RSP Tweet of the Week: WR Jerry Rice’s Route Running


Jerry Rice didn’t play as long as he did at a high level because NFL athletes weren’t as good as they are today. Ross Cooper showcases the technical mastery of Rice’s game.

Who is the best receiver of all time? Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, or perhaps (one day) Antonio Brown? I don’t care and if you love football more than some player and team allegiance, neither should you because this mentality limits your appreciation for the details that make the players and the game great.

While fans will continue debating this topic, let’s examine what Rice does so well, courtesy of Skill Acquisition Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Ross Cooper (@GorillaMyscles).

Let’s break down what Cooper tweeted. I rephrased it a little bit:

Jerry Rice’s route running is the process of manipulating space with lethal deceleration, complete movement, and total body control. It’s also a process of perceiving what the defensive back presents him and using that information to deceive him. 

How does Rice manipulate space?

  • Pacing: Like Moss, when Rice needs to execute a portion of the route at top speed, he runs at his top speed. When he needs to change speed, the change is dramatic. Once a player has enough speed to play in the NFL, the value of that raw physical resource is only as good as that player’s ability to dictate the pace of his interaction with a defender with refined movement. When a receiver can use extremes of pace, he forces the defender to react a beat behind the receiver’s changes unless he has successfully anticipated every detail. When a defender faces a player with Rice’s attention to detail, that’s an incredibly difficult task.
  • Deceleration: Wide receiver coaches state this often: “It’s more important to stop fast than it is to run fast.” The act of coming to a sudden stop from top speed is one of the fundamentals of successful route running. Rice and other great route runners stop even faster than they run. The sudden stop and change of direction are more jarring to the defender than the speed. When a receiver can combine great extremes of pacing and deceleration into a route, he can blow by defenders even when he has 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash.
  • Complete Movement: Cooper is referring to the details of the route and how every movement has a purpose.
    • The precision of the footwork.
    • The way Rice turn his head at a specific spot in the stem to make the defender think he’s running one route before he breaks in the opposite direction.
    • The lean of his shoulders.
    • The straight line and even pacing of his steps.
  • Total Body Control: Every movement is smooth, efficient, and helps him maintain the desired pace and angle of his path.
  • Perception: Much of what Rice is doing on routes is a series of highly rehearsed movements combined in various ways based on the range of routes he can run based on the play design and the coverage. Rice is reading (perceiving) what the defender shows him at each step of the route and using that information to deceive the opponent.

Anatomy, biology, chemistry, and methods of cutting, clamping, and sewing are among the countless things surgeons must learn in order to operate. However, when they enter an operating room, the cases often require them to execute combinations of learned behaviors that they didn’t plan to the exact detail beforehand.

The same is true with a musician performing a song. He has learned songs and the theory behind chord progressions like the ii-V-i or a bVI-V-i and then practiced dozens, if not hundreds of ideas that fit them.  However, like the surgeon and a wide receiver, he is acting and reacting to the information as it unfolds and using highly-researched techniques in various combinations to get the job done.

In this respect, Rice was a master performer who executed with surgical detail in an improvisational medium. If you’re studying wide receivers, Rice remains one of the standard bearers you should study.

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