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EAGAN — When Justin Jefferson turned his head back to look for the football, he didn’t think he was going to see it coming his way.

He looked at the defender’s leverage and the fact that he didn’t bite on a double move and figured Kirk Cousins’ throw was going in somebody else’s direction. Instead, there it was, flying through the air headed for him.

Jefferson knew that he had an advantage: The defender didn’t think it was coming his way either. The Vikings’ superstar wide receiver was the only one who could see it, therefore he was the only one who could get it.

As the ball approached, Jefferson made contact with the Arizona Cardinals cornerback, then leaped up and snatched it at the last second over the defender’s head for a 29-yard gain.

“I definitely wasn’t open,” Jefferson said. “I looked up and when I saw it, my thought was, ‘It’s mine.’”

Jefferson’s spectacular catch came on third-and-5 with the Vikings trailing 17-14 to the Cardinals. It sparked a 75-yard touchdown drive that put the Vikings ahead. They never gave up the lead after that.


There is no stat for spectacular catches but there is data for the best pass catchers in the NFL based on tracking data. The website FiveThirtyEight compiled the best based on NFLNextGEN stats and found that three receivers in this Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Buffalo Bills are among the elite of the elite at pulling in throws that nobody expects them to catch. Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are all in the top 20 since 2020 and Jefferson has brought in 50% of his contested catch opportunities this season (13th best).

That’s not even to mention the possibility of Case Keenum starting for the Bills and his history with Diggs and miracle catches.

Nobody knows better than Vikings fans who have been blessed by unbelievable grabs for many years, whether it be Sammy White, Anthony Carter, Jake Reed, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Percy Harvin, Diggs, Thielen, Jefferson etc., but how do they do it? Why are some receivers able to make plays that look like something out of The Matrix?

Luckily the Vikings have a receivers’ coach who knows better than 99.9% of the population about that subject in Keenan McCardell.

For those who didn’t watch football in the 90s and early 2000s, McCardell ranks 25th all-time in receptions despite being selected in the 12th round (that’s not a typo) of the 1991 draft. From 1992 to 2007, he made his bones by catching everything in sight. In an era where completion percentages hovered in the high 50% range, he routinely caught 65-70% of throws his way and averaged 13 yards per catch while he was at it.

On Wednesday I pulled out my iPhone and showed McCardell what I believe — after watching every highlight mashup possible on YouTube — to be the best catch of his career. This grab against the Carolina Panthers:


McCardell laughed as he watched it back a few times.

“That’s probably one of the most exciting catches there is,” he said. “You know [Brad Johnson] was throwing it as far as he could right there and he gave me a chance with three guys around me. I actually like this catch, it’s one of my favorites.”

Justin Jefferson walked by as McCardell was looking at the video. Should I show it to him?

“No, because I tell him two hands equals 20 years in the league, one hand and you are out of the league,” McCardell said. “Don’t show him that one.”

The Vikings’ receivers coach, who was retained despite the rest of the coaching staff being overturned last offseason, said that his coach in Tampa Bay, Richard Mann, called his catch against Carolina “unbelievable,” but then added to make the grab with both hands.

McCardell remembers the catch vividly. He saw the ball floating in the air and felt like it was in slow motion.

“I just remember knowing that I had to make that catch,” McCardell said. “I remember knowing that the defenders couldn’t see that ball and I’m the only one who could see it. It just started going really slow and then I made the catch. It was one of those things like, ‘I’m going to make this catch.’”

You can already see the similarities between Jefferson’s Moss’ing and McCardell’s one-handed dive. The long-time NFL’er said that all great receivers can sense exactly what their defenders can and cannot see as the ball is coming in. For those of you who are either old enough or have watched the highlights, you’ll recall Randy Moss routinely waiting until the last second to reach up, sometimes leaving the corner looking astounded that the ball showed up there.

“Most of the guys that make those types of spectacular catches understand they are the only one seeing the ball and they just go up and make it,” McCardell said. “A lot of times the defender, even if he does see it, gives up on it. The best receivers never give up on it and make the play”

Seeing the ball is harder than you think. Full speed, helmet on, NFL defensive back doing everything he can to stop you, weather, lights, pressure. It’s a tough gig. All dads who have played catch with their kids in the backyard will appreciate McCardell’s advice to his players: Keep your eye on the ball.

“If you see the ball, you will catch the ball,” he said. “Most of the drops happen when people don’t watch the ball. You can tell if you watch any drop, you’ll see a guy looking and then he does this [Keenan turns his head away] and it goes through his hands. I always tell them, ‘If you see it, you should catch it because you are a pro, you are the elite pass catchers in the world and you have elite hand-eye coordination.’”

