Curtis ready for bigger things in St. Louis
After breaking out in the playoffs last season, Rams WR Kevin Curtis is ready for even bigger things this year.
Maybe because Kevin Curtis was originally a walk-on at Utah State, where it took two years before coach Mike Dennehy finally granted him a scholarship, the speedy wide receiver never thought much about a career in professional football.
So when a representative from the sports information office queried him about his career goals in 2000 as part of the standard player questionnaire, Curtis briefly hearkened back to his boyhood ambition in delivering what he assumed would be a forgettable reply.
Problem is, Curtis' supposed throwaway answer has yet to be thrown away, except by him.
Five years later, apparently with no one having thought about updating the "personal" section of his biography, the St. Louis Rams media guide still suggests Curtis "hopes to one day become a firefighter." The truth is, though, that the Rams' third-year wide receiver thinks a lot more these days about torching NFL secondaries than about extinguishing house fires.
"The whole fireman thing, well, it just popped into my head," explained Curtis of the media-guide notation that followed him from college into the NFL. "I mean, here I was, just a walk-on, barely on the team and not much thinking about playing football after college. So 'fireman,' which I think is a really [admirable] job, seemed just as good an answer as any at the time. And somehow, I don't know, it just stuck with me."
In the final three games of his 2004 season, however, NFL cornerbacks could barely stick with Curtis at all. Which helps explain why, looking to the 2005 season, Curtis, a third-round choice in 2003, figures to be climbing the St. Louis depth chart instead of a four-story extension ladder.
And why the Rams, who have struggled at the No. 3 wide receiver spot since the quicksilver Az-Zahir Hakim departed as a free agent following the '01 season, might finally have located a viable playmaker to fill that key role.
In terms of raw numbers, the various successors to Hakim, who averaged 37 catches, 508 yards and four touchdowns in four seasons in the wide-open St. Louis offense, have measured up. In order, Ricky Proehl (2002), Dane Looker (2003) and Shaun McDonald (2004), averaged 42.3 receptions, 485 yards and 3.3 touchdowns over the past three campaigns. But none of the three McDonald and Looker remain with the Rams, and Proehl is now with Carolina has the kind of big-play explosiveness Curtis demonstrated at the end of last season.
In the regular-season finale against the New York Jets, a postseason wild-card victory at Seattle and then a defeat at Atlanta in the division round, Curtis totaled 17 receptions for 335 yards and one score. Curtis had at least one reception of 34 yards or more in each of those contests. In fact, in each of his final four appearances of 2004, he had at least one grab of 30 yards.
In his final three games of '04, after having never posted more than 67 yards receiving in an NFL game, Curtis put up 99, 107 and 128 yards while averaging a gaudy 19.7 yards per reception. Eight of his 17 catches were for 15 or more yards and 14 produced first downs. And he did it in the crucible of playoff football, posting a pair of 100-yard performances in the postseason without having a century-mark game yet during the regular season.
That three-game breaking-out party could serve as the springboard for a breakout 2005 campaign, opposition defenders and St. Louis teammates say.
"I don't mean to be [politically] incorrect or anything," said Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall, "but [Curtis] has to be the fastest white guy in the league. The cat can really run. You put him in an offense like St. Louis has, along with [Torry] Holt and [Isaac] Bruce, and it's like, 'OK, pick your poison,' you know?"
Said Rams quarterback Marc Bulger: "I think all the guys we have after Torry and Isaac bring something a little different to the table. They can all play. But Kevin, he's definitely got such an explosiveness to him, a suddenness, that he is a big play waiting to happen."
But for the Rams to consistently get more big plays out of Curtis, rather than just in spurts, he might have to nudge out fellow third-year veteran McDonald for the No. 3 receiver spot. A fourth-round pick in the '03 draft, McDonald actually had better numbers in 2004 (37 catches for 494 yards and three scores) than Curtis (32 receptions, 421 yards, two touchdowns). And McDonald whose mercurial skittishness is reminiscent of Hakim's inside quickness and ability to add yards after the catch might actually be better-suited to playing in the slot.
|“||This league is all about proving yourself. Proving yourself to your teammates, to the [opposition] and to yourself. Probably in the first two of those cases, I took a pretty good step last year, sure, but I understand that three games doesn't exactly make a career. So probably the person I most proved something to with those games was me, because I feel so much more comfortable now, much more confident. ”|
|— Kevin Curtis, Rams WR|
That said, Curtis possesses unique tools for a No. 3 receiver: superb speed that is rife with long-ball potential. He is probably more effective working on the outside, where the 4.43 speed that seized the attention of scouts at the 2003 combine is better utilized. But if Curtis does line up at flanker or split end on third down, it allows the Rams to slide Bruce into the slot, where he gets to wreak havoc on secondaries while working against single coverage.
Even if he isn't quite the prototype No. 3 receiver, Curtis' statistics from the 2004 campaign stack up well against the league norm for the position. The No. 3 receivers from the other 31 franchises averaged 28.9 catches last year, three less than Curtis posted. And only nine of the No. 3 wideouts had more receptions than the Rams' young playmaker.
St. Louis was the only offense in the league to have four wide receivers with at least 30 catches each. Certainly, the presence of Holt and Bruce, both multiple Pro Bowl performers, aided the Rams' young receivers on and off the field. The two veterans are great technicians and superb tutors and role models, Curtis says, and they helped accelerate his learning curve.
"It's like having a real-life, two-volume encyclopedia on how to play wide receiver, sitting right there in the locker room," said Curtis, who played sparingly as a rookie in 2003 after suffering a broken fibula late in his debut training camp. "They can answer all the questions."
The three-game stretch at the end of last season answered a lot of questions about Curtis, and it augurs well for him and his future. But just as important to Curtis, who had just four catches for a paltry 14 yards in 2003, the three games provided him with an infusion of confidence that carried over into this spring's offseason workout program.
In an unintentional nod to his onetime career aspiration, Curtis said he's pretty "fired up" about what lies ahead.
"This league is all about proving yourself," Curtis allowed. "Proving yourself to your teammates, to the [opposition] and to yourself. Probably in the first two of those cases, I took a pretty good step last year, sure, but I understand that three games doesn't exactly make a career. So probably the person I most proved something to with those games was me, because I feel so much more comfortable now, much more confident. You play this game best when you're sure of yourself, and when it's second nature, when people trust you and you trust yourself. And right now, I think, I'm at that point."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .