Call him Manuel Dexterides. He's the hottest pass catcher in pro football, a speedy, glue-fingered dude of Greco-Hispanic origin who can do it all—stop-and-go, work back, move in or out, up-and-over, short and deep. Not only does he have the proverbial blinding speed (after all, he consistently ran the 100 in 9.4 in college, and even now can cover the football 40 in a tad over four seconds flat), but he also has the guile of an Odysseus when it comes to fooling cornerbacks, an inheritance no doubt from his Greek father. And when the ball gets to him, or he to it, as the case may be, there is never any question of Manuel Dexterides dropping it. He has manual dexterity, the gift of his Spanish mother, who started him playing pelota at the age of three to hone his eye-hand coordination. His fingers are made of epoxy and his bones are made of recast steel. In short, he is the optimum wide receiver.
Of course, there is no Manuel Dexterides, but the Oakland Raiders have the next best thing. It comes in two packages, one named Fred Biletnikoff and the other Clifford Branch. The B-Boys, along with Tight End Dave Casper, have given Oakland the best record and the most accomplished passing game in the NFL. Through the first 12 games of the season Quarterback Kenny (Snake) Stabler connected on 178 of 271 passes for 2,520 yards. Casper caught 46 for 613 yards and seven touchdowns. Branch caught 39 for 994—an average of 25.5 yards—and 10 touchdowns. And Biletnikoff caught 38 for 496 and six TDs. His patented third-down catches—often for short yardage along the right sideline—are classics of their kind, and the stuff of nightmares for defenders. This year 26 of Oakland's first 39 touchdowns came on pass plays. And now it doesn't sound like so much hot air when the Raiders—pro football's most successful regular-season team over the last decade with a 106-25-7 record—say once again that this year is their year for the Super Bowl.
"You think of the great receiving pairs of the past, say Carroll Dale and Boyd Dowler of the Lombardi Packers, and the first thing you see is that they had great running backs to take the pressure off of them," says Oakland Coach John Madden. He doesn't say exactly that Clarence Davis and Mark van Eeghen of the Raiders are scarcely Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, but the fact is that Oakland's ground game is at best fair-to-middling. "Both Branch and Biletnikoff run great routes, different kinds of routes but complementary, and neither of them drops passes," Madden says. "When a defense throws a double zone on us, then Casper goes up the middle. Zingo! Just like that."
Not only do the two wide receivers complement one another on the field—Branch the deep threat with his sprinter's speed, Biletnikoff the master of the short routes—but the B-Boys lead complementary lives off it as well. Biletnikoff is the quiet, diffident 12-year veteran, soft-spoken but tough beneath his blond, Caspar Milquetoast mustache. Branch, who is in his fifth season with Oakland, is the flashy dresser, ebullient on the field and off, "the happiest man on the team," Madden says. After a home game, Fred usually jumps the next plane south to spend a day of rest with his new wife, Jennifer, on his 80-tree avocado ranch in Valley Center, Calif. Clifford ("not Cliff, please") jumps into his bottle-green 1935 Dodge sedan with the mohair seat covers and goes home for a game of backgammon with his wife Essie. Either that or a horror movie. "He loves those grisly picture shows," says Essie Branch, who was Clifford's girl at the University of Colorado, where he starred in track and football. Theirs is a racially mixed marriage, but watching them no one sees colors, just affection and mutual respect. "She beats me at backgammon," says Branch, grinning, "and at air hockey, too!"
December 13, 1976
Branch was born and raised in Houston, where his father worked on the docks and his mother taught school. "I was always fast on my feet," he recalls. "I could run away from anyone on the block. Even the big kids. It was a God-given grace, and I knew I had to do something with it." The man who helped him find out what was Oliver Brown, then a coach at Branch's junior high school. Brown worked on Branch's running technique, and then followed his protégé to Worthing High, where Branch became the first schoolboy in Texas history to run the 100 in 9.3. In fact, he did it twice. "I still see Coach Brown when I go back home," says Branch. "He's a good man, a good friend."
At Colorado. Branch ran track and played football. A return specialist, it took him just two seasons to establish an NCAA career record for punt- and kick-off-return touchdowns. He gained 354 yards rushing, 755 returning kickoffs, 733 carrying back punts, 665 on pass catches and scored 16 touchdowns. In 1972, his senior year, Branch set a world indoor record of 9.3 for the 100, and twice during his Colorado career he did 9.2 outdoors. Though he qualified for the 1972 Olympic Trials, by then his main interest was football. The Raiders had made him their fourth draft pick that year, so Branch chose the NFL over Munich.
"We drafted him mainly as a return man," says Madden, "but I've always had the feeling that any player who can get open can be taught to catch a pass. Hands can be developed. But if a guy can't get open, it doesn't matter whether he can catch or not. He'll never have a pass thrown to him. Clifford can get open. I'll tell you."
It took Branch two seasons, however, before he could catch Stabler's zingers with any consistency. Most track stars who come into pro football have similar problems, and many of them—like Jimmy Hines and John Carlos—drop out, discouraged because they can't hold on to a football. Not Branch. He endured his second-string status (behind Mike Siani) without complaints, and he kept his eye on Biletnikoff, who is perhaps the finest practitioner of ball-glomming in the game.
