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Would the Atlanta Falcons be the worst franchise to win the Super Bowl? The Falcons have a franchise regular season record of 341-437-6, which translates to a 0.439 winning percentage.

In 51 years, the Falcons have made the playoffs just 13 times. Atlanta didn’t record back-to-back winning seasons as a franchise until Matt Ryan arrived; the team had five straight years with a winning record, but hasn’t had repeated the feat since (next year, perhaps). Atlanta has never led the NFL in offense; it hadn’t led the league in scoring until this year. It only led the league in points allowed one time, the historic ’77 team, but has never finished first in yards allowed.

In short, this is not a good franchise. It may be one of the three worst franchises to ever win a Super Bowl, yet it may still be the best franchise from the NFC South to ever pull off that feat. Here are my rankings of the worst franchises to win a Super Bowl.

5) 2001 Patriots: Sure, it’s easy to think of New England as one of the best franchises in the league. But 15 years ago? Not so much. New England had a 291-328-9 record (0.471), 37 games below .500, when the team won its first Lombardi Trophy. The franchise had been on the rebound from the ugly days of the early ’90s, but the franchise’s history was mostly bad, even when the team was good (see: Super Bowl XX).

4) 1974 Steelers: Another team that used its first Super Bowl victory as the birth of a dynasty. But Pittsburgh was 199-280-19 (0.419) at the conclusion of the 1974 regular season; at 81 games below 0.500, this was a bad franchise. In the ’50s and ’60s, the Steelers had the second most losses of any team in the NFL. That all changed once Chuck Noll came to town, and quickly turned the Steelers into the team of the ’70s.

3) 2016 Falcons, with a win: Atlanta is currently an underdog in Super Bowl LI, but this feels like the appropriate slot for the team. At 96 games below .500 and with a 0.439 winning percentage, this is a bad franchise. Under Rankin Smith, Atlanta went 129-218-5 in the team’s first 24 years of existence, with just one playoff victory. He handed the keys to the organization to his son, Taylor, in 1990; Atlanta won a playoff game in ’91 and then two more in 1998, culminating in the team’s only Super Bowl appearance prior to this year. Still, three playoff wins and an 83-109 record in 12 years wasn’t much better.

The team was sold to Arthur Blank in 2002, and the Falcons have been good under Blank in large part because the team landed Michael Vick and then Matt Ryan.  The Falcons are 129-110-1 in the Blank years, with a 5-6 playoff record. Perhaps most impressive: in 15 years, Atlanta has had a losing season just five times.

2) 2009 Saints: New Orleans was a whopping 103 games below .500 after the 2009 season, courtesy of a 275-378-5 record (0.422).  This was a bad, bad franchise: under founding owner John Mecom Jr., the team went 78-176-5 in 18 years without a single playoff appearance!  Tom Benson took over in 1985, but the Saints didn’t win their first playoff game until 2000!  Entering the ’09 playoffs, the franchise had just two playoff wins, but won three that year to capture the team’s sole Lombardi Trophy.

1) 2002 Bucs: Tampa Bay had a 0.382 winning percentage at the end of the 2002 regular season, and stood at 99 games below 0.500 with a 160-259-1 franchise mark. This team was called the “Yucks” for a reason: from Hugh Culverhouse was the team’s original owner, and the franchise famously lost its first 26 games.  Culverhouse died after 18 years, and Tampa Bay had won just a single playoff game during his time; overall the Bucs were 81-194-1, easily the worst franchise in the NFL over that period.

In 1994, the Bucs went 6-10 without a true owner; the Culverhouse estate sold the team to Malcolm Glazer, who had a pretty nice start.  His first two draft picks were Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, and the team soon turned from laughingstock to contender once Tony Dungy came on board in 1996.  Glazer controversially fired Dungy and traded two first-rounders, two second-rounders, and $8 million for Jon Gruden, but the moved proved to be an immediate (if not necessarily long-term) success: the Bucs won the Super Bowl in ’02, the first year under Gruden.

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Background reading:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V (Career Passer Ratings)

In the interest of making all data available to you, the reader, the table below shows the averages for each professional football league since 1932 in the relevant passing statistics used to calculate passer rating: [click to continue…]


In yesterday’s post, I examined the methodology behind passer rating. Here were the passer ratings for the 30 quarterbacks who threw enough passes to qualify for the crown in 2016:

1Matt Ryan*+ATL534373494438769.9%9.267.1%1.3%117.1
2Tom Brady*NWE432291355428267.4%8.236.5%0.5%112.2
3Dak Prescott*DAL459311366723467.8%7.995.0%0.9%104.9
4Aaron Rodgers*GNB610401442840765.7%7.266.6%1.1%104.2
5Drew BreesNOR6734715208371570.0%7.745.5%2.2%101.7
6Sam BradfordMIN552395387720571.6%7.023.6%0.9%99.3
7Kirk CousinsWAS6064064917251267.0%8.114.1%2.0%97.2
8Derek Carr*OAK560357393728663.8%7.035.0%1.1%96.7
9Andrew LuckIND5453464240311363.5%7.785.7%2.4%96.4
10Marcus MariotaTEN451276342626961.2%7.605.8%2.0%95.6
11Ben Roethlisberger*PIT5093283819291364.4%7.505.7%2.6%95.4
12Ryan TannehillMIA3892612995191267.1%7.704.9%3.1%93.5
13Matthew StaffordDET5943884327241065.3%7.284.0%1.7%93.3
14Russell WilsonSEA5463534219211164.7%7.733.8%2.0%92.6
15Andy DaltonCIN563364420618864.7%7.473.2%1.4%91.8
16Alex SmithKAN489328350215867.1%7.163.1%1.6%91.2
17Colin KaepernickSFO331196224116459.2%6.774.8%1.2%90.7
18Tyrod TaylorBUF436269302317661.7%6.933.9%1.4%89.7
19Philip RiversSDG5783494386332160.4%7.595.7%3.6%87.9
20Carson PalmerARI5973644233261461.0%7.094.4%2.3%87.2
21Jameis WinstonTAM5673454090281860.8%7.214.9%3.2%86.1
22Eli ManningNYG5983774027261663.0%6.734.3%2.7%86.0
23Trevor SiemianDEN4862893401181059.5%7.003.7%2.1%84.6
24Joe FlaccoBAL6724364317201564.9%6.423.0%2.2%83.5
25Carson WentzPHI6073793782161462.4%6.232.6%2.3%79.3
26Blake BortlesJAX6253683905231658.9%6.253.7%2.6%78.8
27Case KeenumLAR322196220191160.9%6.842.8%3.4%76.4
28Cam NewtonCAR5102703509191452.9%6.883.7%2.7%75.8
29Brock OsweilerHOU5103012957151659.0%5.802.9%3.1%72.2
30Ryan FitzpatrickNYJ4032282710121756.6%6.723.0%4.2%69.6

Now, as we learned yesterday, passer rating is the result of four variables: completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and interception rate. Those variables are all scaled so that the average score is 1.0 for each variable. Then, we take an average of the four variables and multiply it by 66.67, since that was intended to be the league average passer rating (or, said differently and how it is more commonly represented in formulas, we sum the four numbers, divide by six, and multiply by 100).

So let’s take a look at the scores in each of the four variables for these 30 quarterbacks to better understand their 2016 passer ratings. The far right column shows the average of those variables, which again, is equivalent to their passer rating divided by 66.67. [click to continue…]


Adjusting Passer Rating for Era: Part I

Passer rating is a dumb stat. Let’s get that out of the way. As I’ve written before, passer rating is stupid because it gives a 20-yard bonus for each completion, a 100-yard penalty for each interception, and an 80-yard bonus for each touchdown. In reality, there should be no (or a very small) weight on completions (or, better yet, a bonus for completions that go for a first down), a 45-yard weight on interceptions, and a 20-yard weight on touchdowns. But given how ubiquitous passer rating is in analysis of passing, let’s at least try to understand it more.

Let’s begin with the formula one needs to calculate passer rating in Excel:


To make this formula work, you need to put the following categories in these cells:

C2 = Attempts
D2 = Completions
E2= Passing Yards
F2 = Passing Touchdowns
G2 = Interceptions

That formula probably seems like gibberish to you, so let’s unpack it a little bit.


