“It’s no fun if you hit me in the hands.”
— Shake Tiller in “Semi-Tough” I once destroyed a television set over a dropped football. It was in college, a Sunday afternoon, and I was rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles, who at the time were my favorite team, due to some character flaw that compelled me to torture myself whenever possible, and it was late in the game and here came the ball, right into the hands of wide receiver Harold Carmichael, and . . . he dropped it.
And I kicked the TV set across the room.
And it broke.
Which was just as well, since I’m sure the Eagles went on to lose, as they lost all the others back then, although I cannot be sure, as my TV was now sprinkled across the floor. Also, my foot began to swell. And I remember, as I bounced around the room, holding my toes and screaming like a Hopi Indian in the middle of a rain dance, those famous six words which unite football watchers even today . . .
“RIGHT IN HIS BLEEP BLEEP HANDS!”
Now if there are any NFL receivers reading this article, please know that we, the fans, hold you in the highest regard. And I think the key word here is hold. As in hold onto the ball. Which is the whole problem, isn’t it? How do we explain that Jerry Rice, the all-world receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, can catch the ball behind his back while flipping in mid-air and reciting a soliloquy from “Scarface,” and yet, when the ball comes right to him, I mean, straight ahead in his hands, here you go, Jerry, have a gift — he drops it?
Not often. Almost never. In fact the announcers on TV are always quick to point out that “You won’t see Jerry Rice do that very often.” Which is true. That is one of the nice parts of living in San Francisco. Unfortunately, we do not live in San Francisco. We live in Detroit, home of the Lions, where the announcers also say, “You won’t see him drop that very often.”
But we never believe them.
Take Jeff Chadwick. Sunday, in the Lions season opener, Chadwick dropped not one, not two, not three — but four passes. Four that looked, to be fair and polite to Jeff, who is a very nice guy, catchable. Actually, a fifth grader could have caught those passes. But Jeff didn’t. And it’s not because he couldn’t. How many passes were thrown to him just like that in his lifetime? Five thousand? Ten thousand? But these four went in his hands and out his hands. Ker-plop.
“A professional should catch those,” Chadwick admitted afterward. Which was classy. What a nice guy.
The next day he was cut.
Now I want to know what is going on here. I have been watching the NFL for the better part of three decades, and I cannot get past this: If a man spends his elementary, high school and college days catching footballs, then gets a job catching footballs, and covers his hands with sticky goo in order to better catch footballs, why, come game time, should he have so much trouble catching footballs? Especially when they are aimed right at his hands?
“Concentration,” says Jason Phillips.
“Concentration,’ says Stacy Mobley.
“Concentration,” says Troy Johnson.
Phillips, Mobley and Johnson are all receivers for the Lions — at least they were as of 9 p.m. last night — and have all made some tough catches and dropped their share of puffballs. They maintain that on easy passes, the mind becomes the enemy. “You start thinking about what you’re going to do once you get it,” says Mobley.
“If the catch is hard,” adds Johnson, “you spend all your time just figuring how to get your hands on it. But if it’s easy, you may waste a split-second to look around at who’s coming, and that’ll kill you.”
Concentration? Hmm. Perhaps the quarterbacks should issue a warning with each pass: “Drop this one, Joe, and we kidnap your wife.” I mean, the guy would concentrate, right?
Or maybe they should just say “Jackie Smith.” That alone should make a player concentrate like a heart surgeon. Smith, you may recall, was the Dallas tight end who was all alone in the end zone in Super Bowl XVIII when Roger Staubach threw him the easiest of passes — and he dropped it. Flat-out dropped it. The Cowboys lost by four points, and Smith, to this day, is probably afraid to pass the potatoes.
Personally, I think it’s the shape of the ball. Or the cold weather. Or the helmets. If you spent all day looking at the world through a facemask, you might drop a few things, too.
Then, of course, there’s the 240 pound defensive back who is coming at you with foam dripping from his mouth.
“Good receivers don’t worry about that,” says Phillips.
OK. And I’m not worried about that cop in my rear view mirror, either.
Of course, all this talk about making the easy catches would be moot if the Lions receivers made the hard catches. Unfortunately . . . well, you know. I don’t want to say the Lions are weak in this area. I do know that some folks think the stretch in the Lions “Stretch” offense means a 40 percent completion rate.
“Let me ask you something,” I say to Phillips, “shouldn’t catching a straight pass be as easy to an NFL receiver as making a lay-up is to an NBA basketball player?”
“Yeah,”‘ he says.
“Well, why isn’t it? I mean, when was the last time Magic Johnson missed a lay-up.”
“Two years ago,” he says, without missing a beat, “in a playoff game.”
I have no idea if he’s kidding.
Nor do I have an answer for this age-old NFL problem. It seems that as long as there are human beings beneath those helmets, some of those footballs are going to be dropped. Especially in Detroit.
“I suggest you men concentrate harder,” Charlie Sanders, the receivers coach, says to his players. You know what I suggest? I suggest you watch the games with your feet curled under you and the TV set at a safe distance. That’s what I suggest.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of “BO” which he co-authored with Bo Schembechler, from 5-7 p.m. Friday at the M Den in the Briarwood Mall, and from 7:45-8:45 at B. Dalton in the 12 Oaks Mall in Novi. CUTLINE
Lions receivers coach June Jones gives some pointers to Walter Stanley, who the Lions hope will catch more passes this Sunday than Jeff Chadwick dropped last Sunday. Injured Lions quarterback Rodney Peete works out Wednesday at the Silverdome.