If chicks dig the long ball, they must love Mike Wallace. The Pittsburgh Steelers' wideout caught a 95-yard touchdown pass against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the third time this season and 13th time in his short career that he has scored from at least 40 yards out. As the deep pass becomes a smaller and smaller part of the NFL playbook, Wallace is emerging as the last of the home run threats.
Wallace's three home runs (defined here as a touchdown catch of 40 or more yards) this season tie him with Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers and Pierre Garcon of the Indianapolis Colts for the most in the league. We can give Wallace the tiebreaker, though, since the Steelers have thrown slightly fewer passes (197) than either the Packers (210) or Colts (200). More importantly, Wallace has a track record for this kind of thing -- he had four home runs in his rookie season in 2009 and a league-high six home runs in 2010. Wallace's 13 home runs since he entered the league in 2009 are three more than the next most productive receiver (DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles, who has 10).
As Wallace is knocking them out of the park, the rest of the league is moving to a small-ball approach. Since 1940, wide receivers have caught six or more home runs in a season only 44 times. Sorting those seasons by decade shows how the home run threat is a dying breed (see right).
The AFL truly caused a paradigm shift in pro football, but after the merger the league quickly took several steps backward. Expansion, lengthened seasons and liberalized passing rules produced more home run players in the 1980s and 1990s, but then a funny thing happened in the following decade. As further expansion and even more liberal passing rules should have opened up the game like never before, instead we saw fewer and fewer long ball threats. Randy Moss had 10 home runs in his rookie season in 1998 (tied with Elroy Hirsch's 1951 campaign for the most in a single season) and led the league again with six home runs in the Patriots' 16-0 campaign in 2007. In between, nearly a full decade of NFL football, not a single player caught six home runs in a season.