"I like the game the way it is today," says Bucs director of player personnel Jerry Angelo, "because I know when I go to the stadium we're going to see two teams get after each other. Seldom is the game over at half-time. I like to get to the last chapter before I know who committed the murder. What we're getting are games played with more intensity because the players know anything can happen. No team can just turn it on at the end and pull out a win like some of those teams could when they had dynasties, like the Steelers of the '70s."
The biggest reason for so many close, low-scoring games? Blitzing. Lots of it. From any position, at any time. Last Saturday night, as the Rams' offensive players had one final tune-up for their game at Tennessee, offensive coordinator Mike Martz showed them a videotape of a play from the Titans' Oct. 3 game at San Francisco. Tennessee's defense was in its usual 4-3 alignment, but at the snap all three linebackers looped into pass-rush lanes and stormed the quarterback. Mind you, this was on first down—a rushing down. Three linebackers run-blitzing is the kind of craziness that offenses have been seeing all year. "Fellas, expect this kind of blitzing from the very first snap tomorrow," Martz said. "They'll come after you all day."
That the Titans did. While allowing Warner to throw for 328 yards and three touchdowns, Tennessee also sacked him six times and caused four fumbles in a 24-21 win. Coming off a bye that gave them an extra week to prepare, the Titans' coaching staff devised a bizarre 3-0-8 scheme—three linemen, no linebackers and eight defensive backs—that was used about a dozen times. St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk was also double-covered almost every time he came out of the backfield.
"When we watched them on tape," said Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, "everyone except Baltimore laid back and played it safe. And got beat by about 35 points. We said, 'Why not be aggressive?' I thought the eight defensive backs would neutralize Faulk and challenge their short and intermediate routes."
Defenses are getting so sophisticated that some have taken to calling audibles just before the snap. "The way we work it is if we see one formation, we can blitz it; another formation, we play zone," says Green Bay safety and defensive signal-caller LeRoy Butler. "I think defenses are way ahead of offenses. They know we've got a nickel in, but they don't know if we're going to blitz or play zone or man."
Says San Diego Chargers coach Mike Riley, "I bet we're getting blitzed 60 to 70 percent of the time, in some fashion. Either a zone blitz or an all-out blitz."
"Never in my career have I seen some of the things I'm seeing now," says Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith. "The Giants' defense coming at us with eight to stop the run—and we've still got Troy [Aikman, at quarterback]. Washington's putting an eighth man up and blitzing to stop the run. I guess teams believe what everybody's been saying about football in the '90s: You stop the run, you win games."
What's frustrating is that so many offenses are incapable of fighting off the superior defenses and are playing ultraconservative football instead. "It's a reflection on the caliber of quarterbacks in the game today," says Buffalo Bills general manager John Butler. But that doesn't explain why the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have a very good quarterback in Mark Brunell and whose top running back, Fred Taylor, has been slowed by a hamstring injury, are nevertheless second in the NFL in run-pass ratio on first down, running the ball 63% of the time. Even with a dominating line, the Jaguars are averaging only 3.9 yards per attempt, down from 4.7 last year. In fact, only 11 teams are averaging more yards per carry than they were in '98, and the 3.75-yard league average is almost a quarter of a yard less than it was last year and the second-lowest figure this decade. Even in some of the prime-time matchups, teams play snoreball. The winners of the last three Monday-night games in October scored 16, 13 and 13 points. "If I'm the Packers, I say my best chance every week is putting the ball in Brett Favre's hands," says Holmgren. "But when your quarterback is young and inexperienced—like our Jon Kitna—you approach the game differently."
Of course, offensive coaches will eventually figure out how to counter the latest defensive fad. Don't be surprised if they go the way of Joe Gibbs's old max-protect package, using a fullback or an extra tight end, or both, to pick up stray blitzers, then run safe routes. Some of that's happening already; though the league's overall quarterback rating is down from last year, completion percentage is up a half a percentage point, to 56.8%. Says Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who, after losing Elway and then Davis and then tight end Shannon Sharpe, has been patching together an offense all season: "For a few weeks, defenses come up with a package that hurts you, then you find the way to beat it, and you have a few good weeks."
After practice one night last week, in preparation for Sunday's game against the Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts' second-year quarterback, Peyton Manning, spent 3½ hours studying tape at the team's training facility. "I try to play the game in the film room," he said from his car phone shortly after 9 p.m. It paid off against Dallas, as Manning completed 22 of 34 passes for 312 yards and a touchdown, leading the Colts to a come-from-behind 34-24 win.