Too often he is viewed as little more than a track man in football togs, an affront to all the Too Means and the Big Foots and the Mansters in the NFL. In fact, he is the most potent weapon in his team's game plan. And the most feared. His name is Deep Threat. He is a speed freak who can outdrag Mario Andretti's Lotus for 50 yards, and he has more good shake-'em-up moves than the entire cast of Saturday Night Fever. On any given Sunday, or even on any given Monday night, he can put six points on the board quicker than you can say, "The bomb is back."
Of course, finding a Deep Threat, a game breaker, is about as easy as figuring out Tom Landry's flex defense. For every sprinter who becomes a Deep Threat in the NFL, there were another 40 or so college prospects who, in BLESTO scouting jargon, "had speed to burn but boards for hands." As a result, in the 1970s there have been just 17 members of the NFL's "20-Yard Club"—receivers who have averaged at least 20 yards per catch, with at least 35 catches, in a season. By contrast, in the same eight years 56 rushers have gained more than 1,000 yards in a season.
This year, though, the NFL boasts the best group of Deep Threats that the game has seen since 1963, when Bobby Mitchell, Art Powell, Buddy Dial and Lance Al-worth were destroying man-to-man coverages and sending coaches back to the drawing boards. What they came up with then was the zone defense. Now, however, the young speed burners have enabled NFL coaches to take the long pass—the touchdown bomb—out of mothballs and put it back into game plans that had become as predictable as an extra point.
The old man of the new Deep Threats is the Minnesota Vikings' 24-year-old Sammy White, who is in his third season as Fran Tarkenton's prime home-run receiver. In fact, until White came along, NFL people used to joke that Tarkenton had not thrown a forward pass longer than 10 yards since the late 1960s when he was tossing bombs to Homer Jones for the New York Giants. White was named the NFC's Rookie of the Year in 1976, and in his brief career he has already caught 24 touchdown passes.
The NFL's Class of '77 included three White-style game breakers: Tony Hill of the Dallas Cowboys, Wesley Walker of the New York Jets and Stanley Morgan of the New England Patriots. Hill spent most of last year on the bench, which is where, by and large, Dallas Coach Tom Landry likes to keep rookies, at least until they learn his football lingo. Hill obviously did not pass the time on the sidelines admiring the moves of the Cowboys' cheerleaders. His performance during the 1978 preseason was so outstanding that Landry gave him the starting job that last year had been split between Golden Richards and Butch Johnson, both of whom caught touchdown passes in Dallas' Super Bowl victory over Denver. Now Hill leads the Cowboy receivers with 23 catches for 395 yards, an average of 17.2 yards per catch. He also has scored five touchdowns, including two in Sunday's 24-21 sudden-death victory over St. Louis.
The Jets' Walker is the only young Deep Threat who has already joined the exclusive 20-Yard Club. Last season he caught 35 passes and led the NFL with an average of 21.1 yards per catch. So far this year, Walker has caught 19 passes for an average gain of 26.9 yards—tops in the NFL—and has scored touchdowns on bomb plays covering 77, 47 and 45 yards.
New England's Morgan also averaged 21.1 yards per reception as a rookie, but he failed to qualify for the 20-Yard Club because he caught only 21 passes. This season Morgan has 15 receptions in seven games for an average gain of 24.2 yards, burning rivals with touchdown catches of 58, 62 and 33 yards.
Judging from first impressions, the Class of '78 seems as talented as the Class of '77. Green Bay's James Lofton, the long jumper from Stanford, already has caught 20 passes—including five in the Packers' 45-28 romp over Seattle Sunday—for 402 yards, a 20.1 average, and five touchdowns. San Diego's John Jefferson has 19 receptions for 269 yards, an average of 15.1. And the Tony Hill of the 1978 rookie class may well be New Orleans' Wes Chandler, the No. 3 player selected in last spring's college draft. For some reason, the Saints, who have never had a winning record in their 11 NFL seasons, have been unable to incorporate the speedy Chandler into their game plan. He has caught only six passes in seven games.
How valuable is a Deep Threat? Check a few of these case histories.
