Thus, Madden's dictum: "A team should never practice on a field that is not lined. Your players have to become aware of the field's boundaries." That awareness—"a sense of where you are," as basketball's Bill Bradley calls it—is only one of the "instincts" a good pass catcher must have. Another is the ability to acquire the ball, with both eyes and hands, the moment it appears in the receiver's vicinity.
"The first thing you do when you turn around," says Biletnikoff, "you automatically look up, or pretty much straight ahead at eye level. That's where I try to catch the ball. Usually Snake has the ball right around your head somewhere, so it's easier to pick up the ball with your vision starting up and working down, than it is with your eyes down at the start and then working up. Otherwise the ball could be over your head before you saw it. In the same way, the position of your hands when you turn and look for the ball is important, too."
Biletnikoff cups his hands, palms out, over the scarred numbers on his practice jersey. "On 'in' patterns and on 'hooks' and 'outs,' " he says, "you should always have your hands in the position where, if the ball were thrown right there, you could catch it right then. If the ball isn't thrown on target—like if it's up too high, or to either side, or just about to kiss the carpet—you can still catch it. If you already have your hands chest high, it's easy to work to either side—high or low. But if your hands are low at the start—and a lot of receivers have the bad habit of dropping their arms after making their break—it's hard to get your arms back up. That's how most passes are missed. Sometimes you see a guy raising his arms too fast and flat knocking the ball away. It's one thing I've always worked on—getting my hands in one ready position, all the time, and going after the ball from there."
In an instant an entire philosophy comes clear—the philosophy of the Wide Receiver Manuel Dexterides, who hurls his carefully tuned, eminently fragile body into the meat grinder of pro football week after week. The guy you see every Sunday getting hit in midair, flipping over to land with a thud on the top of his hat yet hanging on to the ball. Why does he do it?
Biletnikoff gets up and tucks his silver helmet under his arm, like the Headless Horseman, and shakes a sticky goodby. Later, outside the locker room, Clifford Branch is standing beside his old Dodge, natty in a leather jacket and snakeskin boots. He pauses for a moment to ponder the question of "footsteps"—that catchall encompassing the crashing, stomping, bending, folding, spindling and mutilating that a wide receiver is prone to, and the inevitable psychological reaction, hesitation. How do they handle it?
" George Atkinson, our strong-side safety, is my roommate in camp and on the road," Branch says, stroking his goatee. "He's the kind of guy that hits people hard for a living. I asked him about footsteps once and he told me. 'Clifford,' he said, 'you know that defensive man is going to hit you whether you catch the ball or not. He's going to hit you because you're there. But you're responsible for the ball, that's what they're paying you for. So you got to catch it.' That's the way it is, so I catch it." He smiles and climbs into the car. "Just ask Freddie, he'll tell you."
Yes, indeed, Manuel Dexterides.