He will cover the best wide receivers from every angle. Inside. Outside. Over the top with extra defenders. In the middle with beastly linebackers. He will cover them on slants, on fades, on go routes. He will cover them on the sideline. On reverses, on decoy moves and when they have to block. Wait. Go back. Did you say on the sideline? Maybe most of all, on the sideline. Because the lead producer for NFL telecasts on Fox lets the drama dictate the coverage. "We never let the big-play wide receivers out of our focus," says Richie Zyontz, a pro football producer for more than two decades. "It's like the defensive coordinators say: We're not going to let them beat us."
Zyontz knows, the coordinators he channels know, the players know, the fans know: On the cusp of the 2009 NFL season, we are in the Golden Age of the Wide Receiver.
The quarterback remains the cornerstone on which NFL success is built, and every team needs a left tackle, an edge pass rusher and a lockdown cornerback. But the wide receiver is at the nexus of modern sports and entertainment. He is the Transformer, the outsized, hypergifted athlete who decides games with his cartoon catches; and even when he doesn't decide games, he decides highlights. He is athletic—and technical—evolution in the flesh. "There are all these freak-of-nature guys now," says Laveranues Coles of the Bengals, a 10-year veteran wideout. "The T.O.'s and the Fitzgeralds. There's that kid up in Detroit, Calvin Johnson; and the dude down in Houston, played at Miami, Andre Johnson. It's like they bred 'em on a farm to come and be these great wide receivers."
Their influence stretches beyond the field and the locker room; their personalities crackle. Among NFL players, only Terrell Owens of the Bills has his own reality TV show. Chad Ochocinco of the Bengals wore a gold ABC blazer over his uniform on the Monday Night Football sideline and now tests the limits of Twitter. Santonio Holmes, the only man ever to toe tap the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl, last Feb. 1, says this: "I watch all the top guys and try to outdo them. I tell myself, Man, I could have done that better. But that play in the Super Bowl? That one put me over the top."
Holmes's ridiculous stretched-out catch in a back corner of the end zone, photos of which hang on the wall along the stairs descending to his basement entertainment room, was only the latest act in the wideouts' hostile takeover of the game. Randy Moss—a star in Minnesota for seven years and a disgruntled malingerer in Oakland for two—made Tom Brady better and the Patriots 16--0 in the 2007 regular season. At the end of that season David Tyree made his otherworldly catch to keep the Giants alive in Super Bowl XLII, and Plaxico Burress (yet more drama, with his recent guilty plea on weapons charges) won it on a fade. Larry Fitzgerald streaked up the field on a 64-yard completion to give the Cardinals a 23--20 lead late in last year's Super Bowl, opening the door for Holmes to win it. Two Super Bowls owned by wideouts, when the whole world was watching.
"There are five, six, seven special receivers in the league," says Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard quarterback who started 12 games for Cincinnati last year and is now a backup in Buffalo. "Everybody knows who they are, and once they get the ball in their hands, they're going to do something special."
I: AERIAL CIRCUS
Over its history the NFL has gone from being principally a running league to principally a passing league. Consider that in 1970 the Bears' Dick Gordon led the league with 71 catches in a 14-game season and there were only two players who averaged four or more receptions a game. By 1990, when Jerry Rice led the league with 100 catches in Bill Walsh's increasingly influential West Coast offense, 18 players averaged four catches a game. Last season there were 32, led by the Texans' Andre Johnson with 7.2 per game (115 total). In 2002 Marvin Harrison of the Colts caught a league-record 143 passes.
Why all the throwing? The modern NFL is the product of two diverging trends, the first being an improvement in run defense through innovative, aggressive schemes, from Buddy Ryan's revolutionary 46 with the '80s Bears to the fluid creations of his son Rex with the Ravens of the last several seasons. "Defense has developed to the point where opponents say, 'We're not going to let you run,'" says Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end and the Ravens' general manager. "And then they take away the running game."
The second trend reflects the rules changes and the selective enforcement that favor the passing game. In 1978 the league adopted a rule prohibiting contact with receivers beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. While that rule has never changed, it has been ever more stringently enforced, to the point where receivers now need only escape an initial attempt by defensive backs to control their movement before getting a free run into the secondary. "NFL football is a business, and the business likes offense," says Lions cornerback Phillip Buchanon, an eight-year veteran. "Look at fantasy football. You draft running backs, quarterbacks, receivers. And whole defenses—no individuals. I rest my case."
