to run is nearly irresistible to most NFL play-callers --- and to most critics --- championships go to passers.
Bush Fits Into Saints' New Offense
THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS' new ballcarrying sensation, Reggie Bush of USC, is on his way to a new career that looks like a continuation of his old career. If the Saints can win Sunday at Green Bay, they'll be 2-0 going into what has the look of a big Monday night contest at Atlanta the following week.
As a New Orleans starter, Bush, who was in the lineup for the first 24 plays at Cleveland, including punts, was seldom as flashy as he used to be in the Coliseum, but his performance overall was workmanlike --- high praise for a rookie. As his team defeated Cleveland, 19-14, Bush seemed most effective as a receiver.
There is reason now to believe that the Saints, who finished down the track last year, can be a factor with Atlanta and the others in the NFC's Southern Division race. For they're presenting a compatible mix of old and new contributors --- Bush and quarterback Drew Brees combining with running back Deuce McAlister and receivers Joe Horn and rookie Marques Colston under a new coach, Sean Payton.
Formerly with Bill Parcells at Dallas, Payton showed a commendable interest in aggressive passing out on the field but tended to revert to safer running plays in the red zone, a carryover from his tenure with Parcells. If Payton could conquer that habit, Brees and Bush would be off and running.
Play-Calling: the NFL's Misplaced Art
THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS won the Monday nightcap when the Oakland Raiders demonstrated that they still don't know how to call plays correctly. In truth, unimaginative signal-calling is the era's worst failing of the NFL, which doesn't house many wise play-callers.
On this occasion at Oakland, with the Raiders down 13-0 in the third quarter en route to 27-0 loss, they got the ball three times. And though to proceed unpredictably is the soul of proper play-calling, the Raiders, instead, ran each time on first down, then passed on second down, and had their quarterback sacked on third down.
Having played an Art Shell team before, the Chargers lined up each time to stuff the run on first down, play for the pass on second down, and blitz on third down.
San Diego's coach, Marty Schottenheimer, is as conservative as Shell, if not more so, but in this game Schottenheimer got 58 yards on one play in the first half and parlayed it into the 13 points that should have inspired Oakland to try to win with second-half passes instead of trying not to lose with first-down runs. It didn't happen.
Probably the worst every-week mistake in football is running regularly on first down. Every defensive team in the league is geared to handle first-down runs, as the opposing coaches all know, or should know, but still they run. They probably feel safer running. Their jobs feel safer. For, every time, a failed running game can be blamed on the players (we've got to execute better) whereas a failed passing game is often blamed on the coach.
Steelers at Jacksonville Monday Night
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS will go into their Week 2 game at Jacksonville next Monday night with a comforting recent memory: Aggressive passing pays off. Though historically a run-first team, the Steelers provide anther example of a pro club that has learned how to enjoy pass-first football.
It was their backup quarterback, Charlie Batch, though obviously a bit nervous in opening-night pressure, who conquered the Miami Dolphins the other day with an aggressive passing attack that included three early touchdown passes, 28-17. He delivered two on first-down plays, one on second down after a first-down incomplete.
The Steelers also scored against Miami on an interception return by linebacker Joey Porter, reviving memories of the day when they were known primarily as a defensive team, but also highlighting the fact that they are now a very good all-around team.
Pittsburgh, to be sure, lacks its usual power running this year with Jerome Bettis in retirement. But as an offensive force, the Pittsburgh players are actually more dangerous now that offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has plainly talked Coach Bill Cowher into replacing Bettis with enhanced pass offense.
For at least two years, it's been true that, because of their powerful defense, it's all over for the rest of the NFL should the Steelers throw on first down 50% of the time. Strategically, they seem to be moving in that direction now.