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Examining Paul Warfield’s career

Warfield played for Woody Hayes, Paul Brown, Don Shula, and John McVay

Warfield played for Woody Hayes, Don Shula, and John McVay.

Paul Warfield has been confounding stat heads for years. Warfield was a rare first-ballot Hall of Fame wide receiver and one of the most athletic and talented wide receivers in history. However, his statistics look downright unimpressive to the modern eye. That’s not too surprising, though, since he played the prime of his career in football’s deadball era for one of its best teams.

I was pretty happy when I noticed that Warfield ranked 16th in my wide receiver ranking project last month; that’s much higher than most (all?) stats-based ranking systems place him, although some would argue that it would still underrate him.

One way to understand Warfield’s statistics is to see just how infrequently his teams passed. The table below shows some of the top wide receivers in football history to enter the league since 1960, including some Warfield contemporaries like Gary Garrison, Fred Biletnikoff, Harold Carmichael, and Gene A. Washington. While career numbers are interesting, you can often learn more by just looking at a player’s best seasons.

The table below shows the top 7 seasons for each wide receiver (based on the formula from this post) and how many pass attempts per game his team attempted during those seasons:

Paul Warfield22449324.12735692623.7
Otis Taylor25639427.33406065463.39
Buddy Dial21097627.82344830383.2
Gene A. Washington26999727.82835347542.91
Fred Biletnikoff26179427.83404890432.85
Harold Jackson2802100283426254513.21
Cliff Branch26389029.33185751553.2
Bob Hayes26919129.63216617673.55
John Gilliam29069829.73046083442.92
John Stallworth309710330.14006636523.12
Charley Taylor28239230.74175797563.19
Harold Carmichael312110130.93646108542.89
Stanley Morgan29699630.93436632423.09
Gary Garrison27168731.22855623492.96
Hines Ward340710831.56167373543.39
Steve Smith336810631.85838638543.75
Lance Alworth26288232.13947973734.34
Steve Largent346210732.44867849663.35
Michael Irvin347610732.55889235493.78
Andre Reed357911032.55197531533.13
Derrick Mason360310933.15667490443.11
James Lofton349210533.34127848413.07
Rod Smith367811033.46078441533.41
Henry Ellard349510433.64678102413.22
Art Monk361810733.85307541403.04
Gary Clark358910633.94907850513.15
Herman Moore359010633.95998332573.47
Cris Collinsworth32169434.24046471352.86
Brandon Marshall372010734.86127755453.15
Tim Brown390111234.86198876573.36
Don Maynard31369034.84027718543.45
Jimmy Smith3887111356428999483.39
Terrell Owens366310435.26139000933.8
Chad Johnson396811235.46039083573.34
Roddy White397611235.55938279493.07
Andre Johnson363310235.66569098483.67
Andre Rison393911035.85477545672.95
Randy Moss404711236.162498991033.73
Marvin Harrison397711036.274010106863.9
Joe Horn370110236.35237622503.04
Jerry Rice396210836.7665104831104.04
Reggie Wayne420011237.56679059573.22
Sterling Sharpe421311237.65958134652.95
Isaac Bruce36539737.75448319533.31
Cris Carter421811237.77018445783.2
Wes Chandler390310337.94297136462.61
Anquan Boldin385010138.15947734503.04
Wes Welker416610938.27398146383.03
Torry Holt432211039.36629774613.31
Larry Fitzgerald425510839.46358835653.13
Calvin Johnson38019241.34887836542.99

As you can see, it’s silly to compare someone like Warfield to Torry Holt or Wes Welker or Calvin Johnson. In fact, it’s hard to compare him to anyone. Even Otis Taylor — another Hall of Fame (caliber) receiver from the same era who played on good teams — saw three more pass attempts per game. John Stallworth played for great Steelers teams that rarely passed, but even they don’t come close to approximating the situation Warfield was in. If we grade the players by their number of Adjusted Catch Yards (20*RecTDs + 5*Rec + RecYds) per Attempt, Warfield all the sudden looks pretty good. He’s only behind Lance Alworth — who played in the AFL — Jerry Rice, and a bunch of receivers from the ’90s or later.

Here’s another way to look at things. During Warfield’s seven best seasons, he played in 103 career games (including the postseason). The next table divides all games into five-pass buckets. Warfield played five games where his team threw between 6 and 10 passes, 8 games with 11 to 15 passes, and a whopping 31 additional games of 20 or fewer passes. I also calculated a weight-averaged of the number of attempts the player saw in these games (using the median number in each bucket) to provide a way to sort the list.

