I've made no secret about the fact that this particular group is probably my least favorite. On more than one broadcast, Phil Simms has said that most wide receivers in the NFL would be perfectly happy with a great stat line and a loss. This is why, as Steeler fans, we have been so blessed to have high character guys like Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis to champion the Steeler way.
Some coaches, however, could really care less about character. They want guys that can put the ball in the end zone. Great running backs and wide receivers are difference makers, no doubt. So, let's take a look at what makes these guys such difference makers on the field, while trying to ignore what makes them such jerks off of it.
Unless you have world-class speed, you've got to be able to catch the ball to get the slightest look by the league. However, catching the ball and tracking the ball are two entirely different things. Great wide receiver, think Larry Fitzgerald, track the ball. They have unbelievable hand-eye coordination.
It was laughable watching Larry Fitzgerald while he was at Pitt. As soon as Pitt got inside the 10 yard line, they were going to throw the fade. And, and this was the hysterical part, if by some chance it was incomplete on 1st and goal, they just threw it again on 2nd and goal. He was unstoppable.
A.J. Green, sadly, has many of these same qualities. He is able to go up between two people and get the ball. Some receivers, like Anquan Boldin, are just physically strong. But Boldin does not have fantastic hand-eye coordination (not a knock on Boldin, I'm just comparing him to Green and Fitz); instead, he relies upon superior physical strength. A combination of that superior size, strength, and ability to track the ball is, of course, Calvin Johnson.
No one, that I know of, in this year's draft has that combination. Which is why there does not seem to be a sure-fire top ten receiver in this draft.
We've talked about this a lot in this series. Go ahead and try this at home: In order for you to cut in any direction, at any angle, requires you to bend at your ankles, knees, and hips. This requires two things: great flexibility and great agility. Agility, by definition, is the ability to de-accelerate. Or, stop on a dime. This de-acceleration requires your muscles to have a tremendous amount of elasticity. As an athlete, you have to have a very quick stretch-shortening cycle. Your muscles have to be able to stretch (eccentric) and then immediately be able to contract (concentric). So, in order to an explosive athlete, you have to be flexible.
Bruce Lee used to water all of the time as an analogy for strength and power. He was exactly right. Maybe that's why we sometimes describe great athletes as being "fluid." To be a great route runner, you have to be fluid. You have to glide in and out of your cuts without chopping your feet and/or making a dramatic drop in your hips. If you do either one of those things, it is going to be six the other way. DB's key these types of things.
Which is why Jerry Rice was the greatest wide receiver ever. DB's could never get a read on him. Every single route looked exactly the same. After his first 3 steps, you had no idea if he was running a slant, hitch, go route, post, or comeback. Long speed is great, but this route-running ability will make you a lot of money in the NFL.
Quit whining Jim Harbaugh
Of course I was cheering for San Francisco in the Super Bowl, and of course I would have loved to have seen a PI called on that 4th down play. And, maybe it was pass interference. But, for goodness sake Michael Crabtree, you've got to beat the jam!
NFL corners are much more physical than college corners. The jam is probably the hardest skill to master for a defensive back. The greats, like Darrelle Revis, are able to the press from an off position. Regardless, it's a hard skill to master for a college kid. In the NFL, however, guys get really good at jamming on the line of scrimmage.
Dean Pees is the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. He was also the defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots when they almost went undefeated a few years back. As we all know the Patriots were thwarted by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The game winning touchdown was caught by Plaxico Burress on a little fade route.
The Giants were down 14-10. 39 seconds left in the game. 1st down from the Patriots' 15 yard line. Just as Pees did all night against San Francisco, he dialed up a cover 0 blitz. These blitzes killed the 49ers because none of their wideouts could get off the line of scrimmage. The Patriots tried to press Burress from an off position, like I mentioned earlier with Revis. The reason they played off man was because Burress absolutely abused Al Harris of the Green Bay Packers when he pressed him in the NFC championship game. Off man didn't work either as a head fake from Burress froze the corner and literally left him on the ground. Burress walked into the end zone.
Maybe Harbaugh will coach up Crabtree on beating a press corner during OTA's as opposed to running straight into the corner as he did during the Super Bowl.
