The Game Changers

Forget grinding it out. Postseason football is now dominated by playmaking young wideouts with fleet feet, sure hands and a flair for the spectacular. Who'll be this year's Santonio Holmes?
January 11, 2010

A generation ago, when Cris Carter was a top receiver prospect from Middletown, Ohio, the glamour guys were running backs. Now, when he goes to off-season camps to teach his position, Carter can't believe his eyes. "Everyone's a wide receiver—or wants to be," says the former Vikings star. "If you were a talented kid, why wouldn't you? You can't be touched five yards past the line of scrimmage, more team are blitzing more often so you can make huge plays, and so many teams are throwing it downfield."

Just as Larry Fitzgerald and Santonio Holmes owned the postseason last year—the Cardinals' Fitzgerald set playoff records for receptions (30), yards (546) and touchdowns (seven), and the Steelers' Holmes was named Super Bowl MVP after his title-winning, toe-tapping catch in the final minute against Arizona—young receivers are primed to have big moments over the next five weeks. Four months ago Miles Austin was an unknown on the Cowboys' bench, the Saints' Robert Meachem and the Vikings' Sidney Rice were underachieving former high picks, Vincent Jackson had yet to break out from a talented stable of Chargers receivers, and DeSean Jackson was ... well, the Eagles were trying to figure out just what he was.

Over the course of the 2009 season, each of the five has emerged as a major long-ball threat, and any of them could be the darling of January and February. Says New Orleans coach Sean Payton, "I wouldn't be surprised if a month from now Robert Meachem goes six [catches] for 180 [yards] with two touchdowns and is the Super Bowl MVP."

In the NFL you can never be sure when a trend is about to start, because new approaches are often countered as soon as they appear. But the numbers—not to mention the highlight packages—suggest that receivers are having a larger impact than they have had in years, especially down the field. In 2009 there were 866 pass plays of 25-plus yards and 710 touchdown passes, both third most in the league since 1990, and pass catchers averaged 5.1 yards after the catch in '09, third best since the stat's inception, in 1992.

A number of factors contribute to the prominence of the big play:

• Wideouts are entering the league better prepared for the pro passing game, partly thanks to their physical makeup—"The best college athletes used to be split between receiver and corner," says Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, "and now a lot more of them are playing receiver"—and partly because more college teams are using spread offenses with four and five receivers.

• Teams are blitzing more often and with more players, which means more one-on-one coverage for receivers. According to Footballoutsiders.com, through Week 13 defenses were sending five or more pass rushers on 35% of snaps, up from 31% in 2008. That means teams are more often leaving a single safety (or none at all) to help on the downfield throws.

• Top quarterbacks are better than ever at connecting with their targets. Drew Brees set an alltime record for completion percentage (70.62%), and both Peyton Manning (68.8%) and Ben Roethlisberger (66.6%) had their most efficient seasons. Ten quarterbacks passed for 4,000 yards this year, three more than the previous NFL record, set in 2007.

Is it a new era? Who knows? But these five receivers hope to make a lasting—and deep—impression.

Miles Austin: The Antidiva

Fifteen months ago Austin slumped into his seat on the Dallas team bus in St. Louis, confused and hurt. Work hard, and you'll get your shot, he was told after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Division I-AA Monmouth in 2006. Now the Cowboys had acquired Roy Williams from the Lions, further cluttering the depth chart. Austin wondered, What can I do?

"He came to me, and he was a little down," says receivers coach Ray Sherman. "I told him, 'This isn't about you. This is about Jerry Jones going out and getting a good player. You control you. Nobody else.' And I talked to him about being consistent on every play, in practice and in games."

Austin had gotten his shot in the NFL because Bill Parcells—who signed him in '06—thought he was a little engine that could. "The more I thought about it," Austin said last week, "the more I thought I never really gave them the consistent product on every snap. Nine out of 10 plays, I put it all out there. I decided I'd never give them the chance to question anything about me again. Every time I ran a play, in practice or a game, even when I knew it wasn't coming to me, I killed out there. I tried to win every play. I still do."

He watched how in practice Terrell Owens would catch passes, then turn and sprint. He rededicated himself to Sherman's "karaoke" drill, in which receivers shrug off tacklers and run upfield after a catch. The 6'3", 214-pound Austin knew he needed to take advantage of his combination of size and 4.47 speed. He worked more with strength coach Joe Juraszek in the off-season to build his upper body and get more burst from his lower body. And in Week 5 it all finally paid off. With Williams sidelined by a rib injury, Austin made his first NFL start at Kansas City. "Hey, kid," tight end Jason Witten said before the game, "get ready. You're gonna have your shot." Austin made the most of it: 10 catches, including a 59-yard touchdown pass from Tony Romo in the fourth quarter; then, in overtime, the 60-yard game-winner.