The development of pass-reliant offenses has led to formations with four and five wide receivers. That has led to a need for more personnel—and more big plays—at those positions. "Wide receivers are more in demand than they've ever been in the NFL," says former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "You need varied personnel groups, you need to get mismatches. And to do that you really need that third and fourth good wide receiver."
Dick LeBeau, the esteemed and innovative defensive coordinator of the Steelers, says, "To win at this level you need yardage in big chunks. Nobody will let you drive the field. Those great wide receivers are the guys who can get you yardage in big chunks."
II: BIGGER IS BETTER
On an early August morning, Lions third-year wideout Calvin Johnson walks from the practice field after a training camp workout. Stripped to shorts and a performance top, Johnson's physical presence is arresting. He is 6'5" and will play most of the season at 234 pounds. "That used to be a tight end back in the day," says Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. He's right: John Mackey, one of the most revered tight ends in history, played at 6'2", 224. Johnson has run the 40 in 4.35 seconds and made a vertical leap of 44 inches. He is emblematic of the athlete who would have been raised on Laveranues Coles's mythical wideout ranch. But he is hardly the only one.
The Texans' Andre Johnson is 6'3", 223. At Miami he was the Big East indoor champion at 60 meters, a race that requires short, explosive quickness, and outdoors at 100 meters, requiring sustained speed. He has 486 catches in six seasons. Fitzgerald, at 6'3", 217, has a breakthrough ability to reach passes at the apex of his formidable leap, even as flailing defensive backs are trying to locate the ball. As far back as 1998, the willowy, 6'4" Moss stunned scouts when he ran the 40 in 4.29 in a workout at Marshall.
Herman Moore came into the NFL in 1991, a 6'4", 205-pound wide receiver from Virginia. "I was one of the guys who revolutionized the position at the time," says Moore, who played 11 seasons and was a three-time All-Pro with the Lions. "At that point there were a lot of little guys doing well at that position." Moore was not the first in his era; Rice was 6'2", 200, as a 49ers rookie in '85. Dallas's Michael Irvin was 6'2" and began his career in '88. But Moore is right about one thing. "It used to be that if you were tall and big, you were slower and more of a possession-style receiver. Jerry wasn't fast. Michael wasn't fast. These guys now are phenomenal specimens. They combine all that size and power we had with pure speed. You can't cover that."
You especially can't cover it when cornerbacks are not growing in concert with wideouts. "Simple math," says former Rams coach Scott Linehan, now Detroit's offensive coordinator. "Receivers are getting bigger, but cornerbacks are staying the same size." The physical requirements are different: Receivers run forward; corners run backward and rotate their hips to cover pass patterns. It's rare to find a defensive back with such skills who is also as tall as a new-generation wideout.
The college spread game is shipping wideouts to the NFL by the trainload. "More good ones than ever," says Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, though he adds, "not more great ones."
Another factor: Big wideouts are rapidly becoming a necessity—not only to make big plays but also to survive the ferocity in the middle of the field. Says Colts president Bill Polian, a 30-year veteran of the NFL personnel wars, "I've changed my thinking pretty dramatically in one area: I think the small, explosive speed guy, the smurf, is an endangered species. The only one you can think of who does it week in and week out is Wes Welker [of New England]. Santana Moss [of the Redskins] is a great player, but he has a hard time staying healthy. I think with the size of the safeties, the size of the linebackers, the hits these guys take in zone coverage, it's harder to play with these smaller guys."
III: THE BRAIN GAME
As the athletes have become bigger, stronger and faster, the game has also become more specialized. Wide receivers play one of two positions: out on the edge, as the players split widest on the field, or in the slot, a few yards outside the last lineman. They do dramatically different jobs from those spots. The outside receiver runs and cuts, usually on preassigned routes. He is easier to defend because the sideline limits his options. The slot receiver reads defense much like a quarterback. "That's the biggest difference from when I was playing," says Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Joiner, who spent 18 years in the NFL and now coaches receivers for the Chargers. "Game plans are more complicated. Receivers have to be more cerebral."
Hines Ward of the Steelers, an 11-year veteran with four Pro Bowl appearances, is arguably the best slot receiver in history. "In the slot you've got a two-way go," says Ward. "I can go inside, I can go outside. I've got grass both ways. But I've got to be on the same page as the quarterback. We have to read the defense the same, and if we do, I've got you."