Paul Warfield225831252210200000103
Otis Taylor25191432201472000099
Buddy Dial2502141822820000066
Gene A. Washington27251424261463300097
Fred Biletnikoff261420242214104000099
Harold Jackson2617153024131011000102
Cliff Branch28171617201879300098
Bob Hayes27051428241863100099
John Gilliam2801112631141250000100
John Stallworth2813102536171270000111
Charley Taylor290418171818115500096
Harold Carmichael2915102225211660100107
Stanley Morgan29148182418134030093
Gary Garrison29022203010133110082
Hines Ward2903133222249114010119
Steve Smith3012131929271363001114
Lance Alworth31005211619191120084
Steve Largent301492329181594100113
Michael Irvin310072927281882300122
Andre Reed3104821282414105410119
Derrick Mason3110825232618104100116
James Lofton311351718352041200106
Rod Smith310071636322153110122
Henry Ellard310162129241386100109
Art Monk320082721261768211117
Gary Clark330052130222057312116
Herman Moore3202717312112109100110
Cris Collinsworth32016132129148121096
Brandon Marshall330141219221610700091
Tim Brown320171628361485300118
Don Maynard330171417171211530188
Jimmy Smith320351422372286100118
Terrell Owens340038342125141301110
Chad Johnson3400114202929133200111
Roddy White330251619231015611199
Andre Johnson33024101621198230186
Andre Rison34013142029181410100110
Randy Moss34001133727151311410122
Marvin Harrison3500372535241310400121
Joe Horn340001424262547210103
Jerry Rice3400413262424207111121
Reggie Wayne360024232327177320108
Sterling Sharpe3501411192625192610114
Isaac Bruce350051012271819610199
Cris Carter3600292434181710411120
Wes Chandler370237722252111211102
Anquan Boldin360035192923128520106
Wes Welker361006192521186301100
Torry Holt370016173127237311117
Larry Fitzgerald3700052327241611620114
Calvin Johnson38003591712141132177

You start to get into really small sample size issues, but let me close with a look at how many receiving yards each receiver gained in each bucket:

Paul Warfield5330656971726200000
Otis Taylor0624561668492720000
Buddy Dial0656567797811300000
Gene A. Washington2639495371521005958000
Fred Biletnikoff36264551616479450000
Harold Jackson2245566271549013875000
Cliff Branch1046557068811087465000
Bob Hayes08353827160868762000
John Gilliam0176362545694810000
John Stallworth43595568696861960000
Charley Taylor0355046607467103123000
Harold Carmichael283943536558789608900
Stanley Morgan3063506663798612809200
Gary Garrison03448656372811083812800
Hines Ward02439617271791111130760
Steve Smith0417068819392871630067
Lance Alworth0070741031051112133311500
Steve Largent054506984816781719600
Michael Irvin0059878494729412213200
Andre Reed03757747662521116790340
Derrick Mason80445771826688947800
James Lofton10756078746693123435000
Rod Smith004653788175921032081870
Henry Ellard017346076827911112212000
Art Monk00715259798291936915029
Gary Clark005074627489738764116139
Herman Moore0317175777183939113300
Cris Collinsworth063436559758181141371560
Brandon Marshall07126615371749689000
Tim Brown03368686380929110115800
Don Maynard03250758190951131311030148
Jimmy Smith0276980748483831336500
Terrell Owens005684759175124251150166
Chad Johnson004889747684951159300
Roddy White0294645638567987762146127
Andre Johnson0115283799010290901050140
Andre Rison0493459576476931047600
Randy Moss00118978183791089675890
Marvin Harrison007583948685809614300
Joe Horn0007162727610810271810
Jerry Rice00558082106959813286204117
Reggie Wayne00646064828766120851200
Sterling Sharpe0435669527079959783740
Isaac Bruce006591638792103951700136
Cris Carter00265274698788798815161
Wes Chandler034425071827179811098810
Anquan Boldin0094657678799101107910
Wes Welker26005869625496123117038
Torry Holt001897093897496807912584
Larry Fitzgerald0005678768791871051390
Calvin Johnson005987656962829712815381
  • Sunrise089

    Sounds to me like his teams would have passed more if they had a WR1 that have them better looks 😉 Not REALLY, but I do wonder about that considering your discussion about Brandon Marshal’s targets alone being an indicator of value.

    It’s certainly welcome to have the discussion, but the work above notwithstanding, I think the simpler “they had to induct someone and top players on good team are as good as anyone” explanation is still more persuasive.

    • Chase Stuart

      I think if Warfield wasn’t a first-ballot choice, the “have to induct someone” argument would hold more water.

