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Inexperienced Receiving Games

The 2008 Giants were very experienced; the 2009 Giants were not.

In ’08, New York had Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress as the team’s starting receivers; Toomer retired after the year, while Burress shot himself in a nightclub late in the ’08 season and missed all of the ’09 and ’10 seasons.

The top 7 receivers on the ’09 Giants were the other Steve Smith (24 years old in ’09), Mario Manningham (23), Hakeem Nicks (21), Kevin Boss (25), Ahmad Bradshaw (23), Domenik Hixon (25), and Brandon Jacobs (27). Entering the 2009 season, Smith had 637 career receiving yards, Manningham had 26, Nicks had 0, Boss had 502, Bradshaw had 54, Hixon had 601, and Jacobs had 359.  Derek Hagan, who finished 8th on the ’09 Giants with 101 receiving yards, was the most accomplished receiver entering the year by virtue of his 645 career receiving yards entering 2009.

On a weighted average, that means the 2009 Giants receiving group entered the year with just 318 career receiving yards (by reference, the 2008 Giants were at 2,608). What do I mean by weighted average? Well, Smith had 28.7% of the 2009 Giants receiving yards, and he had 637 career receiving yards prior to 2009; therefore, his 637 receives 28.7% of the team weight. On the other hand, Manningham and Nicks had, together, 38% of the Giants receiving yards in 2009, and they had, together, just 26 career receiving yards entering 2009. The table below shows the full calculation, with the result equaling a weighted average of 318 career receiving yards. [click to continue…]

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Jessie Tuggle was a Georgia man. He was born in Griffin, Georgia and starred at Griffin High. He went to Valdosta State, in Valdosta, Georgia, and was a three-time All-Conference pick and the Gulf South Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in his senior season. He went undrafted, so he joined the Atlanta Falcons for training camp in 1987. Tuggle made the team, and proceeded to miss just one game due to injury over his first 12 seasons. Tuggle wound up playing his entire 14-year career with the Falcons, set the Atlanta record for games played by a defensive player, and made five Pro Bowls. And if he hadn’t been on some of the worst defenses of his era, he might be remembered more fondly today.

How bad were the Falcons defenses during the Tuggle era? The graph below shows Atlanta’s defensive DVOA in each year (using estimated DVOA for ’87 and ’88) plotted against the left Y-Axis (and remember, a positive number indicates a below-average defense) and the Falcons rank in points allowed plotted against the right Y-Axis (here, a larger number means a worse defense). In ’87, ’89, ’92, ’93, ’94, ’96, 99, and ’00, the Falcons defense had a DVOA of worse than 10%: [click to continue…]

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Stafford wins the prize for most mega contracts signed by a quarterback in his 20s

Four years ago, I wrote about Matthew Stafford and his poor record. At the time, his career mark stood at 17-28 and he had just received a big money extension. In that piece, I noted that his career record was not predictive of much. Well, four years later, and Stafford just received another big money extension. And over the last four years, Stafford has gone 34-30. That’s not great, but it’s not bad, either.

But what’s notable about the Lions offense over the last four years is how reliant on Stafford the team has been. Since 2013, no team has rushed for fewer yards than Detroit, and the Lions also rank 30th in yards per carry. The Detroit offense goes as Stafford goes, and while the former number one pick hasn’t been the best quarterback in the NFL, he’s been pretty valuable.

Stafford became the youngest player to join the 30,000 yard club, which is a function of (1) how young he was when he entered the league, (2) the era he plays in, (3) the pass-happy offenses he has led, and (4) his talent/ability. Stafford played with Knowshon Moreno at Georgia and both were drafted in the first round of 2009. Steve Young didn’t make his first Pro Bowl until his age 31 season. Warren Moon didn’t make his first Pro Bowl under age 32. [click to continue…]

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Chris McAlister played 137 games in his NFL career: 135 with the Ravens from 1999 to 2008, and then 2 with the Saints in 2009 (given that he accumulated 0 points of AV with New Orleans, I’m excluding that from the analysis). He was the 10th overall pick in the ’99 draft, and a first-team All-Pro in ’03 and ’04, and a Pro Bowler in ’06. Most notably, he played on very good defenses almost every season of his career. In 10 years in Baltimore, the Ravens defense never ranked outside of the top 10 and ranked in the top 2 more often than not. You can calculate McAlister’s average team’s defensive DVOA by weighting his DVOA in each year (where he received at least one point of AV) by his number of games played that year as follows:

As it turns out, among players with at least 70 points of career AV, his average grade of -18.1% is the highest grade of any player (Jerome Brown is at -18.2% but he had only 48 points of career AV, as his life was cut tragically short). The full list of players below. [click to continue…]

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Robert Brazile Is An Unusual Hall of Fame Nominee

Robert Brazile and Jerry Kramer are the two Seniors Nominees for the Hall of Fame this year. The man known as “Dr. Doom” was a great outside linebacker for the Houston Oilers, and is remembered as the first great pass rusher from the 3-4 position. In fact, it was Brazile who helped create the position that Lawrence Taylor made famous — as Jene Bramel once noted, he was “LT” before Taylor came into the league. The 3-4 defense entered the NFL in 1974, with Bum Phillips in Houston being one of the early proponents.  In 1975, the Oilers used the 6th overall pick on Brazile, who became an instant star. He was a first-team All-Pro by at least one major publication in each year from ’76 to ’80 under Phillips, but there are three reasons why Brazile never made it to the Hall of Fame.

