Spirit of Giving
This season will be remembered for its lack of a dominating defense
Nineteen ninety-eight may be remembered as the year that respect for game officials hit an alltime low. Or the year that Peyton Manning began his march to Canton. Or the year that the value of franchises went through the roof—a $530 million price tag on the expansion team in Cleveland, the possible $700 million sale of the Redskins and $17.6 billion in network TV contracts. Or perhaps the year that the Broncos and the Vikings positioned themselves to play one of the best Super Bowls of all time.
One thing that '98 won't be remembered for is dominating defense. Quick: Name the three teams that lead the NFL in total defense entering the last week of the regular season. The 5-10 Chargers are on top, followed by the 10-5 Dolphins and the 7-8 Bucs. San Diego is first in the league against the run, but the Chargers are eighth against the pass, 20th in points allowed and 18th in sacks. You call that great defense?
Putting a quality unit on the field requires not only Pro Bowl-caliber players but also depth to offset injuries and specialists to counter the multiple sets that have become the norm for offenses today. However, teams can afford to pay top dollar to only so many players, and even backups opt to go where the money is instead of sticking with a proven winner. "You can't stockpile players anymore," says Bills offensive coordinator Joe Pendry. "The ['85] Bears had great players at every position on defense, and they had a bench. Now, even if you get all those great starters, nobody's got a bench, and you're going to need one before the season's over."
Lacking depth, good defenses, by necessity, have become increasingly complex. The Jets are 11-4 in large part because of their ability to mix up their looks: They've played a 3-4, a 4-3 and even a 4-4 with only three defensive backs on regular downs, which is virtually unheard of in today's game. "They make you think more than you want to think, trying to figure out who's playing what position," says Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein. "They have so many personnel packages."
Here are four other trends that emerged this year:
Kicking entered the Golden Age. No aspect of the game has improved as meteorically in recent years as field goal accuracy. In 1986 kickers made 68.6% of their field goal attempts; heading into the final week of this season, the conversion rate is 79.9%, and only five kickers are below 70%.
The 1994 rule change that returned the ball to the spot of a missed field goal instead of to the line of scrimmage discouraged many coaches from attempting long field goals. Nevertheless, kickers are now better coached and less flaky. There are stronger legs doing the work, too. In '94, when the league moved the kickoff from the 35- to the 30-yard line, 7% of the kickoffs went for touchbacks; this year that number is up to 17%.
The zone blitz all but disappeared. Teams still employ the scheme that drops linemen into short pass-coverage zones while linebackers and/or defensive backs blitz, but they aren't running it as much as they did a couple of years ago. Why? It takes too long for young players to master the zone blitz, quarterbacks are more mobile, and offensive coordinators are countering with four-wideout sets that give the passer more quick options. The Panthers ran the scheme 45% of the time in '96 using smart, experienced linebackers and linemen. Not so with a new cast this year: On 56 plays against the Bills on Oct. 25, Carolina called two zone blitzes. "Offenses are spreading the field more, and defenses will have to find a way to match that," says Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
Mobile quarterbacks hit it big. The Vikings' Randall Cunningham has the league's top quarterback rating. Doug Flutie unexpectedly guided the Bills into the playoffs. Even Manning, who was supposed to have feet of concrete, moves and rolls like a Steve Young wannabe; against the Ravens on Nov. 29, Manning completed 13 of 16 passes when flushed out of the pocket or throwing on the run. More than ever, scouts are looking at college passers who can improvise—Kansas State's Michael Bishop, UCLA's Cade McNown and Syracuse's Donovan McNabb, to name three—as high-round draft prospects.