Flem File: Dropsies fever, catch it
"It's third down and 3, Dallas at the Pittsburgh 10 … Roger back to throw, has a man open in the end zone … Caught! TOUCHDOWN! Dropped?! Dropped in the end zone! Jackie Smith all by himself. Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America."
-- Verne Lundquist, CBS, on Jan. 21, 1979
Football scientists believe that the contagion now known as the Dropsies -- the new, virulent scourge that is wreaking havoc on the modern-day, pass-happy NFL -- can be traced back to this single play from Super Bowl XIII. Late in the third quarter, wide-open Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith watched as a sure history-changing touchdown bounced off his chest, away from his flailing arms, and helplessly down to the Orange Bowl turf.
The Steelers went on to win the game 35-31 and Smith would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame (with 480 catches), but the damage had been done, the virus unleashed. Afterward, NFL black ops dressed in haz-mat suits tried to isolate and contain the virus inside the Orange Bowl, but it was too late. The only good news the NFL lab came up with was that a biopsy of the contaminated football, as well as brain and finger scans from Smith, revealed that the Dropsie contagion had an odd 32-year incubation period.
So, the only thing anyone could do back in 1979 was wait -- and pray. Hard. And, perhaps, enjoy a nice mild cheddar and white wine fondue along with the new eight-track from Captain & Tennille.
Anyway, smash cut 32½ years to Indianapolis in Week 5 of this season: Colts tight end and consummate pro (coincidence?) Dallas Clark stands on the field, exasperated, staring down in disgust at his suddenly impotent hands after dropping his third pass of the game. A Pro Bowl player who once possessed the surest hands in football, Clark had just six drops total in 2009 and 2010. But after being infected with the Dropsies (as well as suffering from wrist and leg injuries and the absence of the preternaturally precise Peyton Manning) Clark now leads the league with seven drops.
I found this connection between Smith and Clark while researching this phenomena for a story in the current issue of ESPN The Magazine along with one very real, very horrific conclusion: It's out. It's spreading. It's contagious. And no one is safe. (I've dropped three cups of coffee, two important cellphone calls, six followers on Twitter and 4 pounds since working on this story.)
God help us all.
The first hint that the virus had begun to mutate was last season when Patriots wideout Wes Welker led the league in drops with 11. Now, it's got Clark and many others. In fact, as many as a half-dozen players could eclipse Welker's mark from last year. By one count, Brandon Marshall has botched seven passes already. Dwayne Bowe? Six. Mike Williams. Frank Gore. Devin Hester. DeSean Jackson. Even Maurice Jones-Drew. They've all got it. And the numbers will only double if someone eventually signs the all-time King of the Drops, Terrell Owens.
After leading the league in catches last season with 115, Roddy White had seven drops in his first seven games, including the potential game winner in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay. In years past, the Falcons have been so infected by the Dropsies that owner Arthur Blank once lamented his team couldn't catch a cold. Maybe that's why, after Roddy caught a TD against the Lions a few weeks ago, he kept a death grip on the ball for 65 yards, all the way back to the Falcons bench, as if just to make sure the damn thing never left his hand.
Now it looks like the Bears (17 drops) and the Cleveland Browns (23) might want to think about fumigating their entire facility. If you were to give Browns QB Colt McCoy all those missed receptions back, his completion percentage would shoot from 57.5 percent (ranked, 27th) to the top five in the NFL. If need be, maybe he can get the antidote from Welker or Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, who stone-fingered the potential game-winning pass against the Steelers on Sunday only to come back a few plays later to catch a 26-yard TD to win the game 23-20.
(Other than the suspected contagion, the simple truth of the matter is that when receivers lose confidence and start to press instead of catching the ball away from their bodies with their hands -- pinkies together on low passes, thumbs together on anything high -- they tend to cradle and smother the ball, which only leads to more bounces and more drops.)
Experts aren't sure if the onset of the Dropsies was accelerated by the lack of an offseason, all the attack-style defenses, outrageous expectations caused by the influence of video games and fantasy football, or the fact that NFL QBs are on pace to break the record for throws in a season by, perhaps, several hundred passes. What the experts do know is that no one is impervious to the scourge of the NFL.
Not even HOFer Jerry Rice, who used to refer to the drops as the football version of the putting yips in golf. Marshall Faulk swore they were contagious. For the most part, though, players won't talk about the Dropsies. If you want to see a room full of happy, rich and brash receiva divas squirm and go silent and rush out to check their parking meters, drop the D-word on them.
"Wide receivers are superstitious, a little bit," says Panthers receiver coach Fred Graves. "But more than anything, I think they're embarrassed. This is their profession, and no matter what the variables are, the expectation is that they should catch everything. But go out in your backyard and throw the ball 10 times and see, even in those perfect, relaxed conditions, how hard it still is to catch 100 percent."
Adding to the mystical feel of this affliction is the fact that drops aren't even an official stat -- which would be like MLB not keeping track of foul balls -- so no one ever really knows for sure who dropped what or how many times exactly. Different stat engines use different methods to measure drops. The same goes for each team. The old-school method is to count anything a receiver touches as a drop. (Why? Because offenses hate tipped balls more than drops since they almost always lead to interceptions.) Others use anything that's within the arm-span radius of the player. ESPN Stats & Information has the Packers with only 12 total drops even though the team's coaches say they botched 10 in Weeks 4-5 alone.
To remedy the one blemish on the Packers' otherwise perfect start, a problem that dates back to the Super Bowl when wideout Jordy Nelson muffed three passes and a potential touchdown against the Steelers, Green Bay's wideouts implemented a fine system where any receiver who drops a pass has to buy the rest of his teammates a $100 gift certificate from Best Buy.
(If this idea catches on across the league, my advice is to call your broker and purchase as much stock in Best Buy as you possibly can.)
There are as many antidotes for the Dropsies as there are excuses.
Some teams use gift cards. The old-timers used cans of stick-um spray. Now they wear gloves covered in what feels like octopus skin. They have special training glasses. Teams also take guys back to the basics: A hundred 10-yard catches on the slowest level of the Jugs football throwing machine, then 100 more at 15 yards and so on until the receiver either has his confidence back or his hands fall off. Others follow the method used by Rice and HOFer Fred Biletnikoff and catch bricks before practice. "Some teams use tennis balls or Nerf balls," Graves says. "But I know if I throw a brick at your face it guarantees I have your total concentration and focus."
It's counterintuitive, but the Dropsies are almost never caused by the hands. Rookie QBs tend to spray the ball all over the field. Drop. Young receivers get so caught up in the speed and violence of the game they try to run or make a move before securing the ball. Blop. Veteran Pro Bowlers get lazy and bring their head and eyes to the ball late. Bloop. Guys focus on the tip of the ball instead of the laces. Flop. It only takes one wrong step to mess up the precise timing routes that are so popular now. Plop.
Or, in the case of Jackie Smith in Super Bowl XIII, sometimes you get wide open in the biggest game of your life, the ball is thrown perfectly and … you just flat-out miss it.
It's called being human.
And there's no cure for that.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."