In 1969 the Miami Dolphins gained just 4.35 yards per pass play, almost 25% below the American Football League average, and finished in fifth place with a 3-10-1 record. Yards per pass play is the best statistical measure of a team's passing attack and an excellent indicator of its offensive capability. The '69 Dolphins clearly had little firepower. Following that season, Miami acquired Paul Warfield from Cleveland, and quicker than Don Shula could say Joe Robbie, the Dolphins had a decent passing game. Warfield had 28 receptions for an average gain of 25.1 yards, and he scored six touchdowns. The Dolphins increased their average yards per pass play almost 40%, from 4.35 to 6.06—and made the playoffs with a 10-4 record.
In 1973 Los Angeles obtained Harold Jackson from Philadelphia, and that season the gifted Jackson caught 40 passes for an average gain of 21.9 yards. L.A.'s team average climbed from 5.55 yards per pass attempt to an NFL-best 6.88—and the Rams climbed from third place to first with a 12-2 record.
Now in 1978, one of the big reasons for all those THE PACK IS BACK banners and bumper stickers in Green Bay is the fact that the speedy Lofton has provided the upstart Packers with the home-run threat they have not had in years. After three straight fourth-place finishes, the Packers, whose passing attack has produced eight touchdowns—two more than last season at this point—are 6-1 and in first place in the NFC Central.
In assessing the worth of a Deep Threat, one also must understand the theory of brinksmanship: the threat of a bomb can be more effective than the bomb itself.
"Just having the capability of throwing the bomb makes everything else that much easier to do," says Miami Coach Don Shula. "If opponents spend a lot of time double-teaming one receiver or two outside receivers, that opens up pass routes for your tight end and for backs coming out of the backfield. But if they spend a lot of time worrying about deep coverage, they're probably not doing the proper job on run support, and that enables your running game to get going."
Nevertheless, when these young Deep Threats showed up, the bomb had moved to the top of the NFL's endangered-species list. Or as Oakland's Cliff Branch, an older Deep Threat, put it, "The bomb don't drop much anymore."
In the heyday of the long pass, 1962, NFL teams averaged 7.1 yards per pass play. Since then that figure has steadily declined, plummeting to an alltime low of 5.18 yards last season. The total drop-off over 15 seasons was almost 30%. More alarming to those who view the bomb as an integral part of the game's appeal was last year's NFC average of 4.79 yards per pass play. That figure was almost a yard below the AFC average, and one reason why the AFC had a 19-9 record against the NFC.
"Defense starts with stopping the bomb," says Shula, who understands that a long scoring pass can be a psychological game breaker as well as a game winner. In 1977, a team that completed a touchdown pass of 40 yards or more won that game almost 66% of the time. "The long touchdown pass can break your back defensively," says St. Louis' Mel Gray, who in his eight seasons has caught 39 touchdown passes, including 24 of at least 40 yards. "It has something to do with the defense seeing the ball up in the air and knowing they're going to get killed. They're helpless."
Coaches understandably have ambivalent feelings about the bomb. On the one hand, they love it when their team uses it. On the other, they hate it when the opposition uses it. As a result, they are battling the bomb with more troops than ever before. The 3-4 defense can put as many as eight defenders back against a pass. Also, more and more teams are switching to the so-called nickel coverage, in which a minimum of five defensive backs are deployed in obvious passing situations.
By far the most effective deterrent to the bomb has been the zone defense, which gradually replaced man-to-man coverage in the late '60s and early '70s. "If teams get good at the zone, the passing game may become extinct," Warfield warned at the turn of the decade. He was more prophetic than he imagined. In the '60s, individual receivers gained more than 1,200 yards in a season 28 times. But so far in the '70s, not a single receiver has reached the 1,200-yard mark.
Recognizing that the three networks didn't ante up some $656 million over four years strictly for three yards and a cloud of dust, the NFL has launched an intensive countercrusade to "Save the Bomb." Almost annually, the league adopts new rules supposedly designed to breathe life into the passing game. To date, the most effective change is the one introduced this year that prohibits contact with a receiver once he has gone five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. But despite the ballyhoo in NFL publicity releases, statistics indicate even this may be a case of too little too late.
Pass attempts have increased this season, as the NFL rule makers had hoped, but only by one pass per team per game. Through the first six games, the completion percentage is up by less than 2%. Statistically, that slight increase, combined with a very minuscule decrease in sacks and interceptions, indicates that each team has completed the extra pass thrown in each game. At the same time, the average yards per pass has crept up from 5.18 to 5.46, and touchdown passes have risen by about 7%.
