Thursday, August 31
Bears, Rams setting new trends for 2000

At first, longtime NFL traditionalists thought Gary Crowton's approach to offense was unbearable. Last summer, Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham called it a high-school offense.

Now the Bears offensive coordinator is the hottest prom date in the league. Teams have copied his hitch passes and flanker screens. They've incorporated his nuances from empty backfield sets. If the Bears do as well as most experts expect, Crowton will be an NFL head coach next year.

Marcus Robinson
Marcus Robinson emerged as a star last season, catching 84 passes for 1,400 yards and nine TDs.

The hitch pass and the flanker screen allowed the usually impotent Bears to finish third in passing statistics last season even though three different quarterbacks started. There is one school of thought that officials might call more penalties for illegal downfield blocks on Crowton's screens and hitch passes.

Don't believe it. What Crowton does isn't illegal. It's just well-coordinated.

"I don't think people understood the rule," Crowton said. "Most people don't think linemen can be downfield. You can be downfield after the ball is thrown. You just can't hit anybody until it's caught. Once the ball leaves the quarterback's hand, you can go downfield."

Crowton sat in his office Monday looking at tapes and was still disturbed that the Bears were flagged for an illegal downfield block Saturday. That was a mental mistake. "Most people don't know how much we practice it," Crowton said. "But it's only a play that we may use a couple times a game."

As much as teams are practicing it, everyone will know it this season. Crowton calls his hitch passes a "flash," as in quick as a flash. The quarterback takes one step and fires it to the receiver. The idea is simple. Receivers are playmakers. The Flash gets the ball in the hands of a receiver, who is one-on-one against a cornerback.

If he beats the cornerback with a move, he gains yards. The play is almost as safe as a running play. Bengals head coach Bruce Coslet has first-round choice Peter Warrick at split end where he can catch a hitch and use his Barry Sanders-like moves to turn a 5-yard play into a potential touchdown.

"Everybody's doing it now," Crowton said. "I'm seeing it in Philadelphia, Tennessee, you name it. I don't think my offense is different from anybody's. Really, a lot of the things go back to the New York Giants offense of Bill Parcells that I learned from Tom Coughlin."

Success breeds imitation. The Rams' Super Bowl run made their tapes the most studied during the offseason, but what teams are copying may surprise you. Not many offenses can completely incorporate the things that coach Mike Martz did with Kurt Warner because they don't have the quick receivers like Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim or a multi-dimensional running back like Marshall Faulk.

More teams are copying the Rams' blitzing schemes. That system worked so well with the Rams' offensive firepower. Like the Bill Walsh-coached 49ers, the Rams offense set the tempo of games by running plays quickly, driving down the field and scoring a touchdown or field goal in its opening possessions. The defense played aggressively for the three-and-out or the turnover.

The philosophy opponents are copying is the Rams' philosophy of varying blitzes off the team's offensive formations. Most defensive coordinators call blitzes by picking a side of the field to overload and sending the prescribed blitzers.

NFL trends for 2000
  • Bears' hitches and flanker screens
  • Rams' "blitz the formation" system
  • Empty backfields with H-backs or multiple tight-end sets
  • Rams defensive coordinator Pete Giunta uses the "blitz the formation" philosophy taught to him by retired defensive genius Bud Carson. Defenders go into a play with a couple of blitzing options, but the blitzers won't be designated until they see the offensive formation.

    "We bring people from different places all the time," Giunta said. "We don't want to be predictable. On a certain front, this guy will blitz. On a different front, it will be another guy. A lot of the blitzes are automatic based on the formation. With offenses having so many formations, that's hard to do, but we try to get a matchup that we want."

    What's made the Rams so successful is that the core group of the defense has been together for a couple of years. That allows Giunta to add complexities each season.

    Unlike the zone blitz scheme that remain popular around the league, the Rams' assault comes a lot of time from man-to-man coverages. Carson taught Giunta 30 years of devious stuff. Remember, Carson was defensive coordinator when the Steelers dominated the early 1970s. He mixed in some of that strategy in the New York Sack Exchange with Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau.

    Carson picked up Buddy Ryan's "46" defense when he went to the Eagles and didn't revamp the playbook. That allowed the Rams to have a "46" look at times along with conventional 4-3 sets.

    "The better you are at the corner positions, the more stuff you are able to do," Giunta said. "We want to go out and force the quick throw. We don't line up guys and leave them there. We are constantly moving the front. We also give our guys a lot of freedom. They may have three or four calls depending on the formation."

    Thanks to their attack mode, the Rams had an NFL-best 57 sacks last season. To make the scheme work, Giunta believes he needs smart middle linebackers and safeties, good corners and decent outside pass-rushers.

    He has spent the most time over the past year and a half talking to Carson by phone and trying to find ways to make the complex schemes simple. "We simply want to make it player friendly," Giunta said.

    The friendly it is to Rams players, the more it becomes unpopular to opposing quarterbacks. That's why teams are trying to copy it.

    Among the other trends taking shape this year, more teams are going to empty their backfields in pure passing situations because of the lack of coverage cornerbacks. Fullbacks are being phased out of more plays. They are being replaced by H-Backs and tight ends. Fullbacks are becoming one-dimensional in that they aren't sent out on passes and rarely do they get a carry.

    The Vikings came up with the novel idea of turning a tight end/H-back into a "super" fullback. Jim Kleinsasser is 279 pounds, but he has the hands of a tight end. Coach Dennis Green will not only use him at fullback, but he will send him into enough pass routes to get him 25 to 30 catches this year. In Tampa, Pro Bowl fullback Mike Allstott will be used as an H-back to take more advantage of his multi-dimensional skills.

    The Cowboys are picking up the tempo similar to the Rams and Redskins. Quarterback Troy Aikman is trying to get plays off quicker and get linemen in and out of huddles quicker.

    It should make for a quicker, more exciting league. One thing is certain -- whatever works will be copied.

    John Clayton is the senior NFL writer for

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