"I still look at Fred," Branch says. "It's the best education a pass catcher can get anywhere. The other day he was out there working on his cradling. He stayed on after practice and just kept practicing how to cradle the ball, in case his hands get busted in a game and he can't use his fingers. Sometimes he'll just practice catching it with one hand, like you have to do sometimes but you don't want to.
Just catching it on one hand and batting it across to the other. Trick catches, sure, but he works at them. Then he's ready when he needs them."
What does Branch work on?
"My hands," he says, spreading his fingers and flexing them. They're not big hands, but they're strong. "I squeeze a lot of Silly Putty at home to get them strong. I also shoot a lot of pool and play Ping-Pong to help my eye-hand coordination. Lately I've been playing some tennis. Good for the legs, you know, gives you those quick breaks when you make your move on a pass route. But Freddie, he doesn't believe in Silly Putty. His hands are huge, and strong enough as it is. He works with a speed bag now and then to make sure both hands are equally quick. But otherwise, that's about all I do—that and watch Freddie."
"Cherchez Biletnikoff," says his wife, who majored in psychology and French at Colorado.
It's a practice day for the Raiders, and Biletnikoff is back from his farm. The fog has blown from the Bay, carrying with it the ghost of Jack London, which had haunted the dank streets all morning. A mild sun gleams on the golf course and the city dump which flank the field. Biletnikoff trots off with the taut bounce of a pointer coming in from a day working quail. His eyes are a bland, watery blue that match the sky. He proffers one of the renowned hands, and in the grasp one realizes why Freddie Biletnikoff drops so few passes. He is without doubt the gluiest man in the game.
"Oh, that's just the stickum I spray on there," he says. "I don't know what they call it. It's just there on the sidelines, so I use it." Indeed he does. When the Oakland defense is on the field, Biletnikoff sits on the sidelines apart from his teammates—attentive and unmoving, balanced atop his silver helmet. But when the offense is ready to return, he lopes to the training table and squirts his taped calves and forearms and finally his hands with quick shots of Hold-Tite Spray.
"You can't hear good hands," Madden likes to say. "There's no loud slap of leather on skin. That's because with a good receiver the fingertips are stopping the ball, not the palms." Madden doesn't talk about stickum, and clearly Biletnikoff would rather not, either. The conversation shifts briefly to avocados and avocations.
"That last storm uprooted some of my trees," he says laconically, "so I had to get them stuck back in the ground. Mainly when I'm down there, or at home in San Francisco, I just lie around and listen to music."
What kind of music?
"All kinds of music," he answers softly, his eyes clouding over. Then he turns and stares directly into the questioner's eyes. "Anything but jazz," he says.
A sudden image: Biletnikoff running his routes to an inner symphony. Les Sylphides? G√∂tterd√§mmerung? Rocky Raccoon? We will never know.
So the talk turns to catching footballs, and suddenly Biletnikoff is right at home.
"With these damn zones, it's harder than ever to get open," he says, "but that only makes it more fun when you do. You've got to read them as they develop, and then show them different looks from the line of scrimmage to keep the defenders guessing. I use three different releases off the line. You can run a hook, an out or an in off one release, say, and then go on to the others. If you give a guy the same look every time, he'll play you the same way. But if in the first 10 or 12 yards you're doing something different but ending up in the same spot, then you've got him guessing. You're being radical—not falling into a pattern, not being consistent. That's how you find out how good a defensive back is, by putting a little challenge to him. He starts asking himself, 'What is he going to do to me now?' For me, that's the fun part of the game, when it gets to be a guessing game." He smiles a bit ruefully. "And when you specialize on third-down passes like I do, you've got to have fun at it."
Biletnikoff's pi√®ce de résistance is what football coaches call "working back to the ball"—that is, going deeper than the intended catching point, then faking out the defenders by retracing his steps to a prearranged spot and arriving there simultaneously with the football.
"If it's third and eight," Biletnikoff says, "I'll go down maybe 13, 14 yards, and I know I've got five or six yards to work back to the ball. So if I don't beat him the first time, on the way out, I've got another chance to beat him coming back."
By now most defenders expect Biletnikoff to work back on third-down passes and are ready for the move. But he doesn't do it every time. Sometimes he will go "up and over," faking a turn back or to the sidelines and then, as the defender commits himself, flat blowing past him. He did precisely that against the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago. Oakland had a first down at the Chiefs' 32 in the first quarter. Biletnikoff split to the right side (his favorite jumping-off point) and took off in the face of Cornerback Kerry Reardon. "Up and over" he went. Stabler's pass was there, and Biletnikoff fell into the end zone for a touchdown. It was his 521st reception, tying him with Bobby Mitchell as the sixth-best in that category in NFL history. Later in the game he broke the tie with another reception, and after 12 games needed only 11 more to catch up with No. 5, Lance Alworth.
