- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2001

Have no fear. Just because the over-under in the Super Bowl is nine OK, 34 doesn't mean pro football is about to enter some kind of Dark Ages. Yes, the Ravens and Giants have a decidedly defensive tilt as did most of the playoff teams this year but it's more an aberration than a trend, if you ask me.

Why? Because the NFL simply wouldn't allow the game to stray very far in that direction. Low-scoring football would undoubtedly mean lower TV ratings and less lucrative network contracts. Who wants to see a field goal festival, a punting parade?

Beyond that, though, it would go against the league's philosophy, one that has been in place since 1933. That was the year owners passed a bunch of rules that opened up pro football, made it much less of a tug-o'-war. At the end of those historic meetings, NFL president Joe Carr said, "We think we have helped overcome the balance held by the defense. In fact, if we can give the offense a slight edge, it doubtless would improve the game for both players and spectators.

"We are primarily interested in developing a spectacular scoring game. We haven't the pageantry that goes with college games, hence as a substitute we must offer wide-open play, with frequent scoring. Then, too, we are not compelled to throw a tight wall of protection around our players. They are more mature, more experienced than collegians, and thus are better able to protect themselves."

Giving the offense "a slight edge" has made the NFL the most successful league in sports history. And the owners have been very careful over the years to make sure the defense didn't take that edge away. Every time there's a major rule change, it seems, it's the offense that's the beneficiary. One of the first ones was the institution of the roughing the passer penalty in 1938. Before that, defenses could do just about anything they wanted to the quarterback after he released the ball and sometimes went a little overboard.

"There was a play where I threw a pass for about 15 yards," Sammy Baugh once recalled, "and the receiver made a few extra yards after catching the ball. Meanwhile, [the other team's] linemen were chasing me all over the field, even though the play was elsewhere. When the play was over, me and the receiver were both on the ground 70 yards apart."

And the roughing the passer penalty is just one example. The one-bump rule, radio helmets for quarterbacks, moving the hash marks closer to the middle of the field, allowing blockers to use their hands, returning the ball after a missed field goal to the spot of the kick all these things were designed to help the offense. Whenever the defense has threatened to gain the upper hand, the league's Competition Committee has taken the appropriate steps to restore the game's delicate imbalance. (The last time was in the late '70s, when the number of points per game dropped well below the magic 40 figure. By 1983, scoring was back up to 43.7 a game.)

What's unusual about the current situation is that, while defensive-oriented teams are thriving, clubs like St. Louis, Denver and Oakland are still lighting up the scoreboard. In fact, if the Raiders had scored just one more point this season, the NFL would have had three teams that averaged 30 points per game. That hasn't happened since 1949.

So let's not get carried away here. Yes, the Ravens and Giants have dynamite defenses and the Titans', Dolphins', Eagles' and Bucs' aren't too shabby either but it's not as if pro football is about to revisit the '20s, or even the '70s. This just happens to be a year or maybe it's going to be two or three years when the best teams are built around their 'D.'

If it lasts much longer than that, expect the league to take action. (A wider field, perhaps? A no-bump rule?) But I'd be surprised if it does. In addition to the Competition Committee, you see, we now have free agency to peck away at defenses. Will the Ravens, for instance, be able to afford both Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware in the future, or will they have to choose between the two? And will they face the same decision, eventually, with young cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister? The Cowboys couldn't keep their great defense together in the '90s. What makes the Ravens any different?

The big thing, though, is that pro football is and always will be an offensive game; its guardians will see to that. The NFL has a formula, and it has made owners millions upon millions of dollars. They're the last ones who are going to fit the golden goose with a noose.


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