  • Tim Truemper

    Table 3 is particularily illustrative. It shows that even when Warfield was in a game in which his team threw the ball 6 to 10 times you see yardage productivity that most other receivers did not. Amazing. One thing I recall (and I know its only anecdotal) was how the Dolphins would infrequently pass but Warfield would come up with a crucial big yardage catch. Not withstanding Sunrise089’s comments, I don’t think Warfield was just someone to pic for the HOF “because they had to induct someone….” As been aptly shown in so many articles for the HOF on this website and PFR, many seemingly deserving players get passed over. Warfield as a WR with lower level raw stats is a case where more subtle indicators supported his early entry. Also, I think the analysis above validates the subjective judgments of those who watched Paul Warfield play that he was a stellar WR on very good teams thrughout his career. It should be noted that he played in 4 NFL championship games with the Browns before going to the Dolphins (1964, 65, 68, 69) that along with his Superbowl appearances with Miami of 1971, 72 and 73 give him quite a legacy in playoff lore. A god triva question would be how did Warfield leave Cleveland to Miami and what WR did they acquire in this trade that took his place?

    I would like to add a couple of notes, one factual and one interpretive. The picture above cites that Warfield played for Paul Brown. At Cleveland he played for Blanton Collier. Also, I think the comparison of Stallworth is helpful but by the time Stallworth became a starter for Pittsburg in 1977, the Steelers were average to higher in the league for pass attempts and completions per game. The “dead ball” era was also starting to wane as Stallworth’s role grew at Pittsburgh. Plus, in Stallworth’s career, he benefitted from the rule changes that started in 1978 (warfield was retired) that began to signficantly escalate passing #’s. This includes Stallworth participating in a good part of his career a 16 game schedule which Warfield never did. Thus, Chase’s tables above show the value of relative comparison over just raw #’s which are pleasing to the cursory eye but not especially fair in estimating player quality across different times and situations.

    • Chase Stuart

      Great stuff, Tim. Thanks for this — and good catch on Paul Brown.

    • Robert Keller

      The Browns drafted Warfield after receiving a glowing scouting report on him from the still tenuously employed Paul Brown. He didn’t play for Brown ever. Browns traded Paul Warfield to get the draft rights to select Purdue star QB Mike Phipps. Phipps was projected to replace Bill Nelsen as the starter, Nelsen having very bad knees and figuring to be retiring soon.

      They also traded 3 players, 2 of them starters to the NY Giants for WR Homer Jones to try and replace Warfield, Jones never fit in their system well and never did too very much for the Browns. Phipps never panned out well either. The two trades were basically a disaster for Cleveland while being a personal bonanza of Super Bowl rings for Miami and Warfield.

  • mrh

    As much as Chiefs fans would like it to be untrue, Otis Taylor is NOT in the HoF.

    From ’64-’74, Warfield played with at least one HoF RB – Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, Larry Csonka – and one HoF lineman – Gene Hickerson, Jim Langer, Larry Little. Leaving aside his HoF QB in Miami, he was playing on teams with strong running games and pass blocking. Those things certainly helped his numbers, especially his yards per reception (realizing that elite receivers had very high YPRs in that era). From watching him as a kid (and then Colts fan), I definitely thought he was a HoF WR and was not happy when he went to Miami. But he was in a very good spot to put up the numbers he did.

    • Chase Stuart

      This is what happens when work gets too busy for me to spend significant time researching! I thought Taylor was a HOFer and he’s probably a snub — he ranked #30 on my list. Thanks for pointing that out.

      And yes, Warfield certainly benefited from a great supporting cast. But that supporting cast hurt him when it came time to racking up the numbers. I suspect if we run the numbers, Warfield’s game script averages were absurd.

      • mrh

        Yeah, it’s true a supporting cast cuts both ways.

        Otis needs you to make his case for the Veteran’s Committee!


    It obviously wasn’t the intent of this article, but this is definitely the first time I’ve seen a good statistical argument for putting Hines Ward in the HOF. He put up Hall of Fame-ish numbers and a solid-ish ACY/Att playing on teams that thought it was the 70s and against teams that had been built to defend modern, pass-focused offenses.

    • Chase Stuart

        Yes, you certainly did. I guess that just proves that I should have been reading this website sooner.

        Cris Carter’s case comes across as weaker in this analysis than the other one, which is fine by me. I’m sick of all this shrilling about “Cris Carter should be in the Hall of Fame!” Yeah, sure, Cris Carter should probably be in the Hall of Fame. I get it. You know who should really be in the HOF, though? About 20 more linemen. Then we can put Cris Carter in.

  • BearFacts

    I think the analysis was well thought out. I was a big Warfield fan when he was with Miami and one of the things that is hard to control for is his All-Pro recognition. Clearly, his contemporaries considered him elite. Another thing is that Warfield missed a number of games due to injury and the WFL. Finally, Warfield was a touchdown machine, which might go along with one of the earlier comments regarding “clutch” receptions.