Career Receiving Numbers Translated to the 2012 Passing Environment

Don Hutson is down with era adjustments.

I’ve written several posts about how to grade wide receivers and did a three-part series on one ranking system two weeks ago. Grading wide receivers requires one to adjust for era, but there are many different ways to do that.

Calvin Johnson caught 122 passes last year for 1,964 yards and five touchdowns. In 1973, Harold Carmichael had 67 receptions, 1,116 yards and nine scores. Which season was better? You might be inclined to think Johnson’s season was much better regardless of era, but both receivers led their respective leagues in both receptions and receiving yards. But let’s think about it another way.

In 1973, all the players on the 26 teams in the NFL combined for a total of 4,603 catches and 58,009 receiving yards. That means Carmichael was responsible for 1.46% of all receptions and 1.92% of all receiving yards. Of course, with only 26 teams, we need to multiply those numbers by 26/32 make for an apples-to-apples comparison of the modern environment. If we want to transport Carmichael into 2012, that means he needs to be credited with 1.18% of all receptions and 1.56% of all receiving yards accumulated last year. That would give him 128 catches and 1,970 receiving yards, and thanks to recording 1.93% of all receiving touchdowns in 2012, 14.6 touchdowns.

This analysis is actually unfair to active players, as there are more three-, four-, and five-wide receiver sets than ever before. Elroy Hirsch gained 1,495 receiving yards in 12 games — an outstanding rate of production in any era — but that translates to an absurd 2,667 receiving yards in 2012. In Don Hutson’s magical 1942 season, after multiplying by 10/32, he gained 2.3% of the league’s receptions, 2.8% of the receiving yards, and 4.9% of the touchdowns — for a 254/3501/37 stat line.

I don’t think this sort of straight line translation — percentage of the league’s production, on a per team basis — is the best way of evaluating receivers, but it is another piece of evidence in trying to get a better picture of the receiver position. And since just about everyone’s ranking systems tend to be massively favored towards modern receivers, I’m okay with producing one biased towards older players. And because of the longer careers players have today, when you come up with career totals, you end up with a pretty interesting list. Take a look at the top 200 leaders in career receiving yards after translating each player’s production in each season to the 2012 environment. The three columns in the middle table show the adjusted numbers, while the far right columns display actual career numbers.

