Wide receiver has blown past running back and is sneaking up on quarterback as pro football's glamour position. Receivers spent the offseason competing with quarterbacks for headlines, and managed to grab their share of the spotlight. Wideout Terrell Owens soaked up plenty of attention with his move from the San Francisco 49ers to the Philadelphia Eagles after, in effect, vetoing a trade to the Baltimore Ravens. Five of the first 15 selections in April's draft were used on wide receivers, even after USC all-American Mike Williams was ruled ineligible at the last minute.
Now the offseason of the receiver could give way to the season of the receiver, with the NFL's powerful competition committee having ordered game officials to crack down on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs. The competitive balance between pass catcher and pass defender could shift dramatically and the passing game league-wide could open up in the same way that it did when the illegal-contact rules last were modified in 1994. Defenses might have little choice but to attempt to rough up quarterbacks with blitzes because they can't do much to prevent receivers from making catches once footballs are airborne.
"If the officials call the game right and the defensive backs play the game by the new rules the way they're designed, if you are a halfway accurate passer, you should be very successful," said former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. "Some of these receivers are going to have very big years. The best ones may be unstoppable."
Perhaps former Redskins coach Steve Spurrier left the NFL a year too soon, with the "pitching and catching" that he so adores promising to be all the rage. Owens will try to be the difference-maker who gets the Eagles to a Super Bowl after three straight NFC title game losses, and he and the sport's other highest-profile wideouts -- from Randy Moss in Minnesota to Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis to Torry Holt in St. Louis to an ever-growing group of others attempting to reach the top tier -- will vie to put up the sort of once-unthinkable receiving statistics that have become increasingly commonplace in today's NFL.
"The numbers are pretty amazing," Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly said. "It used to be that 100 catches was unheard of. Now a lot of guys do it."
A player has had 100 or more catches in a season 45 times in NFL history, and 38 have occurred since 1994. Before '94, when the current illegal-contact rule for defensive backs was implemented, there never had been a season in which more than one NFL player reached the 100-reception mark. With the new rule in effect, mandating that defensive backs could chuck a receiver only within five yards of the line of scrimmage, three players topped 100 catches each in 1994 and a staggering nine players exceeded the figure in '95.
A player has had at least 1,600 receiving yards in a season 13 times in league history, and 11 of those have come since '95. The NFL season is longer now, but that alone doesn't account for the statistical difference, with even the number of 1,000-yard receiving seasons by players growing steadily (from 119 in the 1980s to 170 in the '90s to 79 already in the '00s) after the 16-game schedule went into effect in 1978. Again, the big statistical jump came after the 1994 rule modification, with four players topping 1,600 receiving yards in the '95 season alone.
Will there be a similar explosion this year? If so, it would come on the heels of a 2003 season in which four players (Holt, Moss, Arizona Cardinals rookie wide receiver Anquan Boldin and San Diego Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson) reached 100 catches and two (Holt and Moss) exceeded 1,600 receiving yards but overall passing yards per game in the NFL declined to the lowest level in 11 years, prompting the competition committee's action.
Some around the league suspect there will be such a jump, although they cite the way the game is now played -- and coached -- as much as the new rule interpretation.
"A 90-catch season now is what a 1,000-yard rushing season used to be," Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said. "It's where the emphasis is. Everybody runs the West Coast offense, and that's what the West Coast offense is all about: The four- or five-yard catch replaces the four-yard running play. As a coach, you can have a guy rush for 200 yards, but you're not [considered] a genius unless you can throw the ball for 300 yards in a game 10 weeks in a row. That's what makes you a genius in everyone's eyes."
Said former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, an analyst for CBS: "Running the ball is hard. Coaches don't have the patience and don't have the ingenuity to get it done, to design running plays that work. It's easier to throw a screen pass to a wide receiver. That's replacing the running play. That's the running game for a lot of teams now. I'd love to know how many of these catches that receivers are getting are balls that are in the air for less than five yards. The receivers are taking that away from running backs. That's why kids want to be receivers instead of running backs. It's just not as tough. I'm not saying it's easy to be a receiver, but being a running back is so much tougher."
The marquee receivers have become what the NFL is all about, for better and for worse. The league wants the airways filled with footballs, thrilling those fans at stadiums and those in front of television sets with exciting, high-scoring games. That is particularly important this year, with the league negotiating new contracts with the networks.
But while the league wants its receivers to be entertaining, it doesn't want them trying to be entertainers; it doesn't want to see any more touchdown celebrations that feature Owens pulling a marker out of his sock to sign the ball immediately after scoring or the New Orleans Saints' Joe Horn making an on-the-field call with a cell phone that was stashed under the goal post padding. The competition committee, following the lead of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, also ordered a crackdown on such displays, mandating that they result in 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
"These receivers are a group unto itself," Simms said. "I was saying to someone the other day, 'They're like independent contractors.' They're not really a part of the team. They're not about the team. They're not about winning and losing. They're all about their numbers -- their catches and their yards and their touchdowns. That's just the way the game is now. Maybe it will change in the future, but that's how it is now. But I will say that because more kids are drawn to playing the position, absolutely there is a higher quality of receivers in the NFL right now that at any time I can remember."
The receivers are being rewarded financially for their deeds. This year's franchise-player figure for a wide receiver (the average salary of the five highest-paid players at the position) was $7.229 million. Only one position -- quarterback -- was higher, at $9.958 million; running back lagged far behind at $5.167 million. Owens signed a seven-year, nearly $49 million contract with the Eagles as part of a March settlement of the dispute over his free agent status, and might have gotten more on the open market.
"I know my purpose here," Owens said during training camp. "I know my role here. I'm just going to go out here and try to do my thing. ... Obviously they know the talent that I have. Otherwise they wouldn't have brought me in here."
Owens and Moss are among the sport's most polarizing figures, with observers debating whether their antics offset their production. But their abilities are unquestioned and most NFL talent evaluators list them alongside Harrison, who shattered the single-season league record (by 20 catches) with 143 receptions in 2002, and Holt, who led the NFL last season with 117 catches for 1,696 yards, among the league's top wideouts.
But others are closing in. Steve Smith emerged as a star during Carolina's run to last season's Super Bowl -- a game that was supposed to be dominated by the defenses but resulted in the Panthers and the victorious New England Patriots combining for 677 passing yards and 61 points.
Boldin was only a second-round draft choice from Florida State last year, yet set an NFL rookie record with 101 receptions; he begins this season on the shelf because of a knee injury. Cincinnati's Chad Johnson had a breakthrough 2003 season with 90 catches for 1,355 yards and 10 touchdowns, and many scouts put Smith, Boldin, Johnson and Horn on the league's second tier of fine receivers with Buffalo's Eric Moulds, Pittsburgh's Hines Ward, Washington's Laveranues Coles and Tennessee's Derrick Mason. Tampa Bay's Keenan McCardell remained highly productive last season at age 33, and Oakland's Jerry Rice and Raider-turned-Buccaneer Tim Brown are winding down their great careers.
The run of receivers at the top of this year's draft was only mildly surprising, and underscores the belief of many teams that they must have two to three excellent wideouts to win nowadays. The Cardinals had Boldin and 2003 first-round choice Bryant Johnson but new coach Dennis Green used the third overall pick in the draft on wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The Detroit Lions used the seventh choice on Roy Williams a year after using the second overall selection on fellow wideout Charles Rogers.
"The receivers were the strength of this draft. They were the best players," said Newsome, who traded for Kevin Johnson and drafted three wideouts after losing out on Owens to try to rebuild a passing offense that ranked last in the NFL last year and is the Ravens' major concern entering this season.
The barrage of catches spawns a discussion that resembles the debate over the onslaught of home runs in baseball: Is it the players or the circumstances? Is this an era of great wide receivers in the NFL, or simply an era in which the conditions are set up for great numbers by wide receivers? Opinions vary.
"I look at the guys from my era who are in the Hall of Fame and I think about Charlie Joiner, Steve Largent, James Lofton, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann," said Newsome, who had a Hall of Fame career as a tight end for the Cleveland Browns. "The receivers aren't any better now."
But Casserly said: "The rules have been pretty liberal for a long time, so you can't really just explain it with that. The numbers keep getting bigger, so you must have a very large number of very talented receivers."