Michael Irvin sliced through NFL secondaries with his signature “Bang 8” route countless times during his Hall of Fame career. But, perhaps fittingly, the one the fearless, big-play wide receiver remembers most fondly ended not with a touchdown but with a punishing blow to his exposed rib cage.
Early in a victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game in January 1993, a win that sent the Dallas Cowboys to the first of their three triumphant Super Bowls in the early ’90s, Irvin sprinted straight ahead off the line, then swerved toward the post. Soon the pass from quarterback Troy Aikman arrived, followed by a pair of hard-charging 49ers defenders.
With one hanging on his back and the other launching into his chest, Irvin held on as he twisted to the turf just short of the goal line. The gutsy catch, which set up a chip-shot Cowboys field goal, was a tone-setter in the win.
“We needed a big play. I took a pounding on the play. I did what I call a John Elway flip-around. But I still held on to that ball,” Irvin said last month. “That’s why we call it a Bang 8. They’re going to hit you in the mouth.”
Irvin ran that Bang 8 route all the way to Canton. Aikman is enshrined there, too. And Norv Turner, the offensive coordinator for two of Dallas’ Super Bowl wins who is now coaching the Minnesota offense, earned a reputation as one of the NFL’s top play-callers with the help of the route.
Today, the Bang 8 has become an afterthought in the NFL. Even Turner, the coach with whom it is most associated, only uses the play sparingly.
But the addition of Laquon Treadwell — whom Turner hopes will be the second coming of Irvin or at least the reliable split end the Vikings have lacked — could lead to the Bang 8 becoming a staple in his playbook again.
Not long after the Vikings drafted Treadwell with the 23rd overall pick the night of April 28, Irvin, who is now an analyst for NFL Network, approached the now-21-year-old at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre with a wide smile.
“I said to him, ‘You’re going to love where you’re going. You’re going to be Norv’s Bang 8 man,’ ” recalled Norv’s most famous Bang 8 man.
Cowboys thrived on skinny post
Three years after drafting Irvin in the first round and two after selecting Aikman with the first overall pick, the Cowboys in 1991 hired Turner as their offensive coordinator. Turner installed his version of the Air Coryell offense, influenced by old bosses John Robinson, Ted Tollner and Ernie Zampese.
In Dallas, Turner alternated between handing the ball off to star running back Emmitt Smith and attacking defenses downfield with a rhythm-based passing scheme derived from plays pioneering coach Don Coryell drew up decades earlier.
“Everyone thinks [of the offense as] the ball being thrown 40 or 50 yards,” Turner said. “The biggest plays, and the plays that guys who played in this system identify with, are the 18- to 22-yard in routes, skinny posts, seam routes.”
The skinny post, also known as the Bang 8, became the defining play of the Cowboys dynasty. The “8” in the play’s name corresponds with the number for the post route in Coryell’s number-based play-calling system. And depending on whom you ask, “Bang” stands for either the decisiveness required to complete the throw or the blow delivered by a defender to the vulnerable receiver.
So what is the receiver’s assignment on that route? We’ll let Turner explain.
“You want to widen the cornerback with your release. When you get [about 12 yards downfield], you make a high-angle cut to the post,” Turner said. “It’s usually caught 20, 22 yards deep on the inside edge of the numbers.”
That is typically where the free safety lurks in Cover 1 and Cover 3, so a mistimed throw could put the receiver in peril. After a five-step drop, the quarterback must plant his feet and let it rip, sometimes throwing a rocket and other times lofting a touch pass over one defender and in front of another. Turner said Aikman was so precise he rarely exposed Irvin to a punishing hit.
“The beauty of it was that Troy knew where to throw it to keep him safe and could put it where he wanted to, and Mike really trusted Troy,” Turner said.
And once the Cowboys hit on a couple of Bang 8s, defenses would often overcompensate, creating space along the sideline or opening up the deep ball.
