The Rabbit and The Fox

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April 6, 2007
The Rabbit and The Fox

by Bob Hulsey

Personally, I’ve never found the terms "#1 Receiver" and "#2 Receiver" very appealing. A good passing offense utilitzes whatever receivers are at their disposal. In an age of multiple-receiver sets, I suppose it makes it easier to add "#3 Receiver", "#4 Receiver" and even "#5 Receiver" to the nomenclature and pecking order, but I find the terms rather dull and limited.

Having receivers with different skill sets has been around as a strategy for over 50 years, back to the time of split ends and flankers. The split end was often expected to be the faster of the two and took advantage of the one step head start of lining up right on the line of scrimmage. The flanker was the more versatile back who needed to stand one step behind the line.

The Oakland Raiders of the 1960s would feature speedster Warren Wells at the end and crafty Fred Biletnikoff as the flanker. After Wells lost a step, sprinter Cliff Branch took his place. The Houston Oilers of the 1970s used the same model with speedster Ken Burrough as the end and sneaky Mike Renfro as the flanker.

Creative use of tight ends in the 1970s and 80s like Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow, Sr., and Dave Casper altered the formula, but the receivers’ roles basically stayed the same.

What the West Coast Offense introduced to the debate was the concept of using larger receivers who could take passes on the run in short patterns and ask them to make yards after the catch. Jerry Rice, of course, was the best at this of all time. Terrell Owens is the prototype receiver of today’s WCO, a pass-catcher with speed to get upfield and the size to break tackles.

Such a receiver is inevitably called a "#1 Receiver" today because the gameplan should get him the ball as often as possible. In Houston, the uncontested top receiver is Andre Johnson, the third overall draft choice in 2003. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler, but I would contend he is somewhat miscast. The Texans won’t be able to get their pass offense cooking until they figure out what Johnson’s role is.

Now, before I lose you, let me assert that Johnson is not the problem with the offense. In the same logic as left fielder Pedro Guerrero’s "it’s-a-mistake-before-it-got-to-me" concept, Johnson can’t be held responsible for David Carr’s misfires nor for the offensive line that couldn’t stop the pass rushers that often led to Carr’s misfires. To understand my casting comment, look at the offense Gary Kubiak ran in Denver.

I call the sprinter (or split end of yesteryear) in the offense the "Rabbit". His job is to get deep and stretch the defense, particularly the safeties in zone coverage. The other receiver I call the "Fox" because his job is to show up on underneath patterns and generally roam the secondary while it concentrates on the Rabbit. He often seems like the guy who just happens to be open, much like the Jets’ Wayne Chrebet used to do as defenses focused on Keyshawn Johnson.

In their Super Bowl years of the late 1990s, Rod Smith was the Rabbit in the Bronco offense. He was the deep threat. He had to be a reliable pass-catcher and a legitimate weapon. Ed McCaffrey was the Fox. He was the larger, slower receiver who caught underneath passes, broke tackles and threw devastating blocks.

When McCaffrey retired, Smith took over the role of the Fox while Ashley Lelie was drafted to be the Rabbit. It’s a credit to Smith that he could play either role even though he’s slightly slow for a Rabbit and slightly small for a Fox. The Broncos, however, were unhappy with Lelie who lacked concetration at times and complained that he wasn’t being worked into enough of the offense.

Therein lies the conundrum with Andre Johnson. He has the speed to be a Rabbit. He has the size to be a Fox. Under Dom Capers, Corey Bradford had the Rabbit job while Johnson caught a lot of screens and slants. When Eric Moulds came in last year to replace Bradford, I don’t think he had the speed to be a Rabbit and Johnson’s role was not changed enough to make him the Rabbit. With that and the poor pass protection, there was no deep threat last year to force safeties into deeper coverage. The safeties’ ability to cheat up towards the line without fear of getting burned deep choked off the short passing game and further clogged up the running game.

Even without looking at the draft, the Texans have two options at wide receiver who give Kubiak a choice on what he should do with Johnson. If they use Kevin Walter as the Fox, then Johnson should be used as the Rabbit. I’d expect him to run more deep routes and less underneath stuff. If they use Jerome Mathis as the Rabbit, Andre can then be the Fox. Mathis can run the deep stuff while Johnson can get the short stuff and try to make yards after the catch.

There are dangers to both approaches. The Fox needs to be a reliable receiver. Despite 103 receptions in 2006, I still have questions about Johnson’s hands enough to trust him as the Fox. He has a knack for dropping the most critical throws, such as the one that stopped a record 22-straight completion streak and allowed Buffalo a last-chance drive that led to a Houston defeat.

The Rabbit is a high-risk/high-reward position who will see fewer passes and will have less completions but will make more "big" plays downfield. That’s why Rabbits typically lead the league in yards per reception. It’s the byproduct of their job.

I realize some of you don’t like either Walter or Mathis as options opposite Johnson. They want the Texans to use one of their first-day picks on a wide receiver. If you are looking for Rabbits in the draft, look to Ohio State’s Ted Ginn Jr., South Carolina’s Sidney Rice or Virginia Tech’s David Clowney. If you are looking for Foxes, you’ll lean towards USC’s Dwayne Jarrett, LSU’s Dwayne Bowe or Florida’s Dallas Baker. The only receiver who fits both roles, Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson, will be gone before the Texans get to select.

One other factor in deciding what role Johnson should take is the ability of the quarterbacks. Both Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels are known for their accuracy, not their arm strength. Based on that, and the rumors of a bigger role for Walter in the offense this year, I’d expect Johnson to be the Rabbit and for the second receiver to play the Fox. However, I think the Texans will not abandon Johnson in shorter routes as he will still be the featured receiver in the offense. Don’t be surprised, though, when you see more intermediate and deep routes run by Johnson, even when he isn’t the first receiving option.

I also think it would be a mistake to jettison Mathis from the gameplan. When healthy, he has the pure speed that not even Johnson can approach. He’s an uber-Rabbit, although we still haven’t had the chance to judge his hands, only his speed. If there are off-field issues or he seems unable to grasp the offense, I can understand letting him go but he can add a dimension to this offense that is hard to replace. If Mathis can succeed as the Rabbit, Johnson then becomes a better, faster Fox than Walter can.

It was mentioned in my last column that the Texans may shift their pass offense to resemble the Patriots more than the Broncos. The Patriots rely on a short passing game and rarely go deep (although they can be very effective with it because the defense doesn’t expect it). They depend on Tom Brady being able to make quick reads and get rid of the ball to the most open receiver. That would fit Schaub’s skills more than it did Carr’s. The pass attack tends to be short, safe and rather boring but it also takes pressure off the offensive line which doesn’t need to hold off the pass rush as long. You saw a lot of dinks and dunks from Carr last year and this may continue until the line shows improvement.

In that sort of offense, the Rabbit-Fox analogy doesn’t work well. The emphasis is on quick reads and sure hands, which explains why the Patriots have been able to turn rather ordinary receivers into stars. The downside is the lack of a home run threat. New England hopes the addition of Donte Stallworth cures that problem.

What the Texans do in the draft will be your first clue to what the 2007 offense will look like under Schaub. When they actually take the field, we’ll see what role Johnson gets and how it affects the rest of the offensive philosphy.

Bob Hulsey, having recently turned 50, no longer has the speed to keep up with the Rabbits and is spending more time watching the Foxes.

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