"The next week we go to play the Raiders in a game we have no business winning, we run four wide receivers, twice as much as I ever have, and we win 21-13. We didn't win all the time when we ran that formation, obviously [San Diego ended up 4-12], but we beat New Orleans with it."
In Detroit, Henning has an abundance of talented young wideouts: Jeff Campbell, Mike Farr, Mel Gray, Willie Green, Aubrey Matthews, Herman Moore and Brett Perriman. "We've got seven guys who are good enough to be starters," says Henning. "It's amazing how good these guys are, and how many there are. The game almost has to change, just to accommodate them."
So what's the next move in this football chess game? It's the defensive coordinators' turn to play, and what we'll likely see is a continuation of the decline of the every-down linebacker, and the hastened rise of the big safety. Several teams are picking up on something the New York Giants helped originate in the mid-'80s, when coach Bill Parcells saw the need for what he called the transition player: the man who could bridge the gap between linebacker and safety.
The Giants brought in the likes of 6-foot, 218-pound Greg Cox and 6-foot, 233-pound David Whitmore, who could play on special teams and were strong enough to play the run and the pass in nickel situations. In Miami, defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti plays a "buck linebacker," a hard-hitting converted safety who is quick enough to play along the line of scrimmage as the seventh defensive back on obvious passing downs.
The nickel and dime defenses, and oddball variations of these multicoverage systems, soon will be manned by bigger and more physical players in an attempt to rein in this stampede of receivers running wild through secondaries. "Then," says San Diego player personnel director Billy Devaney, "we'll probably see the resurgence of the running back."
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