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Monday, September 10, 2007
Updated: October 1, 4:41 PM ET
Overloading the shotgun

By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2

Bartender, shotgun spreads for everyone!
Considered quirky just a few seasons ago, the shotgun spread has taken over football as completely as if it were a Ukrainian virus targeting Microsoft Outlook. Friday night at my kids' high school game, both sides were running it; I've seen maybe two dozen high school teams since September 2006, and most of the offenses were shotgun spread. Come Saturday, LSU and Virginia Tech slugged it out in prime time with both teams in the shotgun spread. Imagine telling the Gipper that Notre Dame just played at Penn State, and both spent most of the game in a shotgun formation with multiple wideouts, including the Nittany Lions' opening snap being shotgun spread with five wide. Almost every big-college game this weekend featured at least one team that had shotgun as its base look. Miami, Ohio State, West Virginia, Washington, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Christian, Hawaii, Louisville -- we could save space by listing the major teams that currently don't go shotgun as their base offense. The shotgun spread offense has taken over Division I-AA, Div. II and Div. III, as well, and lest we forget, Appalachian State used the shotgun spread for its historic upset of Michigan. Come the NFL's opening weekend, Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Jersey/A, Miami, Minnesota, New England, Philadelphia and Tennessee regularly lined up in a shotgun spread, even on rushing downs. Almost every NFL team now uses multiple-wide formations: According to Pro Football Prospectus 2007, 28 of the 32 NFL clubs went five wide on offense at least once in 2006. And of course, Indianapolis just won the Super Bowl from a shotgun spread. All hail the shotgun spread!

Fads come and go in sports, of course. Beginning in the late 1960s, the veer-option offense went from being rare to nearly universal to rare again, the cycle taking about a decade. How long until the shotgun spread is passé? A couple of seasons, most likely. Who gets credit for the popularity of the shotgun spread? Mike Leach and Urban Meyer are the most prominent names. Beginning in the early 1990s, Leach developed a shotgun spread attack at Valdosta State, then at Kentucky, now at Texas Tech; beginning about the same time, Meyer perfected a similar offense at Bowling Green, then at Utah, now at Florida. In high school, the shotgun spread has proliferated partly because coaches have heard that Southlake Carroll used the offense to win four Texas high school championships in the past five seasons, and Hoover of Alabama, which had its own show on MTV, won a lot of games with a shotgun spread. My guess is that in 2006 and 2007, hundreds of high school coaches have switched to the shotgun spread hoping to surprise opponents -- only to find their opponents opening in the shotgun spread, as well. At the NFL level, teams copy other teams. About five years ago, offensive coordinator Tom Moore of the Colts made it clear that a shotgun formation with two or three wide receivers and a wide-spread tight end could work on a consistent basis. Since then, every NFL team has shown this look at least occasionally.
Shotgun spread
Shocking proof -- Franco Harris invented the shotgun spread.
The shotgun itself usually is attributed to former Niners coach Red Hickey, who in 1960 had John Brodie stand well behind the center for a direct snap. Hickey's theory was that because the quarterback has to use time and energy dropping back on a passing play, why not just start the play with the quarterback dropped back? But when Brodie went into the shotgun, the rest of the formation stayed the same -- traditional two backs, two wide receivers -- and Hickey's Niners only shifted to the shotgun on long yardage downs. Few teams, college or pro, seemed interested in the shotgun until 1975, when Tom Landry of the Cowboys began to employ the set with Roger Staubach sometimes lining up in the shotgun on downs other than third-and-long. This was seen as a major innovation at the time, though many coaches thought the idea was stupid: because you couldn't run out of the shotgun, lining up shotgun announced you would pass. (Hold that thought a moment.) Despite the high profile of Staubach's Cowboys, shotgun sets did not catch on, except for third-and-long situations.

About the same time, Bill Walsh -- first as an assistant for the Cincinnati Bengals, then as head coach at Stanford -- conceived what eventually would become the West Coast offense: or as this column calls it, the West Coast Offense®. Walsh's big idea was not, as football pundits are wont to say, "timing routes"; all pass plays involve timing. Walsh's big idea was a pass designed to gain 8-15 yards. Until the West Coast Offense®, coaches viewed runs as plays intended for short gains and passes as plays intended for long gains. A 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 run-pass ratio prevailed, with runs called to raise clouds of dust and occasional passes called to attempt deep strikes: Think of the Packers' game plan in the first Super Bowl. Walsh's idea of frequent short passes that would pick up a first down but probably not lead to a big gain, struck most coaches of the late 1970s and early 1980s as nonsense. But when Walsh showed during San Francisco's Super Bowl runs that a team could control the clock with short throws, this revolutionized football's concept of the pass. Soon run-pass ratios were 1-to-1 or even favored the pass. Last year in the NFL regular season, there were 17,552 called passes -- attempts plus sacks -- versus 14,448 rushes. If your goal is to throw mostly short passes that leave the quarterback's hands quickly, having the quarterback take the snap already several yards deep made sense. (Hold that thought, too.)

