The first time I can remember hearing about how “every NFL offense must have a number one receiver” was when the Panthers beat the Eagles in the 2003 NFC Championship Game. As I’m sure everyone remembers, this was the third year in a row the Eagles failed to reach the Super Bowl. All the hope and optimism of the first appearance was replaced with visceral anger.
Desperate to appease the fan base and end the agonizing losing, the Eagles turned to Terrell Owens. Coming off of four straight 1,000 yard seasons, it’s not hard to see why. He did take their offense to a new level with 1,200 yards in 14 games. The Eagles, without the injured Owens, did make the Super Bowl. He returned, had an all-time great game, and it looked like they would be back the next season.
Then the contract problems happened. He wore out his welcome in Philly and ended up on the Cowboys. The Eagles never really recovered. The rest of the NFL went through an era of “Diva Receivers”. Suddenly it was no longer clear if any of these players were even worth the aggravation.
Simultaneous to this existential crisis was the rise of running back as receiver concepts. Bill Walsh had started the movement in the 80’s, Mike Martz expanded it in the late 90’s. This put the NFL on a path to re-imagining the passing game and left the concept of the “number one” receiver, as I see it, as a relic of the past.
Roger Craig: A Runner and a Receiver
I’m willing to bet if you told an NFL coach in 1975 that in ten years there would be a running back with 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in a season, they would call BS. And yet, 1985 brought one such season for Roger Craig. Before Bill Walsh passing attacks were simple. Receivers ran deep patterns, tight ends occasionally ran outs and flags, and running backs were safety valves. If they weren’t staying in to block, they leaked out to the flat.
In the era of rushing, rushing, rushing, it was necessary to have a legit “number one” receiver. In order to keep the defense honest, a team needed to throw deep a few times a game. This was an age with very little pass interference rules, a team needed a receiver with top end speed and physical toughness. They had to escape muggings on the line, then beat the coverage. Paul Warfield is perhaps the best example of this kind of player. If you look at his stats, you’ll see a lot of yards on few receptions.
Then came Walsh. Looking at the play above, you can see exactly how he started to change the way running backs were used in the passing game. Remember how I said running backs were safety valves in the flat? Imagine being a defender in 1985. Your entire career, the running back sits in the flat. As the play above develops, you either ignore the back or fly up for the big hit. When you do, Roger Craig pivots and breaks deep. Joe Montana has the ball in the perfect spot, Craig is gone.
Before Walsh, no one thought to do this. There was a very rigid hierarchy in the passing game with each position only running certain routes. He began to chip away at it.
The Greatest Show on Turf
Then, 14 years after Craig’s 1,000/1,000 season, Mike Martz blew the hierarchy up. As he tells it in his book, Martz couldn’t understand why he needed to keep his best passing plays for third down. He also wasn’t sure why more teams did not put an emphasis on getting the ball to their best player in space. As Martz saw it, Marshall Faulk was his best receiver as well as his best running back. There was no reason he needed to stay in the backfield.
Splitting Faulk out wide, putting him in motion, and setting up screens forced the defense to put most of their focus on him. This left Issac Bruce and Tory Holt with freedom rarely seen by receivers. As defenses came up to deal with Faulk, they ran deep. As Faulk ran deep, they cut underneath his routes. Other NFL teams, at first dismissive of Martz as they had once been of Bill Walsh, eventually realized he was on to something.
After the Rams shocked everyone and won the Super Bowl with a former grocery store clerk at the helm, the NFL started to change. The old need for a top receiver with unrivaled speed and size began to phase out. Looking across the NFL now, it is easy to see size no longer matters. In the 70’s, there’s no way Antonio Brown would be viewed as the best receiver. He would have probably been moved to running back or be out of the league. With the emphasis on him getting the ball with room to work instead of flying deep, he has, instead, thrived.
A Symbiotic, Three Level Attack
Ultimately the number one receiver is no longer necessary because the passing game is too complicated. It no longer makes sense to build the entire passing attack around one player. Instead an offense must assemble a group capable of attacking a defense in each of the three levels. The offense relies on each demanding the respect of the defense, otherwise they are too easy to defend.
The play above gives the defense an ultimate “pick your poison” scenario. They cannot let the outside receiver fly down field. So, someone has to go with him. Allowing the slot receiver a clean break on the out route is also not a very good idea. Someone has to defend the sideline. That leaves the running back on the strong side. Christian McCaffery and Alvin Kamara can easily gain 50 yards on the simple flat route. Leaving a linebacker out there is completely out the question.
If there is a weak cog in any of these three routes, the defense can focus all of their attention on the remaining routes. So even if the outside player going deep is the greatest receiver that ever walked the earth, they can’t get open without the defense respecting the other routes. Otherwise, all the defense to has to do is double team them, leaving the others in single coverage.
This shift in schematic emphasis has vast fiscal implications as well. The money allotted to the receiving corp can no longer be disproportionately given to one receiver. It must cover all the different players needed to form a symbiotic, multi-level attack. That’s how the NFL has reached a point where the Browns were applauded for paying a slot receiver 75 million dollars. Ten years ago, such a move would have been met with laughter and derision.
The age of the “number one” receiver has come to an end. The age of the symbiotic, multi-level attack is here. I, for one, cannot wait to see what comes next in the evolution of NFL passing.