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Toon Credits Off-Field Work for Improvement

November 09, 1986|JOEL SHERMAN | United Press International

NEW YORK — The Al Toon Collection, for now, contains three masterpieces.

Over the first 113 catches of Toon's 1 1/2-year NFL career with the New York Jets there have been receptions of various angles and difficulties. But, unquestionably, three would land in any wide-receiver museum.

Against Tampa Bay last season, Toon caught an 18-yard out pattern, pinballed off three tacklers who bounced hopelessly off his lithe frame, then he eluded one more pursuer to complete a 78-yard touchdown play.

In late October this season, he took a 10-yard crossing pattern just before halftime against a Saints defense deploying seven defensive backs. As he caught the ball, he shed two tacklers, then motored cross field and shook off two more tackle attempts to reach the end zone after 62 yards.

Against Seattle Nov. 2, Ken O'Brien lobbed a pass on third and 11 at the Seahawks' 36-yard line toward the front right corner of the end zone where Toon had Kenny Easley and Terry Taylor as bookends. All three went up and Toon came down with the ball -- between his legs.

"While I was making that catch I was smiling to myself," Toon said. "When I came down with it between my legs, I was laughing. I had seen Lam Jones make that kind of catch (between two defenders) in practice during the week. For some reason I was thinking about it and thinking to use it before the game."

Masterpieces. And why not? As wide receivers go, Toon is a work of art. He is 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds of sinewy muscle. His 32-inch waist and slender appearance belies a body that more than breaks tackles, it punishes defensive backs.

For a man his size he moves with grace and speed. And he has hands that have snared an NFL-high 58 passes for 801 yards and seven touchdowns this year.

Toon claims he has improved his on-field game with several off-field pursuits. He says tai chi, an Oriental martial art in which you learn to use an opponent's strenth against himself, has "helped me learn to position my body to help me, "break tackles."

He also has studied modern jazz dance and ballet, two outlets he says allow him to diversify his pass routes, improve flexibility and produce better balance after a catch.

All of these pursuits, which also include drawing, photography and a recent interest in modeling clothes, are untypical of the grunt and groan world of professional football.

"I don't consider myself a football player," the 23-year-old Toon said. "I consider myself an athlete with the ability to play football.

"If you see a football player in a commercial you identify him with just football. I don't want to be identified as just a football player. I want people to notice that I speak well and that I'm intelligent. I can do more than one thing."

Even in sports, Toon has not limited himself. At the University of Wisconsin, Toon was a good enough triple jumper to be invited to the Olympic Trials and also was a quality hurdler.

But it is in football that Toon has earned gold-medal grades. In less than two seasons, he has turned a dangerous Jet offense lethal.

He is a clutch receiver, whose height, penchant for finding open seams and impeccable hands have made him O'Brien's favorite third-down target.

By drawing double coverage, he has rejuvenated Wesley Walker's long-ball career. The first four seasons of Walker's career he averaged better-than 20 yards a catch. The next four seasons, he failed to rise above 16.4. Last year, Toon's first, Walker was back up at 21.3 yards again. This year, Walker is atop the NFL at 23 yards a reception, including touchdown bombs of 83, 71 and 65 yards.

"The big thing Al does is give another dimension to the offense," Jets tight end Mickey Shuler said.

His stature also gives O'Brien more options. He has drawn several comparisons to former Kansas City Chief great Otis Taylor, a big man who also was a master at both bowling over and outleaping defenders.

"Toon knows how to position himself," Saints cornerback Johnnie Poe said. "He knows how to box out and get the ball. He keeps you away from it."

Last year, the Jets were slightly out of Toon. After being drafted 10th overall and the first receiver, Toon became the longest first-round holdout in the NFL. He did not sign a four-year, $1.8-million contract until after the first regular-season game.

The loss of his first pro training camp forced Toon to rely on his athletic ability as he struggled to grasp one of the NFL's most complex offenses. He did not start until the 10th week of the season, but what a debut it was as he caught 10 passes for 156 yards against Miami. He ended his rookie season with 46 receptions for 662 yards and three touchdowns.

This season, though, there have been few sour notes as the Jets march to a different Toon. Four times this season Toon has totaled more than 100 yards in receptions and he has caught no less than three passes in every game as the Jets have gone 8-1.

"What it boils down to is this," said Rod Rust, defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, "when you make up your game plan, you better pay a damn lot of attention to Al Toon."

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