(every Friday during the NFL season, OOB will run a nostalgic feature about the Lions’ upcoming opponents)
You see it every week in the NFL.
Offensive team has the ball inside the five yard line. Quarterback takes the snap, and fades back just a step or two. Then, he simply lofts the ball toward the corner of the end zone, hoping that his tall, strong receiver can pluck it from the reach of the shorter, weaker defensive back.
The younger folks probably think this is a new phenomenon, invented by the teams of the 1990s and beyond.
Let me tell you about R.C. Owens, and something called the “Alley Oop.”
We’ll set the rewind machine back to the late-1950s, early-1960s, to the Bay Area in Northern California, and to old, creaky Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
Owens was a wide receiver for the 49ers, out of tiny The College of Idaho. No joke. He was a 14th round draft pick. But he also played basketball in high school and in his college years, and was known for his leaping ability. And 49ers quarterback Y.A. Tittle and head coach Red Hickey were nothing if not creative. They looked at Owens’s jumping skills and got an idea.
Hickey was perhaps best-known for being one of the earliest proponents of the shotgun formation, which is still kind of popular today, in case you haven’t noticed. But Hickey and Tittle also came up with something that became known as the “Alley Oop.” Basically, Tittle would heave the ball in Owens’s general vicinity, and the receiver would leap and try to come down with the pigskin. And this was in the day when DBs could actually cover people, without the tight rules restrictions of today.
Owens snagging an “Alley Oop” pass against, who else, the Lions
It didn’t matter that the 49ers’ opponents knew that the Alley Oop was coming. Owens was simply bigger, stronger, and had better springs from which he could be propelled into the air. Often, Tittle would save the Alley Oop for when the 49ers were in the “red zone” (not that they called it that back then), but he would throw it from various parts of the field, too.
Owens had his best season in 1961, when he caught 55 passes for 1,032 yards and five TDs. But, strangely, Owens was traded after the season to Baltimore, and he faded quickly from the league, done by age 31 after one year with the Giants. But he had his time, and there is literally no other receiver in NFL history that you can pair with the Alley Oop than R.C. Owens. It was his trademark, and his lasting impression on a league in which he starred fleetingly, but famously.
As for Hickey, he ended up being a scout for the Dallas Cowboys, and he had to have been overjoyed when the Cowboys dusted off the shotgun formation, which had been dormant for over a decade, in 1975 under Roger Staubach. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl using that formation in certain passing situations. Hickey died in 2006.
Owens is still alive, about to turn 75 in November. Wonder what his vertical leap is nowadays?