Next came the thankfully brief era of the run 'n' shoot. Several teams, prominently Atlanta, Detroit and the old Houston Oilers, lined up with four wide receivers and no tight end, often favoring short receivers on the theory that they could dance around linebackers, and passed like mad, hitting 2-to-1 pass-run ratios. The Lions reached the 1991 NFC Championship Game as a run 'n' shoot team, and entered the contest with no tight end on the roster. Run 'n' shoot teams actively disdained the run, saying the future of football was all passing. The armageddon of the run 'n' shoot came in the 1992 playoffs, when the Oilers used this strategy to take a 35-3 second-half lead over the Bills, then plummeted to the largest lost lead in NFL annals. From the point at which the Oilers attained the 35-3 edge till they walked off the field with heads hanging, Houston coaches called 22 passes and four rushes -- endlessly stopping the clock with incompletions, thus keeping Buffalo alive. After the Oilers' meltdown on national television, the run 'n' shoot fell from vogue and has not been heard from since.
Red Hickey
What would have happened if Red Hickey had been hired to coach Southlake Carroll?
The next fad offense was the no-huddle, started by the Bengals with Boomer Esiason, perfected by Jim Kelly's Super Bowl Bills, and by the late 1990s seen on occasion from most NFL teams. The point of the no-huddle was not, as football pundits commonly said, to pass like crazy: In its four Super Bowl years, Buffalo either had a 1-to-1 run-pass ratio or rushed more than passed. The points of the no-huddle were these: first, to prevent situation substitutions by the defense; second, to lure the defense into using simplified tactics without presnap movements (because defenders would be worried about getting into position in time); third, to increase the number of plays the offense runs (playing defense is more tiring than playing offense, so an accelerated pace favors the offense); and fourth, to entice the defense into using a relatively light "prevent" set with five or six defensive backs, then run against the skinny guys.

I mention these trends because the good aspects of all of them came together in the Leach-Meyer-Southlake-Moore conception of the shotgun spread. West Coast-style, most passes are designed to be short, and thus can be thrown quickly, before blitzers reach the deep-set quarterback. With four receivers running quick routes, somebody will be open; as long as the throws are accurate, the chains will move. Because the shotgun spread is up-tempo, the offense increases its number of plays executed. Offensive linemen are usually in two-point stances, which improves pass-protection performance. The key difference between the shotgun spread and previous philosophies, such as the run 'n' shoot, is that shotgun spread coaches love the run. In my kids' high school's shotgun spread performance Friday night, the run-pass ratio was 3-to-1. On Saturday, Nebraska beat Wake Forest 20-17 on a late 22-yard touchdown run by tailback Marlon Lucky. The line score of the game looks like something from 1953, but Wake rushed 53 times from the shotgun spread and Nebraska's winning touchdown run came from the shotgun spread. The Indianapolis Super Bowl win? The Colts won that game on the ground, rushing from the shotgun spread. The old-timers' assumption that you can only pass from the shotgun turns out to be totally wrong. Old-timers also would have said you can't rush-block from a two-point stance, which also turns out to be wrong. The shotgun spread is a great formation to run from, in part because you often are facing a light defense with one fewer linebacker than normal.

Defenses will soon find ways to counter shotgun-spread mania. When Alabama held Texas Tech to 10 points in the 2006 Cotton Bowl, you were seeing the beginning of the end of the shotgun spread fad. But often fads reach their peak just before collapsing, and the shotgun spread is at its peak right now. Shotgun spread advocates, enjoy your moment in the sun!

Shotgun footnote: TV announcers and sportswriters, please stop saying the point of this offense is to "spread the field." The field remains 160 feet wide regardless of where the players line up. Having multiple split receivers does reduce bunching of linebackers between the tackles, but then again, by moving defenders outward, spreading makes it a lot harder for the tailback to break a big run by turning the corner. Shotgun spread passing routes have more to do with giving the quarterback a clear view of the receiver than with spreading players outward. If spreading were in itself a good idea, all five offensive linemen wouldn't always be together. And by the way, what if not having all five offensive linemen together is the next big fad?

In other football news, see below for my Super Bowl pick, plus my annual off-price ultra-generic house-label prediction.

And in TMQ news -- clear the decks, prepare to dive! The Tuesday Morning Quarterback Challenge returns! At least for this week. See below.

Stat of the Week No. 1: Since the start of the 2002 season, the league's best teams are the Patriots at 68-23 and the Colts at 68-24.

Stat of the Week No. 2: In the Denver-Buffalo game, the Broncos had the lead for exactly one second -- the final second.

Stat of the Week No. 3: Green Bay had a scoring drive of minus-1 yard.

Stat of the Week No. 4: For a second consecutive season, Tampa failed to score a touchdown in its opener.

Stat of the Week No. 5: Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, and Tampa all failed to score an offensive touchdown in their openers.

Stat of the Week No. 6: Stretching back to last season, the Jets have lost consecutive games to New England and been outscored by a combined 45 points.

Stat of the Week No. 7: Stretching back to last season, the Saints have lost four of their past six games and been outscored in their two most recent appearances by a combined 56 points.

Stat of the Week No. 8: Since defeating eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis on Dec. 10, Jacksonville has dropped four straight games.

