Catch the Rising Stars

Bursting onto the NFL stage in unprecedented numbers, talent-rich wide receivers are stealing the show
September 06, 1992

Michael Irvin had the video control in his hand, so he could stop the game tape whenever he wanted to. He didn't want to. Not now, not this tape, not this game. Up there on the big screen in a meeting room at the Dallas Cowboys' practice facility, the Cowboys were beating the Washington Redskins, and Irvin was beating Darrell Green, the Skins' five-time Pro Bowl cornerback. Nine catches, 130 yards. That's a beating. It happened at RFK Stadium last November, when Dallas upended Washington 24-21 to hand the Redskins their first loss in 12 games and Irvin surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in receptions with four games left in the regular season.

On the screen, Irvin ran a deep curl, Troy Aikman threw the ball, Green recovered, Irvin boxed him out, Irvin caught the pass, Green leveled him—plus 17 yards. Irvin ran a slant, Green stayed all over him, Irvin made the catch—good for 13. "Look at how great Darrell plays this," said Irvin. "He plays it perfect. I've got to box him out to catch this ball. He's the best."

But on it went: a pop over the middle for nine, a curl for 11, two catches that went for 20 and 44 yards were called back on penalties at the line of scrimmage, and, then, at the start of the fourth quarter, the clincher, a deep slant, with the ball thrown behind Irvin at the Washington four. He reached back, snagged it and spun around Green, who was left grasping at air. Touchdown. Game, Dallas. "I am certainly humbled," Green said when it was over.

Lots of cornerbacks, marvelous and marginal, are humbled weekly in today's NFL. "This is the golden age of wide receivers in pro football," says former San Diego Charger quarterback Dan Fouts, who is now a CBS analyst.

The wide receivers are so talented and so plentiful. The rules are so favorable to them. The defenses are so keyed to stopping the run. So many multisport athletes who play wideout are choosing football for their careers. And the colleges are so factorylike in churning out wide-receiver prospects, while all-purpose tight ends have become nearly obsolete. The result is that wide receivers are thriving in the NFL as never before in the league's 73-year history.

In 1981 wideouts accounted for 42.2% of all completions; by '91 the figure had shot up to 58.1%. In 1986 nine of the top 20 pass catchers in the NFL were either running backs or tight ends; in '91 zero backs and one tight end, Marv Cook of the New England Patriots, cracked the top 20. Sixteen wide receivers caught at least 70 passes last year; before then, no more than 12 had grabbed that many in any one season. The Skins' second-leading receiver, wideout Gary Clark, and the Houston Oilers' third-leading pass catcher, wideout Ernest Givins, both caught 70 passes; so did each of the Miami Dolphins' bookend wideouts, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. When Clark was the third-leading receiver on his team in 1989, he had 79 catches.

In 1971 Kansas City Chief wideout Elmo Wright ranked 35th in the league with 26 receptions. In 1991 the 35th-ranked receiver, ageless James Lofton of the Buffalo Bills, finished with 57 catches. The advent of the run-and-shoot and similar high-octane passing attacks favored by the Oilers, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, among others, is inflating the receiving figures to some degree. But even the teams that traditionally—and successfully—have scattered the ball among all their pass catchers are concentrating more on their wideouts. Three years ago, for instance, 44.8% of the San Francisco 49ers' completed passes went to their wide receivers and 41.3% went to their backs. Last year 53% of Niner completions were to wideouts, while 31% were to backs. San Francisco fullback Tom Rathman had 73 catches in 1989, but only 34 in '91. Quite simply, there is a new way of playing offensive football.

And there are new players to play it. Rob Moore of the New York Jets (70 receptions last year) is 23 years old. Atlanta's Andre Rison (81) is 25. Irvin (an NFC-high 93) and the Minnesota Vikings' Cris Carter (72) are 26. Haywood Jeffires of the Oilers hauled in 100 passes to lead the league last year. He's 27.

Only three of today's most accomplished receivers—Lofton, 36; Drew Hill, 35, who caught 90 passes last season for the Oilers and now is with the Falcons; and Washington's Art Monk, 34, whose 71 receptions in '91 left him only 18 shy of the league's record of 819 career catches—are nearing the end of their careers. However, both Atlanta and Washington have terrific young players preparing to take over starring roles. Michael Haynes of the Falcons, who played trumpet in high school instead of football, is only 26, but he led the NFL last season in yards per catch (22.4). And the Redskins traded up to the No. 4 pick in this year's draft to get Michigan's Desmond Howard, whose acrobatic receptions won him the Heisman Trophy last fall.

