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Triple play

The most dangerous three-receiver sets in the NFL

Posted: Thursday June 23, 2005 5:49PM; Updated: Friday June 24, 2005 4:14PM
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Expect second-year receiver Larry Fitzgerald to be part of a potent three-receiver attack in Arizona.
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In 2002 I worked on a short animated film called The Mechanics of a Seven-Man Officiating Crew for the NFL officials group . The genesis of this straight-to-video masterpiece was the proliferation of multi-receiver sets.

The NFL officiating standard is that at least one set of eyes has to be on each receiver downfield, which is harder when more offensive players come downfield from seemingly different places on every play.

One of the reasons for the timing of the video was the success of the "Greatest Show on Turf," the Rams' record-setting offense at the turn of the century (the 20th century into 21st century -- the forward pass wasn't even legal at the previous turn of the century). St. Louis offensive coordinator and later head coach Mike Martz used Az-Zahir Hakim as a potent weapon at third receiver, along with several other innovative sets, to keep defenses and officials off balance.

But let's take a step back. Although he might tell you differently, Martz wasn't the first to use multiple formations so successfully. According to SI.com's resident football strategy expert, Paul Zimmerman, the multi-receiver phenomenon had its roots in the early '80s.

After a series of rule changes instituted to increase scoring (illegal chucks, less strict application of offensive holding, no stickum, etc.), coaches started to expand their passing games.

In 1981, Joe Gibbs' Redskins switched to a one-running back set and their offense took off. Gibbs inverted traditional logic by softening the defense with the passing game to open up the running game, and later in the '80s he used three talented receivers -- Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders -- to do this. Dr. Z rattled off dozen nicknames for the Redskins' multi-receiver attack -- Trips, Spaghetti, Bunch, the Snake. (He was simultaneously discussing lunch with the Flaming Redhead, so perhaps I misunderstood some of the names). Whatever you called it, the 'Skins' single-back gameplan caught defenses off guard. With all those talented receivers running around, defenses had to lay back to guard the pass, which helped the running game.

Not long after Gibbs started winning Super Bowls, the run-and-shoot offense came into vogue, featuring one back, four receivers and no tight ends. Jim Kelly's Houston Gamblers  rewrote the thin volume that is the USFL record book in 1984. NFL teams such as the Oilers, Bills and Lions followed in the late '80s and early '90s with their wide-open passing game. Then defenses adjusted. They figured out ways to rush the passer effectively, causing turnovers and plenty of pain for the quarterback. And the illegal-chuck rule, while still on the books, wasn't called as regularly, allowing defensive backs to become very physical.

The run and shoot basically ran a fade pattern in the mid-90s. Instead of lining up all kinds of receivers, coordinators were busy mimicking Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, which more often kept a fullback on the field and used short passing to control the game.