The overall defensive thrust this season, culminating with the Ravens' suffocating victory over the Giants, produced a less-than-memorable season and finish. But fear not, offenses will be back within two years.

 

Showstoppers
January 28, 2001

They have the self-proclaimed best defense in NFL history, and whether that is true or not, it certainly was inspired enough for the Ravens to capture Super Bowl 35 in a most powerful fashion. And until this league changes, this is the way it will be. We will have Super Bowls that will be dominated by defensive teams like the Ravens even when they feature bland quarterbacks like Trent Dilfer guiding offenses that play not to lose.

And the result will be, as we found last Sunday, a championship game limited in excitement, uneven in its quality of play and vulnerable to setting such yawn-generating records as total punts by both teams. You walk away from Baltimore's 34-7 victory over the Giants truly impressed with the Ravens' amazing defensive quickness, continuity and determination -- and their ability to back up cockiness with results. You know this is a defense for the ages, but neither team was good enough offensively to produce a game for the ages, and that's the rub.

As long as defenses rule the league, Super Bowls will never be memorable. But don't fret. This defensive bullying, both in this championship game and the league in general this season, will not be a lasting trend. Indeed, it is just a glitch on the NFL pizzazz meter that may fizzle within another year or two. So if you hated this fall, if you were turned off by this Super Bowl, be patient. There is every sign that the stars will return to correct alignment, and offense once again will be restored to its proper place as the lead dog that pulls the league's popularity.

And when we talk "stars" here, let's be specific. We are talking quarterbacks, and the fact the NFL is going through a transition period at the position is the very reason we found ourselves watching a championship game in 2001 featuring Dilfer and Kerry Collins. These were two of the least glamorous players to be starting quarterbacks in a Super Bowl, a pairing unmatched in the history of this QB-driven game. But they are an accurate reflection of the state of the league.

And of Super Bowl 35. Pro football's title game never can be described as unglamorous; the pure nature of the beast, with its array of activities, parties, celebrities, expensive tickets and layers of attention, automatically qualifies it as a special event even if the Bengals are participating. But it's not quite the same as having Brett Favre dueling John Elway (Super Bowl 32) or Troy Aikman taking on Jim Kelly (Super Bowls 27 and 28). So the buildup to this Super Bowl suffered. The major story during the days preceding this game was of Ray Lewis' unrepentant stance regarding the events surrounding a double murder in Atlanta the night of Super Bowl 34 last January. But not much was expected from a matchup between these two flawed teams, even if the Ravens were trying to make a case for their place in history.

And this is what happens when you match a Kerry Collins against a defense as magnificent as the Ravens. You get four interceptions, tying a Super Bowl record, you get an embarrassing 86 net passing yards and 152 total yards -- the third lowest in Super Bowl history. You get a quarterback so confused and unsure of himself that by the second half, virtually every pass seemed destined to be picked off. You needed a quarterback who had to be nearly perfect, who had to connect when the rare opportunities popped open, who could stand up against a relentless rush. And Collins did not come close to meeting any of these musts.

Nor, for that matter, did the other quarterbacks who faced the Ravens in the playoffs. This is the splendor of this Baltimore defense: In four postseason games, it gave up just one touchdown and three field goals. The only Giants score came on a 97-yard kickoff return by Ron Dixon. Two weeks ago, the Giants beat the Vikings, 41-0, for the NFC title. On this night, they crossed into Ravens territory twice, never in the second half. And when they got to the Baltimore 29 late in the second quarter, Collins promptly made a terrible throw that was intercepted. Lewis was the game's MVP, but it just as well could have gone to the entire defense.

"Our defense has been doing this all year long," Lewis said. "We didn't do anything different. We didn't change anything. We just came out and showed that we are the best defense."

Of course, no one in Baltimore is complaining about the game's outcome. Art Modell, in his 40th year of NFL ownership, is celebrating his first Super Bowl victory -- and his second NFL title -- and the city is toasting an unexpected championship in the fifth year since the franchise's arrival. Give coach Brian Billick much of the credit; in only his second season with the team, he backed off almost all of his prevailing offensive instincts, stopped trying to win with the pass and tailored his offense to make sure it did not get in the way of his defense.

Billick knows full well what is going on in this league. "There's no dominant quarterback play," he said after the Super Bowl. "And I think that plays to the strengths of defenses. The athletes are so good now on defense that you need dominant quarterback play to keep the upper hand."

Simply put, the state of the league is this: The level of quality at quarterback is just not very good. Gone are the pillars from the historical class of 1983. Dan Marino, Kelly and Elway are all retired; possibly all three will wind up in the Hall of Fame. Steve Young, another Canton-bound talent, also has stopped playing. And although Aikman may continue to play, his struggles with concussions and back problems have limited his effectiveness the past two seasons and dropped him from the elite level. Drew Bledsoe came close to moving into this level, but now he too has fallen back.