This part is simple enough: if a quarterback doesn’t have at least 224 pass attempts (during a 16-game season), they fail to qualify for the passer rating crown.  You can lower this number for non-16-game seasons as necessary.

Passer Rating – Four Components

Passer rating comprises four components: completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns per attempt, and interceptions per attempt.  Let’s see how the above formula addresses these concerns:

Completion Percentage


Take a look at the bolded blue text — What are we doing? Taking completions and dividing them by attempts is how we come up with completion percentage, of course.  You take that result and subtract 0.3, or 30%.  Savvy readers will pick up on the fact that if your completion percentage is 29% or 0%, you get the same credit in passer rating: there is a floor of 30%. [click to continue…]


There is a lot of talk about the large point spread in the Patriots/Texans game. New England is a 15.5-point favorite over Houston tonight, tied for the second largest spread ever in a non-Super Bowl playoff game behind only Minnesota/Arizona in 1998.  The over/under is 44.5, which means the projected final score is 30-14.5.

Let’s say the Texans pull off the upset. Are they more likely to do so in a low-scoring game, or in a shootout?  If Houston wins 14-13, they will have come in under their projected points total by 0.5, but held New England to 17 fewer points than expected.  If the Texans win 31-30, they would have exceeded their projected points total by 16.5 points, while holding New England to exactly the number of expected points.

So, which result is more likely? My intuition says a low-scoring game, but what do the numbers say? There have been 24 games since 1985 where a team won despite being an underdog of at least 14 points.  As it turns out, intuition is correct: on average, these underdogs exceeded their projected points for total by 7.8 points, but held their opponents to 13.3 fewer points than expected. [click to continue…]


The Packers won every home playoff game for over 60 years. Green Bay was 13-0 at home in playoff games until Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons won as 6.5-point underdogs at the end of the 2002 season. Since that 13-0 start, the Packers are a much less intimidating 5-4 in the postseason. Below is the points differential in every playoff game in Green Bay in NFL history:

[click to continue…]


Nobody wants to be compared to Ryan Leaf, so it tells you all you need to know about Jared Goff‘s rookie season that such a headline doubles as a legitimate question. Let’s start with the raw stats, even though we know the passing environment has changed significantly since 1998:

Passing Rushing
Rk Player Year G QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Rate Lng Int Sk Yds Y/A AY/A NY/A ANY/A Att Yds TD Y/A Lng
1 Jared Goff 2016 8 0-7-0 112 205 54.6 1089 5 63.6 66 7 26 222 5.3 4.26 3.75 2.82 8 16 1 2.0 6
2 Ryan Leaf 1998 10 3-6-0 111 245 45.3 1289 2 39.0 67 15 22 140 5.3 2.67 4.30 1.93 27 80 0 3.0 20

[click to continue…]


The Lions began the season 9-4, but have now lost the team’s last two games headed into a winner-takes-the-NFC North showdown with the Packers. Detroit’s success — and failures — have been SOS-related. Detroit’s last two losses came to the two best teams (by record) the Lions have faced all year: the 13-2 Cowboys and 10-5 Giants. And the 9-4 start came with Detroit going 8-1 against teams with a losing record and 1-3 against teams with a winning record. To date, the only wins for the Lions this year against a team with a winning record was a 20-17 home victory over 8-6-1 Washington where Detroit had the ball, down 4, at its own 25, with 1:05 remaining. The Lions have done well by beating bad teams, but if Detroit loses to Green Bay, that unlikely win over the Redskins will be the only impressive win the team has all year.

Eight teams have finished with a winning record, missed the playoffs, and also lost at least their last three games.

  • The final season of Dan Fouts’ career was an odd one. The 1987 Chargers lost their first game, but went 3-0 during the replacement games with Rick Neuheisel and Mike Kelly at quarterback. Then, with Fouts and the regular starters back, the Chargers ran their record to 8-1… before losing their final seven games of the season. San Diego went from 8-1 to eliminated from the playoffs even before the final game of the year, and ended with an 8-7 record.
  • The 1993  Dolphins began 9-2, even though Dan Marino was lost for the season after five games with a torn achilles.  But the 9th win came in the Leon Lett game, and Miami didn’t win another game the rest of the year, while the Cowboys didn’t lose another game that season.  A 5-game losing streak to end the season was particularly painful for the Dolphins, who lost a tiebreaker at 9-7 to two other AFC teams to miss the playoffs.
  • The 2008 Bucs collapsed down the stretch, which resulted in Jon Gruden  losing his job. Tampa Bay began 9-3, but lost their final four games in embarrassing fashion. The Bucs allowed three 4th quarter touchdowns to Carolina to lose 38-23, lost a heartbreaking in overtime to Atlanta, lost by 17 to the Chargers, and then blew a 10-point 4th quarter lead as 10.5-point favorites to the Raiders.
  • The 2002 Saints, 2000 Jets, 1996 Chiefs, 1971 Lions, and 1970 Cardinals all lost their final three games and missed the postseason.  New Orleans, New York, and Kansas City all started 9-4, while Detroit was 7-3-1 and St. Louis was 8-2-1.

[click to continue…]


Guest Post: Wide Receivers and the Hall of Fame

Today’s guest post comes from one of the longest followers of this blog (and its predecessor), Richie Wohlers. Richie is 44-year-old accountant from Southern California who is a Dolphins fan despite never being to Florida. As always, we thank our guest posters for contributing.

Previously, I looked at linebackers and centers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With Andre Johnson’s recent retirement announcement, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at wide receivers next. As before, I am just taking a look at post-merger players by using some objective factors to try to get a picture of what a typical HOFer looks like. Those factors are All-Pros, Pro Bowls, Weighted AV, Total AV, Super Bowl Appearances and Super Bowl wins). I am going to classify all players into a single position for simplicity. If you are interested in knowing the details of my calculation, see footnote.1

I explored the relationship between statistics (receptions, yards, touchdowns) and HOF induction for WRs, and it doesn’t improve the correlation. My “Career Score” is more aligned with HOF inductions than any single receiving statistic. The correlations are hurt by weak stats from HOFers like Swann and Hayes. And they are also hurt by big numbers from non-HOFers like Henry Ellard, Harold Jackson and Football Perspective hero Jimmy Smith. [click to continue…]

  1. Methodology: For All-Pros, Pro Bowls, Career AV and Total AV, I am looking at the average numbers for each player at his position. In an attempt to make the average HOFer at a position worth 100 points, I am assigning a weight of 16.6 for each category (16.6 times 6 categories equals 99.6 points). If an average player had 5.7 All Pros I divided 16.6 to get 2.9. So each All Pro is worth 2.9 points at that position. Super Bowls are the exception. I’m just going with a straight points system. One appearance is 8 points, 2 appearances is 14 points, 3 appearances is 18 points, and then 2 more points for each additional appearance. Super Bowl wins are worth 12, 20, 26, 30 and then 2 more per additional win. I add them up for a “Career Score”. []


Take a look at the Broncos pass defense this year, compared to the Broncos pass defense last year:

Year Tm G Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Rate Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A
2016 DEN 14 260 483 53.8 2562 10 2.1 12 2.5 5.8 5.1 10.7 183.0 67.5 40 221 4.9 4.2 7.6 72.16
Year Tm G Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Rate Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A
2015 DEN 16 344 573 60.0 3193 19 3.3 14 2.4 6.2 5.7 10.3 199.6 78.8 52 351 5.1 4.7 8.3 59.89

Three years ago, I looked at the Seattle pass defense and calculate how many standard deviations above average the Seahawks were. At the time, I compared them to an average of the other 31 defenses rather than an average of all 32 defenses, including themselves. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer there, but I’m going to use the latter methodology today, which will explain why the numbers are slightly different.

Anyway, Seattle was 2.80 standard deviations above average in ANY/A allowed in 2013. That’s because Seattle’s pass defense allowed 3.19 ANY/A, while the league average was 5.89 ANY/A. That’s a difference of 2.70 ANY/A, and the standard deviation among the 32 pass defenses that year was 0.97. Divide 2.70 by 0.97, and you see that Seattle was 2.80 standard deviations above average.

