Shorter field makes scoring tough

Red zone possessions have often led to field goals instead of touchdowns for a lot of teams.

Updated: September 28, 2003, 10:54 AM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Jets coach Herman Edwards took a lot of grief for faking a field goal during last Sunday's loss to the Patriots. Arguably, throwing a pass to center Kevin Mawae might not have been the best deception, but Edwards stood his ground in the face of criticism.

His team was heading to an 0-3 start. His starting quarterback, Chad Pennington, is out until late November, and backup Vinny Testaverde wasn't tearing up defenses. Edwards said he'd do it again because teams don't win in the NFL by just kicking field goals.

Edwards is so right.

Ricky Williams
Williams is a legitimate scoring threat once they get in the end zone.
Sure, it's the safe bet to drive inside an opponents 20 and settle for three points if the possession breaks down. The Houston Texans did that seven times in the opener, got five field goals and upset the Dolphins, 21-20. But safe isn't always the answer. The 49ers settled for four field goals last Sunday and lost a 12-point lead and the game to the Cleveland Browns, 13-12. The Rams settled for three short field goals, but ended up losing a 23-10 lead in a one-point loss to the Seahawks.

The NFL may be a league in which the difference between most teams is only three points, but you have to score touchdowns to win. What critics have to realize, though, is the difficulty of scoring touchdowns in the red zone, that tough piece of real estate between the goal line and the opponents' 20. "Bend-but-don't-break defenses" toughen up inside the red zone.

"It's always difficult because the field is so compressed," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said.

Wide receiver Terrell Owens took some shots at the organization because of the 49ers' failure to produce touchdowns in the red zone last week. It was a typical T.O. rant, which is commonly ignored by his teammates. Owens pointed to the blocking for quarterback Jeff Garcia. He failed to remember that high ankle sprains slowed three offensive line starters and Garcia suffered a groin injury that nagged him through the second half.

Naturally, part of Owens' rant was the ball wasn't coming to him in the red zone. Owens' misconception is the perfect oversight. It's hard for any receiver to catch passes in the red zone. Defenses use so many nickel and dime packages, making sure their fastest defenders are on the field. And remember, they are running 20 to 30 yards, not 40 because the field is so compressed.

"We're seeing four-across zones when we get inside the 20," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "Teams are going to defend the end zone with four defensive backs protecting the goal line. They'll be able to bracket your best receivers with an extra defender. It's tough."

Picture the problem. Teams love to use the "Cover 2" from the 20 to 20. That alignment allows five defenders to spread the field and protect the short zone for 20 yards. Two defenders are as deep as insurance policies.

Inside the red zone, the back of the end zone is the insurance policy. Those two-deep safeties are added to the short zone, giving seven players to patrol a 30-yard area, the 20 yards to the goal line and the 10 yards to the end zone. Even if an offense sends out five receivers into coverage, there are still two more bodies to cover them.

How difficult is it to score touchdowns in the red zone? According to the Stats Inc. numbers, it's a 50-50 proposition. In the first three weeks of the season, according to Stats Inc., there have been 134 touchdowns in 265 red-zone possessions. From those numbers, 59 have been running touchdowns and 75 have been through the air. Teams have settled for 102 field goal attempts, making 96.

Looking at the Stats Inc. numbers even closer, you see a pattern that might trouble Owens and those who unfairly criticize Edwards. Offenses that just have their quarterback sit in the pocket and throw are failing in the red zone. First, you better run the ball successfully in the red zone or your quarterback has no chance. Second, your quarterback better have enough mobility to roll out because a lot of the touchdown passes are in the back of the end zone.

If four defenders are guarding the goal line, the quarterback has two choices. The most used choice is throwing to a receiver underneath coverage and hoping he can slug it out and score the touchdown. The other is for the quarterback to buy time by scrambling, getting outside the pocket until a receiver either breaks away from a defender in the back or the side of the end zone. That's the most difficult.

Testaverde obviously isn't considered mobile at age 39. His Jets have one red-zone touchdown in six chances and that was on a run. For whatever reason, Donovan McNabb hasn't been venturing outside the pocket as much and has one red zone touchdown in two tries. Drew Brees has some mobility, but he's one for seven in the red zone for touchdowns.

The NFL may be a league in which the difference between most teams is only three points, but you have to score touchdowns to win. What critics have to realize, though, is the difficulty of scoring touchdowns in the red zone … "Bend-but-don't-break defenses" toughen up inside the red zone.

Who are the best red-zone scoring teams? They are the Chiefs, Dolphins, Broncos, Bills, Jaguars and Redskins? With the exception of maybe the Redskins who use two specialty backs, the similarity among those teams is their halfback. Priest Holmes, Ricky Williams, Clinton Portis, Travis Henry and Fred Taylor are among the league's best running backs, and if they are performing to their standards, the red zone isn't a dead zone.

Henry, for example, might be off to a slow start with only 122 yards on 53 carries. His ribs are banged up and his offensive line hasn't settled into a great run-blocking pattern yet. But Henry has five rushing touchdowns. The Bills have scored six red zone touchdowns in nine attempts thanks to Henry's success and the threat of the run at the goal line.

To nobody's surprise, teams that haven't established their running games are having trouble in the red zone. The Cowboys have Troy Hambrick as their running back, but, according to Stats Inc, they have the worst red zone offense with one touchdown in eight tries. Curtis Martin's slow start has been well chronicled in New York, so it should be no surprise the Jets are one for six, particularly adding Testaverde's immobility.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Colts being 2-for-8 in the red zone with Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison. They've scored one passing and one rushing touchdown and have settled for five field goals.

Manning isn't the most mobile quarterback, so it's harder for him to roll out like a Michael Vick to buy time outside the pocket. Harrison is always blanketed by two defenders, so throwing underneath to him isn't always going to produce touchdown. Having Reggie Wayne getting hot will help in future weeks, and James should get into a roll soon, so the Colts should go back to getting touchdowns instead of field goals.

But the red zone struggles of the Colts should illustrate the difficulty teams are having these days. The Colts are 3-0 and playing good football. Manning is one of the smartest, most talented quarterbacks in the game. It's tough in the red zone. Owens, for example, should take solace in the fact that the 49ers have the second most red zone scores -- seven -- but they've had 17 tries, eight in which they settled for field goals.

Herm Edwards knows his offense is banging its collective head against the wall as it nears the goal line. The quarterback is an old pocket passer and the halfback is off to a slow start. Settling for three when you can get seven may be considered desperation, but you can't win by just kicking threes.

The red zone is a dead zone if you don't get touchdowns.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

ALSO SEE