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There's a new saying going around the NFL. Maybe you've heard
it: Three things can happen when you put the ball in the air,
and one of them is really, really good.

Consider the bounty that fell from the NFL skies last year. Nine
players--all, as it happens, in the NFC--caught more than 100
passes each, nearly matching the total number of players (10)
who had done so in the NFL's first 75 years. Twenty-three
players had more than 1,000 yards receiving, and four of
them--Jerry Rice of San Francisco (1,848), Isaac Bruce of St.
Louis (1,781), Herman Moore of Detroit (1,686) and Michael Irvin
of Dallas (1,603)--surpassed 1,500 yards, a milestone that had
been reached only eight times before in NFL history, and never
more than once in a season.

Running backs may score more points and quarterbacks may retain
higher Q ratings, but with the ball in the air more than ever
before (last year's passing attempts totaled a staggering
16,699), receivers have grabbed the league limelight.

As the number of catches has gone up, though, the yards per
catch have gone down. "When I first got into the league, you'd
see a guy have a game with five catches for 150 yards or six
catches for 180 yards," says former Green Bay wideout Sterling
Sharpe, who entered the NFL in '88. "Now you see 10 catches for
90 yards or 12 catches for 100 yards. And 70 catches in a season
used to be great for a receiver. Now 70 catches is nothing. If
you don't catch 100 balls, you're not even going to the Pro Bowl."

And if you don't have a receiver who can haul them in in bulk,
your team probably isn't going anywhere either. Five of the
eight teams with 100-catch receivers made the playoffs last
year. So is it any surprise that after finishing a league-worst
3-13 with one of the weakest aerial attacks in NFL history
(2,788 yards passing), the Jets have finally invested in wings?
Not only did the NFL cellar dwellers select 6'4" receiver
Keyshawn Johnson of USC with the first overall pick--joining
four other teams who took wideouts with their first choice,
tying a draft record set in 1973--but they also used their No. 2
selection on a wideout, 6-foot Alex Van Dyke of the University
of Nevada. And they forked over $5.4 million for three years for
6'2" free agent Jeff Graham, whose 1,301 receiving yards set a
club record for Chicago last year.

Besides getting better receivers, the Jets are also catching on
to another trend: getting bigger receivers. The players with the
five best reception totals last year averaged 6'2", 197 pounds;
last season's six Pro Bowl corners averaged 5'8", 183. "Look how
tall receivers are," says San Francisco's 5'11" cornerback,
Marquez Pope, who has to face 6'4" J.J. Stokes and the 6'2" Rice
in practice. "They can position themselves to catch the quick
slants and curls. That's five yards when he catches the ball,
seven yards before you touch the guy, and then he falls forward
for three more, and that's a first down."

And it's not just that NFL scouts are seeing a number of larger
receivers these days; they are also seeing a larger number of
receivers. Undoubtedly, the success and high profile of some
wideouts--e.g, Rice, Irvin--have inspired newcomers to flock to
the position. "So now you have some of the better athletes
playing wide receiver rather than running back or quarterback,"
says Irvin.

And with more colleges adopting pro-set offenses, more receivers
are getting a lot of catches in school. "The passing games in
college are way more advanced than they were five years
ago--even though the quarterback level has dropped," says Lions
personnel director Ron Hughes. "There's more of an abundance of
receivers than any other position."

"You can always find a wide receiver," says Pittsburgh director
of football operations Tom Donahoe. "Maybe to get the blue-chip
guys you have to draft early, but you can find receivers in free
agency, later in the draft and sometimes on the street, like
[Chargers castoff turned Steelers Pro Bowl wideout] Yancey

It remains to be seen if younger players like Moore and Bruce
can continue to push the reception envelope. Will the year come
when a receiver pulls in 140 or 150 passes? "I don't think it
will come real soon," says Cardinals offensive coordinator Jim
Fassel, "but it will come." Not necessarily, say others. "I
don't know if it will get that high," says Packers backup
quarterback Jim McMahon. "If you're throwing that many balls to
a guy, defensive coordinators will take him away."

In any case, just about the time receivers reach that next
milestone, the NFL winds will probably shift again. "Somebody
will come in and win a Super Bowl running the ball, and you'll
get people gravitating back toward there," says Buccaneers coach
Tony Dungy. "But we're still in the middle of a phase. I don't
think there will be an end anytime soon."




THREE COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ERIC YANG [Drawings of a football with airplane wings and tail; a Roman-style column pedestal; an eye]



The number of passes thrown in the NFL has been on the rise
since 1992, and it reached an alltime high of 37 passes per team
per game in 1995, when teams also averaged a record 220.8
passing yards per game. Last season 57.4% of all plays from
scrimmage were passing plays--the highest such percentage in NFL
history--and three receivers (from left to right), San
Francisco's Jerry Rice, Detroit's Herman Moore and Minnesota's
Cris Carter, tied or broke the single-season record for
receptions. (Running the ball, it seems, is becoming a lost art:
There were the same number of rushing plays--13,199--in the '95
season, when 30 teams played a 16-game schedule, that there were
in '75, when 26 teams each played 14 games; i.e., even though 58
more games were played, there was no increase in running plays.)
Here's how the number of passing plays per team per game has
fluctuated since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger (in parentheses is the
percentage of total plays that were passing plays).

