By David Bradford, for VFL Insider
Before he became the Hot Take Messiah, Skip Bayless was actually a talented columnist who covered iconic athletes such as Michael Jordan and Barry Bonds.
But Bayless’s claim to fame came with his coverage of the 1990s Dallas Cowboys. He wrote books chronicling just how unique that particular team was, which was comprised of characters who dominated on the field, but perhaps were too involved in other avenues off the field.
However, despite covering America’s Team at an elite level, in classic Bayless fashion, he used his experience as the genesis of a scorching take.
According to Bayless, Michael Irvin, not Jerry Rice, is the greatest wide receiver of all time.
The Undisputed “star” claims that Irvin was the ringleader of three championship teams (an accurate statement) and that whenever the Cowboys needed a clutch catch on the road in the cold against the likes of the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, Irvin would always make the catch. He never put up Rice’s godly stats (although he was no slouch in that department). He never played in the West Coast offense (Dallas primarily rode the coattails of Emmitt Smith). But in Bayless’s view, Irvin’s impact on the game was greater than Rice’s.
That opinion is easy to pick apart, but it raises an important question: What exactly determines how effective a wide receiver is?
Is it the number of receptions? Yards? Touchdowns? Yards after catch? Run blocking?
In some fashion, it’s all of the above.
For the Tennessee Volunteers, they know who the Alpha Dog at receiver is. That would be Jauan Jennings, but his replacement of Josh Malone as the team’s go-to weapon on the outside doesn’t imply he’ll put up Malone-type numbers (972 yards, 11 touchdowns, every touchdown 21 yards or longer).
In fact, Jennings will likely replicate or barely inch past his production from last season – where he caught 40 passes for 580 yards and seven touchdowns – while increasing the impact he has on the team. The same way Irvin could impact a game while catching only two or three passes.
In 2017, the Vols will focus heavily on the ground game. The offensive line is as experienced as any, and with an inexperienced commodity taking snaps, John Kelly’s usage will skyrocket from last season, especially during the early stages of the season.
This will naturally limit Jennings’ opportunities, but he can still leave him finger print on a game by effecting three areas: Off-the-field leadership, run blocking, and timely catches.
Just like Irvin was during his heyday, Jennings has been described by players, coaches, fans, and media members as a “dog”. A ruthless competitor who attacks football like an uncontrollable beast. Is he the most refined route runner? No. Was it obvious at points last season that he was struggling with his transition from quarterback to wide receiver? Yes. But if Jennings is the guy who can light a fire within his teammates and lead by example for the younger, more polished receivers, then that part of his mission is accomplished.
Taking his dog mentality from practices and the sidelines to the field, Jennings is a physical presence in the running game. His frame (6-foot-3, 209 lbs.) allows him to be one of the most overpowering run-blocking receivers in the SEC. If Kelly wants to challenge Tennessee’s single-season rushing record, then venturing in Jennings’ direction – where he’s likely driving a defensive back into oblivion – is a recommended practice.
But more importantly, when it’s third-and-long in the Swamp, and Tennessee is trailing by four points with the crowd losing its mind, Jennings has to be the reliable target. Given his track record of making clutch catches, the odds are in his favor.
Jennings isn’t flawless, both on the field and off it. There was the marijuana incident a couple of months ago, but Michael Irvin was no stranger to off-field controversy either. The situation with the junior was handled behind closed doors and hopefully never replicated.
Assuming he steers clear of trouble, Jennings might be the most important player on Tennessee’s offense. It won’t be because he’ll collect 1,000 receiving yards – he won’t. It won’t be because he’ll be the most highlighted player week in and week out.
Instead, Jennings will have a Michael Irvin-esque impact on the team, and that can’t always be quantified on the stat sheet.