He can catch, but can he get open?
When the Detroit Lions selected Kenny Golladay in the third round, I admit I was a bit disappointed that the team had traded away the possibility of grabbing Kareem Hunt earlier in that same round. Some draft experts seemed to think the Northern Illinois standout was a relatively under-developed route runner who “could struggle to uncover against bump-and-run corners.” Pro Football Focus specifically pointed out that he “does not use his hands well against press coverage, which prevents him from separating early in the play.”
One member on our staff who championed the Golladay selection was Kent Lee Platte, who implored us to trust the process. According to Kent, “Golladay is an elite athlete with top-tier size, but he sometimes struggles with his field awareness on the sidelines.” Okay, fine he is quite the athlete, but as former Steelers director of player personnel Dick Haley would tell his son Todd, “No matter how fast and strong they are, they still have to be able to play football. Don’t lose sight of that.”
Combined with the aforementioned route-running and hand use questions, the 64 dollar question was how the newly acquired receiver would create opportunities to make big play circus catches. To understand the challenge facing the Detroit coaching staff, consider the tale of another tall wide receiver who wore jersey number 19.
Emphasize what a player can do, not what he can’t
In Bill Parcells’ memoir, the legendary coach told a story about how second-year player Keyshawn Johnson was criticized by some of the staff for his “speed and ability to create separation.” The problem, thought the Tuna, was that Keyshawn was “undermining his talents by imitating smaller wideouts who possessed a different skill set.” The shorter, more agile receivers could make quick cuts and accelerate through windows that the towering first overall draft pick from the 1996 draft could not.
Parcells and Demasio recounted how the Jets head coach made his point with a pair of animal metaphors (p.284):
During one practice, Parcells pulled Johnson aside. Mentioning some of the NFL’s explosive wideouts, Parcells said, “You’re not Marvin Harrison or Terry Glenn. You’re big, strong, and mentally tough. You can snatch the ball. You’re not fast. You’re not a gazelle; you’re a giraffe. Got me? Don’t try to be a gazelle. Convince the quarterback to throw you the ball when you’re covered, because you’re going to be covered. You can’t get away from anybody, so be a great giraffe.”
As Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote back in 1998, Keyshawn would demand to be thrown the damn ball. With new confidence in a style better suited to his tools and body type, the star receiver wanted to be called upon in critical situations: ''Let's call the play, let's call the play.'' The play in question was a fade to the end zone over a smaller defensive back; the message was clear—throw it up and let me get it.
Fighting himself open against the Colts
Although a tad less heralded coming out of college than Keyshawn Johnson was, Kenny Golladay holds the same type of potential. Same height. Same “fast for a big guy but not Usain Bolt” fast. Same knocks on getting open and route-running. A lot of this can be improved by good coaching and technical work, and it showed in the first preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
2017 Preseason at IND, 1Q (7:16). Second-and-8 at the Indianapolis 40.
The first of three big plays by Golladay moved the chains on Detroit’s third possession of the game. Lined up on the far left side as an isolated split end against press coverage by 31 CB Quincy Wilson, the rookie fought to get clean, tracked the ball in a split second, and gathered it over the back of the falling defender.
2017 Preseason at IND, 1Q (5:43). Third-and-8 at the Indianapolis 23.
Two plays later, 14 QB Jake Rudock found Golladay down the left sideline—again working against Wilson in press coverage—with an underthrown comeback. While the video from both the Colts broadcast and Lions broadcast layered compliments for the fantastic catch, what happens before the catch is even more important for our current discussion.
The ball in the air is circled in yellow; to get an idea of how fast all of this is happening, notice the time on the clock in the CBS overlay does not move even a single tick. In the bottom left corner of the first panel, we can see Golladay fighting Wilson off with his right arm as both turn to track the ball near the 6-yard line. The entire way into the end zone, there is a lot of hand fighting to get free for an attempt at the ball.
The reverse angle treats us to an incredible effort to bring the ball in, but we already knew Kenny G can make those plays with his hands. What we did not know prior to this game was that he could do all that other stuff with his hands that happened six yards before the ball arrived.
2017 Preseason at IND, 2Q (7:06). First-and-5 at the Indianapolis 15.
The final reception to look at is the Lions’ second touchdown of the game. Lined up against 28 CB Tevin Mitchel on the right side of the formation, Golladay hauled in a back shoulder toss from Rudock after once again fighting off tight coverage to get free. Notice in the GIF above, the young receiver is focused on tracking the ball but still slaps away Mitchel’s attempt to get a grip on the jersey collar.
Up in the booth as part of the television broadcast team, Chris Spielman laid it out quite well:
Well, first of all what a throw right here by Jake Rudock. Purposely underthrowing that football and adjustment by Golladay. The strength, separation with his hands: looks like a veteran wide receiver. And the awareness to stay in bounds.
Everybody knew he was big and strong and that he could make highlight reel catches. Now, Kenny Golladay is showing us he can create separation with his hands, make plays against tight man coverage, and work the sidelines. It’s a style Lions fans came to appreciate in 2016 with Anquan Boldin’s ability to attack 50-50 balls. No doubt the coaches have been emphasizing these things in practice, and the hard work shows on the tape. While opposing defenders might be able to stay with Golladay in coverage for a while, this giraffe won’t care. Throw him the damn ball, and he’ll get un-covered when it counts.