If this is the dawning of a new era in the NFL -- an era that invokes flashbacks of the league's distant past -- we have Deion Sanders to thank, along with the physical ravages of the game.
When Dale Carter latched onto a 46-yard touchdown pass from Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Steve Bono last Sunday, it signaled a whole new way of looking at things.
Suddenly, defensive backs can line up at wide receiver, run a fly pattern or two, and influence the outcome of a game.
But not just any defensive backs.
They are, at the moment, brothers in two-way terror.
They share the common theme of being standout defensive players who double on the other side of the ball as wide receivers. Each came to his role out of dire circumstances.
Sanders, who has dabbled at receiver in the past, became the league's first two-way starter in 36 years after teammate Michael Irvin was dealt a five-game suspension to open the season.
Carter got the call last week after the Chiefs' receiving corps was decimated by injury.
In an age of salary cap economics and diluted rosters, they are not the last of their kind, but forerunners of a new breed of athlete, says Al Saunders, the Chiefs' assistant head coach.
"I think the day of free agency and salary cap has necessitated players with multiple abilities to play varying positions because the players at the lower end [of the roster] are not as strong as they once were," Saunders said.
"Kordell Stewart [the Pittsburgh Steelers' multidimensional offensive threat] is a great example of that.
"One of the hallmarks of being a coach is to use the talent you have to the best advantage."
After six seasons of major-league baseball, Sanders' versatility was not lost on the Cowboys. Indeed, when they decided to make him a full-time, two-way player last summer, it seemed merely an extension of a concept that already had germinated.
Still, it represented a breakthrough event when Sanders was on the field for 108 snaps in the Cowboys' season opener against Chicago. Running short hitches against the Bears' soft coverage, Sanders had nine receptions for 87 yards. On defense, he made three solo tackles, defended a pass and forced a fumble.
Sanders leads the Cowboys with 14 receptions for 152 yards and one touchdown. On defense, he has yet to intercept a pass this season, but scored a touchdown on a 22-yard fumble return last week. It was his 15th career touchdown.
"I think Deion is extraordinary, somebody playing that amount of time," Saunders said. "[But] I think spot playing for [two-way] players is something we may see more of."
Emergency service is what the Chiefs had in mind for Carter last week when their offense took on the look of an infirmary. In a Week 2 victory over the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City lost wide receivers Tamarick Vanover (cracked ribs), Lake Dawson (sprained wrist) and Danan Hughes (jammed hand), Dawson and Hughes on the same play.
Vanover is the Chiefs' speed receiver at flanker, and the other flanker, Victor Bailey, had missed most of training camp with a knee injury.
When coach Marty Schottenheimer inserted Carter, with 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash, into the position at practice last week, the results were titillating.
"The ability he has to escape bump-and-run coverage was perhaps the singular thing that was most evident in practice," Schottenheimer said.
As receivers coach, Saunders appreciated Carter's elusive skills as much as anyone.
"Our team plays a lot of bump-and-run," Saunders said. "The first time he lined up, the defender was on the line of scrimmage and Dale escaped him and was 10 yards up the field. The defense just howled. His ability to get off a jam is just phenomenal."
The Chiefs wasted little time cashing in on the phenomenon last Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. On the team's third offensive series, Carter beat defenders Selwyn Jones and Robert Blackmon on a deep fly pattern down the left sideline. He caught Bono's pass chest-high at the 10 and strutted into the end zone. That gave the Chiefs a 14-0 lead en route to a 35-17 victory.
Carter was on offense for only six plays, but came away with three catches worth 61 yards. He went 63 defensive snaps (with six tackles) and six more on special teams to run his total to 75 for the game.
Players on both teams were impressed.
"He's as good as any receiver they have," said Seattle cornerback Corey Harris.
Said Kansas City's Marcus Allen: "I've seldom seen quickness like Dale Carter has. Everybody talks about the other guy who does double duty. Our guy is pretty special, too."
While Carter didn't openly campaign for more offensive time, he didn't discourage it.
"I'm mainly defense, that's what I'm sticking with," he said. "But I'm in good shape. I could play as many plays as they want me to. I don't think playing offense would take too much out of me."
The Chiefs insist they won't try to make Carter a full-time, two-way player, like Sanders. But they probably won't be able to resist the temptation to reach for a quick, easy touchdown on occasion the way they did last week, either.
"There's a strong indication that would be part of his role on the team, to be a receiver in special situations," said Saunders. "Maybe this evolves for him. But we don't want to overload his circuits to where he has to study everything. When we get into three- and four-wide receiver sets, there may be a place for him to go."
Because Carter is a much more physical player than Sanders, there seems little doubt he could handle the workload. Unlike Sanders, Carter is recognized for his tackling ability. He also has a reputation for playing big in crunch time. Of his 15 career interceptions, 11 have come in the fourth quarter and six of those in the final 90 seconds with the game on the line.
As for his skills at eluding people, he has returned two punts for touchdowns in five seasons.
Carter is, perhaps, a more ideal two-way player than Sanders.
"From the standpoint of physical ability, absolutely, yes, he could do it," Saunders said. "On a skill level, he's as good as the upper echelon of receivers in the NFL. But to do both on a full-time basis would be very difficult because of the complexities of what we do offensively.
"I know the Dallas system, because I was in San Diego with [Cowboys offensive coordinator] Ernie Zampese. Their system in terms of play nomenclature is a numbered system. A 9 is a go, an 8 a post.
"Our terminology is like the 49ers. We identify the primary receiver and everybody else runs complementary routes. You have to memorize those routes. The time commitment would take away from Dale's preparation. And one thing we believe here is preparation is the key to our success. It'd be difficult for someone to be in our offensive and defensive system."
Difficult, maybe, but in the age of salary cap cutbacks and watered-down rosters, no longer impossible.
Pub Date: 9/20/96