Welcome to wide receiver, the most difficult position from which to dominate an NFL game. Everyone else on the field must perform before the ordinary receiver can. The linemen must block, the backs must decoy, the quarterback must put the ball on target, and the whole thing, of course, depends on the coach having called a decent play in the first place. Only after all this can a receiver shine. If football is chess, the modern game's best receivers—players like Lance Alworth of the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s, Paul Warfield of the Miami Dolphins and Lynn Swann and John Stallworth of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '70s—have been bishops. One of them, used properly, can do great damage. Two can dominate the board.
On the whole, however, today's receivers play more like pawns. They are frequently faster than receivers of the past, but they don't seem to avoid or take hits very well. They tend to drop a money ball under duress, and they have trouble finding the dead spot in the zone. A decent double-team throws them into a state. If they get perfect calls, perfect throws and single coverage, they can get the job done. But dominating a game is beyond them.
Anthony Carter of the Minnesota Vikings and Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers are the exceptions. They are true bishops. Either can dictate the course of a game. Rice, 26, has a Super Bowl ring. The 28-year-old Carter is still looking for one. Many in the league believe he has his best chance to win a championship this season with the powerful Vikings.
Rice, at 6'2", 200 pounds, is built like Hermes. Carter is 5'11" and has no legs to speak of. Over the years his playing weight has fluctuated between 155 and 170 pounds. He jogs with an uneven, flat-footed gait. "I've always said if the good Lord put anybody on earth to play football, it was AC," the Vikings' coach, Jerry Burns, has said. "He just forgot to give him a body."
A body would only get in the way. When Carter sees a pass, his stride smooths out, speeds up and lengthens to nearly three yards. He walks with a clomp, but he runs like liquid. For Carter, as for Rice, it is the smooth stride that enables him to make instantaneous changes of direction. Mix in his discipline while running routes, his absolute concentration, his fearlessness and his confidence in his ability to finesse the defender, and you understand why he is separate from the pack.
What separates Carter from Rice are his deft calculations—his "nose for the ball"—and his usage of available airspace. He is a master of all the field's dimensions. Carter runs slants over the middle, dancing dangerously beneath the linebackers. He exels at quick outs and curls, and he makes the deep turn-ins in front of maniacal safeties. All the seams in and beyond the deep zones are within his reach. But it is in the third dimension, midair, that Carter plays alone. "Against Detroit last season we were just going for field goal position before the half," says Minnesota quarterback Wade Wilson. "I throw him a little out, the cornerback comes up to make a good play, and AC just spins way up in midair, catches it, bounces off the defender and goes for a 25-yard gain to set up the field goal."
"I always watched Paul Warfield, and what I saw was how he picked up the ball early," says Carter. "He made a decision on the ball. Now I seem to pick up the ball, see how fast it's coming, where it's going, and how I can reach it before the defensive back can stop me. I have the edge in the air."
"Well, he's not lying. He can adjust to the football like no one I've ever seen, that's what makes him great." says Bo Schembechler, who coached Carter at the University of Michigan. "Bad balls, ball over the wrong shoulder, balls that shouldn't be caught don't matter. He catches 'em."
"I've thrown him plenty of passes that weren't on rhythm," says Wilson, "but nobody makes an adjustment on the in-flight pass like AC."
Carter first flashed his brilliant NFL playoff colors on Jan. 3, 1988, when he silenced a New Orleans crowd by setting a league record on an 84-yard punt return to start a 44-10 Viking rout. A week later, Minnesota faced the 49ers in San Francisco. Carter jumped all over Candlestick Park, rising above the crowd to catch 10 passes for a playoff-record 227 yards. Rice was held to 28 yards on three catches.