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Without a doubt, the run-and-shoot offense has brought excitement to the NFL since its introduction last season. In Houston, Warren Moon has 927 more yards passing than any other quarterback in the AFC so far this year, and three of the top four pass catchers in the conference are Oilers. In Atlanta, a new receiving star, Andre Rison, has been born (page 85). In Detroit, the Lions are on pace to score more points than they have in any season since 1981.
But there is doubt as to how successful a run-and-shoot team can be. After 13 games in 1989, the Oilers, Falcons and Lions were a combined 15-24. The same teams were 14-24 through Sunday's games (Detroit played Monday night against the Raiders). This is the second year that the Lions have run assistant coach Mouse Davis's peculiar four-receiver, one-back, no-tight-end attack. Houston, which used a variation of the scheme at times in '89, is committed to it this season, and Atlanta is using it for the first time. At this point, a few observations can be made:
•Implementing the run-and-shoot without having players with the right skills at key positions, especially quarterback and wide receiver, is suicide.
•Because run-and-shoot teams usually do not carry tight ends and fullbacks, the defensive units on these squads can't practice against the offensive formations they will see in games.
•The closer a run-and-shoot offense gets to the end zone, the less effective it becomes, because it's impossible to play power football with a bunch of little receivers in the lineup.
"It's a good offense," says Moon, "but you've got to have the right talent. You've got to have the small, quick receivers with good hands. You've got to have the trigger man who can throw line drives on the run. And it all starts up front with guards who can trap-block and tackles with good feet."
Here's a look at each team's struggles with the run-and-shoot:
Detroit. "If the Lions find good players at quarterback and wide receiver, they could be effective," says Pittsburgh's director of pro personnel, Tom Donahoe. That's like saying, "If that airplane finds a pilot and some fuel, it could fly." In truth, Detroit (4-8 going into Monday's game) can be a frightening team to play against—when all its cylinders are in sync, it can put points on the board as fast as anyone—but the Lions have been hurt by countless dropped passes, by their inability to settle on a starting quarterback and by their failure to use the league's most feared runner, Barry Sanders, at critical times (chart, at left).
In a nutshell, here is what's wrong with Detroit's attack: On Nov. 4, the Lions led the Redskins 38-21 with 13 minutes left, and Sanders had 100 yards on 10 carries. However, on its next three possessions, Detroit ran a total of seven plays—without getting a first down and without getting the ball to Sanders. The Lions took just 3:21 off the clock with those possessions. Meanwhile, the Redskins tied the score, and they went on to win in overtime. "You can't hold the ball at the end of the game," says Washington defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon of one weakness of the run-and-shoot. "How do you run out the clock?"