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How wide receivers have evolved in the NFL

Modern receivers like Larry Fitzgerald would have encountered far tighter defense if they played in previous generations.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images/File/2012

Modern receivers like Larry Fitzgerald would have encountered far tighter defense if they played in previous generations.

Isaac Curtis believes that if today’s wide receivers experienced the conditions he did while playing in the NFL in the 1970s, the only thing wide open would be their mouths, agape and aghast at being banged, shoved, cut blocked, clotheslined, and worse as they tried to run their routes.

“It wasn’t about covering you. It was about basically taking you out,” said Curtis, a four-time Pro Bowler who played for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1973-84. “You could run a crossing route back then, and as long as the ball wasn’t there, if you crossed the linebacker or the safety’s face, they could clothesline you.

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“Sometimes a corner would play with a safety behind him and throw a cross-body block.”

When Curtis entered the league, trying to get open for a pass was one part hand-to-hand combat and one part running the gauntlet. Today’s high-profile, highly-paid receivers owe Curtis a debt of gratitude for helping to inspire a change in working conditions.

The most influential factor in the wide receiver position developing into a predominant one in modern pro football is not genetics or game planning, but the rulebook.

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The receiver position has evolved greatly over the past 80 years, since the NFL ruled in 1933 that forward passes could be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.

Players have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger. The football itself has become more aerodynamic and easier to throw. Offenses have become more sophisticated, and the zeitgeist of the modern game is to take to the air.

But rules such as illegal contact beyond 5 yards, open-palmed pass blocking, and defenseless-receiver prohibitions that limit intimidating hits have paved the way for a reimagining and a repositioning of the wide receiver in the hierarchy of the game.

“It’s certainly opened the passing game up,” said Curtis, who played for passing game Picasso Don Coryell in college and had West Coast offense innovator Bill Walsh as his first offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. “When I was playing, 50 or 60 balls, that was a lot, and now third and fourth receivers are catching that much.”

Rules of contact

Angered by Curtis being rubbed out of a 1973 playoff game by double- and triple-team muggings from the Miami Dolphins, Bengals coach Paul Brown — one of the pioneers of the passing game from his days with the Cleveland Browns — petitioned the league to change the rules governing contact with wide receivers.

UPI

Isaac Curtis, shown with Don Coryell while playing at San Diego State in 1972, prompted the NFL’s “Isaac Curtis Rule” in 1974.

In 1974, the “Isaac Curtis Rule” was adopted. Wide receivers could be chucked only once by any defender after they had gotten 3 yards downfield. The rule helped, but it was imperfect in a decade dominated by defenses like Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain.

However, the rule spawned two revisions. In 1977, if a defender jammed a receiver inside the 3-yard zone, he could not contact him again.

Then in 1978, as part of a package of rules changes designed to increase offense after scoring dipped to a combined 34.4 points per game in 1977 — the lowest since 1942 — contact with a wide receiver would be permitted only within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Any other downfield contact was severely restricted.

This was known as the “Mel Blount Rule” an homage to the Steelers’ Hall of Fame cornerback who was adept at using his speed and strength to knock receivers off their routes or ride them out of bounds.

(The Patriots sparked a re-emphasis on the strict interpretation of the illegal contact rule in 2004 after slowing down the high-powered Indianapolis Colts, who complained that the Patriots were overly physical with their receivers.)

Another important rule change in 1978 allowed offensive linemen to block with their arms fully extended and their palms open, or as Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts wide receiver and former Patriots coach Raymond Berry called it: “legalized holding.”

This allowed quarterbacks more time to pass in the pocket.

“We held the ball not much more than 2.6, 2.7 seconds, 2.8 — that was pushing the envelope,” said Berry. “That was because the offensive line could not hold.

“I watch the NFL today when the quarterback is in the pocket and they’re holding the ball three, four, five seconds because the offensive linemen can hold. I’m thinking to myself, ‘What would John Unitas’s numbers be if he were playing today? Give him twice as much time to throw . . . good grief.’ ”

More time for quarterbacks to throw and less resistance for receivers getting open added up to football manifest destiny for the wide receiver in NFL playbooks over the following 35 years, culminating last season when a 6-foot-5-inch, 236-pound freak of nature, Calvin Johnson, broke Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving yards record with 1,964.

The early days

In the beginning, there were no wide receivers, just ends. Men on the end of the formation who might as well have been on the end of the football earth. The professional game was played firmly on terra firma.

The most notable touchdown pass in the NFL’s first 12 years of existence came in the first NFL playoff game, the 1932 title tilt between the Portsmouth Spartans and the Chicago Bears.

