So the talk turns to catching footballs, and suddenly Biletnikoff is right at home.
"With these damn zones, it's harder than ever to get open," he says, "but that only makes it more fun when you do. You've got to read them as they develop, and then show them different looks from the line of scrimmage to keep the defenders guessing. I use three different releases off the line. You can run a hook, an out or an in off one release, say, and then go on to the others. If you give a guy the same look every time, he'll play you the same way. But if in the first 10 or 12 yards you're doing something different but ending up in the same spot, then you've got him guessing. You're being radical—not falling into a pattern, not being consistent. That's how you find out how good a defensive back is, by putting a little challenge to him. He starts asking himself, 'What is he going to do to me now?' For me, that's the fun part of the game, when it gets to be a guessing game." He smiles a bit ruefully. "And when you specialize on third-down passes like I do, you've got to have fun at it."
Biletnikoff's pi�ce de r�sistance is what football coaches call "working back to the ball"—that is, going deeper than the intended catching point, then faking out the defenders by retracing his steps to a prearranged spot and arriving there simultaneously with the football.
"If it's third and eight," Biletnikoff says, "I'll go down maybe 13, 14 yards, and I know I've got five or six yards to work back to the ball. So if I don't beat him the first time, on the way out, I've got another chance to beat him coming back."
By now most defenders expect Biletnikoff to work back on third-down passes and are ready for the move. But he doesn't do it every time. Sometimes he will go "up and over," faking a turn back or to the sidelines and then, as the defender commits himself, flat blowing past him. He did precisely that against the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago. Oakland had a first down at the Chiefs' 32 in the first quarter. Biletnikoff split to the right side (his favorite jumping-off point) and took off in the face of Cornerback Kerry Reardon. "Up and over" he went. Stabler's pass was there, and Biletnikoff fell into the end zone for a touchdown. It was his 521st reception, tying him with Bobby Mitchell as the sixth-best in that category in NFL history. Later in the game he broke the tie with another reception, and after 12 games needed only 11 more to catch up with No. 5, Lance Alworth.
Watchfulness—keen observation of the opponent—is one of the keys to his success. "Too many receivers don't watch closely," Biletnikoff says. "They'll watch what the cornerback does, for instance, and let it go at that. I take all four guys on my side of the field into consideration: the middle and outside linebacker, the cornerback and the safety. How do they rotate up? How quickly do the linebackers get into the zone, and how deep? How do they play the sideline? If you do that, then you get a pretty good idea of the whole zone and how it works. The worst thing in a given zone is undisciplined players." He shrugs and winces. "You want them to be very disciplined because then you know where they're going and where you have to go to beat them. If you're playing against undisciplined players, particularly rookies, they might do anything and their very mistakes can mess you up."
When Biletnikoff isn't running his short third-down work-back patterns, he's usually taking that most punishing of routes, the "in." Because Biletnikoff is relatively slow, at least by Branch's standards, his routes are short to medium in length and put him in direct conflict with the linebackers, men who are as tall as the 6'1" Biletnikoff but who outweigh his 190 pounds by 40 pounds or more.
"It's not a difficult pattern to run," he says with a shrug. "All you have to be concerned with, once you break in, is finding the hole there. The biggest fun I have out of it is trying to get 15 or 17 yards deep so that the linebacker loses the sense of where I am. He can drop only so far with you before he has to turn around to see what's happening in front of him. You know he's only going to go 10 or 12 yards at the very deepest, so if you keep going, he's got to give up on you and turn the responsibility over to the corner or the safety. If you time it perfectly, he's turning back to the line of scrimmage just as you make your break. He sees the ball thrown, but you're already working toward it. Then you're between the two defenders, and—hey, presto!—you catch it." He chuckles and shakes his head, delighted at the thought.
Though "in" patterns may delight Biletnikoff, they have the opposite effect on coaches who like to keep their wide receivers intact. In the middle, where such pass routes terminate, the high-energy convergence of head-hunting linebackers and defensive backs reaches bone-breaking magnitude. A guy can get hurt in there. With this in mind, Oakland much prefers to use the sideline pass, particularly to Biletnikoff, who seems to have eyes in his toes. He can drop them just inside the sideline stripe without appearing to look down.
"It isn't really that tough, working back to the ball on the sideline," he says. "You don't look for the line, but you can almost see it. It gets to be an instinctive thing. You know how many yards you've got to go before you're out of bounds, and you just drop your feet before you go over the line."