The 2016 Broncos? They are allowing just 4.25 ANY/A. That is over a full yard “worse” than Seattle, but worse needs to be put in quotes. For starters, the league average is 6.25 ANY/A this year; in addition, the rest of the league is bunched together. The standard deviation for the 32 pass defenses is 0.74 ANY/A. That means the Broncos have a Z-Score of 2.69 standard deviations better than average (here, negative is better).

That puts Denver as the 5th best pass defense, by this metric, since 1970: [click to continue…]


In 2012, the Atlanta Falcons were 11-1 through 13 weeks, just like the Cowboys are this season. And just like this year, the NFC, no other team had more than 8 wins at that point, with an NFC West squad — then, the 49ers, this season, the Seahawks — holding the second best record at 8-3-1.

Through 13 weeks, how often does a team lead its conference by at least 2.5 games?  I am defining through 13 weeks to mean:

  • In 1993, to mean through 14 weeks, since there were two weeks of byes that year.
  • From 1970 to 1989, to mean through 12 weeks, since there were zero bye weeks before 1990.
  • From 1990 to 2016 (1993, excepted), to mean through 13 weeks! That’s simple, isn’t it?

That gives us 94 seasons to analyze conference data in the post-merger era. This year, the Cowboys are at +2.5, while the Raiders and Patriots are tied at 10-2 in the AFC; that means the AFC leader is at +0. On average, the #2 team in a conference has been 1.1 games behind the #1 team in the conference through 13 weeks. Here is the breakdown: [click to continue…]


The 0-11 Browns Are Looking To Challenge History

The Browns have lost their first 11 games of the season, becoming just the sixth team since 2000 to begin the season 0-11.

  • In 2008, the Lions went 0-16.
  • In 2007, the Dolphins began the year 0-13, and ended the streak with an overtime win against Baltimore in game fourteen.

I’m short on time today, so here’s a quick look at all teams that began the season 0-10, along with how long that streak continued, and which opponent broke the streak.

TeamYearFirst WinOppRecord
Cleveland Browns2016Game ??????
Oakland Raiders2014Game 11KAN3-13
Indianapolis Colts201114TEN2-14
Detroit Lions2008n/an/a0-16
Miami Dolphins200714BAL1-15
Detroit Lions200113MIN2-14
San Diego Chargers200012KAN1-15
Indianapolis Colts199711GNB3-13
Cincinnati Bengals199311RAI3-13
Indianapolis Colts198614ATL3-13
Buffalo Bills198412DAL2-14
Houston Oilers198411KAN3-13
Houston Oilers198311DET2-14
New Orleans Saints198015NYJ1-15
Tampa Bay Buccaneers197713NOR2-12
Tampa Bay Buccaneers1976n/an/a0-14
San Diego Chargers197512KAN2-12
Buffalo Bills197111NWE1-13
Philadelphia Eagles196812DET2-12
Oakland Raiders196214BOS1-13
Washington Redskins196114DAL1-12-1
Dallas Cowboys1960n/an/a0-11-1
Chicago Cardinals195312CHI1-10-1
Chicago Rockets194711BCL1-13
Brooklyn Tigers1944n/an/a0-10
Chi/Pit Cards/Steelers1944n/an/a0-10
Chicago Cardinals1943n/an/a0-10
Detroit Lions1942n/an/a0-11
Pittsburgh Pirates193911PHI1-9-1
Oorang Indians192311LOU1-10

The Chiefs have been the streak-breaker four times, but sadly for Cleveland fans, Kansas City is not on the schedule this year.


The Minnesota Vikings are the last undefeated and untied1 team in the NFL. Entering week 5, there were three undefeated teams, but the Broncos (Atlanta) and Eagles (Detroit) both lost on Sunday.

From 1970 to 2015, there were 43 times when there was one team standing as the lone unbeaten team remaining.2 How long did those teams remain undefeated? And how did their seasons ultimately end? Take a look: [click to continue…]

  1. Note: Throughout this post, I am using “undefeated” or “unbeaten” to mean no losses and no ties. []
  2. Obviously that means there were four seasons where that wasn’t the case. In 2014, the Bengals and Cardinals were the last two unbeaten teams, and lost in week 5. In 1990, the Giants and 49ers both went 10-0, but lost in their 11th game before their head-to-head matchup. And in 1970, the Broncos, Lions, and Rams entered week 4 undefeated, but all left week 4 with a loss. []

538: Analyzing The Eagles Surprising 3-0 Start

Today at 538: a look at some key numbers surrounding the Eagles hot start.

At 3-0, the Philadelphia Eagles are quickly gaining altitude.  Our preseason Elo ratings gave the Eagles a mere 1 percent chance to win the Super Bowl and a 27 percent probability of winning the NFC East; now those numbers are up to 6 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

Tom Brady’s suspension notwithstanding, three of the league’s other four current undefeated teams had much higher preseason Super Bowl odds: Denver was at 11 percent, with New England at 7 percent and Minnesota at 4 percent. Like Philly, Baltimore was at 1 percent — but at least they were not breaking in a new coach and a new quarterback. Philadelphia’s hot start is the one very few saw coming.

You can read the full article here.


The early AFL was unstable, which probably isn’t too surprising. This was most clear in 1963, which must be one of least sticky league seasons in pro sports.  The Oakland Raiders, under new coach Al Davis, jumped from 1-13 to 10-4. The San Diego Chargers, who added quarterback Tobin Rote and had a breakout season from second-year wide receiver Lance Alworth, went from 4-10 to 11-3 and league champions.

Meanwhile, three of the eight teams in the AFL had huge declines.

  • The Houston Oilers had been the class of the early AFL, winning the title in ’60 and ’61, before falling in the championship game in ’62. But in ’63, Houston dropped from 11-3 to 6-8.
  • Houston lost in the ’62 AFL title game to Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Texans, who went 11-3 behind coach Hank Stram and quarterback Len Dawson. But  after moving to Kansas City in the off-season, the team went just 5-7-2.
  • Denver went 7-7 in 1962,  with a pass offense and a pass defense that was both about average.  But in ’63, both ranked last in the league, and the Broncos fell to 2-11-1.

The graph below shows each team’s winning percentage in 1962 (on the Y-Axis) and in 1963 (the X-Axis), along with a trend line.  In a stable lead, the teams would form a diagonal line that starts on the bottom left and goes up to the bottom right; i.e., as win percentage rises in Year N, it rises it Year N+1. Yet here, the trend line is the exact opposite.  That’s because there was a strong negative correlation (-0.49) between winning percentage in the two years. [click to continue…]

Decker after another score

Decker after another score

For his career, Eric Decker has 5,222 receiving yards and 52 receiving touchdowns.  That means he’s grabbed one touchdown catch for every 100.4 receiving yards, an incredible ratio for a non-tight end.  And while touchdons can be fluky, that doesn’t feel the way with Decker, who has been a touchdown machine for his entire career across two teams and multiple quarterbacks.

To put this into perspective, I looked at all wide receivers who entered the NFL since 1978 who have at least 2,000 receiving yards through the end of the 2015 season.  Decker has the third lowest (i.e., most touchdown-heavy) rate at a touchdown every 100.4 receiving yards1  The only two players ahead of him? Randy Moss and Dez Bryant.

In the graph below, I’ve plotted career receiving yards (’78-’15) on the X-Axis, and Receiving Yards/Receiving Touchdowns( ’78-’15) on the Y-Axis. In that case, lower = more of a touchdown machine. [click to continue…]

  1. For Decker, I included 2016, but for every other player, I have not updated their numbers, if any, with the results of this year. []

538: Post-Week 1, 2016: Close Games Define Week 1

Today at 538, a look at why Week 1 (prior to Monday Night) was extraordinarily competitive:

But this year’s Week 1 results aren’t just close by Week 1 standards. The Broncos (over the Panthers), Bengals (Jets), Raiders (Saints) and Giants (Cowboys) all won by just 1 point: That’s the first time that four games in one week have been decided by a single point in 34 years.