We haven't even mentioned San Francisco's Jerry Rice yet, which gives you some idea of the depth at the position nowadays. Rice, 29, who probably would be voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot even if he never played another down, is likely to break the alltime record for touchdown grabs—he needs eight to exceed Steve Largent's mark of 100—by November, no matter if Joe Montana, Steve Young, Steve Bono or Sonny Bono is his quarterback.

Although Montana missed all last season because he was recovering from elbow surgery, Rice still had 80 receptions and caught a league-high 14 TD passes. But then Rice has been startlingly productive for a decade, beginning with his three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (1982 through '84) at Mississippi Valley State, where he played in Division I-AA obscurity. Then one Saturday in October 1984, San Francisco coach Bill Walsh flipped on the TV to watch college football, saw Rice on the highlights and took notice. "The hands, the body, the speed," Walsh recalls. "What an absolutely majestic football player."

Most scouts wrote off Rice because his achievements came mostly against overmatched competition. Walsh, however, drafted him in the first round in 1985. As Rice enters his eighth season, he is universally regarded as the best wideout in the game. "They call Michael Jordan, Jesus in tennis shoes," says Irvin. "Jerry Rice is Jesus in cleats."

The deification of Rice became complete in January 1989, when he tied a Super Bowl record with 11 catches against the Cincinnati Bengals and broke the mark for receiving yards, with 215. That performance, which earned Rice the game's MVP award, put wideouts over the top in terms of their ability to dominate a game. And his new $7.8 million, three-year contract, a deal reached only after he held out from the Niner training camp until Aug. 25, confirmed his place among the game's most valued players. He is now the highest-salaried nonquarterback in pro football history.

Other wideouts who followed Rice's lead in passing up most or all of camp in a bid to cash in on their newfound worth included Irvin, Rison, Curtis Duncan of the Oilers, Brian Blades of the Seattle Seahawks and Webster Slaughter of the Cleveland Browns. But back in June, when he was replaying the Redskin game tape, Irvin set aside thoughts of his earning potential and instead delivered a poignant reaction to one of the best games of his life. By nature a quote machine when he's around the press, Irvin has been known to boast about his talents. But he'd been watching himself on tape for 90 minutes, and the bragging had given way to a nuts-and-bolts commentary.

"It's tough to cover any wideout now," Irvin said, as he looked at his image freeze-framed on the screen. "I'm not fast by any means, but I know where I'm going, and I know how to use my body, and Darrell has to adjust to me. If the ball's thrown well, and I'm on anybody in single coverage, I'm going to catch it. So will most receivers.

"But we're getting more passes now. Every team's got that one serious, serious pass-rushing linebacker, and most offenses are using their tight end to try to help the line block him. And the running backs who used to catch a lot of passes have to stay in on third down to keep up with the blitzes and the stunts. Most times they don't even get to run routes out of the backfield. Teams are loading up to stop the run, too. They're using these eight-man fronts, with linebackers and safeties clogging the line. They rush guys, like [Lion nosetackle] Jerry Ball, who are as strong as an ox. You've got to have help blocking them. If you don't take care of these things, you're going to get your quarterback killed.

"You've got all these things happening around the ball," said Irvin in summary, "and if the quarterback wants to pass, he has to look upfield in a hurry. He has to go to his wideouts more."

So the receivers are good, and they're critical to the success of the offense. Nice marriage—and a necessary one. The receivers have to be exceptional because the overall quality at quarterback has stagnated. The five premier signal-callers in the game are Montana, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Warren Moon and Dan Marino. Their average age is 33, and none is younger than 30. Where are the promising young ones? Aikman, Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles and Chris Miller of the Falcons might represent the next generation of superior signal-callers, but they all have histories of injuries, and they have a combined total of one playoff win in 15 seasons. That outstanding new quarterbacks aren't coming along and that so many teams are continually on the lookout for even a good one make today's wideouts seem all the more skilled at catching the ball.

This shift to the Receivers Game began 15 years ago when offenses in the NFL went into an alltime snooze. In 1977 only two of the 28 teams averaged three touchdowns a game. The leading passer, Roger Staubach of Dallas, threw for only 2,620 yards. The average score for a Falcon game was 13-9. So after the season the owners made two significant rule changes to unchain offenses: 1) Linemen would be allowed to use their hands to fend off onrushing defenders. 2) Defensive players would be able to bump receivers only within five yards of the line of scrimmage. "The rule changes," says Tampa Bay Buccaneer defensive coordinator Floyd Peters, "brought the little guys back into football. There was a place for the little guy because, except at the line, he couldn't get beat up anymore. For the secondary, the game became like basketball on grass. Quickness became everything."

