Football's new doctrine: Pass short or improvise

Two rounds of the National Football League playoffs have passed, and this we know:

Come Sunday, there will be no quarterback in the line of Dan Marino - no classic drop-back passer who will stand calm and long in the pocket, looking to gobble up chunks of the field in one fell heave. Nor will we see the next Walter Payton - a running back who can carry a team's fortunes on his broad shoulders.

Instead, we will see screen passes and short slants, eating up yardage termite-slow. We will see rushers replaced by three or four receivers, spreading out as wide as the Maginot Line. And we will see quarterbacks arrow passes to them quickly - or scramble for their lives.

It is a new era in professional football. If anything, this postseason has shown that the old formula for offensive success - a pure pocket passer and a strong running game - has worn thin. Now, as coaches try to outmaneuver a new breed of linebackers the size of small subdivisions and as fast as the running backs of old, a new pigskin doctrine is emerging: pass short and improvise.

This is not the sort of offense that befits the Monsters of the Midway - for whom "three yards and a cloud of dust" was the height of innovation. Or even the golden-armed but lead-footed Marino. This is the rapier passing of the Oakland Raiders' Rich Gannon; the jitterbug of the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb. It is football played in fast-forward, and full of action.

"It's a very exciting time we're entering into," says Paul Attner of The Sporting News.

Just look at some of the playoff scores: 34-31, 39-38, 41-0, 36-33, 30-10, 31-6.

Then look at some of the players no longer involved. Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, arguably the league's two best drop-back passers, were routed in the first round of the playoffs. None of the top 13 regular-season rushers made it to last weekend's games.

Who is left? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Raiders, and Eagles - with Gannon and McNabb at the leading edge of pro football's evolution.

In truth, they are nothing so unusual in football history. Gannon's quick decisionmaking is an echo from across San Francisco Bay, where Joe Montana mastered the quick thrusts of the West Coast offense. McNabb, meanwhile, reprises scramblers like Randall Cunningham.

Yet each has seen their skills amplified by the changing nature of the NFL.

Today, the long bomb is little more than a museum piece. Teams are passing more than ever, but it's a kind of glorified running game of dumpoffs and quick curls. This is where Gannon is a master. With his team running about once every lunar eclipse, he set records this season for completions and 300-yard games, and finished with the third-highest passing yardage ever.

McNabb's answer to blitzers is somewhat simpler: run. Once seen as liabilities, scramblers like McNabb and Michael Vick now find themselves in demand for their ability to avoid ever-faster tacklers.

"Having a mobile quarterback allows you to get away with less talent," says Attner.

To many, this is all part of the tactical tides of football. For now, four-receiver spreads and nimble-toed quarterbacks are befuddling defensive coordinators. But Manning and Favre are not endangered species, and running backs won't be phased out along with the "tuck rule."

"Generally, it's action and reaction," says Joe Horrigan of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "When something succeeds, people seem to follow."

Eventually, defenses will unlock the answers. Yet even Horrigan senses some of the changes might be permanent. "What has changed is the athleticism of the players," he says. "It's such a speed game now."

Adds Attner: "Football may never go back to what it was when we were growing up."

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