  1. Sack totals were not kept during his time, which made it hard to quantify his strong play.
  2. He only played for 10 years, which is relatively short for a Hall of Famer.
  3. He didn’t play for great defenses.

Thanks to the great John Turney, we do have unofficial sack totals for Brazile.  He had 48 in his career; although that’s not a remarkable number, Brazile was not just a pass rusher.  He was an all-around linebacker with strong coverage skills and was regarded as strong against the run.

The third item is the most interesting one. We know that Bum Phillips was a great defensive coach, at least by reputation.  And we know that the Oilers had not just Brazile, but two Hall of Famers on defense: Elvin Bethea and Curley Culp starred at RDE and NT, respectively, for Houston, and each was 29-34 years of age from ’75 to ’80. That *should* have been enough to produce a great defense, right? Except, it didn’t. The Oilers ranked 11th, 10th, 14th, 17th, 13th, and 5th in yards allowed and 5th, 17th, 14th, 16th, 16th, and 2nd in points allowed during those years, when the NFL had only 28 teams (and 26 in 1975). In terms of estimated DVOA, the Oilers ranked 6th, 10th, 4th, 20th, 4th, and 10th — which isn’t bad, but it’s not exactly notable for a team with three Hall of Famers and Phillips. [click to continue…]

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Graham started his career in Pittsburgh….

I know what you’re thinking: Chase, you’re at it again with the clickbait titles. Jeff Graham had a good but otherwise unremarkable 11-year career. Drafted by the Steelers in the 2nd round of the 1991 Draft, he barely played as a rookie on a team with veteran wide receivers Louis Lipps and Dwight Stone. So Graham’s career really spanned the decade from 1992 to 2001, and during that time, he “only” ranked 10th in receiving yards in the NFL despite ranking 6th in games played by receivers during that time.

But if his career was unremarkable, as noted yesterday, his season-by-season progression was pretty remarkable.

In 1992, the Steelers offense was centered around Barry Foster, who rushed for 1,690 yards. Neil O’Donnell was the quarterback, and a second-year Graham broke out with 711 yards and 49 catches. Both numbers led the Steelers team, as Graham beat out Stone and Ernie Mills to become O’Donnell’s top target.

In 1993, Graham regressed; even though Foster was injured and O’Donnell passed more frequently, Graham was limited to just 38 receptions for 579 yards. Tight end Eric Green had a monster year, catching 63-942-5, while Stone basically matched Graham’s numbers.

In retrospect, that’s hardly a bad start to a career: Graham rode the bench as a rookie, was the team’s top receiver in his second year on a run-heavy offense, and then came back to earth a bit in year three.  But Pittsburgh used its first round pick on Charles Johnson in the 1994 Draft, so the Steelers traded Graham to the Bears for a 1995 5th round pick a few days after the ’94 Draft.1 And that’s when Graham’s career really took off.

Then had a career year in Chicago….

Chicago, of course, was a defensive-focused team with Steve Walsh and Erik Kramer at quarterback, and Lewis Tillman and Raymont Harris at running back. But the Bears had drafted Curtis Conway 7th overall in 1993, and together with Graham, the duo excelled over the next two years.

In 1994, Graham led Chicago with 68 catches, 944 yards, and 4 receiving touchdowns, with Conway producing a 39-546-2 statline.

The 1995 season was the year where the passing attacks in the NFC in general — and the NFC Central in particular — exploded. In Green Bay, Robert Brooks had 1,497 yards and Brett Favre was the MVP. In Detroit, Herman Moore had 1,686 yards and 14 touchdowns, Brett Perriman had 1,488 yards and 9 touchdowns, and Scott Mitchell had 4,338 yards and 32 TDs. In Minnesota, Warren Moon had 4228/33, Cris Carter had 122 catches for 1,371 yards and 17 scores, while Jake Reed had 72-1167-9.  And in Chicago? Erik Kramer threw for 3,838 yards and 29 touchdowns, with Graham catching 82 passes for 1,301 yards and Conway putting up a 62-1037-12 stat line.  Graham set the Chicago single-season record for receiving yards, a mark that still ranks 4th in Bears history today.

So after 5 seasons in the NFL, Graham’s career looked like this:

  • Sat on bench as rookie
  • Led team in receiving yards
  • Setback season
  • Led new team in receiving yards
  • Led new team in receiving yards

An unrestricted free agent after the season, Graham chose to sign with the New York Jets. By doing so, he was reuniting with Ron Erhardt and Neil O’Donnell, his offensive coordinator and quarterback from his days with the Steelers. All three joined the Jets in ’96, with O’Donnell and Graham signing large contracts.

But a funny thing happened on the way to New York. The Jets not only fell apart, but they fell apart everywhere but wide receiver. Two years later, New York would be in the AFC Championship Game with the only pair of teammates to catch 75 passes that year: Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet. Back in ’96, Chrebet was a 23-year-old second-year player, while Johnson was a rookie. Still, the duo managed to outshine Graham in both ’96 and then ’97.2 The Jets traded Graham to the Eagles in 1998 for a 6th round pick.