Wide receivers benefited immediately. And coaches who had the personnel to take advantage of the liberalized blocking and coverage rules—Walsh, Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tom Flores of the Los Angeles Raiders—built passing games that became the centerpieces of championship offenses. Before long, defensive coaches devised alignments to counter these wide-open attacks. Chicago Bear coordinator Buddy Ryan drew up the 46 defense, the object of which was to pummel quarterbacks with a lightning-quick rush. College teams saw this, and they started moving big, quick players like Cornelius Bennett and Mike Croel to outside linebacker and defensive end so that these players could chase the new breed of mobile quarterback. Soon, NFL teams were seeking budding Lawrence Taylors to turn loose on quarterbacks.

At the same time, college teams were cultivating outstanding wide receivers—in part because football was attracting more premier athletes, in part because the college game was becoming more pass-oriented. College coaches began visiting pro teams. Two of Tennessee's coaches made annual trips to Cincinnati to learn the Bengals' offense and implemented large chunks of the Cincy passing game into the Vols' playbook. By using high draft picks on Tennessee wideouts Tim McGee (in 1985) and Carl Pickens (in '92), the Bengals acquired two players already prepared to play in their system.

The wide-open, pro-style offenses filtered down even into the high schools in the mid-'80s. One of the cradles of football, hallowed Massillon High in Ohio, where Paul Brown coached, switched to a cross between the run-and-shoot and the wing T called the run-and-boot, in which a mobile quarterback throws out of a variety of three-wideout formations.

When run-and-shoot guru Mouse Davis, now coach of the New York/New Jersey Knights in the World League, conducted a coaches' clinic at Giants Stadium this winter, more than 250 coaches overstuffed a meeting room, and Davis had to turn some away. One high school coach flew his staff up from Florida. "It used to be the run-and-shoot wasn't acceptable football to traditionalists," Davis says. "Now it's not chaos, not hodgepodge; it's a rational approach to a winning offense. Coaches everywhere can see that the game is becoming more wide-receiver-oriented rather than a slug-mouth game. Wide receivers give you more production than big backs."

Says Jet general manager Dick Steinberg, "For the last 10 years, year in and year out, wide receiver has been the deepest position in the draft."

Multisport standouts, like Minnesota's Carter and New England's Greg McMurtry, contributed to that depth by choosing to concentrate on football when they came out of high school. Basketball coaches Denny Crum of Louisville, Bill Frieder of Michigan and Gene Ready of Purdue went hard after Carter, a shooting guard whose primary athletic interest, one might have thought at the time, surely was basketball. After all, three of his older brothers had played college basketball—one, Butch, went on to a seven-year career in the NBA—and Cris's heroes were Magic Johnson, Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas. But, no, he chose Ohio State and football. "The USFL was still playing when I had to make my choice," says Cris, who was a two-time all-state football player in high school. "I just thought there were so many more jobs in football, and I thought to be a great football player would be easier than being a great basketball player."

The decision was tougher for McMurtry, who grew up playing football and baseball in the Boston suburb of Brockton. As a high school senior in 1985, he scored 15 of his 22 touchdowns on pass receptions and was an All-America selection. Bo Schembechler of Michigan, Joe Paterno of Penn State and Hayden Fry of Iowa headed a parade of football coaches through the McMurtrys' living room. Greg signed with Michigan. But when he hit .424, with six home runs the next spring, baseball scouts told him he had a chance to be a first-round pick in the June 1986 draft. The hometown Red Sox, especially, seemed interested, but, recalls McMurtry, "I wanted to play football. I loved the excitement and constant activity. I liked baseball, but there are so many lulls in the action."

Still, a week before the draft, some scouts asked McMurtry if he would consider a baseball offer if one came his way. McMurtry said he would listen to any proposal, but he wanted the scouts to know that he was committed to Michigan and that he wasn't saying that just to raise the stakes in baseball negotiations. The Red Sox ignored his warning and drafted him in the first round. "I was shocked," McMurtry says. "I couldn't believe they did it after what I told them."

However, Boston general manager Lou Gorman says he couldn't resist because he saw a future outfield of McMurtry, Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks. And the Red Sox made what for them was an unprecedented offer of a $172,500 signing bonus to McMurtry. The quick money and thoughts of Fenway Park fame tempted McMurtry but didn't change his mind. He went on to Michigan, where he finished with 2,163 receiving yards (the second-best total in school history) and dropped baseball after his junior year. Then he was selected by the Patriots in the third round of the 1990 draft.

