To play wide receiver well, a player must possess a combination of physical traits. Body control and agility are essential to a receiver’s success. The primary thing that a receiver must have is the ability to adjust. Anyone can run a 12-yard pass route against air and turn around. The real challenge comes when the receiver faces a defender who is one of the best athletes on the field and who is using the bump-and-run technique.
A receiver must be able to avoid obstacles and move his body in space. To be able to adjust, a player must have a high level of agility. This is the ability to change body position—even in midair—to make a critical play. Upper-body flexibility is also an important part of body control. Upper-body flexibility is the ability to get the hands in position to catch balls that are thrown behind the receiver or thrown poorly. One of the most important aspects of being able to catch the ball is getting the body in position so the ball can be caught. Upper-body flexibility allows the hands to get into place to make the difficult play. This is one of the most fundamental but least understood skills of receiver play, but it is so obvious when you see a smooth, natural athlete with great ball skills pluck a difficult ball out of the air and make it look easy.
Strength is also very important for a receiver. Strength can help in many ways. It helps players get off the line when the defensive back tries to jam them. Strength helps when two players are fighting for position as they run down the field and work for position on the ball. Strength also helps when going up for high balls and jump balls. Plus, adding strength will help players take the pounding and rigors of a long season. Players who are very productive for a long time, such as Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, have great conditioning and a high level of body strength.
Having sure, soft hands, especially the ability to catch the ball in crowded situations, is the skill that defines the receiver position. As players move up in levels of competition, catches become more competitive. The biggest difference between college football and pro football is defense. The NFL is full of the greatest, smartest defensive athletes in the world, and the coverage in pro football is so good that nearly every ball is a contested ball. That’s why the quarterbacks have to be so accurate at that level, because the coverage is so good. Most receivers can run under a pass and catch it, but it takes a truly special player to be able to consistently catch the ball in crowded situations. The ability to catch the ball while being simultaneously hit is the measuring stick for sure hands.
Great focus is the ability to block out all distractions and have single-minded concentration on the football. It’s the ability to block out the crowd, the defenders, and the elements in order to keep all the focus on the football to make the play. Great focus is the ability to know that you are going to be hit but still keep your critical attention on the ball. Focus is the ability to see the ball, feel the sideline, and then make the catch while simultaneously getting your toes down before you get out of bounds.
A good wide receiver is able to find open spaces. The wide receiver’s job is to bring the playbook alive. Every route in the playbook has a certain depth and spacing on the field. The receiver’s job is to run the route at the proper depth and get open at the proper time. The playbook is full of plays, but the skill and discipline of the receiver brings the playbook and the passing game to life. The football field is 120 yards long from endline to endline. Each field is 53 1/3 yards wide. The wide receiver needs to dissect that field and find the open spaces in the zones of the defense. Seeing the space in the coverage, running to it, and sitting down in it are what route running is all about. Smart players who understand coverage and have the best feel for sitting in space are the ones who catch the most balls. Marvin Harrison had a great feel for space. Ryan Broyles (who plays for Oklahoma) has an incredible knack for feeling the space in the zone as well. Both of these players have great peripheral vision and are able to see holes in the defenders’ positioning that the average player doesn’t see. This is a learned skill that has a lot to do with a player’s vision and intelligence, as well as a real understanding of defensive coverage and structure.
Speed and acceleration are also key. Although 100-meter speed is desirable, separation speed is most effective on the football field. Functional speed is what a player uses when he breaks into the open field and runs away from people. We’ve seen many players who would not win the sprint at a track meet but are able to break out in the open with the ball in their hands and never get caught. This competitive speed, or functional speed, matters the most on the football field. Jerry Rice is probably the most famous player who didn’t have a particularly fast 40-yard dash time (4.6 seconds, which is average by NFL standards). However, Rice was the most productive receiver in NFL history. Even late in his career, when I was with Jerry Rice and the Oakland Raiders in 2002, he would catch the ball on the run in the open field and run away from most NFL defensive backs. He just had incredible competitive speed in the open field. Often this results from not only having the ability to run fast but also knowing where to run in the context of a football play. This separates the player with real football sense from those who don’t have it.
Coachability is the willingness of a player to learn, and it’s a huge factor in a player’s overall success. Players who want to learn will improve faster, no matter what level they are at. It’s an attitude they carry with them. There is a saying in the NFL that the best players want to be coached. That is true of the very best players I have been around. The great ones love to be coached because they are always looking for ways to be the very best.
It is also true that the harder you work, the faster you improve as a player. Those who listen and work hard are the ones who improve the fastest. The greatest example of this for me, although he isn’t a wide receiver, is Peyton Manning. We drafted Peyton out of Tennessee in 1998 with the number 1 pick. In the first eight games of his rookie year with the Indi-anapolis Colts, Peyton was terrible, making a lot of mistakes and throwing a ton of interceptions. In the second half of the season, it was amazing to see the transformation in this kid and what he became as a player. His improvement was incredible because the kid worked his tail off to get better every day. Plus, he studied and learned from his mistakes. In the second half of his rookie season, he became a different player. I have never seen a player improve as fast at such a difficult position as Peyton Manning did his rookie season.
Like all good players, a wide receiver needs to have durability. I compare receivers to foreign sports cars. The good ones are highly tuned machines. They often have to be almost completely healthy to perform at a high level. Unlike other positions, most receivers have a difficult time performing when injured. Any NFL player who has played for a number of years has had to play through an assortment of pain and injuries to stay productive over time. The average fan has no idea what professional players go through every week to play on Sundays. Ryan Broyles is the best I’ve been around at the college level at playing with and through injury. He has played in some of the biggest games with shoulder, ankle, and foot injuries that would have kept most players on the sidelines.
