<
>

Will someone throw deep, for crying out loud?

Daryle Lamonica, John Hadl and Joe Namath must stand around at football alumni events wondering a little about their old sport and the conference they created.

The American Football Conference has its roots in the old American Football League -- a wild, brash upstart of a league that dared to challenge the NFL. Lamonica symbolized that era in the 1960s with his nickname "The Mad Bomber." He threw deep for Al Davis' Oakland Raiders. So did Joe Willie. That brash style won over enough people that the AFL merged with the NFL in order for football fans to have the best of all worlds.

I think of this as I watch the AFC this season. Having spent the past three decades living and covering pro football in AFC cities such as Pittsburgh and Seattle, I've always admired the upstart nature of the AFC. Al Davis still owns the Raiders and he's still a maverick. The Steelers still play tough, hard-nosed defense.

But marriage of the AFC and Bill Walsh's old West Coast offense has gone a little too far. Even more so than the NFC, the NFL stands for Not For Long in describing virtually every pass thrown in AFC games this season. Sure it's a league-wide trend, but it's more prevalent in the AFC.

Sitting in some halves of these games makes one want to screan, "Will somebody throw deep for heaven's sake?" How about one for the old Mad Bomber?

Surely, you've been noticing the trend, spawned by the rapid spread of teachers of the West Coast offenses. Vinny Testaverde, loved and sometimes hated for his love of the long ball, has turned into the NFL's version of Ichiro Suzuki, virtually stringing together a bunch of singles on his drives. The Patriots love Tom Brady's efficiency, but in a conference that once prided itself with the homerun ball, Brady's style is that of the drag bunt. During last Sunday's come-from-behind win over the Jets, only about one pass sailed longer than 15 yards downfield.

Even the great Mike Holmgren, who coached Brett Favre into being an MVP machine, has pulled in the reins on young Seahawks starter Matt Hasselbeck. The Seahawks have gone West Coast, but Hasselbeck better not go deep if it isn't in his progressions. Nine starts into their relationship, Holmgren is letting Hasselbeck get out of his West Coast progression if the big play is there, but he'd better be right if he tries it.

"I still don't want him to take chances too much," Holmgren said of Hasselbeck. "I want Matt developing good habits and discipline as he's gaining experience. Actually, if he is missing a few things, it's more on the easy ones than the hard ones. His mind races all of the time thinking about all the plays he can make."

So a lot of this is just a phase, and I appreciate that. Still, it's like that car trying to get started on a cold morning. Will you rev it up and just get going?

Perhaps no play is becoming more frustrating than the ones on third down. How often are you seeing third-and-eight plays turning into that simple throw to a receiver or running back three to four yards before the first-down marker? Unless that receiver has the moves or speed to escape, he's stopped. Then comes the punt. Heck, why not go CFL style and punt on third down if that's the strategy?

The answer to this dilemma is that quarterbacks are young and defenses featuring the two-, three- and four-deep zone are too good. The young bombers -- Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner and Favre -- are getting intercepted throwing downfield.

So, the coaches are telling their young throwers to toss underneath and hope for the best. Let's look at the numbers.

Third-down efficiency league-wide is down from 38.3 percent last season to 37 percent this year. The average completion has dropped to 11.5 yards. That's the lowest in more than 23 years, the closest comparison being 1995 and 1996 when it was 11.6. Last year, the number was 11.8. The year before, it was 12.1. In the late 1980s, it was 12.8. In terms of completions, this is the Dead Ball era.

So much emphasis is being placed on that stat "Yards After Catch" that quarterbacks are YAC-ing it more and more to running backs and tight ends underneath. Of the 49 top receivers for YAC, only 24 involve wide receivers. Five of the top six are running backs -- Larry Centers of Buffalo, Ricky Williams of New Orleans, Priest Holmes of Kansas City, Ahman Green of Green Bay and Marshall Faulk of St. Louis.

But all of this is more noticeable in AFC games. Only five AFC quarterbacks are averaging better than seven yards a throw. The NFC has eight. AFC teams love throwing underneath to tight ends and backs. In the NFC, there are only two tight ends -- Carolina's Wesley Walls and Minnesota's Byron Chamberlain -- who have more than 28 catches. The AFC has six, led by Baltimore's Shannon Sharpe with 59 and Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez with 54.

Not only do Desmond Clark of the Broncos and Frank Wycheck of the Titans have 45 and 42 receptions, respectively, but their backups -- Dwayne Carswell (23) and Erron Kinney (18) are catching enough passes to rank among the top tight ends in the NFC.

Backs are getting their fair share, too. Centers has 66 catches, Oakland's Charlie Garner has 42 and Holmes 40. The list goes on. AFC teams may be throwing more but are enjoying it less.

"With so much cover two (zone), those short passes are almost like long handoffs," Colts general manager Bill Polian said. "Quarterbacks are going more to their checkdown guys."

But there is hope from all of this. Look, for example, the benefits of Mike Mularkey's early-season experiments of having Kordell Stewart dink and dink and dink. The Steelers have gained enough confidence in Stewart that he's getting a few more downfield throws and plenty of trick plays.

"It's just a matter of having some success with those plays and coach Mularkey consistently calling them," Stewart said. "When you don't have any success on certain plays, the coordinator will shy away from them. Once you have some success, that's when it causes you to pull out some plays and some tricks and just open up the arsenal of players. The short pass, particularly with the way we run the ball, gives us the opportunity to get the linebackers up so we can try to throw over their heads with some play action and all that good stuff."

Ah, that's it. Stewart and fellow AFC quarterbacks are just setting up defenses for some downfield action during the playoffs or in late December. Forgive me a little if I don't scream for that every time that "checkdown" receiver gets the ball on third-and-long and struggles for the first down.

The AFC has gone West -- West Coast, that is. Just occasionally, I'd like to see it go deep.

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