Here's how the latter went down: Romo sent Austin on an eight-yard comeback against cornerback Maurice Leggett. As the pass arrived, Austin turned to catch it and simultaneously shielded himself from the hit he knew was coming. In a reenactment of the karaoke drill, he shrugged the 188-pound Leggett off his shoulders and burst into the open. "As soon as I looked upfield, I started smiling," says Austin. "I knew." Austin's 250 yards that day were the most ever by a Cowboy.

The next night Austin was a guest on the suite level of Cowboys Stadium, mingling with Jones, Tiger Woods and Troy Aikman at a U2 concert. Austin stood near the back of Aikman's suite, a Yankees cap low on his forehead. "I was just happy they let me into the box," he says.

Last week, when Austin's breakout season earned him a Pro Bowl selection, Sherman cautioned him to stay humble. "You're not a surprise to anybody anymore," he said. "They'll be gunning for you now. Don't go Hollywood on me."

DeSean Jackson: Agent of Change

One of the weirdest sights of 2009 was Jackson, at 175 pounds the NFL's most electric player, going airborne to body bump Andy Reid, at 325 pounds the NFL's most ground-bound coach. The first two times they tried the move, they failed to launch. Finally, in Week 14 against the Giants, the coach got a few inches of lift as he bumped Jackson back.

In 11 seasons under Reid, the Eagles had never had a high-flying attack—until they drafted Jackson in 2008. The 23-year-old has morphed into a Pro Bowl receiver and returner, Devin Hester with good route-running ability. His presence (along with the arrival of Michael Vick and 2009 first-rounder Jeremy Maclin) has turned Reid into a more daring game-planner and made Philadelphia's offense the most exciting in football. "We've added some fun guys," Reid said one night last week, "and it's fun to be around them. Energizing."

Reid can use Jackson in the slot or wide, and he can run end arounds with him. What's more, Jackson has become the NFC's most dangerous return man. He has nine touchdown receptions, one TD run and two punt returns for scores. The average length of his touchdowns: 45.6 yards.

"When we scouted him," Reid says, "I thought, This guy's unbelievable; no way he'll be there when we pick." The Eagles ultimately took him with the 49th selection. "I liked him better than any receiver in the draft," Reid says.

The Eagles didn't change their offense for Jackson. They simply began calling deep routes they hadn't often used with a more plodding receiving corps. And they found Jackson to be a good student with good influences. He worked out with Jerry Rice in the Bay Area before and after the 2008 draft, and Rice advised him, "Use every day to get better at something." Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb told him to get to the facility at 7 a.m. to do extra work—either in the weight room or the film room. "Those guys have been tremendous influences on me," Jackson says. "And I was lucky to come to a place where the coach is like a father figure."

In the playoffs the Eagles will try to isolate Jackson wide on a cornerback four or five times a game, hoping that the defense sells out to get to McNabb and that Jackson can run under a long ball. He's become the multifaceted threat Reid never had. "DeSean's easy to like," says Reid. "Remember when you were in a kid, and you'd play ball outside in any weather? You didn't care. That's DeSean. He just loves every moment on the field."

Sidney Rice: Brett's New Best Friend

It wasn't just Brett Favre's arrival that gave Rice's career a jolt. In the 2009 off-season he completed rehab on the right posterior cruciate ligament injury he'd suffered in 2008, and he worked out with Fitzgerald and Carter, intensifying his commitment to the game. "When I first started working with him, I thought he was awful—awful football, awful fundamentals," Carter says. "Just really, really raw. But there was something there: humility. He wanted to be good."

That's what Favre found too. Rice, a 2007 second-rounder out of South Carolina who had only 46 catches in his first two seasons, became a postpractice worker bee, and with the footwork and body-control tips from Carter and tough coaching from Minnesota receivers coach George Stewart, he had the best year for a Vikings wideout since the days of Carter and Randy Moss: 83 catches, 1,312 yards, eight touchdowns.

"To be fair to Sidney," says offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, "when he got here he was still growing into his body. He was almost like a baby giraffe. This off-season he got healthy, and his confidence grew."

The 6'4", 202-pound Rice has always had what coaches call a terrific catching radius: With his long arms and athleticism, he snares balls to either side of him, high and low. Late in the fourth quarter of a Week 16 overtime loss at Chicago, Rice went to the left side of the end zone, knowing that Favre was coming to him. He pirouetted cleanly—something he might have been too awkward to do in his first two years—and, while turning, leaped to pick the ball out of the air, a good foot over the head of cornerback Corey Graham. It's the kind of play high-pick receivers should make, and the kind the Vikings, in four short months, have come to expect from Rice.