Unfortunately for Graham, he was joining what would be the worst offense in football: Philadelphia finished last in points, yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and net yards per pass attempt in 1998, a remarkable feat possible only thanks to the trio of Bobby Hoying, Koy Detmer, and a 32-year-old Rodney Peete. In 1997, Irving Fryar (at the age of 35) had 1,316 yards for the Eagles with Detmer/Hoying/Pette again splitting duties, but Philadelphia lacked a true number two receiver. In ’98, Graham actually edged out Fryar with 600 receiving yards to Fryar’s 556.

After the season, Graham chose to sign a free agent contract with the Chargers. A few months later, Erik Kramer also joined San Diego, reuniting the duo for one last season. Playing with Kramer and Jim Harbaugh, a 30-year-old Graham beat out 25-year-old TE Freddie Jones and 25-year-old wide receiver Mikhael Ricks to lead the Chargers in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, with a 57-968-2 stat line.

In 2000, Curtis Conway was fed up with the Bears, and re-connected with Graham in San Diego. Together with Freddie Jones, San Diego should have had a pretty good passing game. Instead? Graham endured the second 1-15 season of his career, thanks to Ryan Leaf and a combination of Harbaugh and Moses Moreno. Still, Graham beat out both Jones and Conway to lead the team in receiving yards with 907.

The 2001 Chargers would be Graham’s final season, and boy did he play on a talent-rich team…. just at the wrong time. Those Chargers had Graham, Conway, and Jones, of course, and were quarterbacked by a 39-year-old Doug Flutie. The backup quarterback was Drew Brees. The starting running back was LaDainian Tomlinson. Tim Dwight was the slot receiver. In their primes, Brees or Flutie could combine with LT, Graham/Conway/Dwight, and Jones to form a hell of an offense. Instead, San Diego went 5-11, and Grham finished second on the team in receiving yards to Conway.

Here is the breakdown for Graham’s 11 seasons in the NFL:

  • Sat on bench as rookie
  • Led Steelers in receiving yards (beating Dwight Stone and Ernie Mills)
  • Finished behind Eric Green and Dwight Stone
  • Led Bears in receiving yards (beating Curtis Conway)
  • Led Bears in receiving yards (beating Curtis Conway) and set franchise record
  • Finished behind Keyshawn and Chrebet
  • Finished behind Keyshawn and Chrebet
  • Led Eagles in receiving yards (beating Irving Fryar)
  • Led Chargers in receiving yards (beating Freddie Jones)
  • Led Chargers in receiving yards (beating Curtis Conway and Freddie Jones)
  • Finished 2nd on Chargers in receiving yards (behind Curtis Conway)

In the 9-year middle of his career, Graham led four teams in receiving yards a total of six times.   In 2002, he signed with the Falcons, but was released in July.  He did not have a remarkable career, and didn’t put up great receiving numbers, but he was usually the best player on a variety of different teams. That means he either was better than we remember, played with bad quarterbacks to depress his stats, or was “lucky” to play with bad receivers to always be his team’s top weapon.

What do you think?

  1. With Yancey Thigpen, Johnson, Mills, and Andre Hastings, it’s not as though the Steelers were thin at wide receiver. []
  2. Despite being a terrible 1-15 team, the Jets had four players who would finish their careers with 7,000 receiving yards: Johnson, Chrebet, Graham, and a 32-year-old Webster Slaughter. A fifth player, 25-year-old fullback Richie Anderson, had 400 receptions in his career. And a sixth player, 24-year-old tight end Kyle Brady, had a 13-year career in the NFL. That’s a whole lot of relatively in their prime talent on one terrible team. []
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The GOAT

Jerry Rice was really, really good for many, many reasons.  Here’s one: he led his teams in receiving yards a whopping 15 times in his career.  In 1985, Roger Craig led the 49ers in receiving yards during Rice’s rookie season. Then, from ’86 to ’96, Rice led San Francisco in receiving yards every season.  In 1997, Rice tore his ACL and was limited to just two games; as a result, Terrell Owens led the team in receiving.  In ’98 and ’99, though, it was Rice again who led the 49ers in receiving yards, before a 27-year-old Owens outgained a 38-year-old Rice on the ’00 49ers.

In 2001, Rice was in Oakland, and a 35-year-old Tim Brown beat Rice by 26 receiving yards (1165-1139) to lead the Raiders in receiving. But in 2002 and 2003, Rice — at 40 and 41 years of age — led Oakland in receiving. So from 1986 to 2003, Rice led his team in receiving yards in 15 of 18 seasons, with the exceptions being due to a torn ACL, losing out to a future Hall of Famer 11 years his junior, and losing out to a Hall of Famer 4 years his junior by 26 yards. That’s why he’s the greatest of all time.

But Henry Ellard was pretty darn good, too. Ellard played for 16 seasons in the NFL, and other than his rookie season and his final two seasons, he led his team in receiving yards every other year of his career.   During the prime years of Jim Everett’s career — 1988 to 1990 — Ellard ranked 1st, 1st, and 2nd in the league in receiving yards per game.  But he still led the Rams in receiving yards the other years, too, finishing as the leader receiver on Los Angeles each year from ’84 to ’93.  When Ellard joined the Redskins in ’94, he eclipsed the 1,000 yards mark and led Washington in receiving in ’94, ’95, and ’96.  In the process, Ellard became the first and only player to lead his team in receiving yards in 13 straight seasons. [click to continue…]

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Throwbacks: ’85 Bears Caught In A Miami Vise

I love reading old articles, and reading old articles about football history is a particular passion of mine. This is the second installment of a new feature at Football Perspective: reviews of historical articles. Today’s content is four articles in one, all published in the Chicago Tribune on December 3rd, 1985. Hours earlier, the 12-0 Bears lost as 2-point favorites in Miami to the 8-4 Dolphins, 38-24, ending Chicago’s perfect season. You can read all four articles here: I recommend you read them before going on.

