Every week during the NFL season, Houston Oiler offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride wonders what newfangled defense will show up against his run-and-shoot offense on game day. Will the Miami Dolphins fall back into a dime zone on every play, using six defensive backs to prevent the Oilers' four wide receivers from finding open turf? Will the Cleveland Browns blitz quarterback Warren Moon silly and leave their secondary vulnerable? Will the Pittsburgh Steelers pack the middle and put their trusty cornerbacks in man coverage against two of the Oiler wideouts? "I never know what I'm going to see when the game unfolds," says a nervous-sounding Gilbride.
Gilbride isn't as antsy on the inside as he appears to be on the outside, because no matter how the opposition tries to thwart his attack, he knows he has a terrific quarterback in Moon and the best combination of four wideouts—Haywood Jeffires, Drew Hill, Ernest Givins and the platoon of Curtis Duncan and Tony Jones—in the league. "There's a lot of wealth in this offense," says Moon, "and I try to spread it around [box, page 54]. What that basically means is, I don't care which one I go to. I trust them all."
Case in point: Oct. 13, Oilers versus New York Jets, Giants Stadium. When these two teams played in 1990, New York mixed its coverages well, put a ferocious pass rush on Moon and defeated Houston 17-12 at the Astrodome. Surely, Gilbride thought, the Jets will use the same strategy again. But a few plays into this year's game, Gilbride watched New York clog the middle of the field to shut off the run and disrupt midfield passing lanes. And every time the Oilers sent a receiver in motion, he saw the Jets flood that receiver's zone. The Houston offense was impotent early, and New York took a 10-0 first-quarter lead.
But as happens most every week—on Sunday, the Oilers beat the Steelers 31-6 to improve their record to 10-4 and clinch the AFC Central title—the swarm of Houston receivers eventually found a soft spot in the coverage. Jeffires, stationed wide left, was in single coverage from the first snap. "I'm going to you all day," Moon told him in a first-quarter huddle. And so he did; Jeffires finished with 186 yards on a career-high 13 receptions. Inside receivers Hill and Givins, rocked around like pin-balls all afternoon, still caught six and four balls, respectively, and Duncan, who was split wide right, caught eight. Moon chipped away at New York's coverage before hooking up with Hill on a 37-yard pass play in the fourth quarter for the decisive points in a 23-20 victory.
Any one of Houston's receivers can serve as Moon's primary target. Givins had 151 yards on five catches in a 42-14 rout of the Denver Broncos on Oct. 6; Duncan had a nine-reception day in A a 35-3 romp over the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 27; Hill had 11 grabs for 144 yards in a 28-24 win over the Browns on Nov. 17. On most occasions, though, no single receiver stands out from the pack, which was the case in Houston's 26-23 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 10. In that game, Moon completed four passes to Givins and eight each to Jeffires, Hill and the Duncan-Jones platoon.
For the Oilers, this season is almost a replay of 1990, when they made NFL history by having four receivers each catch 65 or more passes. Jeffires and Hill were the AFC coleaders with 74 receptions, Givins was fourth in the conference with 72, and Duncan was seventh with 66. At the midpoint of last year, the Fab Four—as Oiler director of media services Chip Namias tabbed the starters—ranked 1-2-3-4 in the AFC, though they couldn't maintain that frantic pace.
You would think that such numbers would bring universal respect, but they don't. The accomplishments of Houston's receiving corps have been overshadowed by the greatness of Moon and by the fact that in the run-and-shoot, the Oilers throw the ball about 25% more than the league average. "I don't want to take anything away from them, because they're real good, but I don't know that they're any better than the guys I face every day in practice," says Atlanta Falcon cornerback Deion Sanders. "If our offense threw on every down like they do, we'd have four guys with 50 to 60 catches, just like them."
"I don't think they're better than what a lot of teams have," says New England Patriots defensive coordinator Joe Collier. "The system helps them, and the quarterback helps them. I think there's a bunch of receivers as good as those guys."
That's the kind of talk that burns these guys. It's as if, because Moon is their quarterback and the run-and-shoot is their offense, their achievements should be marked with an asterisk.
"There's no defensive coverage in the world that can stop four good wide receivers," says Givins. "The other team can't say, 'We're going to freeze Haywood Jeffires.' You freeze him, Curtis steps up, or Drew, or me. But if we weren't outstanding receivers, we wouldn't have the ability to step up and have great games. We do. We live and die by the pass; they don't. We succeed; they don't. Until you do it, don't knock us. We're happy because of what we've accomplished, don't get us wrong. And we're not trying to be greedy and get all the attention in the NFL. But give us what we deserve. That's all we ask."
