Three weeks ago, I set forth the argument that perhaps Calvin Johnson was not even the most productive receiver in his own division. While Megatron racked up the numbers, I argued that you have to account for the situation. The relevant situation here is that the Lions ran an incredible 1,160 plays compared to just 999 for the Bears, and Detroit attempted 740 passes while Chicago threw only 485 times.
When one team throws 255 more passes than the other, I don’t think it’s appropriate to compare the receivers based on their raw receiving yards. One thing we could look at is yards per team attempt. The table below lists the number of team attempts for each wide receiver, his raw receiving statistics, and also his yards per attempt. The table is sorted by yards per team passing attempt. And while it is not relevant when discussing Marshall and Megatron, I have also included a Pro-rated Yards per Attempt column, which pro-rates the number of team attempts for the number of games played by the receiver (this helps Percy Harvin, of course).
As it turns out, Calvin Johnson was neither the best Johnson nor the best receiver in his division, at least as measured by this metric. I’m not convinced or even arguing that yards/attempt is the best way to rank receivers, but I do think the statistic represents an improvement on just receiving yards. Since receiving yards are so highly correlated with attempts, some adjustment needs to be made, and I plan on providing more analysis on how to grade wide receivers this off-season.
That said, there are a couple of other factors that favor Johnson. One, there are benefits associated with great over a larger number of pass attempts; Detroit passed much more frequently, and being elite over a longer period of time (or for more plays/passes) is more valuable than being elite over a shorter period of time. Additionally, the Lions passing offense was more efficient than the Bears passing offense. The Lions ranked 16th in ANY/A, the Bears 26th; Detroit also ranked 14th in NY/A, while the Bears finished 27th; and in Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Expected Points Added metric, the Lions passing attack ranked 13th, the Bears 24th. Johnson may not have been the centerpiece of an elite offense, but he certainly was the main man in a better offense.
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that Marshall had a huge edge in receiving touchdowns. Now personally, I don’t give that a ton of weight, but you can be sure that Lions fans would point to that number if the statistics were reversed. In any event, I’d vote for Marshall as my top wide receiver this season. Gaining 1500 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on a team that threw fewer than 500 passes is more impressive than 1,964 yards and 5 touchdowns on a team that broke the record for pass attempts, even if Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s record. Marshall gained 77% as many yards as Megatron on 66% as many pass attempts.
And while some will argue that Megatron was everything to the Lions, that proposition is even more true for Marshall. Take a look at the leaders in percentage of team receiving yards:
There’s another Robert Griffin III stat to admire — the Skins were the only team that didn’t have a single player account for at least 18% of the team’s receiving yards. But the most impressive number on that table belongs to Marshall. No doubt Jay Cutler relies on Marshall too frequently, but there is a reason for that: he’s by far the best receiver on the team and one of the top threats in the NFL. Perhaps Cutlers’ tunnel vision bumps Marshall’s numbers up slightly, but it’s still an amazing accomplishment.
How amazing? That’s the highest ratio of player to team receiving yards since 1975. I’ll close with a list of every player in NFL, AFL, or AAFC history to gain at least 40% of his team’s receiving yards in a season (which includes a familiar name). Marshall comes in at number twenty.