Robert Meachem: Studious Saint

To understand the difficulty a receiver faces when he enters coach Sean Payton's offensive system, consider this: On their first 37 plays of a Week 15 game against Dallas, the Saints lined up in 35 formations and/or motion combinations. Meachem, a 2007 first-round pick out of Tennessee, spent his first season on the inactive roster with a right knee injury and was still deep into the learning process in 2008, when he struggled to a 12-catch season.

Two years, 12 receptions—not exactly a stellar return on a first-round investment, especially one with 4.39 speed. Still, Payton saw Meachem's potential to become the deep threat his offense needed, and he told his staff to give the kid time. This season, helped by postpractice sessions with Brees, Meachem mastered Payton's complex playbook, and the result was 45 catches for 722 yards and nine touchdowns.

"Coach Payton believes in putting defenses in a bind on every play," Meachem says. "If you don't know the formations, you're not playing—it's simple. And until this year I didn't know them well enough. But I'd say I had the offense down by [last] spring, and it made all the difference in the world. I could play with speed for the first time in my career because I wasn't always thinking."

He has also earned Brees's trust in the clutch. In Week 13, New Orleans trailed the Redskins 30--23 with 1:19 left and were 53 yards from the tying touchdown. Meachem and Brees both had seen that safety LaRon Landry was overplaying Meachem's routes, trying to make a game-saving pick. When they broke the huddle, Brees told Meachem. "Fake the cross and run a go." Brees pumped, Landry bit and Meachem was in the clear for a score. The Saints won in overtime to remain unbeaten.

"I've prided myself on big plays my whole life," Meachem says. With its defense struggling, No. 1 seed New Orleans is going to need a few of those in the divisional round.

Vincent Jackson: Hoops Captain

All season San Diego's Jackson has been impressing defenses as something more than an edge receiver with good deep speed and the size to outmuscle corners. At 6'5" and 230 pounds, he has tight end strength and wideout moves, but that's not enough to satisfy him. This year Jackson has studied tape of Patriots receiver Wes Welker to learn better evasiveness from the slot. He has pored over footage of the Cardinals' Anquan Boldin to pick up tips on being physical downfield. He has studied veteran Torry Holt's precise route-running.

"I don't just want to be the big guy winning jump balls downfield," says Jackson, the only receiver in the NFL to roll up more than 17 yards per catch each of the last two seasons (18.6 in 2008, 17.2 in '09). "I want to be a complete receiver."

The Chargers have the most intriguing group of wideouts in recent NFL history. In their spread formation they can line up four targets 6'4" or taller, including tight end Antonio Gates. Jackson, a second-round pick from Northern Colorado in 2005, is the key to what general manager A.J. Smith has tried to do: create matchup problems for defenses and multiple choices for quarterback Philip Rivers. "This is a game of mismatches," says Smith, "and bringing in the big guys was all by design. If you put Vincent Jackson against a 5'10" corner and you do that with other receivers, you've made it tough for defenses. Even if you throw a deep ball and it's incomplete, it scares the daylights out of them."

Smith thought Jackson would give San Diego an edge against the power teams of the AFC: Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh. Since Smith became G.M. in 2003, the Chargers have gone 4--2 against Indy, 2--3 against New England and 1--4 against Pittsburgh. Good thing the Colts and the Pats are the ones who matter to Jackson this month. Second-seeded San Diego would host New England if the Patriots win their wild-card opener, and another matchup with the Colts looms if the two survive the divisional round. The Chargers, winners of 11 straight, are the hottest team in the NFL entering the playoffs, and Jackson is Rivers's favorite wide receiver.

Could he be this year's Santonio Holmes? Any of these guys could be.

The numbers, and the highlights, point to the wideouts' major impact.

PHOTOPhotograph by DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGESCOMPLETED San Diego's Jackson has evolved from a jump-and-catch threat to a receiver who can beat a corner any which way. PHOTOPETER AIKEN/CAL SPORT MEDIA (AUSTIN)RISE AND SHINE The Chiefs learned the hard way that Austin (right) excels after the catch, while Rice (18) honed his footwork and body control to break through. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (RICE)[See caption above] PHOTOBRIAN SPURLOCK/US PRESSWIRE (JACKSON)ACTION PLAN Jackson's dynamism has allowed the Eagles to open up their playbook and pull out some surprises. PHOTOGARY CAMERON/REUTERS (MEACHEM)DEEP THOUGHTS Once he mastered the Saints' complex offense, Meacham added a long-ball threat to their arsenal.

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)