The four articles are “Bears squeezed in Miami vise” by Don Pierson, “Only thing Bears lost was hint of immortality” by Bernie Lincicome, “No McMiracle in late show” by Bob Verdi, and “Dolphins roll out anti-blitz offense” by Ed Sherman.

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Bears squeezed in Miami vise (Pierson)

The Bears convinced the National Football League they are perfectly human Monday night when the Miami Dolphins ruined their perfect season and preserved history for themselves with a 38-24 victory.

The Bears’ 12-game winning streak and dreams of an undefeated season turned to a nightmare with a 31-point onslaught by quarterback Dan Marino and the Dolphins in the first half.
….
The noisy Orange Bowl crowd of 75,594 counted down the seconds and hailed the 1972 Dolphins as the last unbeaten (17-0) team.

Walter Payton got his record-breaking eighth 100-yard game in a row only because the Bears called time out three times in the final minute when the Dolphins had the ball. Payton finished with 121 yards in 23 carries and curiously carried only 10 times in the first half.

“Walter Payton is the greatest football player to ever play the game. Other people who call themselves running backs can’t carry his jersey,” said Ditka.

[click to continue…]

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White crushes the Falcons

The 2016 Falcons were really good, and were really, really, really close to winning the Super Bowl. The Falcons had one of the most heartbreaking ends to a season in NFL history: at one point, the Falcons had a 499-in-500 shot of winning it all, and still lost. Can they possibly recover from this?

My first thought, honestly, was no. How could they? This was arguably the biggest gut punch in history: has any team, in any professional sport, at any time, been 99.8% likely to win a championship and then fail to do so?

But then I remembered the 1996 Broncos. Do you remember that team? Woody Paige wrote an article previewing the Broncos/Jaguars playoff matchup that well, you can read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, the Broncos weren’t supposed to be challenged. The Broncos clinched the 1 seed early thanks to a 12-1 record, and were expected to ride to the Super Bowl unchallenged. Instead, a shocking upset left head coach Mike Shannahan saying “This is going to hurt and this is going to hurt for a long time.”

The Broncos, having already lost three Super Bowls with lesser teams, were supposed to finally win it all under John Elway. Instead, they had a heartbreaking loss… and responded by winning the next two Super Bowls.

How about the 2004 Steelers? Pittsburgh had gone 15-1 that year under rookie Ben Roethlisberger, and hosted the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. Pittsburgh, thanks to future New England killer Plaxico Burress, dominated the Patriots during the regular season. The Steelers had already lost AFC Championship Games at home to San Diego (’94), Denver (’97), and New England (’01) under Bill Cowher, along with the Super Bowl against the Cowboys. But with the best quarterback of the Cowher era — and Roethlisberger entered the game with a 15-0 career record– things were supposed to be different.

And yet, for the fourth time in 11 years, Pittsburgh lost at home in the AFC Championship Game, a heartbreaking finish to a season. If not then, when could the Cowher Steelers ever win it all?

Well, the next year, in fact.

The ’87 49ers were the best team in the NFL, and arguably the best team of the 49ers dynasty. But that San Francisco team was stunned in the playoffs:

Sitting through the shock at the bay is how San Francisco 49ers fans will remember a certain playoff Saturday, an occasion that was supposed to have been a walk through Candlestick Park on the way to San Diego and the Super Bowl.

Instead, the 49ers will have to live with the final score and the indignity of the season that was theirs for the taking, or so it seemed.

The Minnesota Vikings, league wild cards and everyone else’s discards, pulled off what others deemed impossible. Not only did the Vikings defeat the 49ers, 36-24, before a crowd of 62,547, they defeated them soundly and advanced to the National Football Conference championship game next week.

San Francisco, admittedly, was different than Atlanta, Denver, or Pittsburgh because the 49ers had already won two Super Bowls (although some of the names had changed). Still, this was a heartbreaking loss, and the team responded by winning the next two Super Bowls.

And how about the Tom Landry Cowboys? In ’66, Dallas lost a heartbreaker in the NFL Championship Game to the Packers (Green Bay went on to win Super Bowl I two weeks later). In ’67, Dallas lost another heartbreaker in the NFL Championship Game — aka, the Ice Bowl — to the Packers (Green Bay went on to win Super Bowl II two weeks later). The next year, a 12-2 Cowboys lost in the playoffs to Cleveland. In 1969, an 11-2-1 Cowboys team lost at home in the playoffs to Cleveland. Then, in 1970, Dallas exercised their playoff demons and made it to the Super Bowl.

In that game, the Cowboys led 13-6 entering the 4th quarter, and Baltimore star Johnny Unitas had been knocked out of the game. With 9 minutes to go, Dallas had the ball and a touchdown lead… and then disaster struck: a Craig Morton interception led to a short touchdown, and another Morton interception led to a last second game-winning field goal. If Dallas couldn’t win it all then, when could they?

The next year, as it turns out. Dallas made it all the way back, and then beat the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. And it’s worth noting that the Cowboys lost in Super Bowl V to the Colts… a team that two years earlier had their own heartbreak to deal with. [click to continue…]

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Brown continues to dominate the NFL.

