Straying away from strength is costly

Successful teams like the Panthers and Vikings have identified their strengths and stuck to their strategies.

Updated: October 8, 2003, 2:38 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In the first half of last Sunday night's victory at Heinz Field, the Cleveland Browns dusted off the offensive blueprint they had utilized against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2002 playoffs, spreading the field with four wide receivers and taking advantage of a secondary that simply could not keep up with the breakneck pace of the game.

And then, after jumping out to a 23-10 lead at intermission, the Browns offense abruptly changed course.

William Green
Green
Over the second half, quarterback Tim Couch, who had completed 16 of 17 passes for 169 yards in the first half, threw only eight times. Instead of surgically dissecting the Steelers, the Browns went to the bludgeon approach, and tailback William Green carried 20 times for 85 yards, after netting only 35 yards in the first half.

It was, to be sure, a brilliant stroke of strategy by Butch Davis and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, a masterful mix of finesse and muscle. But it also demonstrated again, in a curious way, that the Browns sometimes aren't quite sure of their offensive identity.

Which in the NFL can create beautiful diversity or, on occasion, beastly inconsistency.

The lone flimsy connection between Shakespeare and the NFL was established way back in 1936, when the Steelers used their first-round draft choice on Notre Dame running back Bill Shakespeare, who never played in a regular-season game. But some current coaches might do well to get their noses out of the playbook long enough to sneak a peak at the Hamlet passage which reminds that: "To thine own self be true."

Part of the success of a few franchises to this point in the season might be attributed to adhering, even if unwittingly, to that hackneyed bromide. And the failures of a number of teams, as well, may have resulted from attempting to be something they are not.

The Buffalo Bills, for instance, featured the NFL's most lopsided offense last season, throwing on 63.2 percent of their 1,054 snaps. This year, in an attempt to better protect quarterback Drew Bledsoe and with wide receiver Peerless Price having been traded, the Bills have worked harder to establish the run.

But the result is a ground game that has been, well, grounded, ranking next-to-last in the league. And the Bills, on average, have scored 10.4 fewer points per outing than they did in the first five contests of the 2002 season.

"Sometimes you've just got to know who you are and what you are, stick with that, and not try to ask players to do things that they can't do anyway," said one AFC East assistant coach, offering his view on the Buffalo offense. "You know, if you find something that works for you, don't worry about what everyone else thinks. Ride it into the ground."

There is arguably no greater example of that philosophy right now than the undefeated Carolina Panthers, a franchise that has unearthed itself after years of poor play, mostly by digging deep and running the ball on 57.1 percent of its offensive snaps. Led by tailback Stephen Davis, a battering ram disguised in a football uniform and a guy on pace to notch 424 rushing attempts in '03, the Panthers rarely diverge from a design that is apparently based on a principle that too many moving parts increase the opportunity for breakdown.

But even in 2002, the rookie season for head coach John Fox, the Carolina identity was established. The addition of Davis, the perfect back to dovetail into the club's simple yet effective mindset, has just permitted the Panthers to be more primer proficient.

"One of (the Panthers') strengths," said Atlanta star linebacker Keith Brooking, "is that they don't change. Some teams, you get Dr. Jekyll one week, and Mr. Hyde the next. The Panthers, though, they don't budge of the track. They do the same things over and over and they eventually wear you down with their (persistence)."

Conversely, some teams who have attempted to alter their stripes, to compensate for a lack of talent or a spate of injuries, have discovered change is difficult to enact during a season already in progress. San Diego may have been better off, one could argue, with its basic LaDainian Tomlinson-led running game, the simple approach it took before adding troubled wide receiver David Boston.

Sometimes you've just got to know who you are and what you are, stick with that, and not try to ask players to do things that they can't do anyway. You know, if you find something that works for you, don't worry about what everyone else things. Ride it into the ground.
One AFC East assistant coach, offering his view on the Buffalo offense

A year after the Steelers suddenly morphed into the equivalent of a run-and-shoot team, Tommy Maddox is firing blanks, and Pittsburgh can't get its once powerful running game back on track. San Francisco and New Orleans are struggling with defensive changes. The Raiders, desirous of becoming an inside running team again, haven't yet discovered the key to transitioning away from an offense that threw so often a year ago.

"You can't just flip a switch," said Raiders guard Frank Middleton.

Indeed, there is something to be said for the stick-with-it quality exhibited by some clubs this season, a tack that has righted a few listing ships.

No matter the score or game situation, the resurgent Minnesota Vikings always play at a high-octane level on offense, and never take their foot off the throttle. Despite injuries that have decimated the secondary, the Philadelphia Eagles defense continues to blitz the opposition quarterback, and have crawled back to the .500 mark. Baltimore and Miami want to pound the ball with the running game and play stout defense. Although his backs are averaging a puny 2.5 yards per rush, Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher refuses to abandon the run and allow Steve McNair to throw 50 times every game.

While the New England Patriots have been shaken at times, coach Bill Belichick is not one to stir the pot, and the team seems to have rehabilitated itself by following the script laid out by the staff in the past two years. That means, on offense, the Pats will throw the ball 40-45 times per game, predominantly in all the short zones. And the New England defense, even minus five starters, will continue to be among the best planned and most sophisticated in the league.

"Nobody around here even knows where the so-called panic button is located," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "The faces might change because of injuries, but really the basics stay in place. And, believe me, there's something to be said for stability."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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