TAMPA — A few years back, University of Missouri offensive coordinator David Yost scanned his roster, noted the presence of three wide receivers and two tight ends each 6-foot-4 or taller, and quickly decided he had to do something special to take advantage of all that height.
He spent a good part of the spring prior to the 2012 season learning from Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monkin the nuances of the back-shoulder fade pass Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon had used so effectively the year before.
With at least three 6-foot-5 pass catchers of their own, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are making the back-shoulder fade a big part of their offense, as well. But offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford didn’t need to visit Monkin or anyone else to learn the nuances of the throw.
The Bucs have what some consider one of the better teachers of that touch pass already on their roster. His name is Josh McCown, and this 12-year NFL veteran quarterback’s list of former pupils includes one of the NFL’s most celebrated signal-callers.
“Josh taught Kurt Warner how to throw the back shoulder fade to Larry Fitzgerald,’’ said former Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who works with Warner as an analyst on the NFL Network. “A lot of people don’t know that, because Kurt doesn’t like to tell the story.’’
Neither does McCown.
He starts with a disclaimer, saying he learned a lot more from Warner than Warner learned from him during their one season together with the Arizona Cardinals. But McCown won’t deny he may have had a small hand in Warner’s success.
“Coming from St. Louis, Kurt was such a timing guy, and I was like ‘Dude, just throw the ball up,’ ” McCown said. “But he just couldn’t get that into his head.
“So, finally, I was like, ‘Just lob it up and let it come down and Larry will win. I promise you, he will win.’ I don’t know how many touchdowns they wound up getting off of that after I left, but Larry was catching them all the time and Kurt was like, ‘Hey, it works.’ ”
There is a lot that goes into making the back-shoulder fade work. For starters, the quarterback has to put the proper touch on the ball, throwing it to the outside back shoulder of the receiver in such a way that only that receiver can catch it.
It’s different, McCown said, from “jump balls’’ or “50-50 balls” that are simply tossed up and contested by the receiver and the defensive back. The back-shoulder fade, when properly executed, is thrown on a flatter trajectory than jump balls.
“With the back-shoulder fade you’re driving the ball more,’’ said McCown, who made regular use of the pass a year ago in Chicago, where he had a breakout run with the Bears as a fill-in for an injured Jay Cutler. “We popped some up there last year, but with Alshon and Brandon it was more me driving it.’’
Alshon and Brandon are Bears receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall. They stand 6-3 and 6-4, respectively, and their size, like that of the 6-3 Fitzgerald, is another key to executing the back-shoulder fade.
“When you have those bigger, taller receivers, the catch radius and where you can put the ball changes,’’ McCown said. “It opens up a little bit. And we obviously have some of those big, tall kind of guys here.’’
The Bucs have them in 6-5 veteran receiver Vincent Jackson, 6-5 first-year receiver Tommy Streeter, 6-5 rookie receiver Mike Evans and 6-5 rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
“Most teams don’t have a cornerback over 6 feet tall,’’ Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. “So, when you go 6-5, 6-5, 6-5 at the receiver position, you should have some success.’’
The Bucs will use the pass all over the field, including the red zone.
“That’s where the trend seems to be going now with those big guys,’’ Bucs quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo said. “And Josh obviously has a good feel for that type of receiver and for the pass.’’
And feel is important. Though the pass is sometimes scripted, it is usually something borne out of opportunity.
A receiver matched up against a defensive back he knows he can beat in a one-on-one battle will relay that information to the quarterback with a hand or voice signal.
Or the quarterback will step up under center, see a defensive alignment that allows for the back-shoulder fade and relay his new intentions to the receiver via hand signal, voice signal or a simple look.
“It’s a look thing, a feel thing, a timing thing,’’ Arroyo said. “It’s a pre-snap thing. You have to know pre-snap if you’re going to have a chance to throw it, so rarely is it designed.’’
It is definitely part of the Bucs’ offensive design, given the presence of three wideouts and a tight end with the size necessary and a quarterback with a knack for making the throw.
“It’s something that should definitely be in our repertoire, because Josh can make the throw and we have two big, physical guys on the outside at receiver and some big guys at tight end, too,’’ Jackson said.
“So, yeah, that’s a pass you know that defenses are going to be looking for from us, and that’s fine. They can look for it and expect it, but that doesn’t mean they can stop it.’’