The great ones “need to eat.” I have had the opportunity to coach some great record-setting players both in college and in the NFL. They all have different strengths and weaknesses, but amazingly, they have much in common. The great ones are all extremely smart and highly competitive. The other quality that the great player has is an undeniable hunger for the football. He never gets tired of making plays. He always wants the ball. He needs the ball like he needs to eat, like he needs to breathe. He always wants more and is ready to make the next play. You can’t feed him enough. He has this hunger for the ball that comes from the confidence of making plays over and over. It’s not a selfish thing; it’s an undeniable craving for making plays. The thing about receivers, they can’t do their job without help from the quarterback and the play caller, and receivers who want the ball will always let the quarterback and play caller know about it.
The best players are almost always very smart and quick minded. Slow thinkers with poor awareness don’t make great receivers. The great receivers are always able to see two steps ahead. They are great anticipators of the landscape around them. They are quick minded and have the ability to adjust with the moving parts of an ever-flowing game. The modern passing game is a chess game, and the parts are always moving. Receivers and quarterbacks must constantly be ready to adjust and apply certain routes and patterns in order to attack the constantly changing coverages that defenses throw at them. Even more important, the quarterback and the receivers must think alike and be on the same page.
Some people don’t think of receivers as being tough. It takes a different kind of mental toughness and courage to run across the middle of the field on third and 10 and stretch out for a crossing route when you know you’re going to get hit. It takes toughness to crack a linebacker who weighs 30 to 40 pounds more than you on a pitch play. It takes toughness to dig out a safety on a stretch play so he doesn’t tackle the running back. It takes toughness to consistently catch the ball on short intermediate passes across the middle and take hits from linebackers and safeties. A guy such as Wes Welker of the New England Patriots is tough because he catches the ball in the middle in traffic, and he has the courage to run these routes time and time again when the linebackers would love to take him out. Steve Largent was a hall of fame player for the Seattle Seahawks. In a famous play, Largent was hit and knocked out of the opening game of the season by Denver Broncos safety Mike Harden. Fourteen games later that season, the Seahawks were again playing the Denver Broncos, and Mike Harden intercepted the ball in the Seahawks’ end zone and began to return it across the field. As Harden crossed the field, Largent flew out of nowhere and laid the safety out cold. It was one of the greatest retribution hits in NFL history and a great example of a hall of famer’s pride and toughness! Steve Largent had a great comment about his ability. He wasn’t all that big or fast, but he is in the hall of fame because of the way he competed. He said, “I would compete just as hard at the beginning as I would at the end,” meaning the beginning of a play, series, or game. Great players go after and compete for the ball from the beginning all the way to the end. Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of my favorite players, plays so hard and unselfishly without the ball that it inspires everyone around him. He is a joy to watch because he will do anything to help his team win. He will sacrifice his body, and some of his hits on opposing defenders would make a great highlight reel. Hines Ward is a great example of how to play the game hard and tough. He is the ultimate team player and champion.
Thoroughbreds are temperamental. I don’t know why, but the best receivers seem to carry some of the same personality traits as thoroughbreds. They seem to crave attention, they love the limelight, and they are a little temperamental and moody at times. They are definitely high strung. The very best ones take some maintenance, and it just seems to come with the package. I won’t get personal here, but if you do the research, you’ll learn that highly successful wide receivers love to be the center of attention. I don’t think this comes from being selfish as much as it does from these players wanting to do their job well and help the team. To do that, they believe that they have to catch the ball and make big plays, so they want it in the worst way. The great ones are used to making plays, and if they go too long without the ball, they are sure to tell people about it. I have come to expect this from the very best receivers. They need to eat, and the coach has to feed them with the ball to keep them satisfied. Marvin Harrison used to rub his belly every time he wanted the ball as a reminder to the coaching staff that he hadn’t had it for a while. That has become a universal symbol for those in the receiver community. I have never been around a great receiver who didn’t want the ball as often as possible.
Great receivers have pride and a strong work ethic. It is one thing to have great physical ability that enables you to run and catch successfully, but to have a great career in which you are productive over time, you must have the character that stands the test of time. You can’t be truly special—you can’t be the best at your position—without great pride and tremendous work ethic. Pride is that inner competitiveness that says, “I want to be the best, not only the best on my team but better than anyone I play against.” If you’re truly special, you want to be better than anyone who has ever played. Not many players can realistically take that mind-set, although I have been around some who could. But whatever level you play at—high school, college, or pro—you have to play with the utmost confidence. Playing with confidence means that you walk on the field believing that you are going to play better than everyone else on the field—believing that you cannot be covered and that you will not be stopped. Not today.
I have spent a quarter century studying the physical and mental qualities of great receivers. A great receiver is such a complicated combination of traits—agility, body control, strength, quickness, soft hands, physical stamina, concentration, focus, toughness, pride, eye–hand coordination, vision, intelligence, the ability to conceptualize concepts. I could go on. This list still doesn’t seem to paint the total picture of what makes a great player. Exceptional playmakers are made of something special. They have great ability to control their body, and they have an uncanny ability to make plays on the football that others can only dream of. Their pride and competitiveness are at another level than the rest. The complete receiver is one of the most incredible things to view in sports because he can do things we all wish we could do. It is a beautiful and exciting thing to watch. In the next chapter, we will examine how great players refine their game in practice.