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ESPN.com John Clayton: QB Keep 'em Healthy


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By John Clayton


Even though the NFL is in a new age of great quarterbacking, numbers show that the importance of the position has been slightly de-emphasized in lieu of better balance on offense.

No example was better than the Baltimore Ravens 2000 Super Bowl. Trent Dilfer road a wave of easy games against suspect defenses and carried a defensive minded Ravens team to a Super Bowl title. Dilfer had been around long enough to know how to manage games well. Brian Billick didn't ask for 300-yard passing games. He was satisfied with 300-yards of total offense as long as the end result was a win. It earned them a ring.

The trend has truly become apparent this year. Fantasy people might have picked up on it weeks ago. But in 2003, quarterbacks don't even have to throw for 200 yards a game to win. The Air has come out of the Air Show after six weeks of play.

After 88 games, 45 of the winning quarterback had less than 200 gross passing yards. Kyle Boller of the Ravens has won three games without putting up 100 yards of passing offense. But this trend goes beyond just rookie quarterbacks.

Jake Delhomme of the unbeaten Panthers has only 50 more passing yards (691) than halfback Stephen Davis (641) has rushing yards. Yet, the Panthers are unbeaten. Even the top quarterbacks have been winning by doing less. Trent Green put up 41 points on the Steelers in Week 2 but only threw for 125 yards.

"Teams are trying to run the ball to become better balanced this year," Vikings coach Mike Tice said.

This isn't a trend toward conservatism. It's just smart football. Teams are running out of more spread formations with three and four receivers. A few more reverses by receivers are being tossed in to trick aggressive defenses that tend to over pursue. It's smart football, not boring football.

What it also shows is the effect the abundance of "Cover 2" defenses are having on passing attacks. Cover 2 was designed to minimize the number of big passing plays allowed. It's working.

The Dolphins did a little study this week that was fascinating. The record of the top eight rushing teams is 35-7. The record of the top eight passing teams is 24-20. The Steelers switched from a being a consistent power running team to a quick passing team and are struggling at 2-4.

"Most of us try to control the ball," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "In our age, unless you are a Mike Martz, most of us aren't as carefree and attack as much. You don't want turnovers. The more ball control you have and the more balance you have, you don't tend to have as many turnovers."

Passing isn't down because of poor play. Quarterbacks are completing 59.3 percent of their passes. They are getting the ball off quicker with their three- and five-step drops and a small rule change has actually made a significant difference in keeping quarterbacks healthy.

The Competition Committee gave officials more leeway in flagging pass interference downfield, and they wanted to make special note of the five-yard contact area after the line-of-scrimmage. They put officials on the alert to be diligent in flagging extra contact outside of 5 yards. One reason the NFL did this was to combat those zone blitz teams.

If a defense can knock down the "hot" read of the quarterback before he gets five yards into his route, bad things happen to the quarterback. He is either sacked, hit or he'll throw an errant pass. The 88-game total for sacks is 363, lowest since 1978 after six weeks.

Where the Competition Committee members smile is that less hits on quarterbacks means more quarterbacks can last the season.

It's amazing how quickly the strategies of the game change. It's still a league that passes the ball around 57 to 60 percent of the time. That's something that's not going away even though the Panthers are winning week in and week out by running the ball 58 percent of the time.

What has become apparent is if the running game is struggling, a team can put up good passing numbers, but it will be hard to win. The Steelers are finding that out. They've gone through the toughest part of their schedule, are 2-4, and unless Jerome Bettis or Amos Zereoue get hot quick, this might be a lost season.

The Colts took some criticism last Sunday for running the ball on some critical short yardage situations. Quarterback Peyton Manning defended the play-calling after the Panthers made a couple of key stops. Manning said the Colts are one of the few teams in the league who run in those situations, and that isn't going to change.

Manning's point went over a lot of people's head. Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice understood it. So much of the Colts offense is set up by run blocking in passing situations. It keeps defenses off guard and eliminates them getting an edge in rushing the quarterback on passing plays. It's one of the reasons Manning rarely gets sacked. And when Edgerrin James returns from his back injury after the bye week, the Colts should move to the top of the league's offensive statistics.

The key is balance. The key is controlled offensive possessions. And if that means a slight de-emphasis on the quarterback, good. The NFL is television's ultimate survivor game show and keeping the quarterback standing is essential.

So, this year, quarterbacks aren't putting up wild and crazy passing numbers. Offensive coordinators are holding back a little bit, picking their spots.

It will be interesting to see how Steve Spurrier adjusts as the season progresses. Martz has used more maximum protection schemes and more running plays for young quarterback Marc Bulger. Spurrier is still sending out most of his potential receivers, and his quarterback, Patrick Ramsey, is getting crunched. At times, he's used a few more runs, but teams are winning without getting their quarterbacks killed and Spurrier needs to figure out a way to do the same. Ramsey may not last another month under his intense pounding.

The Dilfer model works. Save the quarterback

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the dilgfer model was used because the ravens had no offense....bad example.

the sos offense works. the only legitiamte claim is that SOS needs to mix up the stes, blocking schemes, play calls, etc, so that the O doesn't become predictably pass happy....hardly a brilliant obervation: though it does have merit...:)......

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