“It sets everything up, because if we hit that a couple of times for huge gains, you see the corner starts moving inside a little bit,” Irvin said. “And we start rolling on some out routes at 12 to 14 yards or you can run right by him.”
Vikings rarely call post routes
While Turner dialed up those Bang 8 routes with regularity during his Dallas days and later in his career to Michael Westbrook in Washington and Vincent Jackson in San Diego, they have been scarce in his two seasons here.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings in 2014 and 2015 attempted just 22 passes to receivers running post routes, last in the NFL. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater more often targeted receivers running crossing routes, hitches and out routes when he wasn’t dumping the ball to a running back or tight end. In 2015, one of every 50 of Bridgewater’s pass attempts was to a post route.
Post routes have been utilized less and less throughout the league, though, over the past couple of decades. Last season, only one of every 20 throws in the NFL was to a receiver running a post, according to Pro Football Focus. The Arizona Cardinals — with big, Minnesota-bred wideouts in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd — threw the most with 68, an average of one post in every eight throws.
“Arizona has success with it with their big receivers. They do a great job with formations to get the route run,” Turner said, adding, “It’s still a good play.”
Then why has the Bang 8 become such a seldom-used passing play?
Irvin theorized that today’s receivers simply aren’t courageous enough to regularly venture over the middle, a boast that made Turner chuckle when it was relayed to him a couple of days later. Turner instead pointed to modern defenses straying away from simple coverages that have a single deep safety.
Greg Cosell, the senior producer at NFL Films and noted game-tape junkie, respectfully disagreed, chalking it up to a shift in quarterback play.
The Bang 8 route is predominantly thrown with the quarterback under center because of the precise timing required to complete the throw — step, step, step, step, step, then, bang, the ball is out. But most NFL offenses, morphing toward the spread attacks used at the high school and college levels, put the quarterback in the shotgun on more than half of their snaps.
“Quarterbacks now who come out of college and played predominantly in a spread offense, that’s not a route concept that they’re even aware of,” Cosell said. “I’ve had this conversation with Troy Aikman, who has told me the reason you don’t see the Bang 8 is because of the quarterbacks.”
Irvin praises Treadwell
Count Bridgewater among the quarterbacks who are most comfortable in the shotgun. But running back Adrian Peterson is coming off another All-Pro season, so Bridgewater will still take a sizable chunk of his snaps from under center. And with Treadwell now in the huddle, the Bang 8 could make a comeback.
The Vikings this spring implored Bridgewater to “let it loose.” Whether he is asked to drop three, five or seven steps on a given play from under center, they want him to be decisive once he plants his right foot in the ground, just like Aikman did back in the day when firing all those Bang 8s to Irvin. Potentially having a trustworthy target in Treadwell could make him more willing to do so.
Turner’s Vikings offenses have been without a physical, chain-moving split end who can make catches in traffic. Cordarrelle Patterson, the 2013 first-round draft pick, failed to grasp the precise offense and was benched. Charles Johnson had a surprising five-game surge in Patterson’s place late in the 2014 season but caught just nine passes in 2015. Stefon Diggs is a better fit in the flanker role.
Treadwell seems capable of filling the void. At 6-2 and 220 pounds, he has the necessary size. During spring workouts, Turner raved about his instincts and fluidity running routes. And Treadwell isn’t afraid to go over the middle, having done much of his damage at Mississippi on short and intermediate targets.
“That was our offense — quick routes and running across the middle,” Treadwell said. “Drags. Slants. Bang 8s. Comeback routes. It’s similar.”
While Treadwell bristles at any comparison to Irvin because he wants to write his own legacy, Irvin thinks Treadwell has a chance to be even better.
“Laquon’s more physically gifted than I was. And he looks to be a real competitor,” he said. “Norv will take that and turn it into something great.”
And Irvin believes that with Turner calling the plays, Bridgewater slinging the ball and Treadwell running his signature route, the young Vikings are ready to take a big leap forward in 2016, just like his Cowboys did back in 1992.
“[Adding Treadwell] is going to put Minnesota on another level,” Irvin said.