This story appears in the Nov. 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
THIS TIME, Roddy White refused to let go of the ball, not even to spike it. In Week 7, the Falcons receiver broke out of his season-long slump with an over-the-shoulder fingertip TD grab against the Lions. He danced, chest-bumped and high-fived his way back to the Atlanta bench -- all while maintaining a death grip on the football. With a league-high seven botched catches, including the potential game winner in the fourth quarter against Tampa on Sept. 25, White was holding on to this ball for as long as possible.
Last year he led the NFL with 115 catches. This season he's learned the hard way that no one is impervious to the scourge known as the dropsies. "Today was crucial for me," White said after Atlanta's 23-16 win in Detroit. "Every time you hit a bump in the road, like dropping passes at critical times in games, it's about getting yourself back mentally where you need to be. For me, that's realizing you can do a lot in this league if you just hold on to the ball."
White isn't the only receiver trying to get his mind right; this season is shaping up to be the year of the bobble. Maybe it's because of the shortened preseason, or the increase in passing (NFL QBs are on pace to break the record for throws in a season by about 400), or the fact that air attacks have become so precise and intricately timed that anything less than perfect footwork and route-running can throw off QB-WR connections.
Whatever the reason, drops are up. In 2010, Patriots wideout Wes Welker led the league with 11. This season, five players are on pace to eclipse that. Since ESPN Stats & Info started tracking the number in 2008, no more than three players have had double-digit drops in any season. Normally sure-handed Colts tight end Dallas Clark had five drops in his first seven games -- he had six in the 2009 and '10 seasons combined. After missing three catches against the Chiefs on Oct. 9, an exasperated Clark just stared at his hands. "I was trying to tell 'em to work," he said afterward.
"It's embarrassing, but it happens to everyone," says Panthers receivers coach Fred Graves. "Because no matter what the variable is -- weather, injuries, QB under duress -- the expectation is that receivers should catch 100 percent of the passes thrown to them."
Not even the receiving corps on the league's best team can live up to that standard. In fact, the Packers have been plagued by a rash of drops dating back to the Super Bowl, when Jordy Nelson muffed three passes and a potential TD catch against the Steelers. After a combined 10 drops in Weeks 5 and 6, Packers wideouts implemented a fine: Every time one of them bungles a catch, he buys a $100 Best Buy gift card for each of the other WRs.
That sure beats the remedies wideouts have tried in the past. To cure the dropsies and work on eye-hand coordination, Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Fred Biletnikoff would catch bricks. Graves still uses the drill. "Some teams use tennis balls or Nerf balls," he says, "but I know if I throw a brick at your face, it guarantees I have your total concentration and focus."
Receivers are taught at an early age to catch the ball away from their bodies, with their pinkies together on low passes and thumbs together on anything above the numbers. When players lose confidence, however, their natural tendency is to cradle the ball with their torso, which increases the surface area -- and the potential for miscues.
The hands and brain can be cursed by the rest of the body too. A receiver should turn his head toward the ball first (forcing the body to follow) and look the ball into his hands by focusing on the smallest part. All this is designed to create a workable margin of error for the eyes, the brain and the fingertips.
When injuries, pressure or inexperience causes players to press and rush, the first casualties are visual discipline and patience. That's why you see receivers bobble the ball as they try to move upfield before first securing the catch. "It's like a baseball hitter who strikes out a few times, worries about a slump and starts to change his hands, stance, bat, everything," Graves says. "The key is not to change anything but go back to fundamentals."
That certainly worked for White, who's battled a deep thigh bruise all year. The week of the Lions game, he consulted with teammate and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, who told him to concentrate on short, simple pass reps that would allow him to focus on hand placement and looking the ball in. In a gutsy road win the Falcons considered a season-changer, White hauled in five catches, including critical third-down grabs in traffic that kept two scoring drives alive. Walking up the stadium tunnel after the game, past several battered Lions waiting outside the X-ray room, a smiling White yelled to his teammates: "Here we go again. We're about to start this all over."
Swagger is apparently the one thing White has never dropped.