Sunday, June 26, 2011

My Off-Again, On-Again Love Affair With The Wide Receiver Position

I used to be the guy that loved the wide receiver.  You see, when I began as a fanatical follower of the Packers back in the 1980's, there were two guys that I was enamored with.  Their names?  James Lofton and John Jefferson.

They opened my eyes to what explosive offensive football could actually be.  Hey, before the acquisition of Jefferson, the running joke was Bart Starr's gameplan consisted of four plays: 1. Run 2. Run 3. Pass  4. Punt

But when Lynn Dickey was able to open up with Lofton, Jefferson, and tight end Paul Coffman, it was electrifying.  Images of that era are forever burned into my memory:  seeing Coffman hurdle a defender for the first time.  It was something I never imagined happening on a football field, and it blew my mind as to the boundaries of human limitations.

I remember Lofton running in open space, sometimes just baiting people in and maneuvering around them.  With the game clock ticking away, Lofton caught a pass and made a dash for the sideline with a defender closing in.  Just as he reached the sideline, he stopped short, allowing the now-relaxed defender to waltz by him, then turned on the jets up the sideline for a long gainer.

And I remember Jefferson, who was unfortunately never used as much as he should have been, often acting as the decoy drawing double coverage to open up the field for Dickey favorites Lofton and Coffman.  Every now and then, however, he would do something amazing that made you remember his glory days with the Chargers.  I remember Dickey throwing up a jump ball to Jefferson, who was standing in between three defenders.  All four went up for the ball, with JJ snatching it away mid-air, then landing with his wheels turning, squirting out as all three were still returning to the ground and into the end zone.

The television commentator: "Well, three-on-one: that's an even matchup for John Jefferson!"

There something about the position of wide receiver, working out there in open space--relying on speed and grace and agility instead of pure power.  Those players inspired me to play wide receiver in high school.

Caveat #1: My high school team didn't actually have a WR position, but a wing-back position in a wishbone offense, so the position was never really thrown to very often.

Caveat #2: the term "play" when I say "play wide receiver" might be better defined as "pretended" moreso than "actually saw time on the field".  Just sayin'.

No, given my lack of size, speed, strength, agility, coordination, and athletic ability, I'd never follow in the footsteps of my heroes, but I would continue to idolize them.  And I don't think there was a player I idolized more than when the Packers drafted Sterling Sharpe.

Again, he was graceful and speedy, but brought a new level of strength and cockiness to the position.  He dared people to stop him, not afraid to run through them as much as around them.  And, it didn't hurt that he wore the same number that I had when I played in high school (again, see Caveat #2 above).

He made Don Majkowski look a heck of a lot better than he was.  And he was Brett Favre's crutch in his tumultuous formative years, when having Sharpe there to catch 100+ balls a year might have been the difference between Holmgren sticking with Favre and not going with Mark Brunell.

He demanded the ball.  This was also something new that I hadn't seen before in my wide receiver heroes, but heck...he was darn good, and good things happened when he had the ball.  He had an infectious smile and made it look like he was having a blast on the field.  I still remember the play against the Lion in the playoffs one year where he caught the ball so far ahead of every defender, he walked up to the goal line and tried to just reach over the plane of the goal line.  A Lion defender snuck up behind him, and an uncomfortable instant replay was averted when Sharpe picked the ball up himself in the endzone, smiling like the cat who had caught the canary.

But my adoration of Sharpe--and my love affair with the wide receiver position in general--came to a screeching halt in 1994.  Sterling Sharpe's neck injury ended his playing career, and no one was giving the Packers a chance to even reach 8-8 without their Most Talented Player.  I fiercely defended Sharpe from his detractors and also believed the Packers were going to suffer a huge setback without him.

But 1995 was the year everything changed.  The Packers weren't a worse team without Sharpe, they were a better team without him.  Favre, no longer pressured to feed the ball into a WR who kept demanding the ball, saw his quarterback rating jump nearly ten points.  The ball was spread out evenly between new team leader Robert Brooks, Mark Ingram, and the running backs and tight ends...basically, whomever was open.

If you can remember back to that time when the Packers (unexpectedly) made the playoffs, you might remember a feature by NFL Countdown where Favre, Brooks, Bennett and all the gang openly talked about how Sharpe had held the team back with his "me-first" attitude.  They gushed about the team-first attitude that had propelled them into being perhaps the only team with a chance to prevent the Cowboys from making it a three-peat that year.  There wasn't even an inkling that the players remotely missed Sharpe.

Chris Berman cut to Sharpe, who had been a part of the studio team in his first year away from football, and you could see the tension and anger in his face and body language.  He yelled his response (surprise!), saying he wasn't a me-first player and he had always been committed to the team above all.  The words seemed to echo in the empty studio where was was being filmed.

At the end, Berman attempted to mend the fences by telling Sharpe, "Sterling, all the guys I talked to miss you, wish you the best, and they wish you were there to be a part of this."  It was in stark contrast to everything we just heard the players actually say in their interviews.

I wanted to rise up to defend my old hero, Sharpe, whose jersey I proudly wore and cheered every time he caught a pass.  But reality set it, as the Packers went deep into the NFC playoffs that year, farther than they had ever gone with Sharpe.  And, of course, the next year the Packers won it all with guys like Antonio Freeman and Andre Rison playing at the wide-out position.

Meanwhile, this coincided with the time when the me-first wide receiver began taking over the league.  Guys like Michael Irvin, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, and Keyshawn Johnson made no bones about being "the guy" and demanding the ball.   The showboating, the grandstanding, the obnoxious behavior all started turning me off to the "Highlight Wide Receiver" that ESPN now seemed to love and give 24/7 attention to.

