In 1973 Los Angeles obtained Harold Jackson from Philadelphia, and that season the gifted Jackson caught 40 passes for an average gain of 21.9 yards. L.A.'s team average climbed from 5.55 yards per pass attempt to an NFL-best 6.88—and the Rams climbed from third place to first with a 12-2 record.
Now in 1978, one of the big reasons for all those THE PACK IS BACK banners and bumper stickers in Green Bay is the fact that the speedy Lofton has provided the upstart Packers with the home-run threat they have not had in years. After three straight fourth-place finishes, the Packers, whose passing attack has produced eight touchdowns—two more than last season at this point—are 6-1 and in first place in the NFC Central.
In assessing the worth of a Deep Threat, one also must understand the theory of brinksmanship: the threat of a bomb can be more effective than the bomb itself.
"Just having the capability of throwing the bomb makes everything else that much easier to do," says Miami Coach Don Shula. "If opponents spend a lot of time double-teaming one receiver or two outside receivers, that opens up pass routes for your tight end and for backs coming out of the backfield. But if they spend a lot of time worrying about deep coverage, they're probably not doing the proper job on run support, and that enables your running game to get going."
Nevertheless, when these young Deep Threats showed up, the bomb had moved to the top of the NFL's endangered-species list. Or as Oakland's Cliff Branch, an older Deep Threat, put it, "The bomb don't drop much anymore."
In the heyday of the long pass, 1962, NFL teams averaged 7.1 yards per pass play. Since then that figure has steadily declined, plummeting to an alltime low of 5.18 yards last season. The total drop-off over 15 seasons was almost 30%. More alarming to those who view the bomb as an integral part of the game's appeal was last year's NFC average of 4.79 yards per pass play. That figure was almost a yard below the AFC average, and one reason why the AFC had a 19-9 record against the NFC.
"Defense starts with stopping the bomb," says Shula, who understands that a long scoring pass can be a psychological game breaker as well as a game winner. In 1977, a team that completed a touchdown pass of 40 yards or more won that game almost 66% of the time. "The long touchdown pass can break your back defensively," says St. Louis' Mel Gray, who in his eight seasons has caught 39 touchdown passes, including 24 of at least 40 yards. "It has something to do with the defense seeing the ball up in the air and knowing they're going to get killed. They're helpless."
Coaches understandably have ambivalent feelings about the bomb. On the one hand, they love it when their team uses it. On the other, they hate it when the opposition uses it. As a result, they are battling the bomb with more troops than ever before. The 3-4 defense can put as many as eight defenders back against a pass. Also, more and more teams are switching to the so-called nickel coverage, in which a minimum of five defensive backs are deployed in obvious passing situations.
By far the most effective deterrent to the bomb has been the zone defense, which gradually replaced man-to-man coverage in the late '60s and early '70s. "If teams get good at the zone, the passing game may become extinct," Warfield warned at the turn of the decade. He was more prophetic than he imagined. In the '60s, individual receivers gained more than 1,200 yards in a season 28 times. But so far in the '70s, not a single receiver has reached the 1,200-yard mark.
Recognizing that the three networks didn't ante up some $656 million over four years strictly for three yards and a cloud of dust, the NFL has launched an intensive countercrusade to "Save the Bomb." Almost annually, the league adopts new rules supposedly designed to breathe life into the passing game. To date, the most effective change is the one introduced this year that prohibits contact with a receiver once he has gone five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. But despite the ballyhoo in NFL publicity releases, statistics indicate even this may be a case of too little too late.