Stat of the Week No. 9: Cleveland has lost 14 of its past 15 games against Pittsburgh.

Stat of the Week No. 10: Last season, Larry Johnson rushed the ball more often than five entire teams. On opening weekend, 33 players carried more than Larry Johnson.
Jets cheerleaders
The new Jets' Flag Carriers look for reasons why Eric Mangini twice ordered punts from midfield on fourth-and-1 against New England.
Cheerleader of the Week: The newest addition to the NFL cheer-babe ranks is the Jets' Flag Carriers, so naturally they get the first Cheerleader of the Week nod. Reader Barry Negrin of New York City nominates Gina, whose team bio says she is a dance teacher who started dancing at age 2 1/2 -- way too late by modern ballet standards!

Sweet Play of the Week: Leading the Bucs 13-6 in the fourth quarter, Seattle faced third-and-5 on the City of Tampa 34. Before the snap, the Blue Men Group split tailback Maurice Morris all the way left, nearly at the sideline. Morris ran a "go" straight up the field for the game-clinching touchdown, beating linebacker Derrick Brooks. Why don't NFL teams split the tailback wide more often? This almost always causes a matchup problem for the defense.

Sweet Play of the Week No. 2: Trailing New England 7-0, Jersey/B faced third-and-6 on the Patriots' 7-yard line. The home crowd roaring, the Jets stayed in the huddle too long, and several Jets players looked up and pointed at the play clock, which was down to seven clicks, and waved toward the sideline. New England players relaxed, as they assumed a timeout was coming. Then the Jets as a group raced up to the line and quick-snapped, touchdown pass. The whole "Oh no, the play clock is ticking" thing was planned -- how very Belichick-like!

In Other Campaign News, Florida Moves Its Primary Up to Christmas Eve: Over the summer, Hillary Clinton staged a poll in which people voted for her campaign song. What is it with Democratic candidates and campaign songs? When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, his theme song was Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)," which contained such puzzling lyrics as, "I know you don't believe that it's true, I never meant any harm to you." At rallies, John Kerry's campaign sometimes played the Jimi Hendrix song "Fire," whose lyrics include, "You don't care for me, I don't care about that." Of the selections Hillary Clinton asked voters to consider, one was the "I'm a Believer" version by Smash Mouth -- not the Monkees' original. Can you imagine: "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, with soundtrack provided by Smash Mouth." Another nominee was U2's "City of Blinding Lights," whose lyrics include, "I knew much more then than I do now … what happened to the beauty I had inside of me?" The winner was Celine Dion's "You and I," whose lyrics include, "Take me higher than all the stars above / I'm burning, yearning." Somehow, I do not want to contemplate a burning, yearning Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Dion is a Canadian who grew up speaking French, and her current Vegas show is directed by Franco Dragon, a Belgian citizen. Is there a sinister Francophone conspiracy behind the Clinton presidential bid?

Sweet 'N' Sour Play: Peyton Manning's 27-yard pass to Marvin Harrison was the first touchdown of the 2007 season. It was second-and-6. New Orleans blitzed six; Indianapolis kept six blockers back, and no Saint even got close to Manning. That was sweet. Meanwhile, on the defensive side, Harrison -- the most productive touchdown receiver in the league -- ran a skinny out-and-up to the end zone and beat his man without a safety in sight. Where was the safety? It's a big blitz, the most productive touchdown receiver in the league goes deep -- where was the safety?

Sour Quarter of the Week: On the Browns' first possession, they lost 3 yards, then boomed a 15-yard punt -- and there were three penalties against Cleveland during the punt. Pittsburgh took over on the Browns' 22 and immediately scored. The Browns' second possession ended with an interception. The Browns' third possession ended with a punt on fourth-and-20. The Browns' fourth possession ended with a fumble.

'Tis Better to Have Rushed and Lost Than Never to Have Rushed At All: Leading 6-3, Jersey/A faced fourth-and-2 on the Dallas 34 in the first quarter. As TMQ notes ad infinitum (Latin for "by using my AutoText"), statistically, rushing plays on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2 are far more likely to succeed than passing plays. The Giants went shotgun spread and threw incomplete -- and it wasn't a home run attempt for a big gain, rather some dinky-dorky thing into the flat. Two series later, Dallas faced fourth-and-1 on the Jersey/A 18. Dinky-dorky pass into the flat? Power rush, touchdown, and the host team never looked back.

'Tis Better to Have Rushed and Lost Than Never to Have Rushed At All No. 2: Baltimore, trailing Cincinnati 27-20 at the end of the game, ran eight consecutive goal-to-go plays -- owing to penalties-- and failed to score. Five of the eight plays were pass attempts, all leading to incompletions, interceptions or penalties; the Ravens went pass-wacky though beginning the series with first-and-goal on the Bengals 3, where with four straight power-rushes seemingly all but assured a score.
News helicopter
News helicopters distort stories, not report them.
The Absurdity of News Helicopters: It was awful that two television news helicopters collided above Phoenix in July, killing four people. Perhaps on hearing of the crash you thought, "Why were there two television news helicopters trying to get pictures of a police chase, wouldn't one have been enough?" Turns out there were five television news helicopters above the chase, all jockeying for position for meaningless footage of police cars following a truck. It's a wonder all five didn't collide, or smash into the sixth helicopter above the chase: the police aircraft that was the sole helicopter that actually had a reason to be present.

