NFL great Mike Haynes predicts teams will soon have more 'LeBron James type' athletes at receiver

Jun 19, 2020

The Hall of Fame cornerback talks future of receivers, his 1983 trade from Patriots to Raiders and more

Mike Haynes arrived in the NFL at a very interesting time. 

A rookie in 1976, Haynes, a Hall of Fame cornerback and member of the NFL's 100th Anniversary Team, joined the Patriots two years before the NFL made several rules to promote the evolution of the passing game. Haynes, who won a Super Bowl as a member of the Raiders, would spend the majority of his career playing under the league's new rules, as he was tasked with stopping opposing offenses that were hellbent on making the most of their new opportunities. 

Haynes, who's on the Board of Directors of the the Pro Football Retired Players Association, recently spoke with me about his experiences against certain receivers and offenses during his playing career. That topic led to Haynes making a prediction about how he sees NFL offenses evolving in the not too distant future. 

Here's a part of my conversation of Haynes, which also included his thoughts on several other different topics, both inside and outside of football. 

You came into the NFL a couple of years before they changed the rules, so you faced a lot of run-heavy offenses at first. But by the time you retired, Dan Marino was in the league, Joe Montana was winning rings, John Elway was getting started; you saw the entire evolution. During the dawn of the passing evolution, which offense or receiver gave you the most issues?

Haynes: When I first came into the league as a rookie, [former Dolphins quarterback] Bob Griese had Nat Moore and Freddie Solomon. Neither one of them were lightning fast, but they had a lot of moves. Griese would just throw the ball in a place where only the receiver has a chance to get it. So if I'm on the receiver's left, he's going to throw it to the right, and the guy may have to dive to catch it or he's definitely going to have to extend his hands to catch it. 

When the rules changed, teams started getting smart, and they started getting taller guys. There were already some taller guys in the league like Harold Carmichael. He was the guy, for me, who was the toughest guy to cover because of his height. I'm running side by side [Carmichael], and they throw the ball up in the air, and you look back for the ball, that ball is so high in the air, you're going "Where the heck are they throwing it?" And then you keep following the ball, and it drops right into Harold's hands. It was like, "Wow." Any other receiver, [that pass] usually would have been an interception for me. But when the guy's 6-foot-8, I have no chance at catching the ball, even though I'm right next to Harold. 

So I predict that, in the future, there's going to be a lot of guys like LeBron James that could play basketball or football, they're going to play football, not basketball. You have four guys like LeBron James or Harold Carmichael, and you put them on the 10-yard-line, that's a touchdown. You're not going to find defensive backs that are 6-foot-8, that can backpedal and jam and run with those guys. I just don't think you can find them.

It almost sounds like what the Chargers did with Antonio Gates, who was a really good college basketball player before he decided pursue an NFL career. 

MH: He could have played wide receiver. I guarantee you his strong suit wasn't blocking (laughs). He wasn't big enough. I predict that that's what going to happen in the future, because of the rules, and because people want to see scoring. It's going to be really tough to defend four guys that are really that tall. That's what I think we're going to see in the future. 

Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes played with the Raiders from 1983-89 after starting his career with the Patriots in 1976. Getty Images

How will defenses react if teams do make a concerted effort to sign taller receivers? Do you think that will lead to teams having considerably more defensive backs on their roster? I remember the year after the Vikings drafted Randy Moss, the Packers drafted several defensive backs to try to slow him down. 

MH: You could, why not? Can you imagine seeing a team with four wide receivers like that and two running backs like [former Redskins star] Joe Washington? Or [former Raiders running back] Mike Pruitt or Barry Sanders? If you have receivers spreading out the defense, then you get running backs with super good feet and super good balance, they're going to have big holes. I think my prediction is going to come true sooner rather than later. 

Do you think there's still a place for feature running backs in today's NFL? We just saw Derrick Henry carry the Titans to the AFC Championship Game, but Tennessee ultimately fell short against a Chiefs team that relied on Patrick Mahomes and the passing game. 

MH: I think the running back position has changed, but I think there's a certain kind of running back [that's still valued]. It's no longer the guy that's just a battering ram. 

Like John Riggins and Larry Csonka? 

MH: Shoot, Riggins had the size to be a battering ram, but that dude could run. He was really fast. 

He didn't run that much in the Super Bowl against your Raiders [in Super Bowl XVIII]. I think his longest run was eight yards. 

MH: He was awesome. I wish we had him, that's how much I liked him. Our defense was super fast. That was one of the best defenses of all time. It was going to be hard to run on that defense. Maybe the only running back that I can think of that might be able to run against that defense and had some success would have been a guy like Barry Sanders. A guy that can stop on a dime and go the other way and jump over people, that kind of thing. 