Antonio Brown averaged “only” 12.1 yards per reception last year, although his great reception, receiving yards, and receiving touchdown totals earned him a third straight first-team All-Pro selection. If Brown wasn’t so good and just 28 years old, you might look at that average and think Brown was on the decline or at least was becoming less of a big play threat.

But that’s not really true: with 22 receptions (in 15 games) of at least 20+ yards, Brown had the third most big plays of any receiver last year, and 21% of his catches went for at least 20 yards. What really hurt Brown’s average was that he also caught a ton of short passes: he had 57 receptions of 10 or fewer yards. Kelvin Benjamin caught 63 passes for 941 yards last year, a 14.9 yards per reception average. But while that sounds good, Benjamin only caught 10 passes — or 16% of his total — for 20+ yards. How did Benjamin average nearly three more yards per catch than Brown? You probably already figured this one out: just 20 of his receptions (32%) went for 10 or fewer yards. Either Benjamin wasn’t running short routes or he wasn’t catching passes on those routes. If it’s the latter, it’s a bad thing; if it’s the former, well, it’s also a bad thing (relative to Brown, at least) that all he was doing was running long routes and Brown still caught more long balls than him!

The graph below shows the top 100 wide receivers and tight ends in receiving yards last season, sorted by number of 20+ yard receptions. In addition, I have included the percent of their receptions that went for 20+ yards, the number of receptions that went for 10 or fewer yards, and that percent as well.
[click to continue…]

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We know that Amari Cooper is a better receiver than Kenny Stills, but who is the better big play threat? Or, more specifically, who was the better big play threat last year?


To answer this question, most people would focus on one metric: yards per reception. Most people are wrong. [click to continue…]

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Throwbacks: Dr. Z On Roger Staubach’s Retirement

I love reading old articles, and reading old articles about football history is a particular passion of mine. As much time as I spend working on era-based adjustments, you can’t beat reading about a player in (his) real time. So I’m introducing a new feature at Football Perspective: reviews of historical articles. Today’s content comes from the great Dr. Z in April 1980, and it covers the retirement of Roger Staubach. I recommend you read the whole article first.

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So long, Roger, we gave you a bum deal, kid. For openers, we never picked you All-Pro. That’s we, the writers, the pickers, the guys who vote on the AP and Pro Football Writers ballots. Now that’s a bad call right away, because all you did was end up as the NFL’s top-rated passer—in history, the whole 59 years. Higher than Unitas, than Tarkenton or Jurgensen, than Tittle or Baugh. And you quarterbacked the Cowboys in four of their five Super Bowls, winning twice. And brought the team from behind to victory 14 times in the last two minutes or in overtime, 23 times in the fourth quarter. Hey, what does a guy have to do?

All of those facts are true, of course. Let’s go in order. [click to continue…]

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Gray Ink For Percentage of Team Receiving

On Thursday, I presented a new way to look at wide receivers, focusing on both how the receiver dominated his teammates (i.e., by getting a large share of the pie) and how much his offense dominated the league (i.e., how much better/worse than average his team’s passing attack was).

Since I presented the full dataset covering the years from 1970 to 2016, I thought we might as well use that information in other ways. For example, let’s say you typed Steve Largent into the search box on that post.  You would see that Largent was a monster when it came to dominating his teammates: in 1978, he was responsible for 33.6% of the Seahawks Adjusted Catch Yards, which ranked 3rd in the league.  In five years — 1980, 1981, 1983, 1986, and 1987 — he ranked 4th in the NFL in percentage of team ACY.  In ’85, he ranked 5th, and in ’79 and ’84, he ranked 6th.  That’s remarkable:

If you calculate his gray ink – which means giving him 10 points for a 1st place finish, 9 for a 2nd place finish, and so on, he had 59 points of gray ink in this category.  Remember, % of Team ACY is simply a measure of what percentage of the pie each receiver was able to devour, and % of Team ACY Rk shows where they rank in the league in a given season.  I would never use this as the only way to rank a receiver (more on this in a second), but it is an interesting way. Why?

Receiving production is based on a lot of things outside of a wide receiver’s control — for example, how good his quarterback is, or how often his team passes.  But this isolates that by only comparing how the receiver fared compared to his teammates.  That’s why I like to use this as a check against other metrics.  Below shows the leaders in gray ink in this category since 1970.  Largent, as you can see, ranks 2nd because you always know who is going to rank 1st: [click to continue…]

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Moneyball Podcast with SiriusXM Wharton Radio

Yesterday, I appeared on the Wharton Moneyball Podcast on Sirius XM. It is available on SoundCloud here:

https://m.soundcloud.com/user-780849378/8162017-wharton-moneyball

And Apple Podcasts here: 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/8-16-2017-wharton-moneyball/id1159695411?i=1000391122720&mt=2

We talked football analytics generally, along with a pair of articles I published this week. Give it a listen – my segment starts at the 32:10 mark.

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I spent some time discussing Gary Clark’s 1991 season yesterday. It was really impressive in two notable respects: he accounted for a huge percentage of his team’s production, and his team’s production was easily the best in the league.

What was even more impressive? What Gene Washington did in 1970. That year, the 49ers had a phenomenal passing attack: San Francisco averaged 7.6 ANY/A, while no other team was above 6.0. John Brodie was the AP MVP because of his great passing numbers, but what was arguably more impressive is what Washington did that year. Playing for the best passing offense in football1, Washington caught 23% of the team’s passes, 37% of the 49ers receiving yards, and 48% of San Francisco’s receiving touchdowns.