Look around. You want to know why we had the Ravens and Giants in Super Bowl 35? Then identify the glamour quarterbacks still left in the NFL. Favre remains one, for sure, even if the Packers haven't been in the playoffs for two years. Peyton Manning has been productive enough in his three seasons to be included. And Kurt Warner certainly is close; if he's not yet a member, then he would qualify with one more year like his previous two. Mark Brunell is no stiff, and Steve McNair has been solid, but are they as good as Favre, Manning and Warner? No way. It's a short list of greatness.

Think about it. Among the starting quarterbacks in the playoffs were Jay Fiedler, Aaron Brooks, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Shaun King, Gus Frerotte and Rich Gannon. The first five were in their first year as full-time starters; Frerotte is a journeyman backup, and Gannon finally had a magnificent season after laboring for 11 years in the league. Compare the state of NFL quarterbacking now to even five years ago. That's when you had Favre, Young, Elway, Marino, Aikman and Bledsoe. At least one of those six played in Super Bowls 27 through 33, and the MVP of Super Bowl 34 was Warner.

Packers general manager Ron Wolf -- who is among the most astute judges of quarterback talent in the NFL (he drafted Brunell, Brooks and Ty Detmer, traded for Favre and signed Warner as a free agent) -- sees a league in quarterback flux. "Overall, you'd have to say the quarterback level is in transition," he says. "When you are a defense, it is easier to defend against younger quarterbacks. But I look at this as a natural change in the maturation of the league. Every position is going to have dips, and it just so happens that quarterback is the position in question right now."

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, who won a Super Bowl at Green Bay with Favre, is in the market for a new starting quarterback. But until he can build up his offense, he sees his team and the rest of the league following the same blueprint as the Ravens. "Until we have more maturity around the league at quarterback, to win games you are going to have to think defense, whether it is through free agency or the draft," he says. "That is how I can see getting our team competitive faster. I am not taking anything away from the quarterbacks in this Super Bowl, but clearly defensive teams dominated these playoffs, and you have to be smart enough to learn from that."

That formula is what drove the NFL this season and promises to do so for another year or two. If your favorite team has a defense that is very good to overwhelming and a veteran quarterback experienced enough to avoid damaging mistakes, you've got a chance, in this transition period, to advance to a Super Bowl. The Giants and Ravens showed that.

"I think it is more difficult to build a good offensive team than a good defensive team," says Holmgren. "That is the nature of the beast."

Holmgren contends that a great athlete with raw skills can play effectively much sooner on defense than on offense.

"Now the burden is on us so-called offensive coaches to build this thing back up and get the playing field level again," he says.

Indeed, it becomes a matter of waiting -- waiting for the quarterback class of 1999 (McNabb, Culpepper, Brooks, Tim Couch, King, Akili Smith, Cade McNown) -- to grow into quality players and give these Super Bowls an offensive transfusion. The Jets also have hopes for the Class of 2000's Chad Pennington, and Michael Vick is arriving next season from Virginia Tech. McNair still has plenty of room to improve as a passer, and this season could serve as a springboard for Collins, who was the fifth player chosen in the 1995 draft. The 49ers continue to be surprised by the growth of Jeff Garcia; perhaps he is talented enough to escalate that franchise's return to glory.

"When these young guys grow up, it will be an offensive league again," says Saints general manager Randy Mueller, who acquired Brooks (the Packers' fourth-round pick in the 1999 draft) from Wolf in the offseason. "These are guys with great potential, that's for sure. These guys (from the Class of 99) are similar; they can beat you with their feet and their passing from the pocket. You've never seen guys like this, 6-4 and they can run, too.

"It is all cyclical. Two years ago, you wondered where the young quarterbacks would show up. Now there are several who could be really special. It is still the key position. You have to have one to win, and it is the hardest position to defense. They can control the game if they are good."

Unfortunately, quarterback brilliance doesn't happen overnight. As good as Manning is, he still is developing his short passing touch and has yet to lead the Colts to a conference championship game, much less a Super Bowl. But he's close to being dominant, and, based on this season, Culpepper and McNabb may not be far behind. Imagine the advantage their teams have, considering how many other franchises are quarterback-poor. Imagine what the league will be like if four or five quarterbacks blossom within the next three or four years.

"Right now, having a strong defense really pays dividends," says Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel who constructed Baltimore's Super Bowl club. "It's not like they are facing really strong offenses every week anymore. You play against these young quarterbacks, and they can give you fits with their mobility, but they also make mistakes. They haven't seen a lot yet as far as coverages and complex schemes, and it takes awhile. So if your defense can confuse them, it gives you a huge advantage."

But Bill Walsh, the 49ers' general manager and Hall of Fame coach, thinks offenses could shorten their period as the league's punching bag if coaches would rethink their game-planning. He sees too little attention being paid to the protection of quarterbacks, leaving them far too susceptible to blitzes, mistakes and turnovers.