Joe Washington would probably do really well in today's game, because offenses spread out defenses. That guy could run sideways. I played with him in some of these college postseason all-star games, the most amazing running back I had ever seen at the time. 

Were quarterbacks calling audibles back in those days?

MH: My rookie year, Bob Griese was doing that really well. The AFC had quite a few quarterbacks that were good at doing that. The Steelers, they were good at doing that. I don't know if Terry was seeing something, but those coaches had him on track to win all the time. With all the weapons he had, he didn't have to be super good (laughs). When in doubt, just throw it to Lynn Swann or John Stallworth or Benny Cunningham. Those guys were just killer. Franco, all of them. The Steelers were the team to beat in the AFC, almost every year, in those days.  

If a few things went your way against the Raiders in the '76 playoffs, you would have had a shot against the Steelers for the right to play in the Super Bowl as a rookie. 

MH: The night before the game, I got injured. I was playing catch with the coach's son, and his son threw the ball kind of high, and I jumped up to catch it and something popped in my calf. Overnight, my calf swole up like you would not believe, and I didn't think I was going to play, and I really shouldn't have played. I think if the Raiders had known I was injured, we would have gotten killed. But because I went in and did what I could — I couldn't run 100%, I don't even think I could run 60% — but because I played so well the first time we played, they didn't challenge me. I wouldn't have been able to play any more games after that. I wasn't able to run for months [during the offseason]. When the next season started, it was just when I was starting to run. I couldn't do anything. It was really crazy on my part to do it, but I felt that I owed it to my team. 

Has the evolution of the passing game made football safer? Is there anything else the league could do to make the game safer? 

MH: I've actually had this conversation with commissioner [Roger] Goodell before. What I suggested was that we need to make the field wider so that there's more room. I'm not talking about super wide, but wider than it currently is, maybe 10 yards wider. 

When I first came into the NFL, the defense was so fast that they would have four, five, six guys either in on the tackle or right around the tackle after the quarterback would pitch to the running back to the left or the right. Today, it's even worse, because the players are huge. They're 275 pounds where before, they were 225 pounds or 240 pounds. They're much bigger. But if you made the field wider, I don't
think [the bigger defenders] would be able to get there. There'd be some creases, and then you'd get the shifty running backs with good leverage, they could take advantage of that and make something happen. 

Do you think this is something the NFL may actually consider doing?  

MH: The owners, they look at money. So if you made the field [wider], you'd have to take seats out. I say, what would you rather have? The stands, or a better product? You wanna have people enjoying the game, plus, you're making it safer. It's a win-win. How much money are you going to lose by taking the seats out? It won't take you long to replace that revenue stream with something else. 

There's no doubt that there's been an evolution in sports. You mentioned LeBron James earlier. Given the recent Michael Jordan documentary, the debate has been renewed lately as it relates to who is the greatest basketball player of all-time. But if Michael Jordan is still the best player, isn't that an indictment on the current state of the NBA, given that they have advantages that players of Jordan's era didn't have?

MH: I kind of agree with you, but there's only one Michael Jordan. If there were 10 Michael Jordans, I think that would be a better example of what you're trying to say. But guys like Jordan are so rare. His mentality, his mindset is really what made him so special. Watching these recent specials about him, I realized that it is about mindset, the way he thought, the way he communicated with his teammates and coaches. He was always honest, and he had a gift. But what I say his biggest gift is that he loved to work out. He loved to get better. He couldn't wait for practice. 

When I was on the Raiders, Magic Johnson was working out at this place where I was working out. He rented the whole court, and he was just working out. I couldn't believe it. He had like four racks of basketballs, and he would shoot each rack, and there was someone running around getting the balls for him. He was there forever. It wasn't like he was so great; he had a great work ethic and he didn't mind working hard. Then I saw Michael Jordan doing the same thing in his film. And I thought, "You know what? I think a lot of people don't realize what really makes these guys great is that they love to work out and they love to perform at a high level." That's who they are and that's who they wanna be, and that's what makes them so special. 

Speaking of working out, did you meet anyone early in your career that helped enhance how you prepared during the offseason? 

MH: I got a chance to meet [Hall of Fame cornerback] Mel Blount for the first time at the Pro Bowl after my rookie season. And I asked, "Mel, when do you start working out?" He said, "I take maybe 10 days, two weeks off, and then I started all over again." I was like, "What?" Most of the pros from Arizona State [Haynes' alma mater] didn't work out until June, and I was going, "Wow, he takes two weeks off and he's last year's [defensive] MVP, and these other guys start working out in June."

When Mel goes to camp, he's already in shape, so he's just working on fine tuning things. These other guys were just getting into shape in training camp. So I adopted Mel's approach, and I just started working out right away.