If you calculate Adjusted Catch Yards with a 5-yard bonus on receptions and a 20-yard bonus on touchdowns, Washington had 1,605 ACY out of the 49ers 4,620 total team ACY, or 35%. That’s even higher than what Clark did on the ’91 Redskins (33%). On the other hand, WR1s tended to get slightly more attention on 1970 offenses than on 1971 offenses. So here’s what I did:

1) Calculate the ACY for each receiver on each team since 1970. For Clark in ’91, this was 1,890.

2) Calculate the percentage of team ACY for each receiving season since 1970. For Clark, this was 33%; for Washington, it was 35%.

3) Calculate the average percentage of team ACY for the top N receivers in the league each season, with N being equal to the number of teams in the NFL. For 1970, this was 29%; for 1991, it was 27%.

4) Calculate each receiver’s percent over average; for both Clark and Washington, this means +6%.

5) Calculate each receiver’s team RANY/A for each year. Clark’s Redskins were at +3.14, while Washington’s 49ers were at +3.45.

6) Plot those seasons in the graph below. [click to continue…]

  1. And along with the ’66 Packers, the only offenses to average at least 7.50 ANY/A from 1961 to 1975. []
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Gary Clark Was Uniquely Dominant In 1991

Clark caps his dominant season with a Super Bowl

The 1991 Redskins are the hipster’s choice for greatest NFL team of the modern era. The team was statistically dominant, but what makes Washington’s case unique is that folks rarely mention the 1991 Redskins as one of the best teams of all time! Well, today I want to talk about that team’s star wide receiver: Gary Clark.

Judging wide receivers is very tough. One way to do that is to look just at their raw statistics, but a receiver’s production is heavily influenced by the environment he plays in — how often does his team pass, how talented is his quarterback, how good are the other targets on his team, etc.  At a high level, it’s easy to assume that the best receivers are playing on the best passing attacks: after all, if a passing game is dominant, the receivers are likely a big part of the reason why.

The 1984 Dolphins, 2004 Colts, 2007 Patriots, and 2013 Broncos all had record-setting passing attacks.  And while Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady were great, but they also each had not one, but two star receivers: Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison (and Brandon Stokely), Randy Moss and Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (and Wes Welker!).  That’s generally the rule, not the exception: dynamic offenses almost always have a great quarterback, but they also almost always have multiple top receivers.  The Falcons offense was outstanding last year, and it’s hard for a wide receiver to be better than Julio Jones, but even he only accounted for 28% of the Atlanta receiving yards and 16% of the Falcons receiving touchdowns (Jones also missed two games). [click to continue…]

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Anyone who has spent any time studying football analytics knows one truth: teams are not aggressive enough on fourth down. For example, in situation-neutral contexts, it’s always advisable to go for it on 4th-and-1. The value of possession has become increasingly important in the modern game, where offenses are so adept at gaining yards and scoring points, and the likelihood of conversion is so high that the trade-off of 40-50 yards of field position for a chance to keep possession is almost always worth it. Possession, after all, is worth about 4 points: if having 1st-and-10 at the 50 yard line is worth 2 points, then being on defense in that situation is worth -2, making the swing between having the ball and not having the ball worth 4 points.

So are NFL teams becoming smarter when it comes to 4th down decision making? I looked at all 4th-and-1 plays since 1994 that (i) came in the first three quarters, (ii) with the offense between the 40s, and (iii) with the team on offense either leading or trailing by no more than 10 points. From 1994 to 2004, teams went for it on these 4th-and-1 situations about 28% of the time. Then, from ’05 to 2014, teams went for it 35% of the time. But over the last two years, offenses have stayed on the field for these fourth downs over 40% of the time both years. Take a look: [click to continue…]

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Implied SRS Ratings for NFL in 2017

Back in May, CG Technology released point spreads for all NFL games during the first 16 weeks of the 2016 season. We can use these lines to generate implied NFL ratings — as of May 10, 2017 — for this upcoming season.

Basically, we take the point spread in each game, adjust for home field, and then determine how by many points Vegas thinks Team A is better than Team B.  When the Seahawks are favored by 13.5 points in a home game against the Rams, we can take this to mean that Vegas thinks the Seahawks are 10.5 points better than Los Angeles.  When Seattle is a 6-point road favorite in Los Angeles against the Rams, that tells us that Vegas thinks the Seahawks are 9 points better than the Rams.  That’s just two games, of course: Using the iterative SRS process, we can generate season ratings based on the 240 point spreads involved. Here are those ratings, again as of May 10, 2017.

Here’s how to read the table below. After adjusting for home field, the Patriots are expected to beat their average opponent by 6.6 points. On average, New England’s opponents (after adjusting for *their* strength of schedule) are 0.3 points better than average, which means the Patriots are expected to be 6.8 points better than average (difference due to rounding). That’s the best in the league, far ahead of the Seahawks, Cowboys, and Packers (the only other teams that are 4 points better than average). [click to continue…]

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Leaders in Percentage of Team Targets

On Friday, I wrote about Rob Moore’s 1997 season, when he set the still-standing record for targets in a year. Moore had 208 targets, but as alluded to in that post, he did not set the record for percentage of team targets in a season, which is simply targets divided by team pass attempts (excluding sacks).