But even these slight increases hardly seem attributable to the 1978 rule change. For instance, while touchdown passes are up 7% over last season, they are down more than 2% compared to 1976. Also, the increase in yards per pass is only about 10 inches. The gain per catch is down about two inches.
Mel Gray thinks he knows why. "The bump rule has forced defensive backs to play deeper," he says. "They sacrifice the short stuff because there is no percentage in moving up. You can only bump the receiver at the start of the play anyway."
Obviously, the NFL's main hope for the real return of the bomb lies with the young Deep Threats. White has put some pizzazz into Minnesota's attack, and the others have opened up offenses, too.
San Diego's Jefferson is probably the slowest of the burners. However, he has better hands and runs more precise routes than the others, and he doesn't mind going into a crowd for "the more challenging passes, the ones they dare you to do."
Around San Diego, Jefferson is known as The Jefferson Airplane. When he was growing up in Texas, he used his stepfather's surname, Washington, but at Arizona State he switched to Jefferson, his original name. Hearing of his switch from Washington to Jefferson, an NFL scout inquired, "Why did you skip Adams?"
The Patriots' Morgan is known as Roadrunner. At Tennessee he played running back and wingback, as well as wide receiver, and demonstrated long-play capability by averaging 9.2 yards every time he handled the ball. Morgan quickly showed the NFL that those stats were no fluke by making a diving catch for a 45-yard touchdown on his first reception for New England.
When the Jets' Walker was at California, he set an NCAA record by averaging 25.7 yards a catch. He also was timed in a wind-aided 9.2 for the 100. Walker is legally blind in his left eye, the result of a cataract he has had since birth. As a rookie, he also appeared to have boards for hands, dropping three sure touchdown passes. This season, though, he has caught so many balls behind defenders that he now sympathizes with the way they have been hampered by the rule change. "The receiver already has an advantage because he knows where he's going," Walker says. "When the defender could give the receiver a bump, that evened things up. I was a defensive back in high school, so I can see how this kind of thing can cut two ways."
Green Bay's Lofton won the NCAA long-jump title last year, and in 1976 he finished fifth at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Lofton irked some Packer teammates with his arrogance in training camp, and when he dropped a sure touchdown pass in Green Bay's opening win over Detroit, one Packer muttered, "That may be the best thing that ever happened to him." Maybe it was. The next week, against New Orleans, Lofton caught three touchdown passes thrown by David Whitehurst.
As a junior at Stanford, Lofton backed up Dallas' Hill, who likes to call himself Thrill Hill. When Hill spent most of his time last season returning punts—and averaging 12.4 yards per return—he never hesitated to tell writers, "If you think I'm good running back kicks, wait until you see me catch passes."
Hill was a high school quarterback at Long Beach (Calif.) Polytechnic, where he followed in the footsteps of an earlier-day Deep Threat, Gene Washington, who made the 20-Yard Club with San Francisco in 1970. Hill broke most of Washington's high school passing records, and then followed him to Stanford, became a wide receiver and broke a few of Washington's collegiate records. Lofton also holds some of Stanford's single-game and single-season receiving marks.
Dallas coaches say Hill has "a great knack of running through the ball," meaning he catches the football in stride, with no stops or unnecessary leaps. Dallas scout Red Hickey says he used to try to teach the same skill to Bob Hayes by telling him, "Remember, you're 9.1 on the ground, not in the air."
"I consider the bomb my bread and butter," Hill says. "Nothing compares to the feeling you get when you have your man beat, the ball's coming down and you hear the big roar from the crowd. In that instant, the bomb is one of the most precious things in my life."
And Hill, like all the other swift, young Deep Threats, can put a price on it: six points.
THE 20-YARD CLUB
GARY GARRISON, San Diego
WARREN WELLS, Oakland
JOHN GILLIAM, St. Louis
GENE WASHINGTON, San Francisco
BOB HAYES, Dallas
PAUL WARFIELD, Miami
GARY GARRISON, Sun Diego
JOHN GILLIAM, Minnesota
RICH CASTER, New York Jets
HAROLD JACKSON, Los Angeles
JOHN GILLIAM, Minnesota
ISAAC CURTIS, Cincinnati
ALFRED JENKINS, Atlanta
KEN BURROUQH, Houston
ROGER CARR, Baltimore
CLIFF BRANCH, Oakland
CHARLIE JOINER, San Diego
RAY JAR VIS Detroit
WESLEY WALKER, New York Jets
MEL GRAY, St. Louis