You had seven great years in New England, but you had a contract dispute with the Patriots going into the 1983 season that led to you holding out and, eventually, being traded to the Raiders late in the regular season. What do you remember about that time in your career? 

MH: I worked with my wife and others trying to figure out what a fair salary was for me. So I just picked something that was what the top defensive guys were getting and came up with a number. The Patriots just basically said they couldn't afford it.

The Raiders called me and said they were interested and [asked] what I'd think about playing on the Raiders. But in those days, most guys only played on one team their whole career for the most part. I actually didn't like the Raiders at all. I didn't like any other team except the Patriots. When Al Davis called, I actually had to think about it. The Raiders were the team where one of my teammates [receiver Darryl Stingley] was paralyzed. I had to think about all that. But I justified it because they had just moved from Oakland to L.A. I grew up in Los Angeles … In my head, I needed to do that to be open to going there. I told Mr. Davis I'd love to go there. 

I thought my NFL career was over [after the trade deadline passed]. I didn't think I was going to continue playing at all. Shortly after that, Al Davis called and said, "Mike, you're a Raider." 

You actually had to go to court in order to get that trade to go through, since it was argued that the trade didn't get done in time before the deadline. What do you remember from that experience? 

MH: In the courtroom, the judge wanted to hear the case, and I don't think the NFL was really ready to open their books to show what teams were making and things like that. We set a date but we walked right out of the courtroom. Both sides looked at each there, and the attorneys said, "We'll settle this." I can't repeat the exact words they said, but we shook hands right there, and they said, "We'll work out the draft choices and the details later, but Mike, you're a Raider."

What was it like playing on that great defense, specifically with Lester Hayes? You guys formed one of the greatest cornerback duos in league history. 

MH: With Lester on one side and me on the other side. We had the great pass rush with all these great guys. With Howie [Long] and Ted Hendricks and Rod Martin. And they used to blitz our strong safety, Mike Davis, all the time. That guy was unbelievable. I had never seen a safety like that. 

Seattle had swept the Raiders in the regular season, but that was before you came to Los Angeles. That was probably why Al Davis was so aggressive in trying to acquire you from New England. You always seemed to have [Seahawks Hall of Fame] Steve Largent's number. He's on record saying that he had his worst games against you. He had just 2 catches for 25 yards in the AFC Championship Game. 

MH: Fortunately for me, I had a lot of experience covering Steve Largent because we came into the league at the same time and played in Pro Bowls together. So I felt comfortable and looked forward to the challenge.

Several months after being traded to the Raiders, you beat the Seahawks in the AFC title game, and you're playing in your first Super Bowl against the defending champions. At the time, it was one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history; not that many people were picking you guys to win, let alone blow the Redskins out. Did you guys feel like you were that much better than Washington prior to kickoff? 

MH: When I was watching those guys warm up, I just didn't have a sense that they respected us at all. Everybody else we played, they seemed to have a sense of who we were and what kind of game we played. They didn't. I figured it must be because they beat the Raiders earlier [in the season]. When we went back into the locker room before we came out the second time, we were definitely a different team. We were going to be focused until that last whistle. There was no doubt that this game was going to be a battle. We were all 100% prepared for that. 

It was a great game. It was a good feeling. I had never felt like that before. 

It's a shame that Lester Hayes and Cliff Branch aren't in the Hall of Fame. 

MH: I think they both deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. In our era, Cliff was one of the most feared guys that you were going to have to cover. He was just one of the best ever. I don't even know how to explain it. 

Even [former Raiders coach] Tom Flores, I don't know how he's not in. I think it must be really hard on the voters. My induction year [1997], we only had two players go in, Mike Webster and me. The standard must have been super high before, and they've changed it since. And as a result, it's harder for the guys who don't have [big numbers]. Today, Cliff would have to have like 100 catches, at least, every season. If he played under today's rules, Cliff would be like Tyreek Hill

The sad thing about the Raiders is that they don't have a Raider Hall of Fame. They could at least put Lester and Cliff and Tom Flores in their own Hall of Fame. It's messed up that they don't have that. I really wish that they would change that. 

Speaking of accomplishments, you were recently named to the NFL's All-Anniversary Team. What did that mean to you? 

MH: I can't even tell you what it meant to me. It's like a dream come true. It was what I wished for. I'm really a guy who believes that you have to set goals and then use those goals to motivate you or inspire you to do great things or to make a difference. A lot of times, when you want to give up, you realize that you have this goal and you're not going to give up on this goal. And you just keep going and keep trying. That's what that meant for me. 

Would you like to play in today's NFL? 

MH: Oh yeah, are you kidding? One of the things I like is that they throw on everybody. I think it would be a lot more fun to play now, especially as many times as people are passing the ball. I have no regrets though. I really had a great career. I felt really fortunate to have great coaches and great teachers. 

Read the original article on CBS Sports.


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