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He will cover the best wide receivers from every angle. Inside. Outside. Over the top with extra defenders. In the middle with beastly linebackers. He will cover them on slants, on fades, on go routes. He will cover them on the sideline. On reverses, on decoy moves and when they have to block. Wait. Go back. Did you say on the sideline? Maybe most of all, on the sideline. Because the lead producer for NFL telecasts on Fox lets the drama dictate the coverage. "We never let the big-play wide receivers out of our focus," says Richie Zyontz, a pro football producer for more than two decades. "It's like the defensive coordinators say: We're not going to let them beat us."
Zyontz knows, the coordinators he channels know, the players know, the fans know: On the cusp of the 2009 NFL season, we are in the Golden Age of the Wide Receiver.
The quarterback remains the cornerstone on which NFL success is built, and every team needs a left tackle, an edge pass rusher and a lockdown cornerback. But the wide receiver is at the nexus of modern sports and entertainment. He is the Transformer, the outsized, hypergifted athlete who decides games with his cartoon catches; and even when he doesn't decide games, he decides highlights. He is athletic—and technical—evolution in the flesh. "There are all these freak-of-nature guys now," says Laveranues Coles of the Bengals, a 10-year veteran wideout. "The T.O.'s and the Fitzgeralds. There's that kid up in Detroit, Calvin Johnson; and the dude down in Houston, played at Miami, Andre Johnson. It's like they bred 'em on a farm to come and be these great wide receivers."
Their influence stretches beyond the field and the locker room; their personalities crackle. Among NFL players, only Terrell Owens of the Bills has his own reality TV show. Chad Ochocinco of the Bengals wore a gold ABC blazer over his uniform on the Monday Night Football sideline and now tests the limits of Twitter. Santonio Holmes, the only man ever to toe tap the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl, last Feb. 1, says this: "I watch all the top guys and try to outdo them. I tell myself, Man, I could have done that better. But that play in the Super Bowl? That one put me over the top."
Holmes's ridiculous stretched-out catch in a back corner of the end zone, photos of which hang on the wall along the stairs descending to his basement entertainment room, was only the latest act in the wideouts' hostile takeover of the game. Randy Moss—a star in Minnesota for seven years and a disgruntled malingerer in Oakland for two—made Tom Brady better and the Patriots 16--0 in the 2007 regular season. At the end of that season David Tyree made his otherworldly catch to keep the Giants alive in Super Bowl XLII, and Plaxico Burress (yet more drama, with his recent guilty plea on weapons charges) won it on a fade. Larry Fitzgerald streaked up the field on a 64-yard completion to give the Cardinals a 23--20 lead late in last year's Super Bowl, opening the door for Holmes to win it. Two Super Bowls owned by wideouts, when the whole world was watching.
"There are five, six, seven special receivers in the league," says Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard quarterback who started 12 games for Cincinnati last year and is now a backup in Buffalo. "Everybody knows who they are, and once they get the ball in their hands, they're going to do something special."
I: AERIAL CIRCUS
Over its history the NFL has gone from being principally a running league to principally a passing league. Consider that in 1970 the Bears' Dick Gordon led the league with 71 catches in a 14-game season and there were only two players who averaged four or more receptions a game. By 1990, when Jerry Rice led the league with 100 catches in Bill Walsh's increasingly influential West Coast offense, 18 players averaged four catches a game. Last season there were 32, led by the Texans' Andre Johnson with 7.2 per game (115 total). In 2002 Marvin Harrison of the Colts caught a league-record 143 passes.
Why all the throwing? The modern NFL is the product of two diverging trends, the first being an improvement in run defense through innovative, aggressive schemes, from Buddy Ryan's revolutionary 46 with the '80s Bears to the fluid creations of his son Rex with the Ravens of the last several seasons. "Defense has developed to the point where opponents say, 'We're not going to let you run,'" says Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end and the Ravens' general manager. "And then they take away the running game."
The second trend reflects the rules changes and the selective enforcement that favor the passing game. In 1978 the league adopted a rule prohibiting contact with receivers beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. While that rule has never changed, it has been ever more stringently enforced, to the point where receivers now need only escape an initial attempt by defensive backs to control their movement before getting a free run into the secondary. "NFL football is a business, and the business likes offense," says Lions cornerback Phillip Buchanon, an eight-year veteran. "Look at fantasy football. You draft running backs, quarterbacks, receivers. And whole defenses—no individuals. I rest my case."