Despite the declarations of ESPN analysts and football statisticians, a wide receiver’s value extends beyond his catches, yards and touchdowns. But football has become a game of stats. If we can’t analyze it statistically, we don’t bother. Its the fantasy football sickness. If you’re not scoring me points, you suck at football.
A good example of fantasy football interests obscuring football reality is Larry Fitzgerald. He might be the best receiver in the NFL, whether he is catching passes or not. Opposing defenses game plan receivers based on their ability to catch passes, not on whether they are actually doing it. Larry’s numbers haven’t been startling; 65.6 yards per game through seven games. But his impact on the game always is.
ICONLarry Fitzgerald's value lies far beyond the stat sheet or fantasy scoreboard.
Defenses recognize him as the biggest threat to their security, so they design their defensive game plan to stop him. If you overload one area, you free up the other. If you look at one thing, you aren’t looking at the other. The mere presence of a receiver as talented as Larry Fitzgerald throws off the whole algorithm. Andre Roberts has emerged as a potent receiving threat for the Cardinals specifically because he is catching so
much single coverage.
Wide receivers who take blocking seriously are rare, therefore extremely valuable.Because defenses bracket Larry Fitzgerald. They double-team him. They keep a safety over the top of him constantly. They put their strongest defenders on him. They try to bury him. But all they do is make themselves vulnerable in other areas. If he is out wide, the middle of the field will be vulnerable. If he comes across the middle, the sidelines will be vulnerable. If he goes deep, there will be men open short. And an increased focus on Larry’s receiving skills hurts a defense’s ability to stop the run. Then when the Cardinals do run the ball, Larry’s ability to block becomes and extra weapon.
Coaches love the receiver who attacks his blocking duties with gusto. He is praised in practice and in meetings for a job well done. Running backs are extra appreciative for the effective downfield block, because they know they won’t be able to break a long run without one.
Once a running back breaks through the first line of defense into the secondary, there is space between him and his would be tacklers; space that is easily triangulated into a proper angle to make a tackle. Football players are motion physicists, calculating angles and velocities on the fly. Defenders understand pursuit angles intuitively, instantly gauging the trajectory of their target and tracking him down. That’s why its so difficult for a running back to take a hand-off the distance. Safeties get paid to track and destroy
But the defenders angle of attack is based on an unobstructed line; a direct path. A hustling receiver who gets between the safety and the running back impedes that attack, and the running back sprints to paydirt.
But to put yourself in position to make that game changing block is difficult. First off, it takes a lot of hustle. Running routes is very tiring. The tendency is to want to rest a bit on run plays and save yourself for passing plays. But its usually on the play that you decide to rest that the ball scoots into the secondary and you wish you hadn’t been so lazy. You especially wish you hadn’t when you watch film the next day and coach slows down the tape to point out your f*ck-up. “Its sh*tty effort like this that we can’t have
gentlemen. Nate, you’re killing us!”
But merely hustling isn’t enough to make that key block. If it is a zone defense, the receiver must read the defensive secondary and block the MDM; most dangerous man. That could be the cornerback or the safety, depending on the design of the run play. If its an inside run, the receiver will likely block the safety. So he releases inside at the snap of the ball and attacks the near safety. If the safety retreats at the snap of the ball and does not pose himself as a threat, the receiver turns back on the cornerback. It is up to him to judge the most dangerous man.
On wide runs, the receiver might stay put on the corner and tie him up. The rules vary depending on the line’s blocking scheme and the defensive coverage. In Denver, our rule for wide runs was a technique called “push/crack”. The push was toward the cornerback on top of us, the crack was on the safety.
The technique was to come straight off the ball and attack the corner but to eyeball the safety to your side. If he came up to support the outside run, you released the corner and came down to crack back on the safety. That was always a healthy collision, and it was hard to find receivers who embraced a technique that resulted in such a healthy collision.
But Larry is not afraid of that hit. Neither are many of the other premiere receivers in the league. None of that gets celebrated, though, because the camera is fixed on the ball carrier and all anyone wants to talk about are statistics. The nuance of the game is buried underneath the numbers.
But coaches and teammates see it. And they appreciate it. Behind every pro-bowl running back, there are receivers who are hustling downfield to lay a block and clear his path. It doesn’t score points in fantasy leagues, but it does score points in the National Football League. Inside the bubble of the NFL, that’s all that matters.
Nate Jackson played six seasons for the Broncos. He is a freelance writer and is currently writing a book about life in the NFL, to be published by Harper Collins.