There isnít much separating athletes at this level. Itís not much more than a couple of inches. So the question is, ďHow do I get those inches on my side?Ē The first rule is simple: You cannot cheat yourself.
Those inches come with preparation. I can sit down on a Saturday night and know certain predicaments Iíll face on Sunday. Before it happens, I know how a DB will respond to specific routes and how weíll be able to take advantage. Itís all in my head before I step on the field. I visualize it. I canít tell you how many times Iíve caught a pass or scored a touchdown and thought, Thatís exactly how I knew it would happen.
There was a play against San Diego, a TD pass on a corner-post route, that is a perfect example. (It proved to be the decisive score in the Raiders AFC West-clinching 13-6 win.) Itís a route that only works if you stare the safety (in this case, the Chargers Rogers Beckett) straight up and down, fake to the corner and go to the post. But itís not that easy. You canít give it away with your eyes or your feet. You have to look straight ahead. Youíve got to pick the perfect time to make the move toward the corner. I hit it right, just the way Iíd run it every day in practice. Iíd watched Beckett in films, and I had a good idea how he would react. When it happened, it was perfect. I came out of the break and the ball was there. In the locker room after the game, Al Davis shook my hand and said, ďThat was an easy one.Ē I answered, ďNothingís easy in this game.Ē
Itís repetition and preparation. The corner-post is a route Iíve done over and over in practice, and in the game you do it the exact same way. Thatís the key: In the heat of battle, you have to respond under pressure with the same precision. You canít rush just because itís a big situation. You have to be calm or youíll lose those inches you need to make the play successful.
You cannot cheat it. You cannot fake to the corner early because youíll show it too soon and the guyís going to get a break on you. You canít cut it too late or the safety wonít buy it. Heíll see where the playís going before it gets there. Either way, itís a couple of inches between success and failure.
Everything I do is about feel based on preparation. You run it until you have it down and then you run it the same way in the game. I donít think, ďIím going to fake after such-and-such number of yards, then Iím going to cut after three more steps.Ē You canít be mechanical. Itís like thereís a clock ticking in my head. Itís been ticking for a long time now, but it still works.
If Rich Gannon and I are working a route on the outside, that clock lets me know when to come out of the route, when heís going to throw and when I need to turn. Itís experience and execution. I rely on that clock to give me the inches I need out there. Think about it: How often does a receiver come out of a route and catch the ball on his fingertips? If he turns too soon or too late itís an incompletion or an interception. The defense is looking for those inches too. Theyíre trying to predict what youíre going to do.
For me, success means being prepared to execute. Everyone sees what happens on Sunday, but itís what you do the rest of the week that determines who gets those inches.
They are out there, but you have to work for them.
This article appears in the January 21 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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