Passes per team per game (pct. of total plays)

1995 37.0 (57.4)

1994 35.7 (56.0)

1993 34.5 (55.0)

1992 32.5 (54.2)

1991 33.4 (54.9)

1990 32.6 (54.0)

1989 34.5 (54.2)

1988 33.9 (52.8)

1987 34.8 (52.5)

1986 35.0 (53.7)

1985 35.1 (53.6)

1984 34.9 (53.1)

1983 34.1 (51.8)

1982 34.2 (52.6)

1981 33.9 (51.1)

1980 32.9 (50.6)

1979 31.3 (48.0)

1978 28.7 (44.4)

1977 27.4 (42.3)

1976 28.8 (43.8)

1975 29.9 (45.2)

1974 28.6 (45.5)

1973 26.7 (42.9)

1972 26.8 (44.4)

1971 28.0 (46.4)

1970 29.3 (48.3)

Statistics compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau


Before 1995 a total of 10 NFL receivers had caught 100 passes in
a season. Last year nine players topped that mark, including
Detroit's Herman Moore (left), whose 123 catches broke the
single-season reception record--the fourth straight year that
standard has fallen. (Also in '95, San Francisco's Jerry Rice
broke the 34-year-old record for receiving yards in a season,
with 1,848.) Listed below are the NFL's 100-catch men. (Record
breakers are in yellow.)

1961 Lionel Taylor, Broncos 100 [*]
1964 Charley Hennigan, Oilers 101 [*]
1984 Art Monk, Redskins 106 [*]
1990 Jerry Rice, 49ers 100
1991 Haywood Jeffires, Oilers 100
1992 Sterling Sharpe, Packers 108 [*]
1993 Sterling Sharpe, Packers 112 [*]
1994 Cris Carter, Vikings 122 [*]
Jerry Rice, 49ers 112
Terance Mathis, Falcons 111
1995 Herman Moore, Lions 123 [*]
Jerry Rice, 49ers 122
Cris Carter, Vikings 122
Isaac Bruce, Rams 119
Michael Irvin, Cowboys 111
Brett Perriman, Lions 108
Eric Metcalf, Falcons 104
Robert Brooks, Packers 102
Larry Centers, Cardinals 101

[* Record Breakers]


NFL passing attacks have never been more accurate--the league's
total completion percentage rose to a record level in each of
the last five years--but that's largely due to teams' throwing
shorter; the same span has also seen the lowest average gains
per completion since 1933 (the first year that such statistics
were kept).

Five seasons since 1933 with highest completion percentages

1995 58.2
1994 58.0
1993 57.9
1992 57.5
1991 57.4

Five seasons since 1933 with lowest average yards gained per

1993 11.55
1995 11.64
1994 11.66
1992 11.94
1991 12.01


It was once known as the Black-and-Blue Division, but last
season the NFC Central was the most prolific passing division
since the NFL-AFL merger. NFC Central teams improved their
passing-yardage totals by a combined 39% in two years (they
averaged 176.3 per team in '93) and increased their scoring 36%
over the same span (from 17.3 points per game to 23.5). The five
clubs opted to throw the ball 59% of the time, the highest such
percentage in the division's 26-year history. At left are the
five divisions with the most productive passing since the 1970
merger, based on passing yards per team per game.

Passing yards per team per game

1995 NFC Central 244.8
1995 NFC West 242.9
1994 NFC West 241.9
1989 NFC West 239.5
1986 AFC East 236.9

10 Receivers to Keep Your Eye On

Before breaking the NFL single-season record for receptions with
123 last year, Detroit's Herman Moore had not had more than 72
catches in any one season. Below are his three-year receiving
numbers, followed by the recent numbers of Seattle's Joey
Galloway (above) and nine other wideouts who could make the big
jump to the NFL's elite in '96.

1993 1994 1995
Player, current team Rec. Yds. Rec. Yds. Rec. Yds.

The Champion
Herman Moore, LIONS 61 935 72 1,173 123 1,686

The Challengers

Joey Galloway, SEAHAWKS 45* 927* 36* 523* 67 1,039 Blazingly fast, Galloway became only the seventh NFL rookie to
pass the 1,000-yard receiving mark.

Jake Reed, VIKINGS 5 65 85 1,175 72 1,167
Reed should soon replace the aging Cris Carter as the main
target in Minnesota's attack.

J.J. Stokes, 49ERS 68* 1,005* 26* 505* 38 517
The heir apparent to Jerry Rice, Stokes has the hands and speed
to be among the league's best.

Michael Westbrook,
REDSKINS 33* 490* 36* 689* 34 522
Heath Shuler and Westbrook could become the Troy Aikman and
Michael Irvin of the late '90s.

Bert Emanuel, FALCONS --* --* 46 649 74 1,039
Andre Rison, Terance Mathis and Eric Metcalf had big years in
June Jones's offense; now it's this ex-QB's turn.

Curtis Conway, BEARS 19 231 39 546 62 1,037
With Jeff Graham's departure, Conway steps up to be the premier
receiver that the Bears believe he can be.

O.J. McDuffie, DOLPHINS 19 197 37 488 62 819
For the first time McDuffie will be Dan Marino's primary
target--every wide receiver's dream job.

Mark Chmura, PACKERS 2 13 14 165 54 679
The Pack thought it had problems when Keith Jackson failed to
report; instead it discovered Chmura.

Jeff Graham, JETS 38 579 68 944 82 1,301
Graham has shown steady improvement, and defenses are going to
concentrate on Keyshawn Johnson.

Yancey Thigpen,
STEELERS 9 154 36 54 685 1,307
No matter who's throwing the passes this year for Pittsburgh,
Thigpen will be catching many of them.

*College statistics (Emanuel was a college quarterback)