Speed thrills, but it doesn’t guarantee NFL success
The second-fastest player at the 2009 NFL Combine caught a touchdown pass and exceeded 100 receiving yards for the third straight game last week’s Steelers’ 35-3 win over Oakland. It’s been a big year for Mike Wallace, who has 33 receptions for 739 yards and eight touchdowns.
His 23 yards per catch lead the league.
Meanwhile, the fastest player at the Combine, Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, sat out with a hamstring injury. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. The seventh pick in the ’09 draft, 77 spots ahead of Wallace, Heyward-Bey has 19 catches for 261 yards and one touchdown this season. Last year, he caught nine balls.
It helps that Wallace partners with Ben Roethlisberger, one of the top NFL quarterbacks and clearly superior to any passer the Raiders have. But few would doubt that Wallace by far is the better receiver, a third-round steal. Heyward-Bey, whose high selection stunned many observers because of his poor hands, is closing in on bust territory, if he is not already there.
Speed is not just an essential commodity in sports, it is perhaps the most coveted physical trait, lusted for by fans, coaches and management. The desire for individual and team speed is ongoing and almost obsessive. Bigger is not necessarily better, but faster almost always is.
In just about all types of athletic competition, you can’t win without some measure of speed.
College baseball recruiters now time kids in the 60-yard dash. The sexiest number at the Combine is the 40-yard dash time, although some skeptics have lately debunked its worth. The biggest difference in basketball now from 20 years ago is that it’s become a faster game.
No one knows or cares who the strongest man in the world is, but any sprinter dubbed the “World’s Fastest Human” is respected and revered.
And yet, for nearly every top athlete in every sport, it takes more than the ability to zoom from “Point A” to “Point B.”
“It takes skill,” Wallace said. “If it was that easy, you’d have a lot of people who would do it. I’m fast, but I play football.”
Football probably emphasizes speed more than any other sport, and here the landscape is littered with those who played fast, or tried to, and whose careers died young. At least Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt had the sense to end any silly pro football talk. At last report, he is considering soccer.
Bolt likely knew he was programmed to fail. With no football background, he fit the mold of John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Jim Hines, former Olympic sprinters who had limited prior football experience and ended up with a combined three NFL receptions. Two were by Hines, whose nickname was “Oops.”
Compared to that bunch, world record-setting hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah was a star. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a San Francisco 49ers jersey, carrying a football and clearing a hurdle but caught just 43 passes in three years before the Niners curtailed the experiment. In the end, he was just another fast guy with bad hands.
“It’s a different game,” Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “You don’t play the game in a straight line very often. You have to be able to move and play fast and change speeds and change directions, or guys like John Carlos and Usain Bolt would have been great football players.”
A little football experience can go a long way, although it still guarantees nothing. Running back and quarter-miler Ollie Matson, who won a silver and bronze medal in the 1952 Olympics, ended up in the NFL Hall of Fame. Florida A&M sprinter and running back Bob Hayes parlayed a pair of gold medals at the 1964 Olympics into a Hall of Fame receiving career with the Dallas Cowboys.
“He has several speeds,” former safety Larry Wilson, another Hall of Famer, once said of Hayes. “All of them fast.”
But those like Matson and Hayes are a rare breed.
For most, track, not football will be their legacy. Henry Carr, who went to Arizona State on a football scholarship, ended up with two Olympic gold medals in 1964 and a brief, undistinguished career as a New York Giants defensive back.
Before he caught a pass at Texas, Johnny “Lam” Jones took home Olympic gold in 1976. Enthralled by his speed, the New York Jets picked Jones second in the draft and later wished they hadn’t.
Speed is a terrific weapon “if you know how to use it,” Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle-El said. “You’ve got some guys who can run like the wind, but they can’t come out of their routes, can’t track the ball when it’s in the air. Speed is great, if you can control it.”
Wallace apparently has learned to control it. TV types like to call him the fastest player in the NFL (Heyward-Bey apparently having lost relevance), and he has left more than a few cornerbacks in his vapor trail. But no longer is Wallace the “one-trick pony” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin half-jokingly called him for motivational purposes.
“All I say is, tell me to run other routes and tell me to do other things and just give me the ball,” Wallace said. “I’m always open. Look at my other routes — curl routes, slant routes, corner routes, digs, whatever. I’m always open.”
Almost defiantly, Wallace added, “I am not a track guy.”
On Sunday, Wallace turned a crisp, short slant pattern into a 52-yard touchdown catch, faking one defender and outrunning everyone else.
“I think his route-running has really improved,” Arians said. “And his understanding of the game, where he needs to be and his trust with the quarterback. Those things are developing at a really nice rate.”
During the Steelers’ loss to New Orleans two Sundays ago, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth praised Wallace’s development as a receiver who not only is unafraid to catch the ball over the middle or in traffic, but also hangs on to it.
“If you’re playing for Pittsburgh and you’re not a tough guy, you stick out like a sore thumb,” said Collinsworth.
Speed can be overrated, Collinsworth said, recalling when he was a tall, sure-handed receiver of some note with the Cincinnati Bengals who wasn’t the swiftest guy in the world.
“Every year in training camp they would bring in three or four guys that ran a 4.3 (second 40), and I’d sit there and go, ‘They can’t play at all.’ It was insulting. They couldn’t catch, they couldn’t take a hit or run a crossing route. I’d think, ‘Thank God they keep bringing these guys in, because I keep making the team.'”
Of the 10 wide receivers who recorded the fastest times in the 40-yard dash at the ’09 Combine, only Wallace, Chicago’s Johnny Knox, Minnesota’s Percy Harvin and Jacksonville’s Mike Thomas have made much of an impact.
Running backsâ¢ Cedric Peerman, Ian Johnson, Kory Sheets and Andre Brown had the top four clockings. In their NFL careers to date, they have a total of four carries for minus-1 yard.
Some critics say the 40 is a fake measure of what is known as “football speed.” The Hall of Fame is dotted with players like Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith who slipped in the draft because of allegedly unimpressive times. The Arizona Cardinals picked Bryant Johnson with the 17th pick in the 2003 and Anquan Boldin at No. 54 because Johnson ran a sizzling 40 and Boldin was relatively slow. Now in Baltimore, Boldin is a premier NFL receiver, Johnson a spare part with Detroit.
“When you put a guy on a clock, it’s very different from putting him in a football uniform and dodging people and running,” Arians said.
The Steelers and their fans well know there are other attributes besides speed. Hines Ward, the franchise career-reception leader, will punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame with his sure hands, precise routes, crunching blocks and superior football intellect.
“He’s molasses slow,” laughed safety Ryan Clark. “He’s the slowest guy I’ve ever seen get that wide open. Early in his career he wasn’t like that. But now, he amazes me. I just feel like he should never catch a pass. But he catches tons of ’em. Because he knows how to play the game.”