At the same time, college teams were cultivating outstanding wide receivers—in part because football was attracting more premier athletes, in part because the college game was becoming more pass-oriented. College coaches began visiting pro teams. Two of Tennessee's coaches made annual trips to Cincinnati to learn the Bengals' offense and implemented large chunks of the Cincy passing game into the Vols' playbook. By using high draft picks on Tennessee wideouts Tim McGee (in 1985) and Carl Pickens (in '92), the Bengals acquired two players already prepared to play in their system.
The wide-open, pro-style offenses filtered down even into the high schools in the mid-'80s. One of the cradles of football, hallowed Massillon High in Ohio, where Paul Brown coached, switched to a cross between the run-and-shoot and the wing T called the run-and-boot, in which a mobile quarterback throws out of a variety of three-wideout formations.
When run-and-shoot guru Mouse Davis, now coach of the New York/New Jersey Knights in the World League, conducted a coaches' clinic at Giants Stadium this winter, more than 250 coaches overstuffed a meeting room, and Davis had to turn some away. One high school coach flew his staff up from Florida. "It used to be the run-and-shoot wasn't acceptable football to traditionalists," Davis says. "Now it's not chaos, not hodgepodge; it's a rational approach to a winning offense. Coaches everywhere can see that the game is becoming more wide-receiver-oriented rather than a slug-mouth game. Wide receivers give you more production than big backs."
Says Jet general manager Dick Steinberg, "For the last 10 years, year in and year out, wide receiver has been the deepest position in the draft."
Multisport standouts, like Minnesota's Carter and New England's Greg McMurtry, contributed to that depth by choosing to concentrate on football when they came out of high school. Basketball coaches Denny Crum of Louisville, Bill Frieder of Michigan and Gene Ready of Purdue went hard after Carter, a shooting guard whose primary athletic interest, one might have thought at the time, surely was basketball. After all, three of his older brothers had played college basketball—one, Butch, went on to a seven-year career in the NBA—and Cris's heroes were Magic Johnson, Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas. But, no, he chose Ohio State and football. "The USFL was still playing when I had to make my choice," says Cris, who was a two-time all-state football player in high school. "I just thought there were so many more jobs in football, and I thought to be a great football player would be easier than being a great basketball player."
The decision was tougher for McMurtry, who grew up playing football and baseball in the Boston suburb of Brockton. As a high school senior in 1985, he scored 15 of his 22 touchdowns on pass receptions and was an All-America selection. Bo Schembechler of Michigan, Joe Paterno of Penn State and Hayden Fry of Iowa headed a parade of football coaches through the McMurtrys' living room. Greg signed with Michigan. But when he hit .424, with six home runs the next spring, baseball scouts told him he had a chance to be a first-round pick in the June 1986 draft. The hometown Red Sox, especially, seemed interested, but, recalls McMurtry, "I wanted to play football. I loved the excitement and constant activity. I liked baseball, but there are so many lulls in the action."
Still, a week before the draft, some scouts asked McMurtry if he would consider a baseball offer if one came his way. McMurtry said he would listen to any proposal, but he wanted the scouts to know that he was committed to Michigan and that he wasn't saying that just to raise the stakes in baseball negotiations. The Red Sox ignored his warning and drafted him in the first round. "I was shocked," McMurtry says. "I couldn't believe they did it after what I told them."
However, Boston general manager Lou Gorman says he couldn't resist because he saw a future outfield of McMurtry, Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks. And the Red Sox made what for them was an unprecedented offer of a $172,500 signing bonus to McMurtry. The quick money and thoughts of Fenway Park fame tempted McMurtry but didn't change his mind. He went on to Michigan, where he finished with 2,163 receiving yards (the second-best total in school history) and dropped baseball after his junior year. Then he was selected by the Patriots in the third round of the 1990 draft.
At 6'2" and 207 pounds, McMurtry runs the 40 in 4.55 seconds. His size is good, his speed is average, and at 25, his football future is on the upswing. He caught 41 passes last year, becoming a starter when Hart Lee Dykes was injured. With Dykes sidelined again because of an injury, McMurtry will start in Sunday's season opener along with Irving Fryar.
"I have no regrets," says McMurtry, who has a bachelor's degree in general studies. "It's easy to say I could be in the big leagues today, starting for the Red Sox, but I could be out of baseball, too. Now I have an education, and I'm playing a sport I like, where I know wide receivers are a big part of the offense. To move the ball consistently in today's football, you've got to have quality receivers."