That honor belongs to Brandon Marshall, who was targeted on 40% of all passes for the 2012 Bears, and wound up with a post-1978 record 46% of the Bears receiving yards that year.  Remarkably, Marshall saw over 30% of his team’s targets on three different teams, and saw 29% of a fourth franchise’s targets in a season (2015 Jets). The table below shows all players since 1992 with at least 30% (okay, 29.5%) of their team’s targets in a season:

[click to continue…]

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Footballguys.com – Why Subscribe?

Regular readers know that I’m one of the writers at Footballguys.com. If you are a hardcore fantasy footballer (or daily fantasy sports player), you probably already know that Footballguys.com is the single best source for fantasy football information. If you are a more casual fantasy football player, you’ll find that the tools available at Footballguys will make life much, much easier for you to win your league(s). Either way, I think you’ll find FBG to be worthwhile at $29.95 for one season of the Insider PRO and $44.95 for the Insider PRO Plus.

I don’t make extra money if more people sign up for Footballguys or buy an app, but I hope my readers subscribe because I think a subscription is a really good deal. If you play fantasy football and want to win your competitive league or save hours doing research for your local league, a Footballguys subscription is well worth it. You get: [click to continue…]

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Not Rob Moore

If you find yourself talking about Rob Moore in the summer of 2017, it’s probably for one of four reasons.

1) You are a diehard Jets or Cardinals fan choosing to reminisce about Boomer Esiason and the halcyon days of the ’90s.

2) You just finished watching Jerry Maguire. That movie, which was released in December 1996, saw Cuba Gooding Jr. play the role of Rod Tidwell. Gooding’s character wore 85 and played wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, just like Moore (who even had a bit role in the movie, playing himself).

3) You are researching the best players in Supplemental Draft history, and Moore’s name came up. A star at Syracuse, Moore graduated early (back when it was still unusual for undergraduates to enter the draft), and therefore elected to enter the Supplemental Draft. The move cost the Jets the 8th pick in the 1991 Draft, which the Eagles used on Tennessee offensive lineman Antone Davis. Moore was the much better player.

4) You were wondering which player in the last 25 years (and, perhaps, for much longer) saw the most targets in a single season in NFL history. After some searching, you found out that the answer was Rob Moore, with 208 targets for the 1997 Cardinals.

Wait, what? Of all the players in the last 25 years, Rob Moore is the single-season leader in targets? The single-season leaders in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns are Marvin Harrison, Calvin Johnson, and Randy Moss, respectively. The most targets (since 1992) that Jerry Rice ever saw was 176, and that was in 1995, when he gained 1848 receiving yards while playing for a 49ers team that threw 644 passes, the 2nd most in the NFL. So how did — just two years later — Rob Moore see 32 more targets than Rice in ’95? [click to continue…]

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Guest Post: Passing Volume vs. Passing Efficiency

Today’s guest post comes from Ben Baldwin, a contributor for Field Gulls and Bryan’s site, http://thegridfe.com. You can find more of Ben’s work here or on Twitter @guga31bb. What follows are Ben’s words.


Arguing on the internet

A common argument on the internet (e.g. Twitter, where I spent too much time) is that the efficiency of players like Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson in their rookie seasons (and subsequent seasons, for Wilson) was not impressive because they were not asked to throw the ball as much. Once they are asked to throw more often, the argument goes, we can expect their efficiency to fall off. Here is one of many, many examples:

Do quarterbacks really look good because they throw less? [click to continue…]

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Receiving TD Concentration Index (By Passer)

Gronk Smash

On Monday, I looked at the concentration index scores for a number of quarterbacks based on the number of touchdowns thrown to each receiver (more details on the formula available there and here). Today, the reverse: how diverse (or not diverse) were receivers with respect to the number of quarterbacks from whom they caught TDs?

Marques Colston, for example, caught 100% of his touchdowns from Drew BreesRob Gronkowski has caught all but one of his touchdowns from Tom Brady. And Mark Clayton caught 94% of his touchdowns from Dan Marino.

At the bottom of the list are two of the most underrated receivers by modern fans.   Both were superstars in college and very high draft picks, but “disappointed” in the pros.  That’s probably because they were stuck with a revolving door of bad quarterbacks.

Joey Galloway caught 77 career touchdowns and was the 8th pick in the ’95 Draft, but he is chronically underrated due to the bad quarterback play he experienced. He only had double digit touchdowns with one quarterback: an in-his-40s Warren Moon.  His top four quarterbacks were responsible for only 51% of his career touchdowns!  Galloway played with a lot of quarterbacks, and most of them were below-average.

The other receiver with a concentration index of less than 11% was former number one overall pick Irving Fryar.  Regular readers may recall that Fryar is the odd duck who set his career high in receiving yards at age 35 while playing with Bobby Hoying!  Fryar has over 3,000 yards with three franchises, a very rare feat.  He spent his 20s with the terrible Patriots back when that was a thing, and he led New England in receiving yards in ’90, ’91, and ’92, then led the Dolphins in receiving yards in ’93, ’94, and ’95, and then led the Eagles in receiving yards in ’96 and ’97!  It’s pretty impressive to lead your team in receiving yards for eight straight seasons, but it’s really impressive to do it for three different franchises. [click to continue…]

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The Patriots and the Spread, Part I

Since 2001, the Patriots have been favored to win in a whopping 79% of all games, including postseason (giving half-credit as a favorite in games where the spread is zero). The Steelers are second at 73%, the Packers and Colts are next at 69%, the Eagles are at 68%, the Broncos at 67%, and the Saints at 61% are the only other team over 60%. In other words, the Patriots have been in a class by themselves when it comes to being favored.

