December is here, which means we're in the stretch run of the NFL season. It also a good time to see what trends are emerging in the pro game.
Passing wins championships?
"Run the ball and play defense if you want to win a championship." It's an old coaching expression ... perhaps the emphasis should be on "old."
The NFL has turned into a passing league, and anyone who doubts it should check out the facts. Currently, the top five defenses in the NFL are a combined 31-24; the top five offenses are 47-8. As for running the ball, the top five rushing teams are 30-25; the top five passing teams are 41-14. The message, this season at least, is build up your offense and throw the ball.
I discussed these findings with one former NFL head coach who has a Super Bowl ring. He said the numbers will be more meaningful if they hold up at season's end, but right now, he added, it looks like teams can still make the playoffs with a strong defense and a run game but they will not win a championship.
If you're still not sure you buy into the modern game, check this out: Teams with at least 20 touchdown passes this season have a combined record of 58-19; teams averaging at least 150 rushing yards a game are 25-30.
Getting back on track
I have been impressed this season by teams that have adjusted their plans in midstream and made a difference. Here are four that are most notable:
» The 49ers have rebuilt their offense with an "11" personnel (one tight end, one running back, three wide receivers). It is a personnel group that QB Alex Smith used in college and it fits the Niners' personnel. There have been recent concerns about running back Frank Gore in the offense but I think he will flourish in the expanded "11" personnel. The famous Buffalo Bills "K-gun" was an 11-personnel offense and as soon as Jim Kelly proved the passing game was dangerous, Thurman Thomas came alive.
» Some head coaches have decided to go "simple" rather than stick with a more complex plan that didn't play to the strengths of their players. As one head coach told me, "We all go back to the basics when our backs are to the wall." The Jets, Steelers and Titans have all made the adjustments to be more effective teams in the fourth quarter of the season. The Jets simplified the offense for rookie QB Mark Sanchez; Pittsburgh used a reduced offensive package to give Dennis Dixon a chance to win as the Steelers signal caller; and the Titans have built an offense around the strengths of quarterback Vince Young.
» The Denver Broncos have returned to a pressure package on defense after experiencing a four-game losing streak. The Broncos defense had three sacks, six quarterback hits, six tackles for a loss and nine passes defended against the Giants on Thanksgiving. After giving up 117 points in the four losses, they got back on track by giving up just two field goals to New York.
» The San Diego Chargers have found a way to cover up the loss of NT Jamal Williams. Nose tackles in a 3-4 base have been going down with injuries at an alarming rate this season, but not everyone has made the right adjustments. One Chargers player told me they have gone to a lot more one-gap, four-man fronts on defense, and it has worked well. More pressure calls compliment an offense that features Philip Rivers, who is 14-0 in December games.
Expand late-season rosters
Injuries are a fact of life in the NFL and so is losing, bad special teams play, and players putting themselves at risk by playinmg hurt. How about expanding the rosters for the last four games of the season?
If teams could activate their practice-squad players and sign UFL players or even CFL players it would enhance the NFL product down the stretch. There is nothing crazy about pushing the roster from 53 to 60 and activating 50 instead of 45 on game days.
The players signed on the expanded roster would all have to be minimum-wage salaries with no bonus money. It would mean not having to place a player on injured reserve who might make it back for the playoffs. It would mean better practices, which in turn mean better games.
Right now, many teams don't have 40 healthy bodies for a Wednesday practice. For teams in development like Detroit and St. Louis, it's an opportunity to take a look at players for next year. A four-week prorated, minimum-wage salary for seven more players is not a lot of money, and if you used most of the spots from your practice squad it's even less. Just a thought.