Steep learning curve for Rams receivers ..
By Jim Thomas
Megatron didn’t do it. T.O.? Uh, no. Not even the greatest of the great among NFL wide receivers, Jerry Rice, could make the claim.
Besides Calvin Johnson, Terrell Owens, and the incomparable Rice, you can add Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Marvin Harrison, and the dynamic Rams duo of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt to the list.
None of these NFL greats of the present and recent past could reach 1,000 yards as rookies.
Consider this a cautionary tale for those expecting Tavon Austin to take the league by storm this season. Gaining 1,000 yards is the gold standard of excellence for receivers. The fact that it rarely happens among NFL rookies is testament to how difficult the transition is from college to the pros.
Since the start of the Super Bowl era in 1966, only 11 players have reached 1,000 yards receiving as rookies. Only six of those 11 were first-round draft picks, a group that stretches from Cincinnati’s A.J. Green in 2011 back to San Diego’s John Jefferson in 1978.
The Rams traded up to the No. 8 overall spot with Buffalo in April to draft Austin, the gifted receiver, runner and return man from West Virginia. They followed that up by taking his college teammate, Stedman Bailey, in Round 3.
But to think that either Rams rookie can crack 1,000 yards this season may be misguided optimism. Nearly a half-century of NFL history suggests otherwise.
“Putting quarterback aside, the transition for wide receivers is the sharpest,” former Rams coach Mike Martz said. “There’s so much information to assimilate when it comes to learning the playbook, learning how to run routes at this level, getting off the line of scrimmage, reading coverages.”
It can be overwhelming early for a rookie wideout, so much so that Martz says only half-jokingly, “You can have so much in your head that you can forget to catch the ball.”
As architect of the Greatest Show on Turf, Martz not only was an expert on developing quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Marc Bulger), but an expert in getting the most out of wide receivers. Bruce and Holt, both potential Hall of Famers, are among the top tandems at that position in NFL history.
Kevin Curtis, Az Hakim and Shaun McDonald were all skilled complementary receivers who parlayed their time in St. Louis into lucrative second contracts elsewhere. Veteran Ricky Proehl enjoyed some of his best seasons in St. Louis.
Together, Bruce and Holt topped 1,000 yards on 16 occasions. Throw in running back Marshall Faulk, and the Rams had 1,000-yard receivers 17 times from 1995 through 2007. The Rams haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since ’07, when Holt gained 1,189 yards on 93 catches.
Now here come the 2013 Rams with what looks like the most talented, speediest corps of pass-catchers since those glory days. And perhaps the youngest group at the position in franchise history. The Young & the Swift.
Can Austin, or second-year man Chris Givens break the 1,000-yard drought? Or maybe it’s tight end Jared Cook? Is this the year Brian Quick breaks out? The veteran of the Rams’ WR corps is Austin Pettis — entering his third NFL season. At tight end, free-agent pickup Cook is entering his fifth season, but he’s only 26.
“They are a good group of young guys and they want to get better,” said wide receivers coach Ray Sherman. “They’re listening, they’re learning. And they’re gonna have to play. So what we’re trying to do is get them all ready to play. You can’t redshirt them. We drafted them to play, and that’s what they’re gonna do.”
During the Greatest Show on Turf era, the sign in the wide receiver room at Rams Park read: ”Be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there.”
Martz adds as corollary: “And don’t fool the quarterback.”
In today’s fast-paced, complex game, that’s easier said than done, especially for young receivers.
“One of the differences making the jump from the collegiate level to the NFL level is the schemes are so complex,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said. “There’s so many minor adjustments that you can’t think about while you’re in the middle of your route. It just has to be a reaction or you’re too late.
“The second thing is, these guys come into the league and they’re the cream of the crop coming out of college. I mean, you look at Tavon, you look at Stedman, they’re upper-echelon type players.”
But like all NFL rookies, Austin and Bailey went up against a lot of players in college who no longer are playing football. In the NFL, they’re playing against the best of the best.
