It's become an abbreviation for both pro football and the fans underworld that has made the sport flourish, fantasy football. And it often represents an embarrassment of riches for a given offense. In other words ... the WR2 is kind of a big deal these days.
While finding lines of demarcation in any industry's history is never as simple as saying, Ahh! That's when *that started!* If ever there was a jumping-off point for tracking a team's second wideout, then consider the late-1970s Pittsburgh Steelers -- with superstar Lynn Swann and John Stallworth -- the first of the Mohicans.
"The public's perception of who the receiver was with the Pittsburgh Steelers was always Swann," Stallworth told NFL Films in an "America's Game" segment. " 'Oh, you played with Swann?' And I always wanted to respond, 'No Swann played with me.' I felt that I was always competing with that. That was a motivating factor for me, to make sure that people understood that I was as good or better."
This isn't to say talented tandems hadn't existed in the sport before. Tom Fears and Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch helped make the early 1950s Rams the most powerful offense in NFL history. Charley Hennigan and Bill Groman set a plethora of records in the early AFL with the Houston Oilers. And even in the Steelers' heyday, the Raiders boasted Fred Biletnikoff and the league's preeminent home-run hitter, Cliff Branch. Speed kills.
But Stallworth made fans and media alike take notice. The lanky Stallworth didn't have speed in spades, but he did have size. What he and Swann -- one of the most revered names of the '70s -- benefitted from most was both a fantastic all-around team and the proliferation of the passing game.
In the 1978 offseason, the Competition Committee opened up the passing game, allowing pass blockers to extend their arms in protection and limiting the defensive backs' bump area to five yards. Anything else was considered illegal contact.
Pittsburgh -- which had already ridden its defense to three Lombardi Trophies in the previous five seasons -- took a different route through the '79 season and postseason, a route that ultimately took the Steelers to their showdown with the Rams in Super Bowl XIV. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw attempted 472 passes, nearly 100 more than he had in any season to that point; he also established what was then a team record for passing yards (3,724) in a season. Stallworth -- who hadn't even started regularly until his fourth pro season and had as little as 41 catches as recently as the 1978 season -- snagged 70 balls for 1,183 yards. He was even named first-team All-Pro.
People around the country were slow to catch on. Pregame broadcasts that season mentioned the Steelers' defense and other key players (Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Swann and even fullback Rocky Bleier) before Stallworth, the former fourth-round draft pick from tiny Alabama A&M. In fact, the best WR2 in football didn't become known as such until the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
The pesky Los Angeles Rams, short on offense but "Ram tough" on defense, gave Pittsburgh all it could handle that afternoon in Pasadena, California. Every time the Steelers scored, the Rams answered back, coming back from deficits three times, culminating in a beautiful halfback option pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith in the end zone that gave them a 19-17 edge entering the fourth quarter.
That's when Stallworth made his own Hall of Fame case, regardless of his standing in the WR pecking order.
Facing a third-and-8 from his own 27 and not wanting to punt to the suddenly confident Rams, Bradshaw went for broke -- and got a little assist from broken coverage. Stallworth, lined up right, ran a post pattern through the middle of the field, trailed by cornerback Rod Perry. Los Angeles was in nickel, with safety Eddie Brown playing the deep-middle zone. Brown's job: Don't let anyone get open intermediately, or vertically. Los Angeles could afford a short completion on third-and-long.
One problem: Brown bit up on receiver Theo Bell to Stallworth's right, allowing Stallworth to run free down the middle like a toddler running wild through JC Penney -- with Perry as the hapless mother in pursuit. Stallworth tracked Bradshaw's heave, caught it over the wrong shoulder and ran 20 yards to the end zone like Pete Sampras in his prime, breaking nary a sweat.
"It was 60 prevent, slot, hook and go," Stallworth recalled. "During the course of the week, we hadn't completed that pass. For whatever reason, it hadn't worked in practice. I didn't hear the play and think, 'Oh yeah, this is it ... This is the one.' "
"My initial read on the ball -- my initial thoughts, and this is exactly what I thought -- 'Dammit, Bradshaw, you've overthrown me' ... and literally turned away from the ball and started to run."
It was a Willie Mays-esque grab. And -- fitting for a WR2 -- Stallworth's gem was merely one of, yes, two.
Knowing the Rams' linebackers and defensive backs were playing the run and clogging the short passing lanes, Bradshaw went for broke again. To Stallworth. Again. This time, the ball slipped somewhat while leaving his golden arm.
"Same exact route that we had before," Stallworth said. "And I said [to myself], 'Bradshaw, you've underthrown me! I'm more open this time than I was last time!' "
Stallworth tracked it over his shoulder again, but Bradshaw's half-wobbler didn't have the same velocity as their previous 73-yard scoring strike. Forced to slow up, Stallworth slid forward while leaning his head back, cradling the ball just in front of his shoulder pads to complete a circus catch. Except this was no circus. This was the new brand of Steelers football, and all of America saw it.
Pittsburgh paid off its second receiver's heroics with a Harris touchdown dive, giving the organization and city a fourth Super Bowl title in six seasons. Stallworth began getting recognized for the star he was in his own right. Never was this more clear than when youknowwhograced the cover of Sports Illustrated.
There would be no SI cover curse this time around, either. Twenty-two years later, Stallworth would be the first second wide receiver to deliver a speech in Canton, Ohio.
Did you know?
The 1979 Rams were no slouches on defense. They finished seventh in yards allowed and pitched three shutouts that season, the last of which was the NFC Championship Game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Los Angeles won that game 9-0 on three field goals. It is also still the lowest-scoring game in the history of the NFC championship.
A note on Super Bowl I
The other Super Bowl rematch of Week 3: Chiefs at Packers, Monday at 8:30 p.m. ET. Kansas City and Green Bay, of course, squared off in the first Super Bowl in January 1967. At that time, it was referred to as the "AFL-NFL World Championship Game," although the only country involved was, uh, the United States. Green Bay dominated the second half in a resounding 35-10 victory, and the rest is history.
One of the most interesting stories to emanate from that game was that it was the only Super Bowl broadcast that, it was believed, nobody had a copy of -- even NFL Films didn't have it in its vault -- until a man found one in 2005, recorded on video equipment akin to stone knives and bearskins. It has yet to be released to the public, however. Its estimated worth? A cool million.