1Don Hutson116gnb194825668241488799199
2Jerry Rice303sfo-rai-sea177425498227154922895197
3Terrell Owens219sfo-phi-dal-buf-cin117717528170107815934153
4Randy Moss218min-rai-nwe-oti-sfo10651677617298215292156
5Isaac Bruce223ram-sfo11181669310210241520891
6James Lofton233gnb-rai-buf-phi-ram97816646927641400475
7Tim Brown255rai-tam122616573116109414934100
8Charlie Joiner239oti-cin-sdg110316551867501214665
9Steve Largent200sea11051618512481913089100
10Don Maynard186nyg-nyj-crd104616177996331183488
11Marvin Harrison190clt121416153144110214580128
12Tony Gonzalez254kan-atl133915504113124214268103
13Cris Carter234phi-min-mia124215429149110113899130
14Harold Jackson205phi-ram-nwe-sea959154171095791037276
15Henry Ellard228ram-was-nwe95815375758141377765
16Torry Holt173ram-jax100214793839201338274
17Andre Reed234buf-was1115147801019511319887
18Raymond Berry154clt12211472591631927568
19Art Monk224was-nyj-phi115814566799401272168
20Billy Howton142gnb-cle-dal10321433887503845961
21Irving Fryar255nwe-mia-phi-was98414275968511278584
22Reggie Wayne189clt102814058859681306378
23Lance Alworth136sdg-dal90313960975421026685
24Charley Taylor165was112213811107649911079
25Fred Biletnikoff190rai104013772109589897476
26Jimmy Smith171jax95413591758621228767
27Michael Irvin159dal85713330777501190465
28Jim Benton91ram-chi10031330894288480145
29Derrick Mason230oti-rav-nyj-htx102213251739431206166
30Hines Ward217pit1080132329510001208385
31Harold Carmichael182phi-dal95213188113590898579
32Paul Warfield157cle-mia74713154117427856585
33Stanley Morgan196nwe-clt73013038885571071672
34Elroy Hirsch127cra-ram8651274588387702960
35Rod Smith183den94112633778491138968
37Keenan McCardell209cle-jax-tam-sdg-was97512605728831137363
38Cliff Branch179rai7761252999501868567
39Tommy McDonald152phi-dal-ram-atl-cle89212453105495841084
40Steve Smith167car82312362707721145263
41Gary Clark167was-crd-mia83212209776991085665
43Carroll Dale189ram-gnb-min7591211764438827752
44Andre Johnson138htx87112100608181125456
45Joey Galloway198sea-dal-tam-nwe-was76912072867011095077
46Dante Lavelli123cle8721201088386648862
47Haven Moses199buf-den7361190480448809156
48Jackie Smith198crd8291181853480791840
49Keyshawn Johnson167nyj-tam-dal-car90311717728141057164
50Jimmy Orr149pit-clt7171168880400791466
51Roy Jefferson162pit-clt-was7881157970451753952
52Drew Pearson156dal7721148966489782248
53Andre Rison186clt-atl-cle-jax-gnb-kan-rai859114701017431020584
54Gary Garrison134sdg-oti7101139881405753858
55Bobby Mitchell148cle-was9191130078521795465
56John Stallworth165pit7491126587537872363
57John Gilliam149nor-crd-min-atl6761122070382705648
58Shannon Sharpe204den-rav91111217728151006062
59Drew Hill211ram-oti-atl7751117569634983160
60Larry Fitzgerald140crd81011147847641041377
61Wes Chandler150nor-sdg-sfo7401110772559896656
62Pete Retzlaff132phi8391109556452741247
63Donald Driver205gnb79911070677431013761
64Eric Moulds186buf-htx-oti8421106154764999549
65Anquan Boldin140crd-rav82711023647721016558
66Bob Hayes132dal-sfo6371100492371741471
67Gene A. Washington140sfo-det6811097390385685660
68Otis Taylor129kan7201091375410730657
69Ken Burrough156nor-oti7031079571421710249
70Wesley Walker154nyj6041057490438830671
71Boyd Dowler162gnb-was8311056948474727040
72Billy Wilson100sfo8901056274407590249
73Santana Moss171nyj-was7261055370680971564
74Amani Toomer190nyg7311048861668949754
75Rob Moore153nyj-crd7161047757628936849
76Mac Speedie86cle8041046647349560233
77Reggie Rucker159dal-nwe-nyg-cle7311045063447706544
78Art Powell105nyj-rai-buf-min7581036185479804681
79Roy Green175crd-phi7051035776559896566
80Isaac Curtis167cin6481033777416710153
81Anthony Miller155sdg-den-dal6901023374595914863
82Herman Moore145det7501017071670917462
83Nat Moore183mia7351011898510754674
84Tony Martin177mia-sdg-atl6661003564593906556
85Mark Clayton158mia-gnb7011003397582897484
86Mel Gray145crd5701001368351664445
87Ricky Proehl244crd-sea-chi-ram-car-clt7641000563669887854
88Mark Duper144mia616992267511886959
89Pete Pihos107phi802991184373561961
90Mark Carrier177tam-cle-car665980656569876348
91Terry Glenn136nwe-gnb-dal656979750593882344
93Terance Mathis206nyj-atl-pit767971271689880963
94Max McGee148gnb650968463345634650
95Joe Horn163kan-nor-atl661968465603874458
96Lenny Moore143clt713967965363603948
97Tony Hill141dal632965360479798851
98Ozzie Newsome198cle863964857662798047
99Johnnie Morton182det-kan-sfo692963048624871943