Dime a Dozen
Probably no position in the NFL has had more of a precipitous fall from grace than running backs. They are actually a victim of their own success. Most of the guys that play in the NFL right now grew up watching great running backs. The NFL became a QB league only a few years ago. Therefore, if you wanted all the fame and money, you wanted to carry the ball. This attitude was supplemented by the fact that most high school football teams 10 years ago ran the ball, at least, 75% of the time. The best athlete wanted to play running back, and the coach wanted to put the best athlete at running back. Great, everyone is happy.
That is, until recruiting time. To get that D-1 scholarship to that major college or university, you could not just be the best athlete in your high school. You had to be the best athlete in the state. Or, maybe you did get that big time scholarship, but you couldn't be out the incumbent or hold off the freshmen sensation. Thus, you got moved to linebacker or defensive back.
In a perfect example of creative destruction (admit it, you're impressed that I worked Bruce Lee and Joseph Schumpeter in the same article) the very best athletes on the field crowded the running back position. Therefore, a running back that drops to the 4th, 5th or 6th round in the NFL Draft was still an amazingly gifted running back. As crazy as it sounds, the 5th round running back may be a better athlete than the linebacker that was taken int he 1st round.
What made these 5th round running backs even more deadly was the fact, for the first time in their lives, they were humbled. They now had to do exactly what the coach said, or they would probably be looking for a job selling insurance. This is how Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs made a living for so long in the NFL. They loved taking running backs later in the draft and coaching them really hard.
You are on your bleepin own!
Paul Alexander used to write that (well, he didn't use bleeping) on the overhead projector while installing the inside zone play to the entire offense of the Cincinnati Bengals. He would tell the running backs that they had to press the line of scrimmage, and not make their cut until the reached the heels of the offensive linemen. Of course, running backs hate being told how to run. They can see things that the coaches can't. So, Alexander told them from day one: if you cut too soon and mess up the angles of the offensive linemen and thus get blasted by the weakside linebacker, you are on your bleepin own!!
Gibbs and Shanahan didn't have to do this. Since their backs were worried about being released on the spot, they cut exactly how the coaches told them. This led to some of the more prolific running attacks in NFL history. It also led to running backs making a lot less money.
In a completely weird twist of fate, Shanahan's Robert Griffin III might make future running backs a lot more money since those great high school athletes that I mentioned earlier all want to play quarterback now. In the near future, in order to get that special back, you may have to invest an early draft pick.
One cut and go
So, what makes that special back? Beyond the stuff that everyone sees (speed, power, vision, quickness), it is the ability to explode in and out of cuts. Sometimes, people confuse this ability with balance or quick feet. It is a little more than that. Imagine you are running straight. You are going to plant off of your right foot and make a 90 degree cut to your left. In order to do that as fast as possible, you need to be able to shift your center of gravity to your right (Bruce Lee again), so that when you push off of your right foot, you are pushing off with your glutes and your hamstrings. This allows you to explode and make the defender miss in the hole.
This is what made Jerome Bettis so special. Big guys should not be able to do what I just described. To be fluid enough to shift his center of gravity like that at his size was just incredible. It wasn't just (as everyone used to say) quick feet, it was fluidity. athleticism, and power.
They have a great drill for this at the combine. It is probably my favorite of the whole event. A coach stands with a pop up dummy in front of him. The running back runs, full speed, directly at him. As the running back gets close to him, the coach moves the top of the dummy to the left or his right. If the coach moves the dummy to his left, the back is supposed to cut the opposite way. The dummy represents the defender. The running backs will get a few reps at this drill. With each rep, the coach will let the running back get closer and closer. As they get closer to the dummy, some running backs struggle. You'll see them slip and fall (not fluid), not cut explosively (not powerful), or stand up when they cut (no bend). I don't care what your 40 time is, this drill (or, more properly, having skill to look good in the drill) is what separates the great backs.
Finally, if you want to get paid as an NFL running back nowadays, you have to be able to catch. Announcers talk all the time about being able to pick up the blitz as a third down back, but we've seen Ray Rice whiff on Harrison too many times to fall for that noise. You've got to be able to catch to be a three down running back in the NFL.
A lot of stock is put into the 40 time of running backs and wide receivers. While top speed is important, hopefully this article brought to the light some other important traits of play makers. The ability to bend, be coachable, track the football, power, and fluidity all go a very long way in the NFL.