Pass attempts have increased this season, as the NFL rule makers had hoped, but only by one pass per team per game. Through the first six games, the completion percentage is up by less than 2%. Statistically, that slight increase, combined with a very minuscule decrease in sacks and interceptions, indicates that each team has completed the extra pass thrown in each game. At the same time, the average yards per pass has crept up from 5.18 to 5.46, and touchdown passes have risen by about 7%.
But even these slight increases hardly seem attributable to the 1978 rule change. For instance, while touchdown passes are up 7% over last season, they are down more than 2% compared to 1976. Also, the increase in yards per pass is only about 10 inches. The gain per catch is down about two inches.
Mel Gray thinks he knows why. "The bump rule has forced defensive backs to play deeper," he says. "They sacrifice the short stuff because there is no percentage in moving up. You can only bump the receiver at the start of the play anyway."
Obviously, the NFL's main hope for the real return of the bomb lies with the young Deep Threats. White has put some pizzazz into Minnesota's attack, and the others have opened up offenses, too.
San Diego's Jefferson is probably the slowest of the burners. However, he has better hands and runs more precise routes than the others, and he doesn't mind going into a crowd for "the more challenging passes, the ones they dare you to do."
Around San Diego, Jefferson is known as The Jefferson Airplane. When he was growing up in Texas, he used his stepfather's surname, Washington, but at Arizona State he switched to Jefferson, his original name. Hearing of his switch from Washington to Jefferson, an NFL scout inquired, "Why did you skip Adams?"
The Patriots' Morgan is known as Roadrunner. At Tennessee he played running back and wingback, as well as wide receiver, and demonstrated long-play capability by averaging 9.2 yards every time he handled the ball. Morgan quickly showed the NFL that those stats were no fluke by making a diving catch for a 45-yard touchdown on his first reception for New England.
When the Jets' Walker was at California, he set an NCAA record by averaging 25.7 yards a catch. He also was timed in a wind-aided 9.2 for the 100. Walker is legally blind in his left eye, the result of a cataract he has had since birth. As a rookie, he also appeared to have boards for hands, dropping three sure touchdown passes. This season, though, he has caught so many balls behind defenders that he now sympathizes with the way they have been hampered by the rule change. "The receiver already has an advantage because he knows where he's going," Walker says. "When the defender could give the receiver a bump, that evened things up. I was a defensive back in high school, so I can see how this kind of thing can cut two ways."
Green Bay's Lofton won the NCAA long-jump title last year, and in 1976 he finished fifth at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Lofton irked some Packer teammates with his arrogance in training camp, and when he dropped a sure touchdown pass in Green Bay's opening win over Detroit, one Packer muttered, "That may be the best thing that ever happened to him." Maybe it was. The next week, against New Orleans, Lofton caught three touchdown passes thrown by David Whitehurst.
As a junior at Stanford, Lofton backed up Dallas' Hill, who likes to call himself Thrill Hill. When Hill spent most of his time last season returning punts—and averaging 12.4 yards per return—he never hesitated to tell writers, "If you think I'm good running back kicks, wait until you see me catch passes."