At 6'2" and 207 pounds, McMurtry runs the 40 in 4.55 seconds. His size is good, his speed is average, and at 25, his football future is on the upswing. He caught 41 passes last year, becoming a starter when Hart Lee Dykes was injured. With Dykes sidelined again because of an injury, McMurtry will start in Sunday's season opener along with Irving Fryar.

"I have no regrets," says McMurtry, who has a bachelor's degree in general studies. "It's easy to say I could be in the big leagues today, starting for the Red Sox, but I could be out of baseball, too. Now I have an education, and I'm playing a sport I like, where I know wide receivers are a big part of the offense. To move the ball consistently in today's football, you've got to have quality receivers."

The quality throughout the NFL today is unprecedented. "When I came into the league, it seems that every team had one guy," says Jet quarterback Ken O'Brien, who made his debut in 1984. "We had Wesley Walker, and he was really reliable, a big-play guy. Then we had Lam Jones, who was a threat, but wasn't very reliable. And then we had a bunch of other guys. Now, we've got Al Toon and Rob Moore, who are great players; Chris Burkett, who's really underrated; and a quick darter, Terance Mathis, who's got a chance to be great. Our depth is unbelievable."

It's easy to pick the premier wideout tandems. A poll of coaches, scouts and executives produced near unanimous results:

•The best one-two combination. Rice and John Taylor of the 49ers, in a walk. "Rice is in a world of his own, a freak of the game," says Lion assistant Dave Levy. "I'm not convinced that on some teams Taylor wouldn't be the better player," says former Niner scouting director Tony Razzano, who had a hand in drafting them both. A fearless blocker, Taylor has helped spring Rice on a few of his long scores. Even when Rice had his MVP game in Super Bowl XXIII, it was Taylor who caught the winning TD pass from Montana with 34 seconds to play.

•The best trio. Monk, Clark and Ricky Sanders of the Redskins. This one is a tough call, because Buffalo has developed a formidable threesome in Lofton, Andre Reed and Don Beebe. But the Washington guys are considered the toughest threesome in the league, while also being among the most explosive. Often the Skins use two tight ends to help protect the quarterback, which means Monk and Clark are double-covered on a lot of plays, but they still get open. Together, the three wideouts have averaged 209 catches a season in the last four years.

•The best foursome. When the Oilers lost Hill and Tony Jones to the Falcons via Plan B in the off-season, the distinction of having the best group of four receivers went with them. Atlanta already had so much depth that Hill probably wouldn't have started for his new team, but with Rison's holdout lasting into the first week of the season, Hill probably will join Mike Pritchard (50 catches as a rookie in '91) as the starting slot receivers in the four-wideout Red Gun formation, with Jones and Haynes on the outside. Meanwhile, in Houston, the Oilers can still hit you with Jeffires, Givins, Duncan and Leonard Harris. Not bad.

The Jets might have the most intriguing corps of receivers in the NFL. Defensing New York on nickel downs is like trying to stop a frontcourt of Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. In their three-receiver sets, the Jets can send out 6'3", 205-pound Moore, 6'4", 205-pound Toon and 6'4", 200-pound Burkett, or they can Smurf you with 5'10", 170-pound Mathis. It's like watching Three Men and a Baby. "Being so big," Moore says, "we don't fit the norm, and teams don't know how to play us. If Al and I are in the game, we can go over people or take a beating at the line and still get loose to make a catch."

When Burkett came into the league, as a second-round draft pick by the Bills in 1985, "the question was, Could a 6'4", 200-pound receiver really play?" he says. "The state of the art at the time was Miami, with Clayton and Duper [both 5'9"]. Now the whole issue is who has the talented downfield people, regardless of size. To win now, with teams so balanced and so even, you need one or two big strikes a game. There are so many different kinds of receivers who can give you those big strikes."

Even career underachievers such as Fryar have been swept along by this wave of success in the wide-receiver ranks. The last wideout to be chosen No. 1 in the draft—the Patriots made him the first pick in 1984—Fryar had a career year in '91 with 68 catches for 1,014 yards. But not everyone has broken clear of the morass of talented pass catchers. A player as good as Eric Martin of the New Orleans Saints still toils in relative obscurity, despite averaging 71 catches and 972 yards over the last four seasons.

Another thing: Even the teams with undistinguished wideouts are finding they can win by flooding the secondary. San Diego, once the base of operation for Air Coryell, has topped the NFL in rushing yards per carry the past two years behind the bruising duo of Marion Butts and Rod Bernstine (a converted tight end), whose combined weight is 486 pounds. But former Charger coach Dan Henning, who is now the Lions' offensive coordinator, made a fundamental change in his coaching philosophy after San Diego got off to an 0-5 start last season.

