A wide receiver (also referred to as wideouts or simply receivers) is an offensive position in American and Canadian football, and is the key player in most of the passing plays. They get their name because they are split out "wide" (near the sidelines), furthest away from the rest of the team. Wide receivers are among the fastest players on the field. The wide receiver functions as the pass-catching specialist.
The wide receiver's principal role is to catch passes from the quarterback. On passing plays, the receiver attempts to avoid, outmaneuver, or simply outrun defenders (typically cornerbacks and/or safeties) in the area of his pass route. If the receiver becomes open, or has an unobstructed path to the destination of a catch, he may then become the quarterback's target. Once a pass is thrown in his direction, the receiver's goal is to first catch the ball and then attempt to run downfield. Some receivers are perceived as a deep threat because of their flat-out speed, while others may be possession receivers known for not dropping passes, running crossing routes across the middle of the field, and generally, converting third down situations. A receiver's height and weight also contribute to his expected role; tall height and light weight are advantages at the receiver position.
A wide receiver has two potential roles during running plays. Particularly in the case of draw plays and other trick plays, he may run a pass route with the intent of drawing off defenders. Alternatively, he may block normally for the running back. Well-rounded receivers are noted for blocking defensive backs in support of teammates in addition to their pass-catching abilities.
Sometimes wide receivers are used to run the ball, usually in some form of end-around or reverse. This can be effective because the defense usually does not expect them to be the ball carrier on running plays. For example, wide receiver Jerry Rice rushed the ball 87 times for 645 yards and 10 touchdowns in his 20 NFL seasons.
In even rarer cases, receivers may pass the ball as part of a trick play. Despite the infrequency of these plays, some receivers have proven to be capable passers, particularly those with prior experience as a quarterback.
Wide receivers may also serve on special teams as kick returners or punt returners, as gunners on kick coverage teams, or as part of the hands team during onside kicks.
Finally, on errant passes, receivers must frequently play a defensive role by attempting to prevent an interception. If a pass is intercepted, receivers must use their speed to chase down and tackle the ball carrier to prevent him from returning the ball for a long gain or a touchdown.
In the NFL, wide receivers can use the numbers 10–19 and 80–89.
History of the position
The wide receiver grew out of a position known as the end. Originally, the ends played on the offensive line, immediately next to the tackles. By the rules governing the forward pass, ends (positioned at the end of the line of scrimmage) and backs (positioned behind the line of scrimmage) are eligible receivers. Most early football teams used the ends as receivers sparingly, their position often left them in heavy traffic with many defenders around. By the 1930s, some teams were experimenting with moving one end far out near the sideline, to make them more open to receive passes. These split ends became the prototype for the modern wide receiver. Don Hutson, who played college football at the Alabama and professionally with the Green Bay Packers was the first player to exploit the potentials of the split end position, and is widely credited as inventing the wide receiver position.
As the passing game evolved, a second wide receiver position was added. While it is possible to move the second end (now called the tight end) out wide for a second split end position) most teams preferred to leave the tight end close to provide extra blocking protection on the quarterback's blind side. Instead, one of the three running backs was split wide instead, creating the flanker position. The flanker lines up in the backfield, but split wide like the split end was. Flankers also had an added advantage of having more "space" in front of them, so that defensive backs can not as easily "jam" them at the line of scrimmage. Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch is one of the earliest players to successfully exploit the potentials of the flanker position as a member of the Los Angeles Rams during the 1950s.
While some teams did experiment with more than two wide receivers as a gimmick or trick play, most teams used the pro set as the standard offensive personnel (a flanker, a split end, a half back, a full back, and a tight end). An early innovator, coach Sid Gillman used 3+ wide receiver sets as early as the 1960s. In sets that have three, four, or five wide receivers, extra receivers are typically called slot receivers, as they play in the "slot" (open space) between the furthest receiver and the offensive line. The first use of a slot receiver is often credited to Al Davis, a Gillman assistant who took the concept with him as a coach of the 1960s Oakland Raiders. Other members of the Gillman coaching tree, including Don Coryell and John Madden brought such offensive ideas along with them into the 1970s and early 1980s, but it wasn't until the 1990s that teams began to reliably use three or more wide receivers, notably the "run and shoot" offense popularized by the Houston Cougars of the NCAA and the Houston Oilers of the NFL, and the "K Gun" offense used by the Buffalo Bills. Charlie Joiner, a member of the "Air Coryell" San Diego Chargers teams of the late 1970s-early 1980s was the first "slot receiver" to be his teams primary receiving weapon.
While the general fan base and most commentators use the generic term wide receiver for all such players, specific names exist for most receiver positions: