Just when it looked as if the high-octane St. Louis Rams were going to take offensive football to a new level, most of the NFL's other 30 teams have dug in their heels. Conservative is cool again. Simplicity is the strategy of the day. "When we prepared for a team a few years ago, the coaches gave us a ton of material to read," says Tennessee Titans linebacker Randall Godfrey. "Now all they basically say is, 'Here are this team's 10 plays. This is what they run and how they run it. Now let's stop it.' "
More and more teams have adopted the philosophy that the best offense is one that minimizes mistakes, and that means taking fewer chances with the football. Can you blame them? Most clubs have few options given the prevailing mediocrity at quarterback, the ubiquitous West Coast offense, an influx of defensive players with scary ability and the hiring of defensive coaches to fill most head jobs. What's more, few teams have the dual luxury of a patient owner plus salary-cap room to accumulate the talent needed to run a wide-open system. Under the circumstances, coaches are trying to dominate games with defense and special teams. The popular offensive mind-set is: Just don't screw things up.
The chief beneficiaries of this keep-it-simple approach are running backs, and never have so many been so productive or prominent. Last year a record 23 players rushed for at least 1,000 yards, up from 14 the previous season and seven in 1991. More evidence: Ten backs caught at least 60 passes last season, including five who led their teams in receptions. Look at the New York Jets, for whom backfield partners Richie Anderson and Curtis Martin caught 88 and 70 passes, respectively, to lead the team in receptions.
"A lot of coaches have become predictable," says former San Francisco 49ers coach and general manager Bill Walsh, with evident distaste. "They'll hand the ball off on first down and gain four yards. They'll run it again on second down and get two yards. On third-and-four they'll throw out their multiple-receiver packages, complete a five-yard pass and feel relieved. Then they'll start all over again with the running."
Not every team is quite so deadly dull. St. Louis is the most notable exception. Coach Mike Martz has built a multiple-receiver attack that creates advantageous matchups for his speedy wideouts and running back Marshall Faulk (page 106), the league's MVP last year and the man around whom the Rams' attack revolves. The Denver Broncos, third in the NFL in both rushing and passing last season, have arguably the league's most balanced offense. The 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings each have a quarterback and a wideout with Pro Bowl credentials and aren't afraid to throw the ball downfield.
On the other hand, while the low-risk offense may be boring to watch, it's hard to argue against its success. Last season the Baltimore Ravens went five consecutive games without an offensive touchdown, yet rookie Jamal Lewis rushed for 1,364 yards, and the Ravens' defense carried them to a championship. For much of the season the New York Giants, the Ravens' opponent in the Super Bowl, rode the one-two punch of running backs Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne (1,776 rushing yards combined). The Titans (powered by running back Eddie George), the Miami Dolphins ( Lamar Smith) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ( Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott) have all won with similar styles: low-risk offense and stifling defense. "You may not catch us on ESPN's highlights too often," George says of a Tennessee team that was a league-best 26-6 over the last two years, "but we're winning a lot of games with this style."
An offensive mastermind like Walsh can't stand it. Wincing and shifting uneasily in his chair, he says, "Your [low-risk] offense never really has control, and you're always at the mercy of [the defense] in the fourth quarter of close games. Any little mistake can cost you."
Walsh fondly looks back to the early and mid-'90s, when the NFL was more of a passing league with systems built around very capable—and in many cases future Hall of Fame—quarterbacks. The 49ers and the Green Bay Packers were among several teams that thrived with the West Coast offense. The Atlanta Falcons, the Detroit Lions and the Houston Oilers (now Titans) used the run-and-shoot. The Buffalo Bills created an attacking, no-huddle, multiple-receiver package to capitalize on Jim Kelly's ability to run the two-minute drill, going to four straight Super Bowls with their high-scoring K-Gun offense.
The statistics were off the charts. In 1990 the Niners' Jerry Rice became only the second player since the 1970 merger to catch 100 passes in a season. Five years later the Lions' Herman Moore caught a league-record 123. He was one of nine players to eclipse the century mark in 1995, but by '99 that number had dipped to two. "There was a day when every team had its own flavor, whether it was a power game or a vertical game or whatever," says Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent, who's entering his 10th season. "Now there's a lot of copycatting."
Part of the blame for that falls, oddly enough, on Walsh. This season 15 of the 31 teams will run some variation of the West Coast offense, which he developed in the late '60s and early '70s. With the controlled-passing offense in such widespread use, defenses now tend to know what's coming. "You see the same thing all the time, with a wrinkle or two here and there," says Vincent. "We run it here in Philly, so we see it every day [in practice]."