Since 1993, only one week has been as close on average as the 5.1-point margin tallied so far on opening weekend — Week 5 of the 2001 season. Since 1993, the standard deviation of from the previously mentioned 11.6-point average margin of victory was 2.3 points. That makes this season’s Week 1 a true outlier: At 5.1 points (pending tonight’s games), it is 2.3 standard deviations from average. The graph below shows the average margin in each week of the regular season since 1993:

You can read the full article here. Good thing this was filed before Monday night’s games! The Steelers (38-16) and Rams (28-0) won by a combined 50 points, while the first 14 games were decided by just 72 combined points.

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Running Back Production By Birth Year

Barry Sanders was born in 1968. Emmitt Smith was born in 1969. The next two years were pretty quiet — Dorsey Levens and Garrison Hearst were born in ’70 and ’71 — but business was about to pick up. Terrell Davis and Jerome Bettis were born in 1972, and Curtis Martin, Eddie George, Marshall Faulk, and Priest Holmes were all born in 1973. That’s a 6-year period that gave us some of the most important running backs in NFL history.

And it came at a really important time. Because the previous five years were not nearly as fruitful.

  • In 1967, there were no notable1 running backs born.
  • In 1966, Thurman Thomas was born, but other than him, not much else.
  • In 1965, there were no notable running backs born.
  • In 1964, Neal Anderson2 was born and that’s about it.
  • In 1963, Rueben Mayes was the most notable running back born.

[click to continue…]

  1. Okay, this sounds kind of mean, but I mean notable in the sense of having historical importance to the game of football. []
  2. Note that the notable bar is very low. []

Resting Starters Database

Adam Steele is back for another guest post. You can view all of Adam’s posts here. As always, we thank him for contributing.

In the same vein as Bryan Frye’s kneel, spike, and first down data and Tom McDermott’s adjusted SRS ratings, I want to contribute some corrections in data distortion. From a stat geek’s perspective, there’s nothing more annoying than strong teams resting their starters in the final week of the season, as it pollutes season long statistics with a game’s worth of junk data. In a 16 game season, even one meaningless outlier can have a big impact on season totals and averages. The most egregious example is the 2004 Eagles, who stormed out to a dominant 13-1 start only to mail in their final two games by a combined score of 58-17. Philly’s season totals look far better (and far more accurate) once those two meaningless games are removed from the sample. I went back to 1993 and noted every game where one team sat their starters and/or played vanilla football with no intention of trying to win. In some instances, a team was clearly going full bore in the first half, then waved the white flag after halftime. In these games, I pulled out the junk data from the second half only.

There are obviously going to be some judgment calls in deciding whether or not a team was really trying to win a given game. For example, this past season’s week 17 matchup between Seattle and Arizona could be viewed two different ways – Arizona was trying to win (at least in the first half) and Seattle just stomped them, or the Cards weren’t really trying even though their starters played the first half. I chose the latter. The one notable game I purposely left out was the week 17 Packers/Lions shootout from 2011. The game was technically meaningless for both teams, and Green Bay kept Rodgers on the bench, but otherwise all the starters played and were clearly playing to win. If the Packers didn’t care, Matt Flynn would not have thrown six TD passes. If you dispute any of the games I’ve listed, I’m happy to discuss and reconsider!

How to read the table: The first five rows are self-explanatory; “Type” designates whether the whole game should be discarded or just the second half; Points, PaTD, and RuTD indicate the points and offensive touchdowns scored during junk time (the stats I believe should be removed from the season data). Defensive numbers can be found by simply looking at the offensive numbers from the team’s opponent.


My plan is to eventually do this all the way back to 1970, then publish the “real” points scored and allowed for each team by prorating the pristine data to a full season.


Is TD/INT Ratio Now Meaningless?

A pair of Crimson Tide/Jets quarterbacks in 1976

A pair of Crimson Tide/Jets quarterbacks in 1976

You remember Jets quarterback Richard Todd, don’t you? Before there was Favre/Rodgers and Montana/Young, Jets fans envisioned a Namath/Todd passing of the torch. Eleven years after New York drafted Joe Namath, the Jets spent the 6th pick in the 1976 draft on Todd: another quarterback from Alabama. For a year, the duo overlapped: a passed-his-prime Namath threw 4 touchdowns against 16 interceptions in 8 starts, while an inexperienced Todd had 3 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 6 starts.

The duo even looked similar, shaggy hair and all, and you can forgive Jets fans for hoping that another Hall of Fame quarterback had come to them out of Tuscaloosa. Todd failed to meet those lofty expectations, of course, but he did lead the NFL in yards per pass attempt in 1979. Three years later, in the strike-shortened 1982 season, a 29-year-old Todd started every game for the Jets and posted the following stat line: [click to continue…]


Tony Galbreath, A Forgotten Record Holder

Galbreath with the Saints

Galbreath with the Saints

Throughout his playing career, Walter Payton was chasing the ghost of Jim Brown.  At the end of the 1981 season, Payton was in 5th place on the career rushing list.  By ’82, he was in 4th; after ’83, he was up to 3rd place. Then, in 1984, Payton passed both Francos Harris and Brown to move into the top spot on the career rushing yards list.

But at the same time that he was chasing a much more flesh-and-blood figure: Saints/Vikings/Giants running back Tony Galbreath. Let’s jump in a time machine back to 1982. At that time, just seven players had at least 75+ career rushing attempts and 375+ career receptions. Three were Hall of Famers Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor, and Elroy Hirsch, but all three players made the HOF in large part because of their work as wide receivers. All three players entered professional football as running backs.

Crazy Legs switched after four years (and just one with the Rams) to become a wide receiver on the high-flying Rams of the early ’50s. Taylor was a running back his first two seasons — and a Pro Bowl one at that — but switched positions midway through the 1966 season and remained at wide receiver the rest of his career. Mitchell was stuck behind Brown in Cleveland, but it wasn’t until he was traded to Washington after his fourth season that he become a receiver.

A fourth member of the 75/475 list was Bobby Joe Conrad. who played with the Cardinals in the ’60s. He also switched positions early in his career, and turned into a star receiver almost immediately. As a result, only three true running backs were on the list: Lydell Mitchell, Rickey Young, and Joe Morrison. A star with the Giants in the ’60s, Morrison retired in 1972; he was still the career leader in receptions by a running back a decade later, with 395 receptions. Mitchell, a borderline HOF running back with the Colts, got up to 376 before retiring. Through age 29, he had 355 receptions and had topped 55 catches in each of his last five years; while he would have seemed like a lock to break Morrison’s record, he caught just two more passes the rest of his career.

That leaves Young, a fullback with the Chargers and Vikings. He caught a league-high 88 passes in ’78, and was at 387 receptions as of 1982. He turned 30 in 1983, his final season in the NFL, but caught another 21 passes, breaking Morrison’s record and retiring as the running back catch king, with 408 grabs. But Morrison didn’t retire with an easy stomach: both Payton and Galbreath were hot on his tails.

As of 1983, Payton, who entered the league in 1975, had 328 receptions. But Galbreath was already at 364 receptions, despite entering the NFL a year later. In ’84, Galbreath became just the second pure running back to hit the 400-catch mark; by ’85, Payton had become the third, and Galbreath had supplanted Morrison as the running back catch king. After ’86, Payton had really narrowed the gap: he had 459 career receptions, while Galbreath was at 464. Who would win up as the all-time running back catch king? That left the 1987 season as the battle ground for the highest of stakes: both Payton and Galbreath would retire after the season.

In the season opener, the duo squared off, with all eyes watching the race with a secondary battle between the Giants and Bears taking place. Payton caught three passes, giving him 462 for his career; Galbreath had just one, upping his total to 465.

By November 8th, Payton had closed the gap entirely: both players stood with 475 career receptions. The next week, Payton had a Pyrrhic victory: his Bears lost in Denver, but he became the running back catch king with the first of his three receptions that day (Galbreath had none). [click to continue…]


Jadeveon Clowney Through Two Years

Jadeveon Clowney was one of the most highly-touted non-quarterback prospects in recent draft history. Clowney, in fact, has been a highly-touted prospect for even longer than that: he was the number one recruit in the country for the 2011 class. And, #DisruptionIsProduction aside, Clowney’s now fallen short of sky-high expectations for three years in a row: after an uneven final year in South Carolina, Clowney was limited to just four games as a rookie in 2014. Last year, Clowney started 9 games and played in 13; he recorded 4.5 sacks and had 27 tackles.

