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The 2015 season was another spectacular one for wide receivers. Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown outgained the NFL’s leading rusher by a record 349 yards. On a game-by-game basis, the leading receiver for every team in every NFL game this year, including playoffs, averaged 94.3 receiving yards, a post-merger record.

In fact, the average number of receiving yards gained by the leading receiver of each team has been steadily rising, which isn’t surprising.  The average was below 80 as recently as 1992, and below 70 in 1977, the year before the big passing rules changes went into effect.  But the 1962 NFL season had a slightly higher average, at 95.2, while the average leading receiver in a game in the ’64 AFL even broke 100.

The graph below shows the average number of receiving yards gained by each team’s leading receiver in every game in each season since 1960.  In all graphs today, the NFL line is in blue, while the AFL line is in red.

leading wr rec yds

That chart is fun, but at first glance, probably not too surprising. After all, passing has been generally going up, and at a roughly similar rate, right? Well, the graph below shows the amount of receiving yards (or gross passing yards, if you prefer) by each team in each game since 1960.  And while the trend is similar, you can see that we are in an unprecedented era of team receiving yards, in a way that doesn’t ring true when it comes to individual players:

team rec yds

That’s because there’s another factor at play: teams are simply spreading the ball around more.  With so much passing, one receiver can’t take all the targets the way a Paul Warfield could in the ’70s.  While it’s obvious that the NFL becomes more of a passing league each year, that’s not a very precise description: in reality, the NFL has seen a shift from running the ball to passing to a team’s non-primary target.  The graph below shows the ratio between the average receiving yards gained by the leading receiver to the number of team passing yards.1

leading wr perc

If you look at all the games from 1960, 1961, and 1962, the average leading receiver for each team gained about 90 yards, while his team threw for about 200 yards; in fact, the ratio of those two numbers was between 44% and 45% in each of those years.

In 2012, this ratio dipped to 36.2%, the lowest of any time during this study. It has not yet risen back above 37% since, and I’m skeptical that it will anytime soon. There are lots of implications for this, but it’s one of the reasons why Neil and I didn’t use a one-for-one weight on team pass attempts when calculating version 2.0 of True Receiving Yards. Opportunity is king for receivers, but more team passes are also a signal of shifting focus from the running game to non-primary receivers. As always, this stuff is pretty tricky to analyze, but that’s what makes it fun.

And here’s the too long; didn’t read version. From 1960 to 1964, there were 634 times when a receiver gained 100+ receiving yards in a game, and there were 1,522 team games during that time. That means a receiver hit the century mark 42% of the time during games in the first part of the ’60s. Over the last five years, there were 1,078 100+ yard receiving games, and 2,670 team games; that translates to a 40% ratio. In other words, despite it being the most pass-friendly era in NFL history, it was actually more common for a player to gain 100 receiving yards in the game in the early sixties than it is now.

  1. Note that this was done by dividing the two averages — i.e., for the 2015 season, dividing 94.3 by 258.4, to get a result of 36.5%. I did not take the average of the ratios for each individual game, although I did look at that, and the results were pretty similar. []