Polls show the public steadily losing respect for journalism, and the absurd obsession with using news helicopters to generate pseudo-drama must be one reason. News helicopters don't just roar above highway chases -- although all the viewer sees is a jumpy image of a vehicle with police cruisers behind. Increasingly when a news event involves some place, agency, company or school, the local station has its helicopter circle overhead as a correspondent does a report from the scene. This is done to fabricate the impression that something more sensational is happening than actually is: The correspondent deliberately arranges the "stand-up" so she has to shout above the whomp-whomp of helicopter rotors, creating an illusion of drama. That is, the purpose of the helicopter is to distort the news, not report same. Twice in the past couple of years, my kids' high school has been involved in controversies, and each time, news helicopters have circled above the school as correspondents did their stand-ups outside. What could a helicopter contribute to a report on an educational dispute? Why, live footage of cooling fans on the school roof, of course! Last week, two stations of the subway line I commute on were closed by this incident; walking past one closed station, I noted three news helicopters circling above. Circling above a subway station -- where, by definition, you cannot see anything from the air! Typically, local news stations spend about $1 million a year to maintain and operate a news helicopter. If that amount were invested instead in serious reporting, maybe the public wouldn't have so little faith in local newscasters.

Sweet Special Teams Play: Didn't we just read a prominent article on a major sports Web site saying that special teams are overrated? Brian Moorman, the league's best placement punter, boomed a punt that hung up inside the Denver 5-yard line, and Buffalo special-teamers downed the ball on the 1. The defense held, and Buffalo's Roscoe Parrish ran the Denver punt back for a touchdown. Then the game was won by Denver special teams, which -- with the Broncos out of timeouts -- took just 18 seconds to get onto the field, line up and launch the winning kick. Didn't we just read a prominent article on a major sports Web site saying that special teams are overrated?
Orangutan
An orangutan is all you need to coach any football-factory team to a bowl bid -- and they don't want the bonobos from Division I-AA muscling in.
In Other News, Orangutans Refused to Allow Bonobos to Be Considered in Their Poll: Congratulations to The Associated Press for opening its college Top 25 poll to Division I-AA teams -- Appalachian State drew some votes this week, though it did not crack the Top 25. Note that the coaches' poll, administered by USA Today, will not open its balloting to Division I-AA. Hey, Div. I-A coaches, what are you afraid of? The Div. I-A coaches are afraid that more cupcake schools will stage upsets -- and they want the evidence to disappear, by never being reflected in the polls.

Fortune Favors the Bold! Trailing Tennessee 13-10, Jacksonville faced fourth-and-8 with less than three minutes remaining. In trotted the punt unit, and I scarcely need to tell you the Jaguars never touched the ball again.

Meet the New Cost Overrun, Same as the Old Cost Overrun … Just before kickoff of the Colts-Saints opener, Indianapolis owner James Irsay unveiled the team's championship banner, which he said would "hang from the stadium ceiling forever." Forever? They're tearing the place down next winter! Then the team ran onto the field accompanied by strains of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Perhaps this refers to the $575 million in subsidies that Indiana taxpayers have been hornswoggled into providing for Irsay's new dome.
Redskins cheerleaders
The Redskins cheerleaders make their Dallas counterparts look so, like, early 1980s.
Basically, This Item Exists as an Excuse to Run the Photo: Back-to-back summer-weather nationally televised games hosted by Washington and Dallas confirmed beyond doubt what NFL observers have been thinking for several years -- the Redskins cheerleaders are now the league's hottest dance team, leaving the Cowboys cheerleaders in their aesthetic dust. Twenty years ago, the Cowboys' pep squad may have been the best-looking and best-dancing in the NFL. Now, it's not even close -- the Redskins cheerleaders are No. 1 in looks and in choreography. Here they are, and here's their warm-to-the-touch swimsuit calendar. At this point, the Broncos cheerleaders tie the Redskins cheerleaders in beauty and the Eagles cheerleaders tie them in choreography, but Washington finishes first overall, including for game-day professionalism. (Professionalism in the cheer context meaning skin, or at least skintight.) Obviously, this is a debate that should continue throughout the season.

