(Not so) Fast Freddy

Hall of Famers Published on : 2/23/2010
For more than 20 years of football in high school, college and the pros, Fred Biletnikoff played just one position – wide receiver.

Unlike many great athletes who try several different jobs before settling on one spot, Fred had no desire to play anywhere else.

"I like catching passes,” he always insisted. “And I like playing outside. I would be lost if I were ever told to do anything on a football field except catch passes.” 

So catching passes it was for Biletnikoff at Erie (PA) Technical High School, then at Florida State, and on to the pro level with the Oakland Raiders.

When his 14-year pro career came to an end after the 1978 season, Biletnikoff had amassed an impressive 589 receptions that placed him fourth best ever at the time. He converted those catches into 8,974 yards and 76 touchdowns. During Biletnikoff’s tenure with the “Black-and-Silver,” the Raiders never suffered a losing season and the dependable, sure-handed receiver was a major contributor to that success. He caught more than 40 passes 10 straight years and his 77 total touchdowns were the most ever scored by a Raider.

Biletnikoff's sterling performances over a long period of time earned him election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988 when he became the fifth Raider from the 1960s and 1970s to be enshrined.

Although Biletnikoff's lack of breakaway speed kept him from being a receiver who could consistently record spectacular long gains to the Raiders attack, his precise pass routes and sure hands made him one of the greatest pass catchers to step onto the football field.

He enjoyed many outstanding days during his Hall of Fame career. But, by most every measurement, his performance in Super Bowl XI was perhaps his finest day. He caught four crucial passes for 79 yards to help the Raiders to a victory over the Minnesota Vikings. His effort earned him the game’s Most Valuable Player award.

The Raiders were leading by a field goal when Ken Stabler set up the game's first touchdown on a third-down-and-three slant-in pass to Biletnikoff, who made a sliding catch at the Vikings’ one-yard-line. On the next possession, the left-handed Stabler found Biletnikoff open again, this time with a 17-yard connection to the 1. From there, Pete Banaszak plowed over the goal line on the next play to put the Raiders comfortably in front, 17-0.

{GALLERY}The QB-WR combination clicked again in the fourth quarter when Biletnikoff broke free up the middle on a post pattern that produced a 48-yard gain and placed the ball on the Vikings’ two-yard-line. Again, Banaszak found the end zone on the next play and the Raiders were well on their way to a convincing 32-14 win over Minnesota.

While Biletnikoff prized the new car he received for winning MVP honors, he particularly savored the Super Bowl XI triumph because of his unhappy experience in Super Bowl II, when the Raiders lost to the Green Bay Packers, 33-14.

"I only caught two passes that day," Fred remembered. “The final blow came in the last period when Daryle Lamonica tried to hit me with a pass and Herb Adderley picked it off and returned 60 yards for a touchdown.

“When we made it back to the Super Bowl nine years later,” he continued, “I was 33 and I knew it could be my last opportunity to be on a World Championship team."

The fact that Biletnikoff came close to scoring three touchdowns but was stopped just short every time underscored his one talent deficiency -- a lack of blazing speed. It was his less than world-class speed that made many scouts question Fred's potential as a pro when he completed his Florida State collegiate career.

"Every scouting report we had was fantastic,” shared Al Davis, the Raiders' owner. “They all said Fred was outstanding in college, but they questioned his speed and weren't sure he would be outstanding in the pros. But we felt, with our approach to total pass offense, that speed wasn't the only consideration, that we could tailor our offense to our players."

In the long run, Biletnikoff’s speed problem proved to be only a minor detriment.

"l run the 40 in 4.7 and that's fast enough," he once pointed out. "If the game of catching a football was simply a 40-yard race between the receivers and the cornerbacks, I’d lose some races. But it is more than just that. I know how to beat those speed burners. The secret is to get the jump on the defensive back.”

He certainly was a master of getting open regardless of who covered him. Helping Biletnikoff in his pursuit of catching the football were a pair of Raiders quarterbacks – Lamonica from 1967 to 1972 and Stabler after that point. Both passers recognized Fred's tremendous catching capabilities and worked countless hours to take full advantage of them.

"We've been together so long we know exactly what to expect from each other," Stabler said after Super Bowl XI. "I know where he's going before he gets there and he knows where I'll be throwing almost before I do. Like a great pianist, he is tops in his field. I look at him sometimes and wonder how he does the things he does."