“The talent gap isn’t as wide,” Clemens said. “So little things as far as technique become huge, and rookies just don’t know it yet. That’ll come with time.”
In the NFL, an 8-yard out route means eight yards. Not 7½. Not 8 yards and a foot. The devil’s in the details, and Sherman is the point man when it comes to making sure those details stick.
In the NFL, Sherman says, “You have different splits, alignments, different routes. Whether it’s routes, whether it’s blocking assignments — it’s just a lot of different things.”
But knowing where to line up and how to run a precise route is only half the battle. Working through the maze of what’s happening on the other side of the line of scrimmage — and doing it in a few quick seconds — often is the difference between a successful play and second-and-10.
“The coverages are so much more complicated than they are in college,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “We ask (receivers) to read coverages and be able to dissect things, and run certain routes against certain coverages.”
Complicating that task is the fact that modern NFL defenses are adept at mixing coverages, disguising looks. Things may not be what they appear at first glance.
“If a wide receiver goes out and runs 10 patterns, maybe on four of them he won’t have to think about an adjustment or a different technique,” Clemens said. “We require a lot from our perimeter players. It’s an adjustment for them because they line up in college, they see Cover 3, they play Cover 3. Here, we see Cover 3, it’s gonna be anything but Cover 3.
(Cover 3 is a three-deep zone.)
Is it man? Is it zone? Or a combination of man and zone?
Never shy about offering an opposing view, Bruce thinks it’s not quite as tough for pass-catchers to make the transition to the NFL, because of the preponderance of passing that now takes place in high school, college and even at the little league level.
“There’s so much 7-on-7 going on through the high schools and it goes on through college,” he said. “Quarterbacks are getting a lot more reps. Wide receivers are getting a lot more reps. By the time they get here, they can almost be a lot more ready than I was (in 1994).”
Even so, there are limits to that preparation, especially when it comes to attacking zone defenses.
“When you throw a zone in front of a guy, that’s where they may have some issues,” Bruce said. “Learning how to run routes vs. zone. Sit down in a zone. Get open in a zone.”
MORE THAN MENTAL
Givens said the attention to detail needed to succeed in the NFL was one of the biggest adjustments from the college game for him last season. The playbook has to be a rookie’s favorite publication; the film room his favorite hangout. If not, well, it’s not going to happen.
With all the meeting time, all the preparation, all the study of opponents, it has been said that playing in the NFL is like getting your Ph.D. in football. Even so, it’s still a game of speed, strength and athletic ability.
As the No. 6 overall pick in 1999, Holt was considered a guy who played fast and practiced hard. Even so, getting used to the pace of play in the NFL was an eye-opener. So was the press coverage and overall level of physical play by defensive backs.
“I got to the NFL and the knob was turned up even more (in terms of pace),” Holt said. “And then the physical play. Being bumped. A lot more jostling in the pros than there was in college. So getting used to that while maintaining the discipline of the route, and then getting open, and getting to the spot where you’re supposed to be to catch the football was an adjustment.”
The physical nature of the NFL game prompted Givens to dedicate himself to getting a little bigger and stronger in the offseason, while not losing any speed. The idea was to make it more difficult for defensive backs to bump him off routes, or jam him at the line.
The presence of Holt and Bruce during training camp helped the young receivers in innumerable ways — from Bruce lecturing and demonstrating effective techniques to beat press coverage, to Holt offering tips on route-running.
“Isaac helped me the most with just narrowing my goals and narrowing my focus,” Givens said. “Staying focused on the things that I can control.
“Torry came out and just helped me get more comfortable with my abilities. He told me little things I could do here and there that are gonna help me out. Those guys just really helped boost my confidence.”
A little confidence never hurt. And swagger can be an important element for the successful wideout. It certainly worked for the Greatest Show principals.
So when it was pointed out that wide receivers often make a big jump from year one to year two in the NFL, Givens’ reply was illuminating.
“I’m making sure that that comes true,” said Givens, who had 698 yards as a rookie.
Now, that’s an answer that would get a thumb’s up from Bruce and Holt.