Gutman: NFL now all about passing game

Anyone who watched “Monday Night Football” this week looked on with puzzlement as Adrian Peterson struggled, posting only a 2.2 yards per carry average. The Vikings’ wise and seasoned quarterback, however, threw for three touchdowns and helped the team score 30 points. Most viewers must have been sitting at home thinking, “These aren’t the Vikings we know!”

Anyone who watched the Redskins game and saw Clinton Portis only touch the ball 25 times when he was controlling the game and averaging nearly four yards per carry while Jason Campbell was busy throwing three interceptions was screaming, “These aren’t the Redskins we know!”

Anyone who watched the Steelers throw the ball 34 times for nearly 350 yards this week was pleased with the offensive outburst, but was probably crying on the inside and sobbing “These aren’t the Steelers we know!”

Despite these three teams abandoning their identities, they all won this weekend.

I think the point is clear. Even the most defense-dependent, run-oriented teams have had to evolve to survive in the new NFL. Without a dynamic passing game that spreads the defense out and racks up points, a team cannot compete week in and week out in today’s NFL.

In discussing passing as a key to success, I do not mean to discount the value of defense and a running game. No team can win the Super Bowl without a dominating defense that creates turnovers and gives its offense a chance to win in every game. Defense still wins championships.

And there is a minimum threshold for how much a team must run while still succeeding. The Arizona Cardinals test this boundary every week, but they manage to stay just above it. A team must run the ball just effectively enough to keep the defense honest and compile a reasonable amount of time of possession.

But we will not see a repeat of the 2000–’01 Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens. We will never see a team that runs well and plays great defense while babying their quarterback and trying to keep him from turning the ball over consistently. Because no matter how bad the postseason weather and no matter how stiff the defense, Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning will put up their points. If you can’t score 30 points with your offense, you might as well not show up, even if you’ve got the Steel Curtain on defense and a Walter Payton-Adrian Peterson hybrid at running back. (If anyone pre-med working in a bio lab could hook that up for me, that would make a great first client when I try to become a sports agent.)

Running games are what “old-time football dudes” think determines winners. They think controlling the ball and the clock wins games. But trying to control the clock doesn’t work if Manning scores in 30 seconds every time he gets the ball, as he pretty much did every time down the field against Miami two Mondays ago.

This is why the time is so right for the spread offense to break through in the NFL. Variations exist. The West Coast Offense, with its quick-hitting passes to all parts of the field, could be said to be a type of spread offense. The Cardinals, who air the ball out like it’s dirty laundry in the Amish country, already force the defense to defend every inch of the field. Traditional logic says NFL defenses are too fast for this type of an offense to work. But as teams like Arizona are proving, offensive speed can sometimes allow spread plays to work against even the fastest defenses. Plus, the college spread offense works against USC, and they have some 15 NFL starters on their defense. (Even their backups have NFL talent.)

But why not go all out and move to a spread? The transition could happen in a place where the seeds already exist but questions also persist. Why not Miami?

Let’s look at what assets Miami has that makes them perfect for some kind of a spread offense. One of their quarterbacks, former West Virginia star Pat White, ran a version of the spread offense in college and possesses a unique combination of phenomenal speed and an accurate enough arm. They pioneered the Wildcat in the NFL when they put running back Ronnie Brown in the shotgun formation and had him take the snap directly. Their quarterbacks coach, David Lee, is an offensive genius who understands both the Wildcat and the spread.

Here’s why Miami can’t afford not to implement some kind of a spread. Their quarterback, Chad Pennington, may be done for the year. Their backup, Chad Henne, stinks. He struggled despite having weapons all around him at Michigan and has never proven himself at the highest level. The Dolphins are struggling to keep attendance up in a city without a sporting identity. Also, they’re 1–3. So what do they have to lose?

Drawing on Gene Chizik’s offense at Auburn University, which is undefeated and riding an offensive resurgence in the toughest defensive conference in college football, the SEC, Miami could revamp its offense to one that uses quick bubble screens to speedsters like Ted Ginn Jr., misdirection handoffs between Pat White and Ronnie Brown and the famous “QB Follow” play, where the quarterback fakes a handoff then runs up the middle.

Barring a Dan Marino return, this might be Miami’s only hope. And it could become the hope of the NFL’s downtrodden in St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Kansas City. Or those winless (or formerly winless) wonders could just take solace in the fact that they have one win on the schedule this year.

They all play the Washington Redskins.

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