Biletnikoff's pass-catching expertise can be traced in large part to the extensive experience he had with coaches who emphasized the passing game.

“We probably threw 25 times a game in high school," he reflected. “Really just as much as we did in Oakland.”

Florida State coach Bill Peterson offered Fred a scholarship and teamed him with another future pro quarterback Steve Tensi, to form a dynamic pass-catch duo with the Seminoles. The squad went to a pro-style offense with four receivers starting in Biletnikoff’s junior year and really aired it out during his last year with FSU.

As a result, Biletnikoff finished fourth in the nation with 57 receptions for 11 touchdowns as a senior. A consensus All-America selection, he capped off his super year by catching four touchdown passes in Florida State's victory over Oklahoma in the Gator Bowl.

In 1965, Fred was drafted in the second round of the AFL draft by the Raiders and the third round in the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. Oakland offered more money but Fred also took two other factors into consideration. First, he remembered the winters of his childhood in Erie, where he was born on February 23, 1943, and he didn't want to play regularly in the cold weather. He also felt the Lions were loaded with star receivers and that he would have a better chance to play with the Raiders. Right after the Gator Bowl game, he signed with Davis under the goal posts in front of a national television audience.

But he was introduced to the reality of pro football once he joined the Raiders. He seemed unsure of himself for awhile and at first seemingly dropped more passes than he caught. When the season started, his play was confined to special teams.

In the seventh game of his rookie campaign, Fred got the chance to start. He made the most of the opportunity by hauling seven passes as the Raiders downed the Boston Patriots, 30-21.

Despite his fine effort, he did not become a regular right away. But his play continued to improve. His rookie totals showed just 24 receptions for 331 yards but no touchdowns. The 1966 campaign started slightly better but in the ninth week, he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Fred played the first four games in 1967 as a reserve before finally breaking into the starting lineup in the season’s fifth game. Aided by the presence of Lamonica, who had come to Oakland from Buffalo in a trade, Biletnikoff blossomed.
Lamonica learned to take advantage of Fred's quick moves away from his defenders. The result was that Biletnikoff caught 40 passes for 895 yards and five touchdowns as the Raiders marched to the AFL championship. He remained a starter from that point forward.

Biletnikoff was selected to the AFL All-Star game after the 1967 season and again two years later. He was also was named to four AFC-NFC Pro Bowls in five years after the AFL and NFL merged in 1970.

Throughout his career, Fred was an acute worrier. He worried himself into an ulcer when he was only 21 and still in college. He agonized on the field and off. He’d become enraged when he dropped a pass --which fortunately wasn't often --even in practice! Before a game, he paced around the dressing room and often times would vomit. He kept antacid in his locker to calm his stomach before a game. Then, even after he had a good day, it would take him several hours to calm down after the game.

"All of this stems from his desire to compete,” observed his roommate Tom Keating. “He is tough physically and mentally and he is also one of the most intense competitors I have ever seen.”

Biletnikoff particularly relished his confrontations with some of the more talkative defensive backs. "I like to play against them," he explained during an interview. "If you catch a few passes, suddenly they quit talking.”

One such confrontation came in a Kansas City game in 1967 after Fred Williamson. The Chiefs' star defender boasted all week how he would contain the Raiders great receiver. On the first pass play from Lamonica,  Biletnikoff went 56 for a touchdown. He wound up finishing the game with six catches for 158 yards while Williamson watched in comparative silence.

Another memorable matching came in the 1968 AFL Championship Game when the New York Jets’ John Sample lined up opposite of Biletnikoff. Before it was over, Fred had caught seven passes for 190 yards.

His proclivity for excellent performances in the Raiders’ biggest games defined Biletnikoff’s career. When he retired he held the career playoff record for receptions and receiving yards.

Because of his great talent, Biletnikoff was often double covered. One of the hardest-working players in the league he rigorously practiced his patterns. He also spent countless hours studying film of his opponents. He also received much attention for his ritual of smearing his hands with green, gooey substance to improve his grip.

"The thing that is most impressive about Fred," once shared his Hall of Fame coach John Madden, "is that he is a man-made receiver. He has to work hard for everything he's got. He can catch anything he can touch. That's no accident. Some receivers might catch 15 or 20 passes in practice. Fred will catch 100."

"Pass receiving to Fred was a job," Keating said upon hearing about his good friend's election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Nobody put more pressure on himself than he did. There was no one quite like Fred Biletnikoff!”

Hall of Famers who played in the AFL