Nice Catch

By Elfin, David | Insight on the News, January 8, 2001 | Go to article overview

Nice Catch


Elfin, David, Insight on the News


... But how much is it worth? In today's pass-happy NFL, the measure of greatness among receivers is changing as the record books are rewritten.

Like hitting a home run in baseball, the once-difficult job of catching a pass in pro football has been cheapened. Raymond Berry of the Baltimore Colts retired in 1967 with a National Football League (NFL)-record 631 catches. Six years later, Don Maynard of the New York Jets passed him with 633 and called it quits. Charley Taylor of the Washington Redskins caught his 649th pass in 1977 and retired as the leader.

Today, it's as if those Hall of Fame receivers played a different game: Taylor is 17th all time, Maynard 18th and Berry 20th. All but two of the top 16 were active during the 1990s. Five of the top six -- San Francisco's Jerry Rice, Minnesota's Cris Carter, Washington's Andre Reed and Irving Fryar and Oakland's Tim Brown -- are active players.

"The game really has changed," says Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy, an NFL defensive back from 1977 to 1980. "It has become much more of a throwing league. [Pittsburgh Steelers greats] John Stallworth and Lynn Swann could certainly play in this era. If they got with the right team, they would put up some monster numbers, catch 100 to 125 passes a year. Talent is always going to shine.

"Irving Fryar is a great receiver, but you can't measure greatness by the number of catches because these guys get so many more opportunities. Paul Warfield was just fantastic. But Bob Griese [Warfield's quarterback in Miami] threw just seven passes while winning a Super Bowl."

In the first 12 years of the 16-game schedule (1978-89), only the Redskins' Art Monk caught 100 passes or more in a season. In the last five years, 13 players have done so, including a fullback (Larry Centers), a player primarily known as a kick returner (Eric Metcalf) and three wideouts (Brett Perriman, Robert Brooks and Terance Mathis).

For more perspective, consider that only two players averaged six catches per game for a season during pro football's first 40 years: Green Bay's Don Hutson in 1942 and the Los Angeles Rams' Tom Fears in 1949. During the next 34 years, 11 more joined the club, to make it 13 over 74 seasons. Membership has more than doubled from 1995 to 1999, with 16 new players (plus holdover Rice) averaging six catches per game.

"Back when I played, you would have killed for 50 catches, but now you've got backup running backs catching 50 passes," says Harold Carmichael, Philadelphia's player-relations director who starred for the Eagles from 1971 to 1983. "Instead of handing the ball to a back, they're throwing it to him. The receivers are clearing space for the backs to catch the ball."

Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., is seventh all-time in catches after retiring as No. 1 in 1989. Soon Largent will be the only receiver among the top 15 who didn't grab a ball during the Clinton administration.

"When I started coaching in the league in 1985, for the most part, people ran first and passed second," recalls former Washington coach Norv Turner. "There were a bunch of teams that would only focus on throwing if they were behind in the fourth quarter. But defenses like the Bears' began using eight-man fronts and made it harder and harder to run the ball. Today everyone is spreading people out and wanting to throw more.... Today any team is capable of hurting you with the pass and having a big day."

While the St. Louis Rams are threatening to crush Miami's 16-year-old record of 5,018 passing yards and Minnesota's 2-year-old mark of 556 points, today's pass catchers aren't racking up yards and touchdowns as rapidly as their predecessors. Only four of the all-time top 11 in receiving yards (Rice, Reed, Carter and Fryar) are active.

There are 28 receivers with 400 catches who averaged 16 yards a reception, led by Warfield at 20.1. All are retired (Miami's Tony Martin is the active leader at 15. …

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