But even that kind of underrates New England. The Patriots weren’t favored in any of the first 8 games of the 2001 season; the team was only favored in one of its first 12 games, at which point in time New England had a 7-5 record (and an 8-4 mark against the spread). There have also been 19 games since 2001 where Tom Brady was not the starting quarterback, and the Patriots were underdogs in 4 of those games (and a pick’em in a fifth). And there were meaningless week 17 games in 2006 and 2009 that the Patriots were underdogs because they were projected to rest their starters.

The graph below shows how many points the Patriots were expected to win in each game, regular and post-season, since 2001. I have included as red dots games not started by Brady or during meaningless week 17 games: [click to continue…]

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Passing TD Concentration Index (By Receiver)

Fran Tarkenton threw 342 touchdowns in his career, but you may be surprised to learn that he didn’t throw more than 25 touchdowns to a single player! He played with John Gilliam from ’72 to ’75, and Gilliam caught 25 touchdowns during those four seasons before signing with Atlanta in 1976.  Tarkenton played with receiver Sammy White during the final three seasons of Tarkenton’s career, from ’76 to ’78, and the duo connected for 24 touchdowns.  And Tarkenton threw 23 touchdowns to Hall of Very Good running back Chuck Foreman.  While with the Giants, Tarkenton also threw 20 touchdowns to Homer Jones; those were the only four players to catch 20 touchdowns from Tarkenton.

A couple of months ago, I discussed the concentration index as a way to measure how concentrated certain statistics are.  We can do that same thing to measure quarterbacks and receivers to see which players had the most varied passing games.  This will be skewed, of course, in favor of quarterbacks who played for multiple teams, but that’s arguably a feature and not a bug.

Below are the results for the quarterbacks with at least 100 touchdown passes: [click to continue…]

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Mike Anderson was the 189th pick in the NFL Draft, and one of the most unlikely rookie of the year winners ever. He played at Utah in ’98 and ’99, not getting there until four years in the United States Marine Corps and two years at junior college. On the other hand, Anderson’s success wasn’t entirely shocking: perhaps the biggest hurdle to his success was just becoming the team’s starting running back. From ’96 to ’00, Denver’s top running back averaged over 90 rushing yards per game in each season; the Broncos were responsible for 5 of the 21 instances when a rusher hit that mark while playing in at least 12 games.

Last year, Dak Prescott (the 135th pick) became another extremely unlikely rookie of the year winner. He helped turn around a Cowboys passing attack that was the worst in the NFL the prior year. Of course, there was quite an impressive infrastructure in place there, too: in 2014, the Cowboys passing game was great, too.

In 1974, Don Woods took the league by storm in 1974, despite being the 134th pick in the draft. A star quarterback at New Mexico, like most black quarterbacks of his time, he was converted to another position upon reaching the pros. Woods was cut by the Packers, but signed with the Chargers (who already had a pretty good quarterback on the roster). In the final 11 games of the season, Woods averaged over 100 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 touchdowns, while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

In 1975, RB Mike Thomas was the 108th pick to the Redskins. Thomas totaled 1,402 yards in 14 games, and found himself in the company of the game’s top running backs by topping 75 yards in 12 of 14 games.

The graph below shows where the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year was selected in each season: [click to continue…]

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Congrats to the Hall of Fame Class of 2017

Congrats to the 2017 Hall of Fame Class that will be inducted tonight. We spend a lot of time debating and talking about someone’s Hall of Fame worthiness, but today is a day to celebrate and honor some of the game’s best players. We have an 7-person class (Commissioner Paul Tagliabue) being enshrined tonight:

It is a pretty remarkable class of players (and congrats to Jones, too, though I am not going to get into his accolades here).  Consider: [click to continue…]

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When it comes to the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award, one thing is clear: being a high draft pick really, really helps. On average, the last 15 players were drafted with the 11th overall pick, and all but one was a top-18 pick! This award is extremely skewed in favor of early draft picks. Take a look:

[click to continue…]

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I appeared on Chris Harris’s podcast yesterday, talking yards per carry and game scripts. You can listen to it here, beginning at the 41:36 mark.

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Bell had a lot of valuable yards last year.

All yards gained on special teams are done outside of the context of the series (down and distance) environment that defines most games. A kickoff return from to the 30 or to the 40 represents a difference of 10 yards, but those 10 yards are not as valuable as the difference between a gain of 5 yards and 15 yards on 3rd-and-10. The former are, quite literally, special teams yards. They don’t provide any value in gaining any additional first downs, or keeping a drive alive. This is why we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about all-purpose yardage leaders, or the difference between a kickoff returner who averages 28.0 yards per return or 24.0. Special teams yards, while obviously valuable, are — just as obviously — the least valuable yards possible.

On a 3rd-and-10, a 15-yard pass provides a significant amount of value by providing a first down. But let’s get a bit more precise: the first 10 of those yards were really valuable. The last 5? Well, those were special teams yards. The difference between gaining 10 yards and gaining 15 yards on 3rd-and-10 isn’t that significant: well, it’s about as significant as returning a kickoff for 30 yards or 35 yards. Those last 5 yards don’t help a team move the chains. [click to continue…]

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