"We'd been running the ball out of necessity, because of a lack of [quality] wide receivers," Henning says. "So we're playing our fifth game, against Kansas City, and we play close to perfect. No turnovers. We outgain them 311 yards to 182. Our backs rush for 156 yards. And we lose 14-13. I'm walking off the field, saying to myself, It doesn't work. In today's football, it just doesn't work.

"The next week we go to play the Raiders in a game we have no business winning, we run four wide receivers, twice as much as I ever have, and we win 21-13. We didn't win all the time when we ran that formation, obviously [San Diego ended up 4-12], but we beat New Orleans with it."

In Detroit, Henning has an abundance of talented young wideouts: Jeff Campbell, Mike Farr, Mel Gray, Willie Green, Aubrey Matthews, Herman Moore and Brett Perriman. "We've got seven guys who are good enough to be starters," says Henning. "It's amazing how good these guys are, and how many there are. The game almost has to change, just to accommodate them."

So what's the next move in this football chess game? It's the defensive coordinators' turn to play, and what we'll likely see is a continuation of the decline of the every-down linebacker, and the hastened rise of the big safety. Several teams are picking up on something the New York Giants helped originate in the mid-'80s, when coach Bill Parcells saw the need for what he called the transition player: the man who could bridge the gap between linebacker and safety.

The Giants brought in the likes of 6-foot, 218-pound Greg Cox and 6-foot, 233-pound David Whitmore, who could play on special teams and were strong enough to play the run and the pass in nickel situations. In Miami, defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti plays a "buck linebacker," a hard-hitting converted safety who is quick enough to play along the line of scrimmage as the seventh defensive back on obvious passing downs.

The nickel and dime defenses, and oddball variations of these multicoverage systems, soon will be manned by bigger and more physical players in an attempt to rein in this stampede of receivers running wild through secondaries. "Then," says San Diego player personnel director Billy Devaney, "we'll probably see the resurgence of the running back."

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PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAMThe unheralded Martin had this pass nailed. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEIrvin humbled Green when Dallas dealt Washington its first 1991 defeat. PHOTOMIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT USAThe other half of the best receiver duo, Taylor is a star in his own right. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERFor Givins, ranking third on the Oilers still is quite a feat. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe possibility of playing in Fenway Park wasn't enough to lure McMurtry away from football. PHOTOJOHN IACONOIf you've seen one Jet wideout—Toon (88), Moore or Burkett—you've seen them all. PHOTORICK STEWART/ALLSPORTLofton, 36, the quintessential deep threat, hasn't lost a step in keeping up with the youngsters.

Catch These Numbers

The rise of the wideout as a dominant player over the past few years is borne out by these three charts.

IT'S A WIDE, WIDE, WIDE WORLD

Here's an illustration of the depth that exists at wideout today. It's a comparison between the league's most prolific No. 3 wide receivers—that is, those who ranked third at the position in catches on their teams—in each of the last four years, and the NFL's leading pass receivers 20 years earlier.

LEADING NO. 3 WIDEOUTS

LEADING RECEIVERS 20 YEARS EARLIER

YEAR

PLAYER, TEAM

CATCHES

YEAR

PLAYER, TEAM

CATCHES

1988

Gary Clark, Redskins

59

1968

Clifton McNeil, 49ers

71

1989

Gary Clark, Redskins

79

1969

Dan Abramowicz, Saints

73

1990

Ernest Givins, Oilers

72

1970

Dick Gordon, Bears

71

1991

Ernest Givins, Oilers

70

1971

Fred Biletnikoff, Raiders

61

A LARGER PIECE OF THE PIE

The evolution of wide receiver as a dominant position in the NFL was gradual between 1976 and '86, but what followed was a quantum leap into prominence in the last five years. Here's a percentage breakdown, by position, of total NFL receptions at five-year intervals leading up to last season.

POSITION

1976

1981

1986

1991

Wide receiver

40.7

42.2

45.6

58.1

Running back

42.4

40.0

35.7

28.3

Tight end

16.7

17.5

18.5

13.5

Other

0.2

0.3

0.2

0.1

A DEGREE IN RECEIVING

Occasionally a situation in the NFL is the result of a trend that starts on the college level. That was the case when the pros were flooded with quality pass receivers in the last five years. Passing on the NCAA Division I-A level increased dramatically, by 21.5%, between 1980 and '90. Here are the average rushing and passing statistics per major college game in those two years.

RUSHING ATT.

RUSHING YARDS

PASSING ATT.

PASSING YARDS

1980

95.3

356.6

46.6

303.7

1990

86.1

335.3

56.6

394.8

CHANGE

-9.2

-21.3

+10.0

+91.1

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)