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Too often he is viewed as little more than a track man in football togs, an affront to all the Too Means and the Big Foots and the Mansters in the NFL. In fact, he is the most potent weapon in his team's game plan. And the most feared. His name is Deep Threat. He is a speed freak who can outdrag Mario Andretti's Lotus for 50 yards, and he has more good shake-'em-up moves than the entire cast of Saturday Night Fever. On any given Sunday, or even on any given Monday night, he can put six points on the board quicker than you can say, "The bomb is back."
Of course, finding a Deep Threat, a game breaker, is about as easy as figuring out Tom Landry's flex defense. For every sprinter who becomes a Deep Threat in the NFL, there were another 40 or so college prospects who, in BLESTO scouting jargon, "had speed to burn but boards for hands." As a result, in the 1970s there have been just 17 members of the NFL's "20-Yard Club"—receivers who have averaged at least 20 yards per catch, with at least 35 catches, in a season. By contrast, in the same eight years 56 rushers have gained more than 1,000 yards in a season.
This year, though, the NFL boasts the best group of Deep Threats that the game has seen since 1963, when Bobby Mitchell, Art Powell, Buddy Dial and Lance Al-worth were destroying man-to-man coverages and sending coaches back to the drawing boards. What they came up with then was the zone defense. Now, however, the young speed burners have enabled NFL coaches to take the long pass—the touchdown bomb—out of mothballs and put it back into game plans that had become as predictable as an extra point.
The old man of the new Deep Threats is the Minnesota Vikings' 24-year-old Sammy White, who is in his third season as Fran Tarkenton's prime home-run receiver. In fact, until White came along, NFL people used to joke that Tarkenton had not thrown a forward pass longer than 10 yards since the late 1960s when he was tossing bombs to Homer Jones for the New York Giants. White was named the NFC's Rookie of the Year in 1976, and in his brief career he has already caught 24 touchdown passes.
The NFL's Class of '77 included three White-style game breakers: Tony Hill of the Dallas Cowboys, Wesley Walker of the New York Jets and Stanley Morgan of the New England Patriots. Hill spent most of last year on the bench, which is where, by and large, Dallas Coach Tom Landry likes to keep rookies, at least until they learn his football lingo. Hill obviously did not pass the time on the sidelines admiring the moves of the Cowboys' cheerleaders. His performance during the 1978 preseason was so outstanding that Landry gave him the starting job that last year had been split between Golden Richards and Butch Johnson, both of whom caught touchdown passes in Dallas' Super Bowl victory over Denver. Now Hill leads the Cowboy receivers with 23 catches for 395 yards, an average of 17.2 yards per catch. He also has scored five touchdowns, including two in Sunday's 24-21 sudden-death victory over St. Louis.
The Jets' Walker is the only young Deep Threat who has already joined the exclusive 20-Yard Club. Last season he caught 35 passes and led the NFL with an average of 21.1 yards per catch. So far this year, Walker has caught 19 passes for an average gain of 26.9 yards—tops in the NFL—and has scored touchdowns on bomb plays covering 77, 47 and 45 yards.
New England's Morgan also averaged 21.1 yards per reception as a rookie, but he failed to qualify for the 20-Yard Club because he caught only 21 passes. This season Morgan has 15 receptions in seven games for an average gain of 24.2 yards, burning rivals with touchdown catches of 58, 62 and 33 yards.
Judging from first impressions, the Class of '78 seems as talented as the Class of '77. Green Bay's James Lofton, the long jumper from Stanford, already has caught 20 passes—including five in the Packers' 45-28 romp over Seattle Sunday—for 402 yards, a 20.1 average, and five touchdowns. San Diego's John Jefferson has 19 receptions for 269 yards, an average of 15.1. And the Tony Hill of the 1978 rookie class may well be New Orleans' Wes Chandler, the No. 3 player selected in last spring's college draft. For some reason, the Saints, who have never had a winning record in their 11 NFL seasons, have been unable to incorporate the speedy Chandler into their game plan. He has caught only six passes in seven games.
How valuable is a Deep Threat? Check a few of these case histories.
In 1969 the Miami Dolphins gained just 4.35 yards per pass play, almost 25% below the American Football League average, and finished in fifth place with a 3-10-1 record. Yards per pass play is the best statistical measure of a team's passing attack and an excellent indicator of its offensive capability. The '69 Dolphins clearly had little firepower. Following that season, Miami acquired Paul Warfield from Cleveland, and quicker than Don Shula could say Joe Robbie, the Dolphins had a decent passing game. Warfield had 28 receptions for an average gain of 25.1 yards, and he scored six touchdowns. The Dolphins increased their average yards per pass play almost 40%, from 4.35 to 6.06—and made the playoffs with a 10-4 record.