I Say! Pip Pip! Cheerio! The Smart Schools Invade the NFL: There were what is likely a modern-era record number of Ivy League players on opening day NFL rosters: Matt Birk (Vikings), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Bengals), Clifton Dawson (Bengals) and Isaiah Kacyvenski (Raiders) from Harvard; Zak DeOssie (Giants), Sean Morey (Cardinals) and Chas Gessner (Bucs' practice squad) from Brown; Ross Tucker (Redskins), Dennis Norman (Jaguars) and Jonathan Dekker (Steelers' practice squad) from Princeton; Nate Lawrie (Bengals) and Eric Johnson (Saints) from Yale; Jim Finn (Giants) from Penn; Casey Cramer (Titans) from Dartmouth; Steve Cargile (Broncos' practice squad) from Columbia; and Kevin Boothe (Giants) from Cornell. A decade ago, at the kickoff of the 1997 season, there were only four Ivy Leaguers on NFL rosters. This season, there is also a head coach, Dick Jauron (Bills) from Yale, and an offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett (Cowboys) from Princeton. Several other smart-school players made NFL rosters: Sean Conover (Titans) of Bucknell; Bryce Fisher (with the Seahawks in Week 1, then traded to Titans) of the Air Force Academy; Kyle Eckel (Patriots) of Navy; Fred Jackson (Bills) of Coe College; Mike Leach (Broncos), Darren Sharper (Vikings) and Dominique Thompson (Rams) of William & Mary; Michael Allan (Chiefs) of Whitworth; Jamaal Branch (Steelers' practice squad) of Colgate; and Alex Buzbee (Redskins' practice squad) of Georgetown University; and head coaches Mike Tomlin (Steelers) of William & Mary and Bill Belichick (Patriots) and Eric Mangini (Jets) of Wesleyan. Of course, NFL teams have many players from serious academic schools such as Stanford and Boston College. But even the quality academic schools in Division I-A treat education as optional for football players. In contrast, the Ivy Leaguers and others mentioned in this item attended colleges and universities where a football player who's not in class is a football player who's off the team.
Harvard-Yale
Smart-school players are making the NFL in record numbers.
As Tuesday Morning Quarterback pointed out here, smart schools at which athletes get a genuine education did really well in intercollegiate competition in the 2006-07 season. Now we see that smart schools are doing really well at producing athletes who advance to playing and coaching in the NFL. So I'll ask again: If serious colleges can have high-quality sports programs and still educate their athletes, why is it so many football factories, such as Ohio State, don't even try?

He Has a Promising Career Ahead in Sports Television: The Redskins put second-year man Mike Espy on injured reserve.

Law of the Obvious Dooms Bills: TMQ's immutable Law of the Obvious holds: Sometimes all a team needs to do is rush up the middle for no gain, and everything will be fine. Leading Denver 14-12, the Bills had possession on their 36, facing second-and-7, with 2:51 remaining. Rookie Marshawn Lynch took a pitch and ran out of bounds, stopping the clock. On the next play, Buffalo threw incomplete, stopping the clock. After the punt, Denver staged a hectic hurry-up drive and kicked the game-winning 42-yard field goal with one second showing. Had the Bills simply run up the middle for no gain on both their final snaps, keeping the clock ticking, they would have jogged up the tunnel victorious.
Airbus 380
Some customers rejected the plane as not big enough to hold their CEO's ego.
Paper of Record Staring at Tuesday Morning Quarterback's Taillights: In June, during the annual Paris Air Show, The New York Times ran a big article expressing amazement that an entire $400 million Airbus A380, the world's largest aircraft, was being converted for the personal use of a single plutocrat and that billionaire Robert Bass is trying to build an $80 million small private supersonic jet for CEOs. These developments were presented as shocking news. You could have known about Bass' supersonic CEO jet project two years ago by reading TMQ, and you could have known about the $400 million personal A380 configured for a single plutocrat one year ago by reading TMQ. Reader Joakim Andersson of Linkoping, Sweden, reminds us that my 2006 TMQ on the A380 "flying palace" version asked, "How long until some CEO flies an entire personal Airbus A380 to a conference to denounce fossil fuel waste?" (The A380 emits about 160 pounds of greenhouse gases per mile, meaning that flying an A380 from New York to Paris is the equivalent of driving a Hummer for about 75 years; TMQ thinks environmental hypocrisy should be measured in HYs or Hummer Years.) The answer, Andersson says, is that this could happen as early as 2008, when the first super-gigantic A380 converted to a single person's use is delivered to an unnamed obscenely rich buyer.

China's "Modest Proposal" to Avoid Global Warming: Last week, Chinese government officials told the United Nations climate change talks in Vienna that the country has taken a dramatic step against greenhouse gas emissions -- by preventing 300 million people from being born. China calculates its one-child policy has averted 300 million births, which "means we averted 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2005, based on average world per capital emissions of 4.2 tons," Chinese Foreign Ministry official Su Wei told the conference, according to a Reuters report. (The average world per capita emission is about six Hummer Months.) The hilarious new Chris Buckley novel "Boomsday" has as its Swiftian premise a near future in which, to restrain Social Security costs, the federal government offers luxury living to senior citizens: as long as they "voluntarily transition" -- commit suicide -- upon reaching age 75. Better not give the Chinese government a copy of "Boomsday."

Football Panel of Experts Can't Name Linemen: In the offseason, a "panel of USA Today NFL reporters and editors" named the top 25 NFL players of the past 25 years -- choosing 15 quarterbacks and running backs versus one offensive lineman. There are twice as many offensive linemen on the field as quarterbacks and running backs, yet USA Today's NFL staff thinks there have been 15 times as many good quarterbacks and running backs as offensive linemen. If I were on the sports staff at USA Today, I'd want to hide that list -- it makes the paper's sportswriters and sports editors seem like amateurs who lack any sophisticated knowledge of the game. But then practically all news organizations that cover football, including ESPN, are guilty of idolizing quarterbacks and running backs while ignoring linemen. Oh well -- at least there's the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP.