Through Sunday, Jeffires led the AFC in receptions with 89, Hill was third with 75, Givins was eighth with 61, Duncan was 18th with 51, and Jones had 18. Still, how much of the credit for the receivers' success should go to them, how much to Moon and how much to the system? At least three factors make that hard to determine.
First, there's no question that the receivers are good. They've got to be, or the system wouldn't flourish. Second, as previously noted, Moon sees to it that his receivers stay happy. Indeed, in all but one game this season, he has attempted at least one pass to each of the four receiver positions in the first half. Finally, Gilbride has tinkered with the traditional run-and-shoot to make it more unpredictable, adding about 15 plays that go beyond the system developed by run-and-shoot guru Mouse Davis.
Picture the run-and-shoot formation, with two receivers in the standard NFL wideout set, two slot receivers playing a step behind the line of scrimmage and no tight end. In the traditional run-and-shoot, the quarterback looks first for the slot receivers running inside routes and then for the outside receivers. "I don't want to say I've bastardized it really, but I've added to the run-and-shoot by adding flexibility for the wide receivers to get open," says Gilbride. "Warren still reads inside first, then out, but now he doesn't feel he has to force the ball inside."
There may be a fourth factor working against the Houston receivers, one that might be bigger than the other three. "The most dominant position in football today is wide receiver," says former San Diego Charger quarterback Dan Fouts, who is now a CBS analyst. "I don't think we've ever had such great receivers in the history of the game playing at one time. You could put 20 or 30 up on a board and have to pick a couple for your team, and you'd be happy with any of them."
But then, maybe the point to be made in the case of Jeffires, Hill, Givins and the Duncan-Jones platoon is this: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The spectrum of top-quality wide receivers includes players of varying size, ability and demeanor, and the Oilers seem to have somebody that fits into just about every category.
•The franchise receiver. This is usually a big man who can take the punishment and attention of double-coverage and still flourish, like 6'2" Jerry Rice or 6'3" Art Monk, and no one in the AFC has more catches over the last two seasons than the 6'2", 201-pound Jeffires. As a rookie in 1987, he feuded with Moon and had the look of a first-round bust, but he says he was depressed over the deaths of his brother Don, who was murdered on Dec. 30,1986, and his mother, Ora Marie Jeffires White, who died of kidney and heart disease two months later. One way Jeffires copes with the double tragedy is by acting as if his mom is still with him.
•The wily underneath receiver. This guy has to be quick, with the ability to catch a short pass and make a good chunk of yardage by himself. He's a receiver with whom the quarterback has a certain telepathy. Hill is 35, but he has the looks and the body (5'9", 172 pounds) of a 28-year-old, and Moon has radar for him down the stretch in close games. "I can read his body language like a book," says Moon. With Houston trailing the Browns by three points with less than three minutes to go in that Nov. 17 meeting, Moon found Hill five times on the game-winning 84-yard drive, which was capped by Hill's final catch for a one-yard TD with nine seconds left. Hill, who spent five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams before being traded to Houston, is No. 20 on the NFL's alltime receiving list, with 525 catches.
•The all-around receiver. This wideout can hurt you deep because of his speed, and on intermediate routes over the middle he can take whatever punishment safeties can dish out. At 5'9" and 172 pounds, Givins might be the toughest wide receiver in football. He averaged 60 catches a year in his first five seasons with the Oilers, and he made many of those grabs coming across the middle with enemy forearms waiting. Philadelphia Eagle safety Wes Hopkins slammed his right forearm into Givins's head in Philly's 13-6 victory over Houston on Dec. 2, and Givins suffered a broken nose. Last week commissioner Paul Tagliabue reviewed the play and fined Hopkins $7,500 for the hit.
A second-round draft pick out of Louisville in '86, Givins grew up thinking he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his dad, a former minor league baseball player in the Cleveland Indians organization. But then Dwight Gooden struck out Givins on three pitches in a high school game in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he had second thoughts. "That's why I'm sitting here right now," says Givins. "I knew then I'd be better at football."
And he is, even with the physical abuse he takes. After the '89 season, Givins took out a $3.7 million insurance policy with Lloyd's of London that covers him in the event of any career-ending injury. "Never know when the big one's going to come," he says.
•The possession receiver. This reliable player usually doesn't have blazing speed, but he must have terrific hands, run precise routes and have a manageable ego, because other receivers on the team will get the long-ball glory. While Duncan, at 5'11" and 184 pounds, was a sprinter at Northwestern, his strength is his dependability. If he's supposed to run a 17-yard curl, he cuts the route off at exactly 17 yards. Ego? He checked it at the door long ago. Duncan, whom the Oilers didn't pick until the 10th round of the '87 draft, is one of those just-happy-to-be-here guys. "Everything it takes to be a good receiver, he does," says Moon. "He's the least gifted, but I always know exactly where he'll be."
