Small is big at midpoint of 2005 season

From shorter WRs to a return to more basic offenses, 2005 is shaping up as the year of "small ball" in the NFL.

Updated: November 9, 2005, 1:17 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Sneak a retrospective peek at the NFL standings from the nine-week mark of last season, compare it to how the division races stack up at the same juncture in 2005, and it might seem that very little has changed in the league over the past year.

Of the 10 franchises that either led their divisions in 2004 or were tied for a division lead in the first week of November, six are in the same position this season. A core group of teams that appeared capable of contending for a Super Bowl berth in '04 -- Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, New England, Denver, Atlanta and Seattle -- still has title-game possibilities now. For all their woes, the Patriots still lead a diluted AFC East, even after Monday's lopsided loss (at home, no less) to the undefeated Colts.

But the NFL is always a league in some degree of flux. Whether it is in terms of balance of power, offensive and defensive trends, the emergence of new and exiting players, or the suddenly diminished skills of longtime Pro Bowl performers, change is a constant.

And this season is no different, despite a superficial perception in many quarters that some elements of the game are stagnant.

"Big or small," acknowledged Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, "there's always going to be something different from one season to the next. And this [season] is just like every other one in that regard."

Gruden is certainly on-point when he talks about small, because if there has been one thread in the first half of the season that seems likely to continue through the fabric of the final two months, it is the reliance on "small ball" by most of the division leaders. Whether it is subconscious or very cleverly calculated, littler has become bigger, both schematically and personnel-wise, and with remarkable results.

Certainly, it's not as if a dramatic de-evolution has been promulgated in the first nine weeks. But for a game that was becoming perhaps too sophisticated, where specialization and style had become the glitzy hallmarks, simplicity is back in vogue. No one is breaking out the leather helmets or drawing up single-wing plays on the dry-erase board, but the first half of this season did witness a retrenchments of sorts.

It also witnessed the emergence of terrific young players and ascendant young teams. The Cincinnati Bengals, who haven't been to the playoffs since 1990, lead their division and are led by quarterback Carson Palmer, an MVP candidate. The New York Giants, Washington Redskins or Dallas Cowboys could end the long title run of the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. The Chicago Bears, with a fourth-round rookie quarterback, are resurgent. A chic pick of many pundits to represent the NFC in last year's Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks might arrive at the title game just one season tardy.

But in a league infamous for its copycat tendencies, the most notable constant in the first half is that everyone seems to have decided it's all right if progress overall is progress that comes incrementally. The fun is back in fundamentals. Big plays are being increasingly delivered in smaller packages. The small ball approach that is more a province of baseball has been transferred from the diamond to the gridiron.

Reflect on the first half of the season: What players and what evolving strategies made the most profound impacts? How about wide receivers Steve Smith of Carolina and Santana Moss of Washington, two mighty-mite pass-catchers who seem to author game-altering plays every week. A 235-pound situational pass-rusher, Colts defensive end Robert Mathis leads the league in sacks (with nine). Seattle tailback Shaun Alexander, the league's leading rusher (949 yards), isn't necessarily a small man at 5-11 and 225 pounds, but he has never been portrayed as a power-type back. The No. 1 quarterback (in terms of passer rating) is Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, who throws the ball barely 20 times per game.

The explosive Indianapolis passing attack has been scaled back, in part by the crowded secondaries with which opposing defensive coordinators have decided to counter it, and equally by its own restraint, as Peyton Manning is content to pound Edgerrin James into the line. Before their Oct. 17 matchup with the Colts, one St. Louis Rams defender told us his team's game plan was the most basic he had seen since entering the league.

Clubs have gone back to more Cover-2 looks on defense, and on offense the latest rage is maximum-protection blocking schemes. Big plays are up but overall yardage is down. Scoring has remained relatively static, but teams are choosing to move the ball, the numbers indicate, with a tortoise-like mind-set. There is a nearly 10 percent increase over the number of scoring drives of 10 or more plays from the same point of the '04 season.

Despite the fact teams aren't throwing the ball as liberally, yards per reception have not been significantly blunted and explosive pass plays have remained at the level of the last few seasons. Somehow, though, there has been an increase in pass plays of 50 yards or more, and the average touchdown reception over the first nine weeks is for almost three yards more than a year ago.

Another incongruous element of the season is that, despite the nod toward fundamentals, penalties have skyrocketed. Normally, when teams scale back, flags are reduced. While there have been a lot of theories posited in an attempt to explain the flag daze, none seem to definitely capture the source of so much sloppiness, and the rhetoric goes on. There is no such debate, though, about how the pendulum has swung back to smaller players and the big impacts they are making.

"It's probably always going to be, always, a big man's game," said Carolina's Smith, who tops the NFL in every one of the big three receiving categories (receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns) and who is a viable Most Valuable Player contender. "But it's still a game about quickness, speed, competitiveness ... and little guys can have all those things, too. So, yeah, the small ball [moniker] is a good one for what seems to be going on. Hey, who knows, maybe basic is better."

Given what has transpired in the first half of the season, the successful teams aren't apt to change much for the final two months, and the struggling franchises almost always revert to simpler methodologies toward the end of any campaign. Coaches by nature generally embrace change when it works and enact it when their own strategies fail. So there is no reason to expect that, in November and December, the emphasis on small ball is going to end abruptly.

Joe Gibbs has refashioned the Redskins' passing game to provide more catch-and-run yards from smaller wide receivers like Moss and David Patten, and the veteran coach is getting more verticality from his passing game. Do you think Gibbs is going back to his 2004 model?

Do you think the Atlanta Falcons, who led the NFL in rushing in 2004 and are doing so again, will have Michael Vick throw more in the second half just because of the criticisms of their mundane passing game? Or that Denver coach Mike Shanahan, who has finally succeeded in getting quarterback Jake Plummer to manage games rather than fritter them away with untimely turnovers, will turn back the clock? Not likely.

"Every season kind of develops a style and pace of its own, sort of the pulse for the year, and that's usually determined by [the midpoint] of the season," New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "I think we've seen some trends this year that have worked well, and we're probably going to see much of the same in the second half."

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

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