In Praise of Line Play: If USA Today and The Associated Press refuse to acknowledge linemen, by the hammer of Grabthar, they shall be avenged! Here is love for three fantastic line performances turned in on opening weekend. The Indianapolis offensive line allowed no sacks nor hits on Peyton Manning, who stood comfortably in his shotgun spread, waiting for receivers to uncover. Sure, Peyton is good -- but take a quarterback like, say, J.P. Losman, who on Sunday often started scrambling just two seconds into the play owing to poor blocking, put him behind the Colts' line, and suddenly he'd be making commercials, too. The Colts' fine O-line performance was doubly impressive because a rookie, Tony Ugoh, started at left tackle. Ugoh, a second-round choice, looked a lot better on opening day than Joe Thomas and Levi Brown, tackles who went at the top of the first round.

Next we praise the San Diego defensive line. Not only did the Chargers' front shut down the hyped Chicago rushing game but it staged one of the nicest stands in football annals. With San Diego leading 14-3, Chicago reached second-and-2 on the Bolts' 36 with 7:36 remaining. If the defending NFC champs don't score here, TMQ will write "game over" in his notebook. They have three tries to gain 2 yards. Second down, Cedric Benson up the middle, stopped for no gain. Third-and-2, Adrian Peterson up the middle, held to a yard. Fourth-and-1, Cedric Benson up the middle, stopped for no gain. What was really impressive about the fourth-down stop is that the Chargers did not stack the box. There were just four linemen and one linebacker between the Bears' tackles, yet these five beat seven blockers to stuff the play. (Note to Bears fans: The phrase "Cedric Benson stopped for no gain" might be a recurring theme of the season.)

Finally, let's praise the New England Patriots offensive line. Tom Brady was never sacked, and was knocked down only once, despite frequent Jersey/B blitzing. Media attention went to the great statistical day enjoyed by Randy Moss. Check Brady's numbers -- 22-of-28 for 297 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. You just can't throw with that kind of precision unless the blocking is great. Brady stood back comfortably in his shotgun spread -- put Joey Harrington behind such blocking, and suddenly he'd be doing commercials. You know some of the Colts' offensive linemen, including 2006 Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP Jeff Saturday. Can you name even one New England blocker? The starters Sunday were Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Steve Neal and Nick Kaczur.
Bionic Woman
The new Bionic Woman is indestructible, and also dangerously passive-aggressive.
In Development at HBO: a Fantasy Show About a Studio Executive Who Cannot Be Fired: Fox's fall lineup includes a show about "a detective who has been granted eternal life." At least till he's canceled! ABC's fall lineup includes a show about a detective who can resurrect the dead. The CBS fall lineup includes a show about a private investigator who is a century-old good vampire. Absurd as these pitches sound, bear in mind that recent television series and movies have had as their premise: a detective who can see into the past ("Déjà Vu"), a detective who can see the future ("Minority Report"), a detective who can travel into the past ("Timecop"), a detective who becomes a sorcerer ("Witchblade"), a detective who endlessly relives the same day ("Day Break"), an amateur detective who endlessly relives the same day ("Premonition"), an amateur detective who can speak to the dead ("Ghost Whisperer"), a detective who can speak to the dead and endlessly relive the same day ("Tru Calling"), a detective who can send radio messages into the past ("Frequency"), a detective who died and then returned to life ("Brimstone"), a private investigator who is a 2-century-old good vampire ("Angel"), a detective of sorts with psychic powers ("Medium"), a detective who instantly recovers from any wound ("Painkiller Jane"), a detective who was kidnapped by space aliens ("The X Files"), a detective whose partner is a space alien ("Alien Nation"), a detective who uses technology given to him by space aliens ("Earth: Final Conflict") and at least five older shows and movies about detectives who are actually machines ("The Six Million Dollar Man," "The Bionic Woman," "RoboCop" the movie, "RoboCop" the series, and the upcoming "Bionic Woman" remake). What possible ridiculous detective series premises are left? Looking into Hollywood's future, I see:

"300 Minus One." A rift in the space-time continuum hurls King Leonidas forward from the battle of Thermoplyae to modern-day Los Angeles, where he prowls the streets avenging the innocent and seeking out Persians. Armed only with a sword and six-pack abs, Leonidas blends in with the contemporary Los Angeles crowd by screaming into a cell phone and filing lawsuits. In the pilot, Leonidas uses some rare gold coins to buy a Porsche, then attempts to hitch horses to it.
New Amsterdam
He's immortal -- until he's canceled.
"Alchemist." A police detective discovers an ancient book containing mystical spells that turn sand into diamonds or dogs into griffins. The spells make him invincible -- except they only work during a full moon!

