Among the many subjects I interviewed during the week before Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., none was as insightful as Jerry Rice, who told me to look for Pittsburgh Steelers WR Santonio Holmes to be the difference-maker in the big game.
Early the next morning, after Holmes scored the winning touchdown and became the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player, I again spoke with Rice, who explained how he had trained Holmes before the start of the 2008 season. Rice spoke of Holmes’ explosive ability and how his training emphasized both endurance and productive plays after making the catch.
In retrospect, I discovered that it was Holmes who made decisive plays in all three of the Steelers’ postseason games. His explosive punt returns set the table for playoff victories over the Chargers and the Ravens. He then repeatedly beat the Cardinals’ defensive backs in the Super Bowl by turning short catches into long gains.
Such revelations bring me to Tennessee Titans first-round pick Kenny Britt. The wide receiver out of Rutgers began working with retired Denver Broncos WR Rod Smith in preparation for last February’s NFL Scouting Combine.
Even after tying current Cardinals Pro Bowl WR Larry Fitzgerald‘s Big East Conference record with 14 100-yard games, Britt arrived in Indianapolis with a third-round grade. But after scoring high in all the measurable drills, Britt really caught the scouts’ eyes with his polished route running, despite having a 6-foot-3, 218-pound frame.
“He’s like I was coming out of college,” Smith said. “I was a long strider who couldn’t run routes, and I would always slip and fall when running routes on grass, especially when it was wet. Long strides kill route running. We shortened his stride, then worked on the board to improve his understanding of what he’s trying to do when running his routes.”
Using the lessons learned from Smith, Britt’s excellent footwork and precise route running catapulted him to the 30th overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Ironically, the Titans’ decision to select the Smith clone was no coincidence. Mike Heimerdinger, the Titans’ offensive coordinator, served in the same role in Denver during Smith’s initial years with the Broncos.
“Mike is like a dad to me in the NFL,” Smith said. “He taught me how to run routes. There would be no Rod Smith winning two Super Bowls without Mike Heimerdinger, who told me I would not make the team unless I learned to run routes. That’s when I started listening.”
In 13 seasons, Smith became the only undrafted player to amass more than 10,000 career receiving yards.
Smith was once the pupil, but he has now become the teacher, which means Britt could benefit with a fast start in the Titans’ offense. Like Holmes, Britt has been all ears while learning from an accomplished pro who has been there and done that.
If the trend continues, look for Britt to become Heimerdinger’s newest offensive weapon. Consider it a return on his investment made more than 13 years ago.
— Solomon Wilcots
(Solomon Wilcots will be chatting live on NFL.com at 6 p.m. ET on Monday, May 11. Submit a question, then check back to see if it gets answered.)