But ever since the departure of Sharpe, the Packers have employed the team-oriented wideout.  Who can forget the day after Favre's father passed away, when Donald Driver, Javon Walker, and even Robert Ferguson (of all players) swore that whatever Favre threw that Monday Night against the Raiders, they would catch for him?  And they did it.

Wideouts with attitude problems (Koren Robinson, Terry Glenn, Bill Schroeder, even Walker) were quietly excised from the team.  The Super Bowl-winning stable of receivers--Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones--were a case study of ego-less, team-oriented talent.  When Jennings, the clear primary threat, was essentially a non-factor early in the 2010 season, many rushed to his interview podium to ask how upset he was at not getting the ball enough.

Naturally, even if Jennings was upset, he never let on.  And as the season progressed, and the injury-riddled Packers found their footing offensively, Jennings again assumed his role as the #1 receiver.  Had that been Sterling Sharpe (or Owens, or Keyshawn), that lull in production could have exploded on the field and in the locker room.

So, no longer have I been that "WR guy" that I was as a kid.  Perhaps, like my musical tastes, my appreciation for the game of football has matured.  Just as I have put my Debbie Gibson cassettes into the storage unit and downloaded The Best of the Eagles on iTunes, I no longer have solely WR jerseys in my Packer closet.  I value the impact of a running game, dissect the ins and outs of Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, and have measured the impact of special teams on a win or loss.

Hey, 20-Year Old Me would have taken umbrage with 2010 Me for all of those articles I wrote petitioning Mike McCarthy to quit throwing the ball so much and commit to the running game.  But, 2010 Me has realized that it takes more than that explosive Dickey-to-Lofton passing game to win a championship.  Perhaps, in the dark decades of the 70's and 80's, when my formative years as a Packers fan were established, finished 8-8 and having an exciting passing game was the best we could hope for.

But with two Lombardi trophies under our belt since those days, you realize the impact of what a complete team effort requires.  Oh, don't think I've totally lost my WR fettish.  When I wore my Packer jersey each week from the Patriots game through the Super Bowl (without washing it), it was none other than my #85 Jennings jersey.  But I would have been just as happy wearing my Rodgers, Hawk, Matthews, or Bulaga jersey.

The reason I write this, however, is that WR passion from my youth was stirred just a bit this past draft when the Packers took Randall Cobb in the second round.  Ted Thompson has made it a habit of drafting some talented, team-oriented wideouts in almost all of his drafts, but Cobb brings just a bit of swagger to the position.

Normally, that bit of bravado would throw some yellow flags up for me, because heaven knows I've learned my lesson.  But Cobb has already established through the media and his Twitter account that, despite bringing some of that electrifying agility to our return game and offense, he has sought out the team veterans to create relationships with them...nothing required during offseasons when there isn't a lockout.

A players who hit it big in college, both as a returner and a receiver, but also as a Wildcat quarterback, could easily step into the big leagues believing the spotlight should be on him, and we've seen it over and over again through the years.  But it's been noted that at Kentucky, where his pure athleticism would have been enough to warrant his playing time, he established himself as a team leader, needing no prodding to put in the extra time watching tape or conditioning.  He bonded with his coaches, viewing them as family, not as "the Man busting my hump".

And coming into perhaps one of the healthiest team environments in the NFL will seal the deal that this kid will be a playmaker, an electrifying player who has awakened the hope in me of looking forward to a wideout that will awaken my childhood passions for seeing the wide receiver dominate the field again. 

No, I don't expect Cobb to supplant Jennings as the #1 receiver, but I do hope that he can enter the game and make cornerbacks desperately call for safety help over the top.  I'm hoping he's a guy who can stretch the field and force defenses back, creating for room for guys like Ryan Grant and James Starks to find a hole.

But, yes...there's an immature part of me that longs to see Cobb catch a ten-yard slant and dip and bob, shift and weave through defenders for a long touchdown, just like I used to cheer for in awe with James Lofton and Sterling Sharpe.  There's a part of me that, despite every effort I've made to wean myself away from glorifying the wide receiver position, wants to see this corps have the kind of season that will help Aaron Rodgers challenge Tom Brady's 2007 campaign and 50 passing touchdowns.

When we saw the Packer offense sputter several times at the end of the season and into the playoffs this past year, relying on the defense to pull out the game for them, the addition of Cobb could be the difference between nail-biting finishes and putting inferior teams away early.

Is that wishful thinking on my part?  It could be.  Cobb hasn't even put a jersey on yet and run in shorts, much less taken an NFL hit. 

But that's 20-Year-Old Me talking.  Now, where is that storage unit with my Debbie Gibson tapes again?


BigSnakeMan said...

"He made Don Majkowski look a heck of a lot better than he was."
--Nice observation.

If you were looking for WRs to emulate, you'd be hard pressed to find two much finer at the time than Lofton & Jefferson. It's too bad they couldn't have kept them together longer.

Even now I'm inclined to believe that, despite their shortcomings, the Packers of the early '80s could have been championship contenders had they possessed any type of defense.

C.D. Angeli said...

I don't disagree, Snake, and Bart Starr said as much when he was fired after the 1983 season. Unfortunately, being the NFL's Siberia (and losing Bruce Clark to the CFL) meant that you had limited resources, and having that defense even be serviceable was likely out of their price range.

In my eighth grade year, my best friend and I copied the famous "high five" JJ and James made so popular in those days over our basketball season. It was a good time to be a Packer fan.