Is 2016 the year of the Clowney breakout? It may be: he was a strong run defender last year and has shown flashes of the dominance we saw in college. That said, I thought it would be interesting to compare Clowney to other number one draft picks through two years.  Clowney has played in 17 games through two years; that’s pretty low, as you expect, compared to other first overall picks. [click to continue…]


On average, passing yards is a pretty meaningless measure of quarterback play.  Consider that the winning team and the losing team in a game both generally throw for about the same number of yards. Last year, for example, winning teams averaged 258 gross passing yards per game, while losing teams averaged 259. In 2013, it was 253 for the winners, 251 for the losers. In 2012, it was 246 for the winners, 248 for the losers. Since 2000, winning teams have averaged about 5 more passing yards per game, thanks mostly to 2009 (244 for winning teams, 222 for losing) and 2014 (261/242) as big outliers.

Joe Flacco, for example, has averaged 233 passing yards per game in wins and 231 in losses. But just because the averages are close together doesn’t mean every quarterback follows this same formula. And two of the best examples of that are Nick Foles and Blake Bortles.

Foles has lost 17 games where he was the starting quarterback; in those games, his average stat line was 21/38 for 214 passing yards, 0.7 TDs and 1.1 INTs. He also has started and won 19 games; in those games, his average stat line was 19/30, for 258 passing yards, 2.1 TDs, and 0.4 INTs. That paints the picture of a guy who is much better in wins than losses, which makes a lot of sense.  (Also, 7 of his 17 losses have come during his ugly time with the Rams, compared to just 4 of 19 wins.) [click to continue…]


Smith nearly drops the chip on his shoulder

Smith nearly drops the chip on his shoulder

Measuring receiver play is really tricky, and that’s before you even get to things like supporting cast. But I want to at least put something out there to measure receiver play in the postseason, something that would be an improvement on just looking at the leaders in receiving yards. So here’s what I did. Let’s use two great playoff performances as our examples.

1) Calculate each player’s Adjusted Catch Yards in a game. In a 1974 playoff loss to Pittsburgh, Oakland wide receiver Cliff Branch had a great game. He caught 9 passes for 186 yards and 1 touchdown; giving him 5 yards for every reception and 20 yards for every touchdown, that translates to 251 Adjusted Catch Yards.

In 2012, Calvin Johnson dominated the Saints defenses in the lone playoff game of his career; Johnson finished with a 12/211/2 stat line, worth 311 ACY, tied (with Reggie Wayne against Denver) for the third most ACY in a playoff game since 1960.

2) But we need to account for era, and we should also account for the quality of the opposition. So I looked at every team since 1960, and calculated the ACY allowed to all opposing players in every regular season game. Then, I took the top 16 (or fewer, in non-16 game seasons) performances during the regular season to calculate the average ACY allowed by each defense to the top opposing receiver.

This is a very, very high baseline, of course, but I am trying to measure dominance. If a team allows 80 yards, on average, to the opposing WR1, then an 80-yard playoff performance shouldn’t stand out as special.

The 2011 Saints allowed an average of 155 ACY to the top 16 players it faced that year. As a result, Johnson gets credit for 156 ACY over expectation. The 1974 Steelers? Well, they allowed just 94 ACY to the top 14 players it faced during the regular season. That gives Branch 157 ACY over expectation.

So Branch slightly beats Megatron using this formula, as gaining 251 ACY against a defense that usually allows 94 is seen as a hair better than gaining 311 against a defense that usually allows 156. Is this formula perfect? Of course not, but it’s a start. Branch’s game checks in as the 8th best since 1960, while Johnson’s is 10th. The top game? That honor belongs to Steve Smith, naturally. [click to continue…]


Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s also a semi-regular writer here, and you can view all of Brad’s Football Perspective writing at this page. Brad is working on a WR Project where he analyzes the best WRs over various ten year periods. That work is being produced over at Sports-Central, but Brad has offered to have it reproduced here as well. As always, we at the FP community thank him for his work.

Previous Best WRs By Decade Articles:

Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I combined those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. [click to continue…]


Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s also a semi-regular writer here, and you can view all of Brad’s Football Perspective writing at this page. Brad is working on a WR Project where he analyzes the best WRs over various ten year periods. That work is being produced over at Sports-Central, but Brad has offered to have it reproduced here as well. As always, we at the FP community thank him for his work.

Previous Best WRs By Decade Articles:

Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I’m combining those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. Because careers don’t always fit cleanly into a single decade, I’ve gone in five-year increments. Last week, we covered 1990-99 and 1995-2004. This is the seventh installment, examining 2000-09 and 2005-2014. The great receivers of the early ’00s, such as Marvin Harrison and Isaac Bruce, were in last week’s column. [click to continue…]


The 1978 Patriots, Part II

The 2001 Rams had Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt.

The ’92 and ’93 49ers have prime Steve Young and prime Jerry Rice, along with the first two years of Ricky Watters’ great career.

The ’88 Bengals had MVP Boomer Esiason, Pro Bowler Eddie Brown, HOFer Anthony Munoz and Pro Bowler Max Montoya on the offensive line, and a running back tandem of James Brooks and Ickey Woods. Two years earlier, the ’86 Bengals had those players save Woods, but also had Cris Collinsworth in the prime of his career.

The ’51 Rams had Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield — two HOFers — at quarterback, along with Elroy Hirsch, Dan Towler, Dick Hoerner, and Tom Fears.

Those are 6 of the 7 teams since 1950 to lead the NFL in both average yards per rush and average yards per pass. Can you guess the 7th team? You have three guesses, but the first two don’t count. [click to continue…]


The 1978 Patriots, Part I

Here’s what I wrote in my first post at Football Perspective:

I’ll be blogging about everything football-related, from Jerry Rice to Bobby Douglass, and from the 1978 Patriots to who is the greatest quarterback of all time.

The New England Patriots rushed for 3,165 yards, an NFL record that still stands. Take a look at the individual players on that team:

Games Rushing
No. Age Pos G GS Att Yds ▾ TD Lng Y/A Y/G A/G Fmb
39 Sam Cunningham* 28 FB 16 14 199 768 8 52 3.9 48.0 12.4 4
23 Horace Ivory 24 rb 15 3 141 693 11 28 4.9 46.2 9.4 5
32 Andy Johnson 26 RB 15 13 147 675 3 52 4.6 45.0 9.8 4
14 Steve Grogan 25 QB 16 16 81 539 5 31 6.7 33.7 5.1 9
44 Don Calhoun 26 rb 14 2 76 391 1 73 5.1 27.9 5.4 1
37 James McAlister 27 16 0 19 77 2 16 4.1 4.8 1.2 3
86 Stanley Morgan 23 PR/WR 16 16 2 11 0 6 5.5 0.7 0.1 6
29 Harold Jackson 32 WR 16 13 1 7 0 7 7.0 0.4 0.1 0
30 Mosi Tatupu 23 16 0 3 6 0 3 2.0 0.4 0.2 0
4 Jerrel Wilson 37 P 14 0 1 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 0.1 1
83 Don Westbrook 25 16 0 1 -2 0 -2 -2.0 -0.1 0.1 0
Team Total 26.2 16 671 3165 30 73 4.7 197.8 41.9 35

[click to continue…]


Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s also a semi-regular writer here, and you can view all of Brad’s Football Perspective writing at this page. Brad is working on a WR Project where he analyzes the best WRs over various ten year periods. That work is being produced over at Sports-Central, but Brad has offered to have it reproduced here as well. As always, we at the FP community thank him for his work.

Previous Best WRs By Decade Articles:

Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I’m combining those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. Because careers don’t always fit cleanly into a single decade, I’ve gone in five-year increments. Last week, we covered 1980-89 and 1985-94. This is the sixth installment, examining 1990-99 and 1995-2004. The great receivers of the early ’90s, such as Jerry Rice and Andre Reed, were in last week’s column.

Let’s begin with some specific categories and honors, then we’ll go in depth on the finest wide receivers of each decade.


Fastest Receiver: Raghib Ismail

Best Deep Threat: Henry Ellard

Best Hands: Cris Carter

Best Possession Receiver: Jerry Rice

Toughest Receiver: Jerry Rice

Underrated in 2016: Herman Moore

Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Jerry Rice

Best Single Season: Jerry Rice, 1995

Best Overall WR: Jerry Rice

Raghib Ismail and his brother Qadry Ismail retired with nearly identical receiving statistics. Rocket Ismail had 363 receptions, for 5,295 yards and 28 TDs. Missile (Qadry) had 353 receptions, for 5,137 yards and 33 TDs. They each had two 1,000-yard seasons. Raghib was a more productive rusher, and Qadry a more productive returner. Raghib, projected to be the first pick in the 1991 NFL Draft, instead signed a record contract with the Toronto Argonauts, becoming a CFL All-Star before his NFL career began in 1993.

Henry Ellard, whom I named the greatest deep threat of 1985-94, remained so in the ’90s: his 17.13 average was the highest by more than a yard. Ellard had five 1,000-yard seasons in the ’90s, tied for fifth-most, behind only Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, and Michael Irvin. Alvin Harper was a great deep threat across from Irvin, but never a true no. 1 receiver. Ellard had as many catches in three seasons as Harper had in his career. Irvin himself was an underrated deep receiver: he had the most 20+ yard receptions of the ’90s, and his 15.7 receiving average was highest among the 15 players with at least 500 receptions in the decade. Of note: all three of these receivers played for Norv Turner, and all created more first downs than you would expect from their reception and yardage totals.

Herman Moore was a four-time Pro Bowler and made three all-pro teams as a starter (more than Cris Carter and Tim Brown combined). Moore’s 1995 ranks among the most impressive statistical seasons of all time: 123 rec, 1686 yds, 14 TD. Looking at the 1990s as a whole, Moore had more receptions than Andre Reed, more yardage than Henry Ellard, and more touchdowns than Michael Irvin. Yes, really: Moore scored more TDs in the ’90s (59) than Michael Irvin (58). Moore had over 900 receiving yards every year from 1992-98, including three seasons of 100 receptions, but his production was largely limited to those seven seasons.

Tim Brown
Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, 1988-2003; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2004
1,094 receptions, 14,934 yards, 100 TD

Although he was a first-round draft pick, Tim Brown’s receiving career began slowly. However, he was always a dazzling punt returner (3,320 yds, 10.2 avg, 3 TDs). Brown made two Pro Bowls as a returner, in 1988 and ’91, and in 2001 became the oldest NFL player (35) to return a punt for a TD. He also holds the rookie record for all-purpose yards (2,317), a record he took from Gale Sayers and has now owned for more than two decades.

Of course, Brown is most remembered as a receiver who was among the best at his position for a decade. He had nine consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons and ranks 5th all-time in receptions. He’s 6th all-time in receiving yards and 8th in receiving TDs. At the time of his retirement, only Jerry Rice had more yards.

I suggested last week that Andre Reed was more consistent than exceptional. The same criticism might be levelled at Brown, but less convincingly. Brown tied for the NFL lead in receptions once, never led in yards or TDs. In his 17-year career, he made the Associated Press all-pro team just once, as a second-team selection in 1997.

However, Brown, who began his career in 1988, had nine 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Reed, who began his career in 1985, had four. Brown had 1,300 yards four times.1 Brown had more receptions (+143), yards (+1,736), and touchdowns (+13) than Reed. He was an exceptional punt returner; Reed didn’t return kicks. Brown made nine Pro Bowls, to Reed’s seven, even though the AFC was stronger during Brown’s prime than Reed’s. They were both great players, but Brown was better.

Cris Carter
Philadelphia Eagles, 1987-89; Minnesota Vikings, 1990-2001; Miami Dolphins, 2002
1,101 receptions, 13,899 yards, 130 TD

His given name was Graduel Christopher Darin Carter. Carter grew up in southwest Ohio — Bengals country — and spelled his name “Cris” because of Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth.

Fourth all-time in both receptions and receiving TDs, Carter joined Jerry Rice as the starting wide receivers on the 1990s NFL All-Decade team. He was selected to eight Pro Bowls and was twice named first-team all-pro. In 1994, he set the single-season record for receptions (122), and in three other seasons he led the NFL in receiving TDs. Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, and Carter are the only players in history with five straight years of double-digit receiving touchdowns.

I was surprised when Carter didn’t get elected to Canton in his first several years of eligibility. I suspect the voters were reluctant to enshrine him partly for the same reason Art Monk had to wait so long. Monk was repeatedly dismissed as a guy who caught 900 eight-yard hooks, and who wasn’t the most dangerous receiver on his own team. Carter averaged just 12.6 yards per reception, one of the lowest marks in history for an elite wide receiver. Defenses fear the deep threat, the guy who can burn you on any given play. For Washington in the ’80s and early ’90s, that was Gary Clark, not Monk. For Minnesota, it was Randy Moss, not Carter.

Carter last led the Vikings in receiving yards in 1995. Thereafter, he was outgained every year by either Jake Reed or Moss. And yet, half his production came after ’95: five of his eight 1,000-yard seasons, four of his six double-digit TD years, overall about 50% of his statistical value. Essentially, Carter battled the notion that he usually wasn’t the best receiver on his own team, that he was a system player who caught a bunch of short passes and seldom had to deal with double-teams. He was reliable more than explosive, and he was tough like Monk, not graceful like Lance Alworth or Lynn Swann. Carter just doesn’t have the highlight reel those guys do, and he never won a championship.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Carter’s highlight reel is empty. Anyone who watched football in the ’90s remembers, “Cris Carter. All he does is catch touchdowns.” Although made famous by Chris Berman, the phrase originated with Carter’s coach with the Eagles, Buddy Ryan, and was not entirely a compliment. Carter’s most famous highlight came in college. Playing in the Citrus Bowl for Ohio State, Carter caught a ball that his quarterback had tried to throw away.

Carter is one of the most improbable winners ever of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Carter was cut by the Eagles because of drug, alcohol, and personal issues. He antagonized teammates in Minnesota; when Carter was elected to the Hall of Fame, former teammate (1993-96) Qadry Ismail told Sirius XM, “Cris was a bona fide diva … extreme selfishness.” In The Best Minnesota Sports Arguments, Carter has his own chapter entitled, “What Was the Most Selfish Act Committed by a Minnesota Athlete?” The story involves Vikings running back Bill Brown and his dying wife, and paints a very ugly picture of Carter — when he was sober, and old enough to know better. At the 2014 NFL rookie symposium, Carter advised young players that if they got into trouble, “You’ve got to have a fall guy in the crew,” to take the blame. Cris Carter was a great receiver, but he doesn’t seem like a good person.

Irving Fryar
New England Patriots, 1984-92; Miami Dolphins, 1993-95; Phildaelphia Eagles, 1996-98; Washington, 1999-2000
851 receptions, 12,785 yards, 84 TD

Irving Fryar was a late bloomer. The first overall pick in the 1984 draft, Fryar quickly made his mark on special teams — he was a Pro Bowl returner, with 3 punt return TDs in his first three seasons — but didn’t emerge as a major receiving threat until he left New England to play for the Dolphins and Eagles. His first 1,000-yard season came in 1991, when Fryar was 29 and playing his eighth year in the NFL. He was 31 when he made his first Pro Bowl as a receiver, a 10-year veteran. His career-high 1,316 receiving yards came at age 35.2

Fryar made five Pro Bowls (one as a returner) and was second-team all-pro twice (once as a returner). He had five 1,000-yard seasons, and his accomplishments as a returner are significant. It’s natural, I think, to compare him to Henry Ellard. They were drafted just one year apart, both were great punt returners early in their careers, both had most of their best seasons in the ’90s, both had career numbers that looked exceptional when they retired, and far less impressive since the explosion of receiving stats in the expansion era.

Choosing between the two, I’d go with Ellard. He had more good seasons, more of his production came before league-wide receiving numbers went through the roof, and he had a stronger peak. Ellard had four seasons among the top four in receiving yards, Fryar none. Ellard played against tough NFC competition, in an era when the AFC was a substantially weaker conference. They were both great players, but Ellard was more exceptional.