The decisions for a slot receiver are swift and technical, wrapped up in what are called option routes. After a practice at Bills camp, Fitzpatrick drew a basic play in a reporter's notebook: a four-wide formation with a defensive back over the right slot receiver. "There are a lot of different things the receiver can do," says Fitzpatrick. "He can break off leverage, which means if the receiver is leveraged inside [i.e., the DB lines up inside], he goes out. If the DB undercuts, he goes up the seam. If he's hot [his defender is blitzing], he runs a quick slant. If the defender slips outside to double the wideout, he follows the defender; we call that 'chasing technique.' There's usually one guy, maybe two, on a team who understands all this stuff and does it right."
With so many possibilities inside, teams are now frequently putting marquee receivers in the slot. "If Randy Moss is out there on the edge, the defense can get in Cover Two and take him out of the game," says Ward. "So New England puts him inside and gives him a two-go."
Ochocinco says, "If you see me in the slot, if you see T.O. in the slot, there's something coming."
One other way to free up a superstar wideout: have two of them. Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Owens and Lee Evans in Buffalo. It is nearly impossible to double-cover two threats with a conventional defense and not leave massive holes elsewhere or in run support.
To understand the rise of the wideout—and, in some cases, his crossover into pop culture—it is useful to watch not only the mind-boggling catches in the last two postseasons but also T.O.'s weepy, melodramatic That's My Quarterback speech following the Cowboys' playoff elimination in January 2007. T.O. weeps, Chad Johnson changes his name to a mangled Spanish, and the profile of the position is affected as much as it is by Fitzgerald's acrobatics.
Jeff Olde is not a big football fan, but as the executive vice president of programming at VH1, he is a very big personality fan. Olde met with Owens last winter, leading to the birth of The T.O. Show, a reality series that began airing on VH1 in July, just before training camps started. "I was aware of the headlines," Olde says of Owens's antics at every stop. "But we had a great meeting. The women in our office were as interested in T.O. as the men. I found that he has a combination of great ego and great heart."
It is the ratio of those qualities among modern wideouts that worries Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "I don't think anybody has a problem with a receiver who wants the ball to help his team," says Bratkowski. "But they get paid by the numbers, and sometimes they want the ball just to get their numbers up."
Says Ward, who has not ranked in the top 10 in receptions since 2003 but has won two Super Bowl rings in that time, "Stats don't matter. Postseason games matter."
On Bratkowski's team, Ochocinco predictably emerged as one of the stars of this year's edition of the training camp reality show Hard Knocks on HBO. He introduced America to his interpretation of the phrase, "Child, please." He tweets relentlessly and broadcasts his own stream-of-consciousness "show" on the Internet. "What you see and what you get from me are not new," says Ochocinco. "Where I grew up, in Liberty City [Miami], there are five-year-olds playing Pop Warner acting the same way. Me, I just have a bigger mouth than everybody else."
Herman Moore, from the old school, says, "The big personalities you really hear about are a few guys near the end of their careers. Trash talk is on the way out. The younger guys just seem dedicated to transforming the position on the field."
They have already done it. The pipeline is flowing. The game is changed.
"There are all these freak-of-nature guys," says Coles (left), "like they bred 'em on a farm to be receivers."
Says Ward (left), perhaps the greatest slot receiver in history, "Stats don't matter. Postseason games matter."
Larry Fitzgerald's World
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
GIVING 'EM FITS In last year's playoffs Fitzgerald's uncanny knack for finding the ball at the peak of his leap left Carolina's defenders helpless.
RICH KANE/ICON SMI (COLES)
THE TWEET LIFE Ochocinco made his name on the field but has become a ubiquitous new-media figure.
STEVE JACOBSON (OCHOCINCO)
[See caption above]
JIM ROGASH/GETTY IMAGES
PROTOTYPE The 6'4" Moss was seen as an anomaly when he arrived in '98; now it's clear he was a forerunner.
CHRIS MARTINEZ/AP (SMITH)
ENDANGERED ZONE Smurfs like the Panthers' 5'9", 185-pound Steve Smith are more vulnerable, and becoming rarer.
BOB LEVEY/ICON SMI (ANDRE JOHNSON)
BODY OF WORK The Johnsons, Andre of Houston (top) and Calvin of Detroit, fit the new mold: size, speed, strength.
JERRY LAI/US PRESSWIRE (JOHNSON)
[See caption above]
ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (WARD)
[See caption above]