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White Lightning
Michael Silver
November 30, 1998
With no pomp and precious little padding, the Broncos' deceptively fast Ed McCaffrey has become the NFL's unlikeliest star wide receiver
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November 30, 1998

White Lightning

With no pomp and precious little padding, the Broncos' deceptively fast Ed McCaffrey has become the NFL's unlikeliest star wide receiver

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Shortly before the '91 NFL draft, Ed says, he ran consecutive 4-38 40s that were timed by the San Diego Chargers. Though McCaffrey never was a full-time starter with the New York Giants, who took him in the third round of the draft, he led the team in receptions in his second year, with 49. His aw-shucks appearance also made him a primary target off the field. He was routinely denied access to the team bus by drivers who didn't believe he was a player. "Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor would tell the driver they'd never seen me before and make me wait outside for five minutes," McCaffrey says.

Once at Giants training camp, McCaffrey was the last player in the locker room, and a janitor approached him and began screaming, "Pick up those damn towels!" When the shocked McCaffrey didn't respond, the janitor ordered him out of the room.

After Dan Reeves replaced Ray Handley as the Giants' coach before the '93 season, McCaffrey's role diminished. He was still unsigned two days after camp began in '94 when he received a stunning call from Reeves. "He told me they already had enough receivers," McCaffrey recalls. "That was the most devastating point in my career. We had a new apartment and a two-month-old baby, and I had to find a job."

Reeves, who now coaches the Atlanta Falcons, recently said that cutting McCaffrey was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. After a yearlong apprenticeship under Rice and Taylor in San Francisco, McCaffrey was lured to Denver, which had hired Shanahan following the Niners' Super Bowl victory over the Chargers in January '95. Bill Walsh, who came out of retirement to spend the '95 season as an offensive assistant with San Francisco, says he was told the team lost a chance to retain McCaffrey when it balked at paying him $350,000 a season. McCaffrey won a starting job in '96 and caught a total of 93 passes for 1,143 yards and 15 touchdowns over the next two seasons.

"Not a lot of people run routes like he does," says former Denver quarterback Bill Musgrave, now the Philadelphia Eagles' de facto offensive coordinator. "He runs a straight stem on the first 10 yards of almost every route, and from there you don't know what pattern it'll become."

Shanahan says McCaffrey has learned "how to keep people off balance coming out of a break. He can turn a defender's body so that even the greatest athlete can't make a play on the ball."

McCaffrey's blocking prowess is a product of his positioning, strength and hustle. The latter quality most impresses Simms, a Giants quarterback when McCaffrey arrived. "He was skin and bones back then, but he's been working on those arms in the weight room for eight years," Simms says. McCaffrey and Smith have succeeded Rice and Taylor as the league's best blocking tandem, a fact that is not lost on their teammates. Last month, when Davis presented Rolexes to his blockers, the wideouts were stunned to learn that they'd been included.

McCaffrey's breakthrough has come this year. Despite sitting out Sunday's 40-14 win over the Oakland Raiders with a hamstring injury, he has 44 catches for 774 yards and seven touchdowns. Now McCaffrey looks like a lock to make his first Pro Bowl. "People underestimate him," Elway says. "They'll bump him, but he's so strong that he'll just toss the corner and blow by him."

During a game against San Diego on Nov. 8, Shanahan noticed that the Chargers were paying special attention to McCaffrey. It didn't work: McCaffrey matched his career highs of nine catches and 133 receiving yards in a 27-10 Broncos win. The game showed what a steal Denver had in a player who will earn a relatively paltry $897,000 a year through 2000. A few weeks earlier Sharpe had created a stir by telling USA Today, "If Ed McCaffrey was black...he'd be making three-and-a-half million dollars a year."

Shanahan, noting that Sharpe and McCaffrey have the same agent, Marvin Demoff, laughs and asks, "Do you think those guys are in cahoots?" However, the coach says he hopes to sign McCaffrey to a lucrative extension after this season.

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