ASHBURN — Shohei Ohtani is a sensation. Crowds turn out every time the Los Angeles Angels slugger takes the mound. Even now, some 125-plus games into the season, there’s an element of disbelief that comes with every Ohtani pitching appearance: Is this phenom really leading the major leagues in home runs and posting an ERA under 3?
The Japanese star, who was set to start Wednesday in Baltimore against the woeful Orioles, is an athlete so rare that the oft-made comparisons to Babe Ruth don’t feel like an exaggeration. There’s arguably no one in sports like him these days.
But just for fun, imagine what an Ohtani-type would look like in the NFL. Two-way players — ones who play offense and defense — have largely been fazed out of today’s game. There are occasional exceptions, like when Washington used defensive end Ryan Anderson as a part-time fullback a few years back. But the days of former Redskins great Sammy Baugh playing quarterback and leading the league in interceptions as a defensive back are over.
Then again, who could have seen Ohtani coming?
“Gosh, a two-way guy in the NFL, that’s a good one,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said, pausing to think. “There are some guys that have those kinds of skillsets and could probably play a little two way.
“I mean, a Chase Young or a Montez Sweat could probably play tight end with what their athletic abilities (are) and on the inverse, a couple of tight ends could probably play defensive end.”
The concept is not unheard of. Early in his career for the Houston Texans, defensive end J.J. Watt was used in the red zone and caught three passes in 2014 — all touchdowns. Two were from now-Washington quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw to a wide-open Watt against the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Titans. The Texans took advantage of Watt’s past experience at the position, given he initially committed to Central Michigan as a tight end.
But with apologies to Watt, a star in his own right — he’s hosted “Saturday Night Live,” after all — the NFL great has never been the kind of sports unicorn that Ohtani is.
Two-way players in the NFL are rare, according to coaches and players, because it’s hard enough to master one position, let alone two.
Logan Thomas can attest to that.
Once a quarterback, Thomas found success in the league by switching to tight end. But that took years of practice before Thomas, who racked up a career-high 670 receiving yards in 2020, established himself as a productive tight end. Speaking to The Washington Times, Thomas said he couldn’t imagine having to do that and then learn a defensive position.
Still, there was a time actually when Thomas played offense and defense — in high school. Growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, Brookville High didn’t have a big roster, so Thomas played quarterback and strong safety. Thomas said he liked it then — double-duty kept him on the field.
But he understands the NFL is different.
“I don’t think too many owners would be cool with their quarterback playing defense, as well,” Thomas said.
Thomas hit on a key point. Compared to the 1940s when two-way players were more common, this era of NFL players make millions upon millions, which helps explain why teams are careful to protect their, for the lack of a better word, investments. Football is already dangerous enough, why compound the risk?
There’s also the specialization aspect. Even in high school, when playing two ways can happen regularly, safety Landon Collins remembers being told to stick to the secondary in part because Dutchtown High in Geismar, Louisiana, had future NFL second-rounder Eddie Lacy at running back. There was no need for Collins to play two positions because the Louisiana school had a star at one.
Interestingly enough, when Lacy graduated, the team asked Collins to play running back and safety as a senior — roles he happily accepted.
“We needed to put points on the board and they asked me if I could do it, and I said, ‘Yeah I can still do it. That’s second nature,’” said Collins, who rushed for 1,218 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13.7 yards per carry that year. “I love playing both sides, but in the league, it’d be a toll. For sure.”
Every so often, a two-way player in football does make an impact the way Ohtani has. In his second year with the Cowboys in 1996, cornerback Deion Sanders was used frequently at wide receiver, catching 36 passes for a career-high 475 yards, something Thomas definitely remembers watching growing up.
In college football, Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy in 1997 partly because he was a lockdown corner and an electric receiver with Michigan. That year, he picked off seven passes and caught 11 more on the offense for 231 yards. He was also an extremely effective punt returner, adding another dynamic element to his game.
Nowadays, two-way players are limited to special packages or pressed into duty because of injuries. In Baltimore this week, the Ravens are so injury-depleted at wide receiver, coach John Harbaugh joked that “it was a good idea” the team consider playing its cornerbacks at the position in the mean time, Harbaugh, too, has embraced experimenting using Patrick Ricard on both sides of the ball.
Ricard is perhaps the NFL’s last true two-way player: He played 30.9% of the Ravens’ offensive snaps as a fullback in 2019 and 14.5% on defense as a defensive end. But that ended last year, with the Ravens only using him on offense.
Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said that typically, if teams have enough players at a position, “you’re better off focusing on your own job.” Del Rio, too, has experience in both the world of football and baseball: In college, Del Rio was a catcher at the University of Southern California where he was teammates with Mark McGwire and Randy Johnson.
“To me, the baseball players, if they stop babying the pitchers — a lot of those guys they’ve come up hitting all their life and they’re really good players,” Del Rio said with a smile. “So there are more guys that can probably hit.
“But certainly (Ohtani) is a special young man.”