"St. John the Vampire Slayer." Some Pentecostals maintain that a Gospel verse means the apostle John cannot die and walks the Earth to this day. Arriving in Los Angeles, St. John (Ving Rhames) becomes a police detective in order to gain access to 911 information: He plans to rescue the helpless, heal the sick and cast out demons. That ability to speak any language, granted at the Pentecost, sure comes in handy on today's L.A. streets. Out on his first night radio call, St. John is shocked to discover Los Angeles is infested with vampires, ghouls and succubae. After taking kickboxing classes, John draws together a band of street-tough followers and sets out to rid Los Angeles of the undead. Each week, he must face his archenemy, the Spawn of Satan (Jenna Elfman). MSNBC gushes, "Crossover appeal to the 'Buffy' college crowd and 'Left Behind' fundamentalists!"

"Codename Lemon Drops." It's the year 2024 and aging Harry Potter, hard up for cash to put James, Lily and Albus Severus through college, takes a job as an inspector with Scotland Yard.
Moonlight
He's a good vampire, and he even brought his own dry ice.
"She Hears Bells." Joan of Arc is reincarnated into the body of a Manhattan detective. Using unorthodox interrogation techniques such as the rack and the Iron Lady, Det. Joan Dark proves able to wring a confession from anyone. Her desire to dress as a man puts her right at home in the modern gender-confused New York nightclub scene. When the city is attacked by Canada and the wimpy government wants to surrender, it's up to Joan to rally the people to resist oppression.

"Wireless." A detective finds a mysterious cell phone that enables him to place calls to the dead who are stranded in a never-world until their murders are solved. You won't believe the roaming charges!

Get on the Ground! That's what coaches yell when they see a ballcarrier, already wrapped up by one or more defenders, straining to get an extra half-yard -- in that situation, you're a lot more likely to fumble than advance the ball. Last night with Cincinnati leading Baltimore 6-0 and the Ravens having lost fumbles on two straight possessions, Steve McNair threw short to rookie fullback Le'Ron McClain, who was wrapped up by two men, had no chance of more yards but kept trying to strain forward -- only to lose a fumble to the third man, who stripped the ball. When you're under tackle, get on the ground!
Joan of Arc
In the "She Hears Bells" pilot, Detective Joan Dark (Keira Knightly) uncovers a sinister British royalist conspiracy at City Hall.
Preposterous Punt Watch: The new season was barely a few hours old when the first Preposterous Punt boomed. New Orleans trailed Indianapolis 27-10 and faced fourth-and-1 on its 29 early in the fourth quarter. Surely that cannot be the punt unit trotting onto the field! You're down by three scores with 13 minutes remaining: If you don't get points on this possession, the game is over. And you have the league's No. 1 offense of 2006, averaging a dazzling 5.8 yards per play. Why are you punting? Why are you punting??????? I scarcely need mention that after the fraidy-cat punt, the Colts required just five snaps to take the ball the distance for the touchdown that sealed the contest at 34-10.

Preposterous Punt Watch No. 2: Trailing Minnesota 7-0 in the third quarter, Atlanta faced fourth-and-1 on its 41. As TMQ noted last week, "Teams that punt on fourth-and-short when trailing in the second half almost invariably go on to lose." In trotted the punt unit, and from that snap, the Falcons collapsed, losing 24-3. Can you believe for one instant that Bobby Petrino at Louisville would have punted on fourth-and-1 when behind in the second half? Something about the NFL turns all coaches stodgy and obsessed with avoiding blame.

Tuesday Morning Quarterback's Super Bowl Pick : In each of its previous seven years of existence, TMQ has offered the generic forecast, "The team goin' to Disney World will come from among the group that did not make the cut for 'Monday Night Football.'" Two of the first three years I made this generic prediction, I was right -- the Ravens in 2000 and Patriots in 2001, Super Bowl victors, did not appear on "Monday Night Football." In 2003, my prediction came oh so close -- Carolina, not a Monday night baby, lost the Super Bowl on the final snap. Three years ago, my prediction came oh so close -- Pittsburgh and Atlanta, half of the conference championship round, were not Monday night babies. The past two years have been washouts, with all championship-round teams being Monday night entrants. Anyway, my generic formula is 2-for-7 in forecasting Lombardi Trophy winners -- not bad considering I am invariably picking lightly regarded teams the league brain trust believes have absolutely zero chance.

Here we go for 2007. I predict the Super Bowl winner will be one of the following: Carolina, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Jersey/B, Kansas City, Oakland, St. Louis or Tampa. Those are the clubs that did not make the Monday Night Football sked. Yea, verily, it's a sorry group. But if the 280 Park Ave. brain trust feels certain none of these teams can reach the Super Bowl, that tells me one of them will.

Now for my annual generic predictions. In the past, I have wagered Home Team Wins against all sports-expert predictions based on incredible insider information. But in the past few seasons, the home advantage seems to have faded. The home team went just 144-122 last season, winning 54 percent of the time, and that's not enough to hang your hat on, considering most football pundits are correct about 60 percent of the time. In the past, I also have forecast a generic score of Home Team 20, Visitor 17, this being the most common NFL outcome -- one that's already happened in the Arizona at San Francisco game last night. This year, I will endorse the generic forecast advocated in the offseason by about 20 readers, pulling from a hat the name Catey Tarbell of Kirkland, Wash. Catey's Law: Best Record Wins -- Unless Records Equal, Then Home Team Wins. TMQ will track this off-price house-label generic forecast against the predictions of full-time football experts who possess incredible insider information.