100Tom Fears87ram872962953400539738
101Jason Witten159dal853956747806894844
102Del Shofner113ram-nyg639955461349647051
103Laveranues Coles153nyj-was-cin733952855674860949
104Frank Lewis155pit-buf604935456397672440
105Plaxico Burress147pit-nyg-nyj598935071553849964
106Lionel Taylor113den-oti898931647567719545
107Ernest Givins147oti-jax682930558571821549
108Eric Martin153nor-kan666926057553816149
109Eddie Kennison176ram-nor-chi-kan-den604925947548834542
110Bobby Walston148phi658925865311536346
111Sterling Sharpe112gnb702923178595813465
112Roddy White128atl649920355622872552
113Hugh Taylor94was589918179272523358
114Ray Renfro142cle570914972281550850
115Elbie Nickel131pit712914453329513137
116Webster Slaughter162cle-oti-kan-nyj-sdg661910551563811144
117Jack Snow150ram590910061340601245
118Curtis Conway167chi-sdg-nyj-sfo654905258594823052
119Wes Welker125mia-nwe803904640768858038
120Jeff Graham160pit-chi-nyj-phi-sdg604901934542817230
121Frank Gifford136nyg760899559367543443
122Antonio Gates147sdg685897190642832183
123Bill Brooks169clt-buf-was689896953583800146
124Red Phillips119ram-min731895443401604434
125Danny Abramowicz111nor-sfo646879053369568639
126Sammy White128min581878373393640050
127Pat Tilley147crd643877445468700537
128Anthony Carter137min-det587874664486773355
129Charley Hennigan95oti643870753410682351
130Sonny Randle120crd-sfo-dal650858578365599665
131Rich Caster160nyj-oti-nor-was544858368322551545
132Bob Tucker156nyg-min732857841422542127
133Bobby Engram176chi-sea-kan713855139650775135
134Alfred Jenkins110atl534851453360626740
136Riley Odoms153den637846259396575541
137Chris Chambers153mia-sdg-kan585843565540764858
138Harlon Hill96chi-pit507843461233471740
139Henry Marshall165kan579837943416654533
140Dwight Clark134sfo668829557506675048
141Jerry Smith168was721828179421549660
143Ed McCaffrey185nyg-sfo-den631823363565742255
144Dave Parks118sfo-nor-oti617821756360561944
145Kyle Rote121nyg629818369300479748
146Mike Ditka158chi-phi-dal728817450427581243
147Kellen Winslow109sdg708815855541674145
148Calvin Johnson92det505813757488783654
149Brandon Marshall107den-mia-chi636813247612775545
150Wayne Chrebet152nyj641810945580736541
151Gail Cogdill122det-atl616807239356569634
152Antonio Freeman132gnb-phi532801668477725161
153J.T. Smith160kan-crd679800541544697435
154Ken Kavanaugh90chi446797983162362650
155Cris Collinsworth107cin546797841417669836
156Darrell Jackson123sea-sfo-den546792358499713251
157Buddy Dial98pit-dal467791054261543644
159Bob Chandler140buf-rai614786567370524348
160Lynn Swann115pit527786470336546251
161Carl Pickens129cin-oti600783371540712963
162Marques Colston102nor555779862532739458
163Shawn Jefferson195sdg-nwe-atl-det523776933470702329
164Gary Ballman128pit-phi-min-nyg550772944323536637
165Derrick Alexander126cle-rav-kan-min463768245417697140
166Jake Reed154min-nor495765740450699936
167Raymond Chester172rai-clt602764569364501348
168Charlie Sanders128det594764446336481731
169Frank Clarke140cle-dal500762358291542650
170Joe Carter109phi-gnb-bkn-crd618760069132198922
171Marshall Faulk176clt-ram845755941767687536
172Bernie Casey105sfo-ram603755846359544440
173Larry Centers192crd-was-buf-nwe919751032827679728
174Gary Collins127cle556749884331529970
175Carlos Carson126kan-phi452749438353637233
176John Mackey139clt-sdg561747845331523638
177Freddie Solomon151mia-sfo517746959371584648
178Al Toon107nyj630745735517660531
179Willie Gault170chi-rai403744150333663544
180Frank Sanders136crd-rav563741527507674924
181Marty Booker157chi-mia-atl586741442539670337
182Dave Casper147rai-oti-min585740776378521652
183Michael Haynes147atl-nor491739057428658847
184Ricky Sanders134was-atl576733444483647737
185Brett Perriman153nor-det-mia-kan597732335525658930
186Joe Morrison184nyg692731756395499347
187Charle Young187phi-ram-sfo-sea648731536418510627
188Lance Rentzel104min-dal-ram465727549268482638
189Mike Quick101phi446726568363646461
190Charley Malone84was640724939137193213
191Roger Carr115clt-sea-sdg410724644271507131
192Deion Branch140nwe-sea555721942518664439
193Bob Trumpy128cin536720551298460035
194Steve Watson126den457719742353611236
195Ben Hawkins102phi452717641261476432
196Quinn Early179sdg-nor-buf-nyj520717547460644840
197John Jefferson102sdg-gnb-cle475717457351571447
198Haywood Jeffires132oti-nor624715560535633450
199Jerome Barkum158nyj525715458326478940
200Johnny Morris121chi621714637356505931