Since I spent a paragraph explaining why I’m not wild about Cris Carter, for the sake of equal treatment I should point out that Irving Fryar has an even uglier past. He missed the 1985 AFC Championship Game due to an injured hand. But he didn’t hurt the hand playing football, he hurt it in a domestic dispute with his pregnant wife (Fryar needed six stitches). He had drug issues, violence against women and animals, allegations that he attempted to throw a game in college. He was arrested on weapons charges. Rick Reilly called Fryar “the All Pro screw-up, the Human Incident, the Original Sinner.” Fryar is currently in jail for fraud.

Michael Irvin
Dallas Cowboys, 1988-99
750 receptions, 11,904 yards, 65 TD

I named Jerry Rice’s 1995 season the greatest by a wide receiver in the 1990s. That’s tough to argue with. Rice caught 122 passes, for 1,848 yards and 15 TDs. Those are excellent totals, in every category, and his single-season yardage record lasted almost 20 years. But there’s a compelling argument to be made that in 1991, Michael Irvin was even better. Irvin caught 93 passes, for 1,523 yards and 8 TDs. Those are great stats, but they’re dwarfed by Rice’s. What’s the argument for Irvin?

First, consider that Irvin’s 93 receptions produced 79 first downs, compared to 75 first downs for Rice. That 122-93 reception gap is a lot less significant when you consider what their catches did for the team. We also need to consider the environment of the league. Passing statistics exploded in the mid-1990s, and 1995 was an expansion year, diluting the talent pool and allowing the best players to excel even more than usual. In 1995, Rice had 67 yards more than 2nd-place Herman Moore. In 1991, Irvin had 187 yards more than 2nd-place Gary Clark. Irvin had the most receiving first downs in the NFL, by 17. Four receivers had more first downs in 1995 than Rice. While Rice’s raw numbers are much better, Irvin actually stood out more from the league. And it wasn’t a one-year blip. Irvin had more yards and more first downs in 1991 than any receiver the two years before and after.

1991 was the only season in which Irvin led the NFL in a major statistic. In 1995, he had more catches (111) for more yards (1603) and more TDs (10), but in context, ’91 was a better season. Irvin retired with seven 1,000-yard seasons, plus 962 in an injury-shortened (11 games) 1996. In four of those years, Irvin gained over 1,300 yards. He was big for that era, and strong and fast.

He was also a great postseason performer. In 16 postseason games, Irvin caught 87 passes for 1,315 yards and 8 TDs. He had six 100-yard games, plus four more with over 80 yards. That includes 114 yards and 2 TDs in Super Bowl XXVII, one of three Super Bowl victories in Irvin’s career.

Andre Rison
Indianapolis Colts, 1989; Atlanta Falcons, 1990-94; Cleveland Browns, 1995; Jacksonville Jaguars, 1996; Green Bay Packers, 1996; Kansas City Chiefs, 1997-99; Oakland Raiders, 2000
743 receptions, 10,205 yards, 84 TD

Andre Rison played for seven NFL teams. A guy’s career looks fragmented when he moves around so often, hard to view as a whole. Irving Fryar and Rison did a lot of the same things as Andre Reed, but the constant team-switching makes it hard, psychologically, to view them that way. During his NFL career, Rison caught touchdown passes from Jack Trudeau (4), Chris Miller (25), Scott Campbell (2), Billy Joe Tolliver (6), Wade Wilson (3), Bobby Hebert (11), Jeff George (9), Vinny Testaverde (1), Eric Zeier (2), Mark Brunell (2), Brett Favre (1), Elvis Grbac (7), and Rich Gannon (11).3

Part of the reason Rison moved around so much is that he was viewed as a bit of a headcase. He was a showboat in Atlanta, but you can get away with that when you’re performing at a high level. Rison signed a big free agent contract with the Browns, then publicly cursed at the Cleveland fans. He played for five teams in four years, his girlfriend alleged that he was abusive4, he went to the Raiders — of course he went to the Raiders — and Rison even played for the Toronto Argonauts after his NFL career ended (winning a Grey Cup in 2004).

What if Rison had stayed with Atlanta, or gone to a stable team rather than one on the eve of a move to Baltimore? He was a Pro Bowler for the Chiefs in 1997, and a valuable player for the Packers in the 1996 postseason, including a 54-yard TD reception to begin Super Bowl XXXI, so it’s not like his talent dried up after he left Atlanta, or that he couldn’t succeed without the run and shoot. But that was the widespread impression at the time; Rison’s success with Green Bay was a real surprise coming from someone most fans thought was finished as an impact player.

A first-team all-pro in 1990 and a five-time Pro Bowler, Rison had five 1,000-yard seasons and in 1993 tied Jerry Rice for the most receiving TDs in the NFL (15). In his final NFL season, Rison became just the seventh player in history with 700 receptions, 10,000 yards, and 80 touchdowns. NFL players with four consecutive seasons of double-digit receiving TDs: Tommy McDonald, Bob Hayes, Jerry Rice, Rison, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, and Marvin Harrison.


Fastest Receiver: Randy Moss

Best Deep Threat: Randy Moss

Best Hands: Marvin Harrison

Best Possession Receiver: Marvin Harrison

Toughest Receiver: Keyshawn Johnson

Underrated in 2016: Jimmy Smith

Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Rod Smith

Best Single Season: Jerry Rice, 1995

Best Overall WR: Marvin Harrison

Randy Moss was as fast as anyone. If there’s anyone else from this era who compares, it would surely be Tim Dwight. I explained last week that given a close call between two players for a designation like “Fastest Receiver”, I prefer to highlight the lesser-known. Within that, however, I still want to recognize legitimate football players, not just fast guys who put on pads and a helmet. Tim Dwight was a real football player, but he was a returner more than a receiver. Dwight had 203 kickoff returns, 185 punt returns, and 194 career receptions.

The 8th pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, Joey Galloway was a downfield receiver, a burner. He scored 5 punt return TDs and rushed for 496 yards, one of the highest totals ever by a receiver. He had six 1,000-yard receiving seasons and three years of double-digit TDs, retiring with 83 total TDs and nearly 11,000 receiving yards. He never made a Pro Bowl, but he was a good player with a 16-year career.

Galloway is statistically comparable to Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, Muhsin Muhammad, and Rod Smith (see below). McCardell quietly caught almost 900 passes and gained over 11,000 yards. A two-time Pro Bowler, he had five 1,000-yard seasons and five years among the NFL’s top 10 in receptions. A 12th-round draft pick in 1991, McCardell didn’t get a chance to play regularly until he joined the Jaguars in 1996. If McCardell hadn’t lost five years of his prime sitting on the bench, would he be a Hall of Famer? Maybe.

One of the more underappreciated receivers in recent history, Muhsin Muhammad gained at least 500 receiving yards in 12 seasons, caught 90 or more passes three times, and led the NFL at various times in every major receiving category: receptions (2000), receiving yards (2004), and receiving touchdowns (2004). He made two Pro Bowls and was first-team all-pro in ’04.

Isaac Bruce
Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, 1994-2007; San Francisco 49ers, 2008-09
1,024 receptions, 15,208 yards, 91 TD

Isaac Bruce ranks 4th all-time in receiving yards. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,781 in 1995, still the 5th-highest total in history. Bruce was hard-working, humble, and well-liked. He was a good route-runner, and he was fast enough to worry defenders, but he had the hands of a great possession receiver. Bruce spent much of his career on bad teams, but made big plays when he got the chance, including the 73-yard game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Bruce was named to four Pro Bowls and went over 1,000 yards four other times, including 1,292 in 2004 and 1,781 in 1995. His résumé bears a similarity to Charlie Joiner’s — guys with long careers and sensational counting stats, but who weren’t usually regarded as being among the very best while they were active. Both also have to fight the perception that their numbers are partly or largely a product of the absurd offenses they played in, where any receiver could become a star.

Bruce’s case is a little stronger than Joiner’s. He ranked in the top five in receiving yards four times (and led the league in 1996), compared to only twice for Joiner, who never led the NFL in a major statistic. Two of Bruce’s three best seasons came when the Rams were coached by Rich Brooks, while Joiner’s best years were under Don Coryell. Bruce had four 100-yard games in the postseason, and he was a Super Bowl star. Joiner deserves his place in Canton, and Bruce deserves to join him.