"They are too much in love with empty backfield alignments, where they have four or five receivers into patterns and no fullbacks and tight ends kept in for blocking," says Walsh. "That is playing into the hands of defenses. It is too easy to get to a quarterback, to hit him or force quick passes. If you have a young quarterback, he just has little chance. Or he learns to rely too much on running. Defenses like Baltimore see these protection weaknesses, and they have so much speed, they just simply run their players upfield and overwhelm quarterbacks. To have any chance, you've got to protect these players and give them time to perfect their passing skills. That is the only way they will become effective quarterbacks over time."

Owners obviously have noticed this defensive swing, too. Now defensive-oriented coaches are the hot head-coaching prospects. Dave McGinnis (Cardinals), Dick LeBeau (Bengals), Herm Edwards (Jets), Dom Capers (expansion Texans) and Marty Schottenheimer (Redskins) have been hired as head coaches since the start of the 2000 season, and all have defensive backgrounds. And Marvin Lewis, the Ravens' brilliant defensive coordinator, is expected to be hired in Buffalo or Cleveland.

Still, teams understand how quickly they could move to the top of the league if they could field a quality quarterback and link him with a defense, say, that ranks in the top 12. That's why Denver's Mike Shanahan, who is very high on the oft-injured Brian Griese, took a major step toward improving his inconsistent defense with the hiring of Ray Rhodes as coordinator. And why Dilfer, despite his 11-1 record as a starter with the Ravens and the team's current 11-game winning streak, probably won't return as No. 1 next season.

The Ravens know they could make a run at becoming a long-term powerhouse if they could strengthen the quarterback position even a little. They are willing to allow two members of their defense, linebacker Jamie Sharper and safety Kim Herring, to leave as free agents, so they will have enough cap room to sign a veteran quarterback, most likely Brad Johnson.

With Johnson, who made the Pro Bowl two years ago as playoff quarterback with the Redskins before losing his starting spot to Jeff George, Billick would be able to open up his offense and expand its passing scheme. The Ravens would have the potential to generate more points, taking pressure off the defense and turning Baltimore into a much more dangerous and versatile team. That would make the Ravens odds-on favorites to win Super Bowl 36. Billick and Johnson, who worked together for many years when Billick was the Vikings' offensive coordinator, are extremely comfortable together. Few franchises in the league are equipped to neutralize the potential that would be generated by Johnson's addition to the Ravens.

That has to be a scary possibility to the rest of the NFL, considering how the current Ravens manhandled the Giants. New York, despite its late-season surge, never seemed more than an overachieving team incapable of winning a Super Bowl. Still, Baltimore eventually even wore out the Giants' very good defense, which obviously was disheartened by the inability of the team's offense to make any headway against the Ravens. New York wound up surrendering 102 yards to running back Jamal Lewis, an unsightly amount against the league's No. 2-rated rushing defense.

Indeed, a sharper Baltimore quarterback easily could have turned the Super Bowl into an early rout. The Ravens decided their receivers could beat the man coverage of the Giants' cornerbacks. And when New York blitzed, the Baltimore offensive line protected Dilfer well enough to allow him to go long, but he misfired frequently. On one occasion, wide receiver Patrick Johnson was wide open, by 10 yards, after cornerback Jason Sehorn fell, but Dilfer's pass sailed out of bounds. But Dilfer did complete one particularly nifty throw, a down-the-seam toss to receiver Brandon Stokley for a 38-yard, first-quarter touchdown when the Giants chose to double-team tight end Shannon Sharpe and leave Stokley alone against Sehorn.

When Matt Stover added a 47-yard field goal in the second quarter following a 44-yard completion to Qadry Ismail, the Ravens' defense declared the game over. "Give us 10 points and we'll win," Marvin and Ray Lewis told some offensive players before kickoff.

They were prophetic. The Giants' lone spark came on Dixon's kickoff return that cut the Ravens' lead to 17-7 -- cornerback Duane Starks had just returned a Collins pass 49 yards for a touchdown -- but even that celebration was short-lived when Jermaine Lewis took the ensuing kickoff back 84 yards for a 24-7 advantage. Ultimately, the Ravens, who were No. 1 in the league in takeaway-giveaway differential, created five turnovers while turning it over not once.

"I sucked," said Collins about his 15-for-39, 112-yard, four-interception stinker. He admitted he was confused and bewildered at times by a Ravens defense that pounded him and forced him to hurry his throws. He found out that this defense plays even faster and hits even harder than it appears on tape, which is something every opponent learns when first exposed to the Ravens' whirlwind.

This defense was good enough in October to push the Ravens to two wins amid a five-game streak in which the offense didn't score a touchdown. It was difficult then to believe this was a potential Super Bowl champion. But that was before any of us realized that in this NFL, it is only appropriate that a defensive team should be in possession of the Lombardi Trophy.