•The speed receiver. This is the burner, the player who clears out zones for other receivers and provides a deep threat the opposition must respect. At 5'6½" and 139 pounds, Jones runs a 4.27 40, and Houston has been trying more and more to shoehorn him into the lineup. He is now in on half the plays, but his long routes don't attract as many throws as Duncan's shorter routes do. When Hill retires after the 1992 season, Jones will get first crack at replacing him in the lineup. "I've learned the secret of survival from Drew: Get all you can get, and don't get killed," says Jones, who was a sixth-round pick out of Texas in 1990.
The emerging star is Jeffires, a gentle man who has been getting increasing attention from defenses. He is performing the way the Oilers expected he would when they made him a first-round draft choice. However, almost immediately after Jeffires joined the team, Moon questioned his work habits, and Jeffires alienated himself from the rest of the Oilers by crossing the picket line during the players' strike two games into the season. Jeffires's action was viewed by his teammates as a selfish one, and a couple of veterans later explained to him that the position the players union took was for the good of the entire team, particularly in the players' fight for improved benefits. "The best thing I ever did was cross the picket line," says Jeffires. "Don't misunderstand. I just think it woke me up. It helped me learn right from wrong."
But the two deaths, especially his mother's, devastated him. He's proud to call himself a mama's boy and even as a teenager preferred the company of his mother to that of friends. He remembers, at 16, being chided by friends for doing everything his mother told him to do. After a washout rookie season—"He was immature," says Moon—and a second year plagued by an ankle injury, Jeffires caught 47 passes in '89 and 74 last year. This season is just an extension of last.
Jeffires has matured significantly on and off the field, and he continues to keep memories of his mom close to mind. Once a day, he reads his Bible and kisses the picture of his mother that serves as its bookmark. When he was younger, he made a ritual of saluting his mom in the stands at high school and college games after the playing of the national anthem. Now, teary-eyed by the time the anthem has been completed before Oiler games, he acknowledges her with a two-finger salute to the sky. He often refers to her out loud during games, as if she can hear him. "Mom, why aren't you here!" he yelled, mournfully, during his big day against the Jets. "This is the best game of my life!"
But he knows any of the five receivers might have a career day in any game. "What we're doing on the field, you've never seen," says Jeffires. "We go into games having no idea where the ball's going to go, but whoever gets it always responds."
"You might have two good corners," says Hill. "But nobody's got four." That's because nobody's ever had to cover four receivers of this caliber at the same time.
That's the point. You can't question the ability of these receivers because their numbers seem inflated, just as you can't question Eric Dickerson's monstrous rushing totals while he was with the run-oriented Rams or Rice's tremendous numbers with the Joe Montana-armed San Francisco 49ers. Rice is a Hall of Fame inductee on the first ballot if he retires today, but this is a team game, and with Montana sidelined, he recently went 23 quarters without a TD catch. Still, Rice remains the premier player at his position. "Michael Jordan is God in tennis shoes," says Dallas wideout Michael Irvin, "and Jerry Rice is God in cleats."
"Rice and John Taylor might be the best pair of receivers, and the Redskins might have the best three together [Gary Clark, Art Monk, Ricky Sanders]," says Bronco defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "But no one in the league has four like Houston."
Believing they don't always get their due, Oiler pass catchers (from left) Hill, Duncan, Jones, Givins and Jeffires stand on their record, with support from Moon, who is their No. 1 fan.
BILL BAPTIST (JEFFIRES)
After adjusting to his mother's death, Jeffires grew into a starring role.
DOUG PENSINGER/ALLSPORT USA (GIVINS)
Givins can go long, but he does the most damage over the middle.
AL TIELEMANS (HILL)
Hill's job is to catch short passes under the coverage and turn them into big gains.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (DUNCAN)
The sure-handed Duncan starts every game but platoons...
AL TIELEMANS (JONES)
...with Jones, who has the speed to go deep.
Sharing the Wealth
Quarterback Warren Moon has done a good job of spreading the ball among his wide receivers in the Houston Oilers' 14 games this season. On average, Moon has attempted at least six passes a game to each of his four targets—Haywood Jeffires, Ernest Givins, Drew Hill and the platoon of Curtis Duncan and Tony Jones.
There would be a smaller gap between Givins and the other receivers in the pass-distribution chart below if Givins hadn't spent five games getting banged around returning punts—which cut into his playing time at receiver.