Watchfulness—keen observation of the opponent—is one of the keys to his success. "Too many receivers don't watch closely," Biletnikoff says. "They'll watch what the cornerback does, for instance, and let it go at that. I take all four guys on my side of the field into consideration: the middle and outside linebacker, the cornerback and the safety. How do they rotate up? How quickly do the linebackers get into the zone, and how deep? How do they play the sideline? If you do that, then you get a pretty good idea of the whole zone and how it works. The worst thing in a given zone is undisciplined players." He shrugs and winces. "You want them to be very disciplined because then you know where they're going and where you have to go to beat them. If you're playing against undisciplined players, particularly rookies, they might do anything and their very mistakes can mess you up."
When Biletnikoff isn't running his short third-down work-back patterns, he's usually taking that most punishing of routes, the "in." Because Biletnikoff is relatively slow, at least by Branch's standards, his routes are short to medium in length and put him in direct conflict with the linebackers, men who are as tall as the 6'1" Biletnikoff but who outweigh his 190 pounds by 40 pounds or more.
"It's not a difficult pattern to run," he says with a shrug. "All you have to be concerned with, once you break in, is finding the hole there. The biggest fun I have out of it is trying to get 15 or 17 yards deep so that the linebacker loses the sense of where I am. He can drop only so far with you before he has to turn around to see what's happening in front of him. You know he's only going to go 10 or 12 yards at the very deepest, so if you keep going, he's got to give up on you and turn the responsibility over to the corner or the safety. If you time it perfectly, he's turning back to the line of scrimmage just as you make your break. He sees the ball thrown, but you're already working toward it. Then you're between the two defenders, and—hey, presto!—you catch it." He chuckles and shakes his head, delighted at the thought.
Though "in" patterns may delight Biletnikoff, they have the opposite effect on coaches who like to keep their wide receivers intact. In the middle, where such pass routes terminate, the high-energy convergence of head-hunting linebackers and defensive backs reaches bone-breaking magnitude. A guy can get hurt in there. With this in mind, Oakland much prefers to use the sideline pass, particularly to Biletnikoff, who seems to have eyes in his toes. He can drop them just inside the sideline stripe without appearing to look down.
"It isn't really that tough, working back to the ball on the sideline," he says. "You don't look for the line, but you can almost see it. It gets to be an instinctive thing. You know how many yards you've got to go before you're out of bounds, and you just drop your feet before you go over the line."
Thus, Madden's dictum: "A team should never practice on a field that is not lined. Your players have to become aware of the field's boundaries." That awareness—"a sense of where you are," as basketball's Bill Bradley calls it—is only one of the "instincts" a good pass catcher must have. Another is the ability to acquire the ball, with both eyes and hands, the moment it appears in the receiver's vicinity.
"The first thing you do when you turn around," says Biletnikoff, "you automatically look up, or pretty much straight ahead at eye level. That's where I try to catch the ball. Usually Snake has the ball right around your head somewhere, so it's easier to pick up the ball with your vision starting up and working down, than it is with your eyes down at the start and then working up. Otherwise the ball could be over your head before you saw it. In the same way, the position of your hands when you turn and look for the ball is important, too."
Biletnikoff cups his hands, palms out, over the scarred numbers on his practice jersey. "On 'in' patterns and on 'hooks' and 'outs,' " he says, "you should always have your hands in the position where, if the ball were thrown right there, you could catch it right then. If the ball isn't thrown on target—like if it's up too high, or to either side, or just about to kiss the carpet—you can still catch it. If you already have your hands chest high, it's easy to work to either side—high or low. But if your hands are low at the start—and a lot of receivers have the bad habit of dropping their arms after making their break—it's hard to get your arms back up. That's how most passes are missed. Sometimes you see a guy raising his arms too fast and flat knocking the ball away. It's one thing I've always worked on—getting my hands in one ready position, all the time, and going after the ball from there."
In an instant an entire philosophy comes clear—the philosophy of the Wide Receiver Manuel Dexterides, who hurls his carefully tuned, eminently fragile body into the meat grinder of pro football week after week. The guy you see every Sunday getting hit in midair, flipping over to land with a thud on the top of his hat yet hanging on to the ball. Why does he do it?
Biletnikoff gets up and tucks his silver helmet under his arm, like the Headless Horseman, and shakes a sticky goodby. Later, outside the locker room, Clifford Branch is standing beside his old Dodge, natty in a leather jacket and snakeskin boots. He pauses for a moment to ponder the question of "footsteps"—that catchall encompassing the crashing, stomping, bending, folding, spindling and mutilating that a wide receiver is prone to, and the inevitable psychological reaction, hesitation. How do they handle it?
"George Atkinson, our strong-side safety, is my roommate in camp and on the road," Branch says, stroking his goatee. "He's the kind of guy that hits people hard for a living. I asked him about footsteps once and he told me. 'Clifford,' he said, 'you know that defensive man is going to hit you whether you catch the ball or not. He's going to hit you because you're there. But you're responsible for the ball, that's what they're paying you for. So you got to catch it.' That's the way it is, so I catch it." He smiles and climbs into the car. "Just ask Freddie, he'll tell you."
Yes, indeed, Manuel Dexterides.