This list doesn’t address any of the other concerns my other ranking system did — it is still biased in favor of players on heavy passing teams and players who had a bunch of junk seasons1 — but it does yield some interesting names.

Harold Jackson might be the most interesting one on the list. Jackson should have been on the All-Decade team of the ’70s, but he didn’t have as many memorable playoff moments or play for national teams like Drew Pearson and Lynn Swann. Jackson led the league in receiving yards in ’69 and ’72 with the Eagles, then led the league in touchdowns with the Rams in ’73. He finished in the top three in my wide receiver ranking system in each of those seasons, and added a 5th-place finish in ’75 and top-15 seasons in ’76, ’77, ’78. He also had a couple other decent years with the Eagles and a 1,000 yard season with the Patriots. Voters faced a Carter/Brown/Reed logjam with Jackson, Cliff Branch, Harold Carmichael and Pearson in the ’70s, but Jackson would have been a worthy Hall of Fame choice had he made it. Instead, he’s only a Hall of Very Good member.

Jackson’s career numbers are slightly inflated because of some junk years, but in other ways, his numbers underrate him. Jackson made five Pro Bowls in his career, all before he played for the Patriots. But because of a revolving door at quarterback, Steve Grogan is actually the man responsible for more of Jackson’s yards (23%) than any other quarterback, followed by Norm Snead (15%), James Harris (14%), John Hadl (10%), Pete Liske (10%), Pat Haden (8%) and John Reaves (6%). Jackson was a compiler, no doubt — he played in 205 games, and he actually ranked second to only Don Maynard in receiving yards when he retired — so this system overrates him a little bit. But it overrates him to a much less severe degree than how underrated he is, by playing in the ’70s for some teams with mediocre quarterbacks. Had he played with Roger Staubach or Terry Bradshaw, he’d have likely been an All-decade receiver, have a couple of rings, and probably a bust in Canton.

What else stands out to you on this table? My favorite tidbit from this exercise actually isn’t on display here, but someone actually topped Hutson’s 1942 season in a category. That player was another Green Bay wide receiver, Johnny McNally, who caught 11 of the 59 touchdown passes thrown in 1931. Pro-rated to 2012 and adjusted for 32 teams, and McNally’s season translates to a 44-touchdown campaign.

1. In addition, I have provided no AFL, AAFC, or war-time adjustments. []
• Tim Truemper

Interesting to see Jim Benton on the list and projected/pro-rated to 1000+ receptions. For 5 of his 9 years in Pro Ball he was pretty prolific. Had good post season stats as well.

• Chase Stuart

Yes, players like Benton and Howton are borderline HOFers that are totally forgotten about today.

• Richie

Elroy Hirsch’s 2,667 yards is “absurd” but Hutson’s 254/3501/37 line doesn’t even get an adjective? LOL

• Chase Stuart

There is no adjective to describe that 🙂

• Tim Truemper

On a single season basis, I wonder how Johnny Morris’s big season with the Bears (in 1964 ) translates to numbers today. 91 catches with the 2nd best player having 75. Hey, that was Mike Ditka of the Bears, too. The 91 catches by Morris seems to really stick out. As well as his 1200 yards.

• Paul McD

Passes the eyeball test of great recievers.
I like it