Marvin Harrison
Indianapolis Colts, 1996-2008
1,102 receptions, 14,580 yards, 128 TD

In eight consecutive seasons, Marvin Harrison finished with more than 80 receptions, 1,100 yards, and double-digit touchdowns. He is the only player in history with four consecutive 1,400-yard seasons, and one of only five (Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson) to go over 1,400 in any four seasons. Harrison still holds the single-season record for receptions (143). He led the NFL twice in receptions, twice in receiving yards, and once in receiving TDs. He was first-team all-pro three times and qualified for eight Pro Bowls.

Harrison was not the biggest, fastest, or strongest receiver in the game; he didn’t intimidate opponents the way Terrell Owens and Moss did. But Harrison was one of the smartest receivers ever to play, and like Rice, he worked very hard to be the best; the extra practice hours he put in working with Peyton Manning are legendary. Harrison was an exceptional route-runner, and he was the best I ever saw at the toe-tap on the sideline. Give him an inch and he’d make the catch.

Harrison, Rice, and Andre Johnson are the only players with three 1,500-yard receiving seasons. Harrison has the most receptions, receiving yards, and TDs of any player to spend his whole career with one team.

Keyshawn Johnson
New York Jets, 1996-99; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2000-03; Dallas Cowboys, 2004-05; Carolina Panthers, 2006
804 receptions, 10,571 yards, 64 TD

The top pick in the 1996 draft, Keyshawn Johnson was known as much for his attitude as his play. He caught 70 or more passes nine times, and wrote a book (with Shelley Smith) titled Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, setting the tone for a parade of diva receivers ever since. He had at least 600 receiving yards every year of his career, and he was dismissed from the Buccaneers in mid-season 2003 because the defending champs didn’t want to deal with him any more. His name is Joseph Ladarious Keyshawn Johnson, and he was nicknamed Me-Shawn.

Some people won’t like that I named Johnson the toughest receiver of the decade. Keyshawn was a self-centered loudmouth, arguably the first of the modern diva receivers. But he was also a gritty possession receiver who would go over the middle, and he was the best blocking WR of his generation. If he had been 10 or 15 pounds bigger, Johnson would have been a Shannon Sharpe-style tight end. He made three Pro Bowls, caught 100 passes one year, and retired with more than 800 receptions, for over 10,000 yards.

The famous 1996 receiver class includes Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Keyshawn Johnson, Muhsin Muhammad, Eric Moulds, Joe Horn, Amani Toomer, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, and Bobby Engram. All 10 had over 500 receptions, over 7,500 receiving yards, and at least 35 touchdowns. Seven of the 10 made at least one Pro Bowl, and they combined for 27. Taken as a group, they averaged 768 catches, 10,568 yards, and 69 TDs — about the same numbers as Keyshawn. I’d be surprised if there’s ever another class of rookie receivers so deep and successful.

Jimmy Smith
Dallas Cowboys, 1992-93; Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995-2005
862 receptions, 12,287 yards, 67 TD

You probably don’t remember Jimmy Smith on the Super Bowl-winning Cowboys in 1992. He played seven games and never caught a pass. He didn’t play at all the next two years. Smith didn’t become a full-time starter until 1996, when he was 27, an age when many players begin to decline.

Smith made the most of the years he did play, with nine 1,000-yard receiving seasons and five Pro Bowl appearances. Smith was only the third player with multiple seasons catching 110 or more passes, the first two being Jerry Rice and Cris Carter from 1994-95. He is one of only five receivers with nine or more 1,000-yard seasons (Tim Brown, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Rice), and one of six with six straight 1,100-yard seasons (Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Moss, Rice, Roddy White). In 1999, Smith led the NFL in receptions (116) and first downs (86), then the highest totals in history outside the whacked ’94-’95 seasons, and his team went 14-2.

Smith was occasionally dogged by drug issues, and his four-game suspension in 2003 probably kept him from becoming the only person besides Rice with 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons. Smith left the game when he was still a good player; his final season yielded 70 catches, 1023 yards, and 6 TDs. Smith in 2004 gained the third-most receiving yards ever by a 35-year-old (1,172), and he and Rice are the only players ever to gain over 1,000 yards in a full season after turning 36.

So in Smith you have one of the best old receivers ever, a guy who had a lot of good seasons, including five years over 1,200 yards and two seasons catching more than 110 passes.5 His detractors would point out that while Smith did have exceptional years, and played well in several others, he had so few seasons on the field that his overall statistics don’t measure up to the best players of his generation. Some detractors would also mention the drug thing, but unlike some of the other players profiled here, Jimmy Smith really wasn’t a bad guy. He was an addict, but he wasn’t a jerk.

Most 1,000-yard receiving seasons in NFL history:

1. Jerry  Rice, 14
2. Randy  Moss, 10
t3. Tim  Brown, 9
t3. Terrell  Owens, 9
t3. Jimmy  Smith, 9

Rod Smith
Denver Broncos, 1995-2006
849 receptions, 11,389 yards, 68 TD

Keenan McCardell, Muhsin Muhammad, and Rod Smith have virtually identical career stats:

             Rec    Yards     1stD   TD
Muhammad     860    11,438    566    62
Smith        849    11,389    570    68
McCardell    883    11,373    568    63

It’s remarkable for three contemporary players to post such similar stats over long, productive careers. Overall numbers notwithstanding, Smith was by far the best of the three. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons, as many as McCardell (5) and Muhammad (3) combined. Smith played on two Super Bowl champions, with 152 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIII. He caught 100 passes twice, caught 70 passes nine times, double-digit TDs twice, 1,200 yards three times, as many as 1,600 one year.

Smith didn’t have a long career. Undrafted out of Division II Missouri Southern, he didn’t play in the NFL until he was 25, and didn’t become a starter until he was 27. It’s a shame careers can turn so heavily on high school performance. If Smith had been offered a scholarship to a Big 10 or SEC school, gotten drafted in the third round, and become a starter when he was 23 or 24, maybe he’d have another 200 receptions, 3,000 yards, 20 TDs.

We could also throw Keyshawn Johnson into the McCardell-Muhammad-Smith group. His stats are basically the same: 800-900 receptions, about 11,000 yards, 60-70 TDs. Shannon Sharpe’s statistics are similar to Keyshawn’s, if you exclude first downs.

              Rec    Yards     1stD   TD
Muhammad      860    11,438    566    62
Smith         849    11,389    570    68
McCardell     883    11,373    568    63
Johnson       804    10,571    552    64
Sharpe        815    10,060    490    62

Other players with comparable stats include Gary Clark, Donald Driver, Joey Galloway, Michael Irvin, Chad Johnson, Santana Moss, and Brandon Marshall (through 2015), although all except Marshall had fewer receptions.

  1. Editor’s note: In addition, Brown has 31 points of Gray Ink in receiving yards, compared to just 17 for Reed. That’s a pretty big difference. []
  2. Editor’s note: When I looked at the 100 players with the most career receiving yards through 2014, Fryar was the only one to have his single-season high in that category come at age 35 or older. []
  3. Editor’s note: Miller was responsible for 23% of Rison’s career yards, followed by Gannon (14%), Hebert (11%), Grbac (10%), and George (9%). []
  4. Editor’s note: Can you imagine if Rison’s relationship with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez existed during today’s social media world?? []
  5. Editor’s note: I wrote a very pro-Smith profile here. []

In the modern era, there are 32 teams playing 16 games each, so 512 total team games. In 1970, there were 364 team games. Consider that in 2015, the 512th-best receiving game produced 72 receiving yards; in 1970, the 364th-best receiving game produced 55 receiving yards.

One thing I like to do is to give receivers credit for yards above a certain baseline: this removes “junk” seasons or, in this case, games. Of course, the devil is in the details: i.e., how you define junk. And if you want to adjust for era, you need some baseline to measure against. One way to do it is to use the number of team games, as I explained above. For example, let’s look at Justin Blackmon’s 2012 season. [click to continue…]

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