The rules of the time, mirroring the college game, required the passer to be at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Portsmouth claimed that had not been the case with Bronko Nagurski’s jump-pass toss to Red Grange, but the touchdown stood and the Bears won, 9-0.

The rule was changed for 1933 to allow any throw behind the line of scrimmage to be a legal forward pass.

In 1933, there were just 1,631 attempts among the 10 teams, and only 35.3 percent of the passes were completed. The leading receiver that year was Shipwreck Kelly of the Brooklyn Dodgers with 22 receptions.

Last season there were 17,788 pass attempts, the most in NFL history, and 60.9 percent of them were completed. Johnson was the leading receiver with 122 catches.

The passing game was primitive in the early days. Teams still ran the single wing and players played both ways. It was not until Don Hutson, the NFL’s first star wide receiver, joined the Green Bay Packers in 1935 that the wide receiver began to be deployed as a weapon of choice instead of a last resort. A trail-blazer credited with pioneering pass patterns, Hutson’s record of 99 career touchdown receptions stood until 1989, 44 years after he caught his last pass.

When Berry retired in 1967, he was the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions with 631. Now, he ranks 53d, behind names such as Laveranues Coles, Ricky Proehl, and Bobby Engram.

“With the advent of the number of games and the holding phenomena, it’s comparing apples and oranges,” said Berry, who played in an era of 12- and then 14-game seasons.

Berry, who coached the Patriots from 1984-89 and took the team to its first Super Bowl, is like a wide receiver encyclopedia, as he ticks off names, routes, coverages, and rule changes.

The 80-year-old Berry said that, to get open in his day, he had to become “the man of a million moves.”

“One of the great objectives of faking and moves is to avoid the hit,” said Berry. “The hit which is illegal today, we had to plan to avoid it then.

“I was maneuvering to get in positions where the guy couldn’t nail me underneath 10 yards. I got more pass routes than you can shake a stick at, all of them designed to trick those guys into getting open.”

Modern marvels

If these are the glory days for the wide receiver, then the 1970s were the Dark Ages.

A running back led the league in receptions for six straight seasons from 1974-79.

From 1974-86, a receiver led the NFL in receptions just twice — Dwight Clark in the strike-shortened 1982 season and Art Monk, who caught a then-league record 106 passes in 1984.

But since 1987, only once has a non-wide receiver led the league in receptions, tight end Tony Gonzalez in 2004 with 102 catches.

There is the football equivalent of grade inflation happening to wide receiver numbers now.

Before the 1978 rule changes, which also included moving to a 16-game schedule, only two times had a receiver caught 100 passes in a season. Both happened in the American Football League: Lionel Taylor (100 in 1961) and Charley Hennigan (101 in 1964).

From 1978-2012, a player has caught 100 passes in a season 74 times, and 69 of those times, it has been a wide receiver.

There were 757 receiving touchdowns last season, the most in NFL history. The last three seasons have produced the three highest touchdown reception totals: 757 (2012), 751 (2010), and 745 (2011).

The explosion of production at the position over the past 35 years is reflected in the logjam of receivers in Hall of Fame balloting. Cris Carter just got in this year.

David Richard/AP

Cris Carter, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month, thinks it will become even more difficult for receivers to win election to the Hall.

“It’s only going to get tougher,” said Carter, who co-wrote a book called “Going Deep” about the growth of the wide receiver position. “In the future, the numbers you have to achieve, they’re going to be ridiculous numbers. I scored 130 touchdowns, I waited six years. How many do you have to score?”

But Carter also said today’s elite receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson would be elite under any rules, in any era. While the rules have changed, so have the men to whom they are being applied. Receivers now look like they’re being genetically engineered in laboratories. They are chiseled out of granite, and run as if there are rocket boosters in their cleats.

Even the greatest wide receiver of all-time, 49ers legend Jerry Rice — the all-time leader in receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,985), receiving touchdowns (197), and total touchdowns (208) — is impressed with the physical stature of today’s pass-catchers.

“Look at Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, these guys are big, huge, but they’re fast coming off the line,” said Rice. “When T.O. came to the Niners, we had had Dwight Clark. I had been around big receivers before, but I had never been around big receivers that were like an animal on the field and were that fast. It’s the evolution of the game.”

The 62-year-old Curtis, now a consultant with a hotel management company, doesn’t begrudge any of today’s receivers who collect big bucks and big numbers with hands-off treatment.

“That’s the way it was when they came in,” he said. “When I came into the league, it was bump, cut, hit, push — that was just the way it was. You made the best of it. I think these guys have made the best of the rule change.”

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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