August 23, 2013 at 11:30 AM
Debating Steve Largent’s greatness and NFL’s magic gloves
By James Windle
Reader James Windle was born and raised a Seahawks fan. He lives part time in Snoqualmie Pass.
Technology matters and constantly changes the game of football. The New York Giants franchise in 1934 and 1956 recognized the advantage players had wearing sneakers instead of cleats on icy fields. In 1956, sneakers helped the Giants blow out the cleat-wearing Bears 47-7 in the NFL Championship.
A technological advancement that has quietly made a major impact on football more recently are the gloves worn by wide receivers and other skill-position players.
The new generation of rubberized, tightly fitting gloves work like magic. The gloves enable one-handed or finger-tip catches that were nearly impossible with bare hands or first-generation receiving gloves. A growing number of NFL quarterbacks even wear a glove on their non-throwing hand to improve their control of the football. The gloves make the game more exciting to watch, but they further complicate a favorite pastime of fans – comparing players from different eras.
Consider the great Seahawks receiver Steve Largent’s career from 1976 to 1989. He retired as the leading receiver in NFL history in yards, receptions, and touchdowns. He set NFL records without Sidney Rice’s size or Golden Tate’s speed.
He also did not have magic gloves.
Largent now sits outside the top 10 in the statistical categories where he once held records.
The gloves could not make Largent, who was 5 feet 11, 187 pounds with average speed, into the game’s best receiver in 2013. The top receiver today is Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions. Johnson is 6-5, 235 pounds, and runs a sub-4.4 second 40-yard dash. He has great hands, too. Johnson is a man among boys.
Still, I would argue Largent would be highly productive today if he played in a contemporary offensive scheme, benefited from rules protecting offensive players, improved his athleticism with sports science – and wore magic gloves.
In 1976, Largent was a fourth-round draft pick by the Houston Oilers and about to be cut before he was traded after training camp. Now he would likely be an undrafted rookie free agent, since he does not have the physical characteristics of a game-changing receiver. He would fight to make a team as an inside slot receiver. The slot receiver is a possession receiver who works short and intermediate routes, while outside receivers stretch the field on deeper routes. The different receiver roles were not nearly as specialized in Largent’s day.
The current prototype slot receiver is Wes Welker (5-9, 185) of the Denver Broncos. He has had unprecedented production as a slot averaging more 100 receptions the past six years with New England. Largent’s best year, in contrast, was in 1985 when he caught 79 passes.
Largent was taller and leaner than Welker, but his route-running and hands could make him an elite slot receiver. Largent could put up some big-time, fantasy football-worthy numbers as a slot receiver today. I would have liked to see his circus catches with magic gloves.
These hypothetical sports debates are nothing more than a mental exercise. I can’t prove Steve Largent would be a top receiver today but no one can prove he would be a second-string player or a real-estate agent either.
And that’s why we love these debates. They are a great way to pass time with friends around a barbeque, at the stadium, or around a large flat-screen television Sundays.
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