49ers-Rams thriller was a long time coming

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin (11) is tackled before reaching the end zone by San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)p

Quite a thriller between the Rams and 49ers on Thursday night.

Too bad it took so long to get such entertainment.

Pro football fans begin clamoring for the start of the NFL season once the draft ends in the spring. What they have gotten so far generally has not been worth waiting for.

Sloppiness. Indecisiveness. Poor tackling. Poorer blocking.

Injuries. Great players not even looking good. Supposedly good teams looking mediocre. Or worse.

Now that doesn’t mean such shabby showings will continue. And, for sure, the three 2-0 teams in the AFC West (Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos), along with the Panthers, Ravens, Steelers, Falcons and Lions, have had some really nice moments.

Overall, however, the quality of play has left so much to be desired that you couldn’t blame sports fans for concentrating on the final weeks of the baseball season. Or the NASCAR playoffs. Or the college brand of football that, while not nearly always artistic, certainly has had its share of drama.

”You are dealing with teams that are inadequate,” says former NFL coach and player Herm Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. ”You can’t practice much in camp, and you can’t play your guys in preseason games too much because you’re always afraid of them getting hurt.

”Going into the season now, if you are an offense, for the first or second game, at least, what you are able to do to defenses, especially if you go no-huddle, by the third quarter those guys on defense are done. You see right in front of your eyes teams fatiguing. If your own offense can’t stay on the field, those defenses wilt, fall apart, and guys get hurt.”

Edwards comes from an era when players got plenty of contact work during the summer. When he moved into coaching – he led both the Jets and Chiefs to playoff appearances – that was still true, plus players had begun the rigorous offseason training regimens that now are essential to surviving in the pros.

When the labor agreement curtailed so much of the time spent on the field, it was bound to have an effect on the in-game product.

Edwards isn’t claiming that reduction in hitting was wrong. He’s as much of an advocate of player safety as anyone, a contributor to many health and safety causes. He’s merely pointing out what had become so obvious until the Rams and 49ers lit up the scoreboard and the television screens on Thursday night: So far, the NFL has been difficult to watch.

”We do all we can to protect the players … There is a hardness about football,” Edwards says. ”If you don’t do it and don’t have contact that starts early in training camp, you don’t have the same game.

”That is our league right now in the first month of football. If you are a team that is just OK talent-wise, you can win some of these early games because of fatigue and injury.”

Having played defensive back for a decade, Edwards’ heart is on that side of the ball. He recognizes, as have many fans and critics, that basics are lacking in the NFL, particularly in the trenches and for open-field tacklers. Hall of Famer Bill Polian, who helped build Super Bowl teams in Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis, calls the lack of fundamentals ”the worst I have seen.”

Polian has been a part of the NFL for more than three decades, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien certainly recognizes the importance of those fundamentals.

”That’s what I mean by there’s some basic fundamentals to every position that you coach, basic coaching fundamentals, basic theories and philosophies that you have to cover,” O’Brien says.

He’s right. Covering them in the classroom and in theory is important.

Getting in the work on the field to hone players’ skills and then sharpen them has become an almost impossible challenge. The result is often, well, bad football.

”Here is the crazy part,” Edwards notes. ”As much as we say we want to protect the players and do protect them and teach guys how to tackle … the league is basically a one-back league. We play on the whole field now, a real vertical game. When we spread people out and throw as often as the ball is thrown, there are more players on the inside that defend than on the outside. The plays called take these receivers across the field and inside, and that is where most of the collisions take place.

”Because we’re such a speed game now, everybody wants to throw, the collisions are even harder. And the players aren’t necessarily prepared for that.”

Nor are they prepared for a whole lot else that occurs on the field, leading to forgettable games.

Still, it’s only two weeks, right?

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