Adventures in Officiating: Trailing Washington 13-10, Miami had first-and-goal on the Redskins' 18 with 3:01 remaining in regulation. Trent Green stood in the pocket looking around, no defender near him, then sailed a pass out of bounds, no receiver in the vicinity. Officials called intentional grounding. But the rule, at 8.3.1. in the NFL rulebook, defines grounding as "when a passer, facing an imminent loss of yardage because of pressure from the defense, throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion." No Redskins defender was near Green when he threw: The pass looked totally kosher. Was this a makeup call? Two downs earlier, officials assessed a ticky-tacky pass interference flag against the Redskins, giving the Marine Mammals first-and-goal on the Washington 8. On the next down, officials called holding on the Dolphins, then on the next down made the inexplicable grounding call -- which pushed Miami back 10 yards and cost the team a down, resulting in the Dolphins' kicking a field goal and forcing the overtime they lost, rather than scoring the go-ahead touchdown on the possession.
Hubble universe
It's, like, cosmic -- but it has no name.
TMQ Challenge: Our sun is named Sol. All the planets of the solar system have names, as do hundreds of comets and asteroids. Thousands of stars have been named. Our galaxy is called the Milky Way -- the candy bar named after the galaxy, not the other way around. In the ancient sky, when there was no city nightlight nor industrial haze, the luminous, awe-inspiring inner disk of the Milky Way was seen much more easily than today, and thus the subject of speculation. The Egyptians believed the galaxy formed when a god spilled a bucket of cow's milk, and were using a name similar to Milky Way as much as 5,000 years ago. The Greeks called the galaxy the Milky Circle and said it formed from the breast milk of the goddess Hera. In some Eastern mythology, the brilliant suns of the Milky Way inner disk were wedding gifts from the gods to Altair and Vega, stars that hold the souls of two lovers who died young. A few other galaxies have names; our closest spiral galaxy neighbor, NGC224, is named Andromeda. Its existence was first recorded by astronomer Abd al-Rahman Al Sufi more than 1,000 years ago; he observed NGC224 by looking closely at the Andromeda constellation and noting part appeared more like a cloud than a star. He reasoned that the cloudy area must be a separate galaxy and named it.

But though suns, planets and galaxies have names -- no one has named the universe. The universe is the biggest structure possible, the sum of everything. Yet it's nameless. Thus the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Challenge: Name the universe!

Submit your proposals to TMQ_ESPN@yahoo.com, giving your real name and hometown. Remember, this is a challenge, not a contest. We promise nothing; the rules are kept secret even from the judges; and the final decision will be completely arbitrary. Space aliens and their families not eligible. If the universe already does have a name and you know it because you're a space alien, that's cheating.

Obscure College Score of the Week (Running Up the Score Edition): Western Kentucky 87, West Virginia Tech 0. The Citadel 76, Webber International 0. Macalester 62, Principia 0. Sioux Falls 69, Midland Lutheran 3. St. Francis of Indiana 71, William Penn 7. And in a game involving TMQ's favorite obscure college, the final was Indiana of Pennsylvania 80, Cheney 14. Many of the nation's small schools began play this past weekend, and as these scores indicate, did not distinguish themselves for sportsmanship. Western Kentucky led hapless West Virginia Tech by 49-0 in the first quarter, yet continued to pass in the second half, frantically trying to run up the score. Leading hapless Principia 48-0 at intermission, Macalester threw 13 times in the second half, frantically trying to run up the score. One week after running up the score to 50-6 against hapless Dana, Sioux Falls ran up the score against hapless Midland Lutheran -- and congratulations to Midland Lutheran for the field goal that prevented the Cougars from boasting of a shutout. Located in Fremont, Neb., Midland Lutheran promises students "personal attention," which sounds a lot better than impersonal attention.

Reader Animadversion: Got a complaint or a deeply held grievance? Write me at TMQ_ESPN@yahoo.com. Include your real name and the name of your hometown, and I might quote you by name unless you instruct me otherwise. Note: Giving your hometown improves your odds of being quoted, and I know this sounds strange coming from me, but short comments also improve your odds of being quoted.

TMQ Policy Change: For seven years, this column has delivered something no other column in the entire sports alternate-reality even attempts -- at least one item about every NFL game played. Henceforth, my promise to readers is amended: at least one item about every NFL game played, except for those games not mentioned. Keeping the original promise has been exhausting, especially considering Tuesday Morning Quarterback is my hobby, not my occupation. Last night, I cued up some tape of the Houston-Kansas City game and thought with a weary sigh, "Oh man, I gotta watch this until I notice something everybody else missed." Then the heavens opened, a chorus angelorum sang and the football gods said, "Yea, verily, ye doth not." Hence my policy change. I'll continue to have at least one item about the majority of NFL games played.

Tomorrow: The readers'-comments crackback column resumes.

Next Week: Multitentacled space aliens use IP-address anonymizer proxy servers to enter the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Challenge without revealing their planet of origin.

In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" and other books. He is also a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly and is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.