The Tennessee Titans, than whom few football teams are more conservative, have always preferred runs to passes. But their famous old runner, Eddie George, who is averaging a bleak 2.9 yards this season, can't move them now. Neither can any other Titan runner.

So, reluctantly, lacking any better option, the Titans have asked passer Steve McNair to do it. And that simple change has turned McNair into pro football's Player of the Year, as you can see when 7-2 Tennessee entertains 2-7 Jacksonville next Sunday.

That isn't the way Titan Coach Jeff Fisher envisioned the season.

Fisher hoped George would come back from an off year with a big year.

The very last thing Fisher wants is a passing team. But when you can't run, you obviously have to throw it. And as the Titans trounced Miami in a Week 10 headliner, 31-7, McNair, who's played this well for years, was the offense as usual Sunday, advancing the Titans to their decisive early three-touchdown lead with one well-directed pass after another.

Fisher, a 23-16 loser in Super Bowl XXXIV, could have upset the Rams that day if he'd played that game this way. But with McNair and George both then available, Fisher, until it was too late, kept giving the ball to George.

Play-Calling Makes the Difference

THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS might not be able to show Denver next Sunday that they've finally learned how a smart pro club can win. For Denver is too tough. But last week, in a 42-28 upset, the Chargers showed Minnesota.

With 41-years-young Doug Flutie at quarterback, they proved that wise play selection makes all the difference in football.

Flutie's coach, Marty Schottenheimer, one of the NFL's soundest overall — except, perhaps, as an offensive strategist — let his little old quarterback call most of his own plays that day, according to several of Flutie's teammates. And though the plays were the same ones San Diego had used to lose seven earlier games, they were astonishingly effective as rearranged according to Flutie's priorities.

Calling a bunch of early-down passes and late-down misdirection runs, Flutie, who completed 21 of 29 for 240 yards, used running back LaDainian Tomlinson as a counterpuncher — instead of a heavy-duty power runner, his usual role — and got 162 yards out of Tomlinson on only 16 carries.

The veteran quarterback set the stage on his first series, throwing three times to receiver David Boston on San Diego's first six plays and calling Tomlinson's number only once in that span. In prior Charger appearances this season, Tomlinson was normally seen four or five times in such a series and Boston not at all despite his standing as one of the great AFC receivers.

Anyhow, with a surprise 7-0 lead, Flutie, making note of the Vikings' hectic, impromptu pass-defense changes, soon slipped the ball to Tomlinson for a 73-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 lead. And before the first quarter was half over, Flutie had taken over, winning with the most reliable football formula: a pass when the opponents expect a run, and a run when they anticipate a pass.

First Down Best Passing Down

THE OAKLAND RAIDERS used to win Flutie's way in the old days when Hall of Famer George Blanda, then well into his 40s, came in as a relief pitcher once in a while to win a game that starting quarterback Ken Stabler seemed to be losing. Blanda did it with the same plays other Raider passers used. He simply called them in a different order.

"Play-selection makes the biggest difference in winning and losing," Blanda once said after 25 years of playing, and studying, the game. By play-selection, he said, he meant: "When, where, and why you run or throw the ball and who gets to run or catch it."

Thus, Blanda preferred to throw on first down because, he said, NFL defensive players must on first down always be positioned for either a run or pass — meaning their linebackers are less likely to blitz the passer on that down, which means that passers are less likely to get hit on that down. And no passer asks to get hit.

Similarly, in the Minnesota game, Flutie was throwing first-down passes — sometimes even first-down dunk stuff that was often good for a few yards — making everything else possible: from Tomlinson's runs on second down to reverses on third down as well as Flutie's trademark jump passes and surprise short quarterback runs for two touchdowns.

It wasn't Flutie who won the game, it was Flutie's play-calling. The Chargers could have won that day with their other passer, Drew Brees, if Flutie had called the plays.