The quality throughout the NFL today is unprecedented. "When I came into the league, it seems that every team had one guy," says Jet quarterback Ken O'Brien, who made his debut in 1984. "We had Wesley Walker, and he was really reliable, a big-play guy. Then we had Lam Jones, who was a threat, but wasn't very reliable. And then we had a bunch of other guys. Now, we've got Al Toon and Rob Moore, who are great players; Chris Burkett, who's really underrated; and a quick darter, Terance Mathis, who's got a chance to be great. Our depth is unbelievable."
It's easy to pick the premier wideout tandems. A poll of coaches, scouts and executives produced near unanimous results:
•The best one-two combination. Rice and John Taylor of the 49ers, in a walk. "Rice is in a world of his own, a freak of the game," says Lion assistant Dave Levy. "I'm not convinced that on some teams Taylor wouldn't be the better player," says former Niner scouting director Tony Razzano, who had a hand in drafting them both. A fearless blocker, Taylor has helped spring Rice on a few of his long scores. Even when Rice had his MVP game in Super Bowl XXIII, it was Taylor who caught the winning TD pass from Montana with 34 seconds to play.
•The best trio. Monk, Clark and Ricky Sanders of the Redskins. This one is a tough call, because Buffalo has developed a formidable threesome in Lofton, Andre Reed and Don Beebe. But the Washington guys are considered the toughest threesome in the league, while also being among the most explosive. Often the Skins use two tight ends to help protect the quarterback, which means Monk and Clark are double-covered on a lot of plays, but they still get open. Together, the three wideouts have averaged 209 catches a season in the last four years.
•The best foursome. When the Oilers lost Hill and Tony Jones to the Falcons via Plan B in the off-season, the distinction of having the best group of four receivers went with them. Atlanta already had so much depth that Hill probably wouldn't have started for his new team, but with Rison's holdout lasting into the first week of the season, Hill probably will join Mike Pritchard (50 catches as a rookie in '91) as the starting slot receivers in the four-wideout Red Gun formation, with Jones and Haynes on the outside. Meanwhile, in Houston, the Oilers can still hit you with Jeffires, Givins, Duncan and Leonard Harris. Not bad.
The Jets might have the most intriguing corps of receivers in the NFL. Defensing New York on nickel downs is like trying to stop a frontcourt of Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. In their three-receiver sets, the Jets can send out 6'3", 205-pound Moore, 6'4", 205-pound Toon and 6'4", 200-pound Burkett, or they can Smurf you with 5'10", 170-pound Mathis. It's like watching Three Men and a Baby. "Being so big," Moore says, "we don't fit the norm, and teams don't know how to play us. If Al and I are in the game, we can go over people or take a beating at the line and still get loose to make a catch."
When Burkett came into the league, as a second-round draft pick by the Bills in 1985, "the question was, Could a 6'4", 200-pound receiver really play?" he says. "The state of the art at the time was Miami, with Clayton and Duper [both 5'9"]. Now the whole issue is who has the talented downfield people, regardless of size. To win now, with teams so balanced and so even, you need one or two big strikes a game. There are so many different kinds of receivers who can give you those big strikes."
Even career underachievers such as Fryar have been swept along by this wave of success in the wide-receiver ranks. The last wideout to be chosen No. 1 in the draft—the Patriots made him the first pick in 1984—Fryar had a career year in '91 with 68 catches for 1,014 yards. But not everyone has broken clear of the morass of talented pass catchers. A player as good as Eric Martin of the New Orleans Saints still toils in relative obscurity, despite averaging 71 catches and 972 yards over the last four seasons.
Another thing: Even the teams with undistinguished wideouts are finding they can win by flooding the secondary. San Diego, once the base of operation for Air Coryell, has topped the NFL in rushing yards per carry the past two years behind the bruising duo of Marion Butts and Rod Bernstine (a converted tight end), whose combined weight is 486 pounds. But former Charger coach Dan Henning, who is now the Lions' offensive coordinator, made a fundamental change in his coaching philosophy after San Diego got off to an 0-5 start last season.
"We'd been running the ball out of necessity, because of a lack of [quality] wide receivers," Henning says. "So we're playing our fifth game, against Kansas City, and we play close to perfect. No turnovers. We outgain them 311 yards to 182. Our backs rush for 156 yards. And we lose 14-13. I'm walking off the field, saying to myself, It doesn't work. In today's football, it just doesn't work.