NFL is a changing sport

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It’s not our father’s NFL.

For years, we’ve heard the key to winning is to run the ball and stop the run. That’s how you win in the playoffs, and that’s how you eventually win championships.

For sure, these are still important factors.

But they’re no longer the most important.

The February’s Super Bowl was the “new” NFL on full display, pitting a pair of teams highly adept at doing two things: Passing the ball, and stopping the pass.

For years, the Colts have turned this into an art form. Their Cover Two defense — while no longer a sieve against the run — employs so many smaller, faster defenders that it’s tough to find an open window in the zone. You don’t have much time either, with speed demons like Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney on the edge. And passing the ball? Peyton Manning, at your service.

The Colts were poor at running the ball last season, and rushing offense/rushing defense has always been among their relative weaker points. Yet, they’ve won 12 games for seven consecutive seasons, an NFL record and a minor miracle in today’s league of quick turnarounds and parity.

Meanwhile, the Saints flip-flopped their strengths from 2008 to 2009, becoming a relatively strong pass defense (though late season injuries to their secondary decimated their final ranking) but falling into a weaker run defense. The result? A 8-8 team turned into a Super Bowl champion.

It’s not isolated. More and more teams have become smaller and quicker defensively while spreading the field on offense. New England, which won its first Super Bowl on the back of Antowain Smith and Tom Brady: game manager, has been throwing it around for years. Pittsburgh wins games now on the arm of Big Ben. Arizona went to a Super Bowl behind Kurt Warner, Green Bay continues to win behind Aaron Rodgers, and Minnesota, gifted arguably the NFL’s beat pure runner, was primarily a pass-first offensive team a year ago. And Andy Reid’s Eagles have won for years stressing these things above all else.

When you look at the 2009 playoff teams, many excel in both pass offense and pass defense, and the ones that didn’t were among the true elite in one (ie, the pass defenses of Cincinnati, New York, and Baltimore, the passing offense of Minnesota).

It makes sense. Today’s game is one of parity … gone are the days where the Cowboys or 49ers could just physically overwhelm opposing teams. All teams have talented players, and the little things, a few plays, push an 8-8 level team into the postseason.

So it stands to reason that the teams that perform in the clutch are the ones who will make that push. And down the stretch of a tie game, or a close game, it’s almost always on the quarterback to make plays. Have a good one, or be good at limiting the other, and you’ll probably come out ahead more often than not.

There’s also the other side of it — teams especially adept at passing seem to pile up the points against lesser squads, making it less likely they’ll lose on a fluky play to an inferior team.

More and more teams are jumping on board. The Bengals signed Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant, drafted a tight end in Jermaine Gresham and a receiver Jordan Shipley, and let Carson Palmer throw it all around this past weekend. For a team that got to the playoffs by pounding the ball, this represents a major shift — ie, they feel they’ve hit their ceiling playing the other way.

Baltimore opened up its offense early last season and only relented after injuries began to hinder sophomore starting quarterback Joe Flacco. They traded for Anquan Boldin and drafted a spread/receiving tight end in Ed Dickson from Oregon.

Not everyone can do it. You need the quarterback, and a good quarterback is hard to find.

But those that can stop the pass and pass efficiently are going to win consistently from year to year. The Colts, Pats, and Eagles have known this for years.

The Saints finally have their pass defense in gear, and I believe will be in the league’s upper crust for years to come thanks to Drew Brees, Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, and a deep, young and talented secondary.

Everyone’s reading the same blueprint now.

But few can execute that blueprint quite like the Saints.