Once you see it, getting in the right position is another entire talent in itself. McCardell compares receivers to center fielders, who have to pick up the ball off the bat and run to its exact location sometimes hundreds of feet away to make the catch.

“A lot of guys may have good hands but don’t have the tracking ability,” McCardell said. “Most great pass catchers can track the ball and it makes it easy to pluck the ball. You can tell right off the bat as a coach who are the good ball trackers and who can play. If I’m looking at a young guy in college I can tell if he’s going to be able to track the ball in college and be a good pass catcher. It’s a natural thing.”

McCardell said when he played with Doug Flutie in San Diego that the former quarterback used to love playing pickup basketball with his receivers. He’d watch how they reacted to his alley-oops. Every player in the NFL thinks they are great at basketball but few have instincts and soft hands. It should come as no surprise that Jefferson and Thielen were/are both terrific basketball players.

“Doug used to say, ‘If I throw the guy an alley-oop, I want to see the guy go get it naturally,” McCardell said.

Confidence is a big part in all of this too. Not just believing that you can make the catch but knowing how good your hands actually are. McCardell said that he tells his Vikings receivers regularly that he would put his 52-year-old hands up against theirs every day of the week.

“A lot of guys tense up when the ball gets close,” he said. “Real pass catchers are just like, OK, pluck and pull it out of the air and it’s all mine.”

Is that natural? Do the best work on something specifically that allows them to have better hands?

“There’s no stress. When the ball is in the air they are relaxed and they are tracking the ball and making a play, it just happens,” Thielen said. “You don’t think, ‘Oh I’m going to one-hand this one,’ or, ‘Oh I’m going to make a crazy catch here.’ It’s just reaction.”

Keenan McCardell with Justin Jefferson

Keenan McCardell with Justin Jefferson

That’s the catching part. There’s a pretty important element of the operation that we haven’t gotten into yet: The throw.

Kevin O’Connell has been encouraging Kirk Cousins to give Jefferson and Thielen as many chances as he can to make plays on the ball, even if things might go wrong from time to time. In Washington, Jefferson leaped over a Commander defensive back for the opening touchdown but a tipped ball resulted in an interception at the end of the first half. O’Connell said he loved the process on both throws .

“That's a one-on-one to one of the best receivers in football and that's what we’re hunting and I'm so proud of Kirk for throwing it,” O’Connell said.

Trust and chemistry don’t happen overnight. Sometimes it takes a long time between a quarterback and receiver to fully understand how each other operates. McCardell used the example of a touchdown catch he made in the biggest moment of his career.

“In the Super Bowl on my first touchdown, we probably ran that route 50-60 times in practice, and it becomes natural,” McCardell. “I knew exactly where the ball was going to be. If you look at it you’ll see how late I was coming out to catch it because I knew exactly where [Brad Johnson] was going to throw it and it made it so easy for me to sell the defender on a fade when I know I’m stopping and Brad is going to put the ball on my back nameplate and I made the catch. It didn’t just happen that day. It happened many other days in practice and you get that confidence.”

Jefferson and Cousins have now played 38 games together. They’ve practiced hundreds of times. They’ve connected on dozens of highlight-reel plays. It seems they are on the same page more and more as the weeks go by.

“Trust comes in a lot with those types of plays,” Jefferson said of his catch against Arizona. “He told me that after that play, like, ‘You going up in making those types of plays for our team is what counts.’”

“It’s scary good because they’ve worked on it so much and he has so much trust in those guys to do it,” McCardell said.

Now there’s one last part of making a spectacular catch that felt very important to ask about: The celebration dance. McCardell said that during his career he mostly threw the ball up against the back wall after a touchdown or spun the ball on the ground if it wasn’t a TD but his catch versus the Panthers inspired a little bit more.

“That game after that catch it was like, ‘Whoa that was a nice catch, I’m going to give myself a little, that was a sweet catch,’ that’s why I did the dance,” McCardell said.

Jefferson does the Griddy in the end zone or signals first down otherwise. Thielen doesn’t have a signature but did impressively do a soccer slide in 2017 in London.

The GOAT catchers of the football deserve every second of their celebrations because there’s only a handful of receivers who can do it and three of them will be on display on Sunday in Buffalo.

“It’s God’s gift,” McCardell said, holding out his hands, which are twice as big as mine.

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