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.
[table id=420 /]
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.
- In addition, I have provided no AFL, AAFC, or war-time adjustments. [↩]