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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 1970-79 and 1975-84. This is the fifth installment, examining 1980-89 and 1985-94. The great receivers of the early ’80s, such as Steve Largent and Charlie Joiner, 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.

1980-89

Fastest Receiver: Willie Gault

Best Deep Threat: James Lofton

Best Hands: Steve Largent

Best Possession Receiver: Art Monk

Toughest Receiver: Art Monk

Underrated in 2016: Cris Collinsworth

Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Jerry Rice

Best Single Season: Wes Chandler, 1982, and Jerry Rice, 1987

Best Overall WR: Steve Largent

Former players who become announcers are usually overrated. Cris Collinsworth is an exception. A lot of viewers probably don’t even realize he was a player. He’s skinny, doesn’t really look like an athlete, and in the TV booth you can’t tell that he’s 6’5″. Collinsworth doesn’t talk much about his playing career, and when it comes up, he’s extremely modest, almost self-deprecating like Bob Uecker. But Uecker really wasn’t a very good baseball player. Collinsworth made three straight Pro Bowls, had two more 1,000-yard seasons in which he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, and played in two Super Bowls.

Roy Green is underrated, too. He played for the Cardinals when the rest of the NFC East dominated the NFL, and the Cardinals were an afterthought. But Green had a long, productive career. He gained at least 500 yards every season from 1981-90 (except the nine-game ’82 season), with back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons. In 1983, Green gained 1,227 yards and led the league with 14 receiving touchdowns. In 1984, he gained 1,555 receiving yards, setting the record for an NFL season, and scored 12 TDs. He retired with 8,965 career receiving yards and scored touchdowns in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.1

When Dan Marino joined the Dolphins, he carried a pair of rookie receivers, Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, to stardom with him. The Marks Brothers were both small, 5-foot-9 and under 190 pounds. Clayton had five 1,000-yard seasons, plus 996 in 1985 and 776 in the strike-shortened 1987 season. He made five Pro Bowls, and retired with 84 TDs, including 18 in his second season. Mark Duper was born Mark Dupas. But people pronounced Dupas wrong (it’s French), and he changed his name from Mark Dupas to Mark Duper. But he didn’t just change his last name, he changed his middle name, too, going from Mark Kirby Dupas to Mark Super Duper. No, I’m not kidding, and yes, I know the ’80s were awesome. Duper had four 1,000-yard seasons and made three Pro Bowls.

Willie Gault was obviously the fastest receiver of the decade, but Henry Ellard, Louis Lipps, James Lofton, and Stanley Morgan were all very fast, as well. I think the aptly-named Mike Quick was the first player of whom I heard the phrase, “If he’s even, he’s leavin’.” Gault was a record-setting track star, excelling as a sprinter, hurdler, and even bobsledder. As a wide receiver, he was more good than great. He never had a 1,000-yard season, never scored double-digit TDs, and never made a Pro Bowl. He retired with 6,635 receiving yards and 45 total touchdowns, and remains active and successful in sprinting competitions.

The two best receiving seasons of the 1980s were both strike-shortened. I’ll discuss those below, in the player summaries for Wes Chandler and Jerry Rice.

Wes Chandler
New Orleans Saints, 1978-81; San Diego Chargers, 1981-87; San Francisco 49ers, 1988
559 receptions, 8,966 yards, 56 TD

Wes Chandler did not have a long career, his best season was shortened by the 1982 strike, and his numbers are frequently dismissed as a by-product of the Air Coryell offense. In his prime, though, Chandler’s production was staggering.

People forget that Chandler was a Pro Bowler with the Saints, their only 1,000-yard receiver between 1970 and 1987. He broke 1,000 again in 1981, his first year with San Diego. In the nine-game 1982 season, Chandler finished with 49 receptions for 1,032 yards and 9 TDs. Projected to 16 games, he was on pace for 87 catches, 1,835 yards, and 16 touchdowns. That would be the fourth-best yardage mark in history, and the only one of the top four to also lead the league in touchdowns. That actually understates Chandler’s dominance, because he only played in eight of the nine games. Chandler averaged 129 receiving yards per game; only two other players even averaged 80, and one of them, Chandler’s teammate Kellen Winslow, was at 80.1. I hate to say this about a strike year, but it’s probably the most remarkable season by any receiver in the 1980s, including Jerry Rice.

Chandler made two more Pro Bowls after that, for a total of four, but ’82 was his only all-pro year. He’s often compared unfavorably with teammates Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, and with the receiver he replaced, John Jefferson. Chandler, however, had more catches, yards, and TDs than Winslow or Jefferson, and he made more Pro Bowls than Joiner. He is also the only one of the four who had a 1,000-yard season with a different team, proving his credentials outside the Air Coryell system.

Dwight Clark
San Francisco 49ers, 1979-87
506 receptions, 6,750 yards, 48 TD

“The Catch” is still famous 35 years later. With under a minute remaining in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, the 49ers trailed the Cowboys 27-21, with the ball at the Dallas six-yard line. Joe Montana rolled right and lofted a prayer into the corner of the end zone. Dwight Clark leaped into the air, higher than anyone thought he could jump, and came down with the ball, giving San Francisco a 28-27 lead after the extra point. What few fans remember is that the Cowboys nearly came back; Danny White completed a pass to Drew Pearson, who looked bound for the end zone, and came up short only because of a tackle that would be illegal today. White fumbled on the next play, clinching the game for San Francisco. People also forget that Montana threw three interceptions that day…

Clark made the Pro Bowl in 1981, but The Catch catapulted him to stardom. Clark didn’t disappoint. In 1982, he led the NFL in receptions, made another Pro Bowl, and was a consensus all-pro. He was 6’4″, a dominant possession receiver and an excellent blocker. “Clark is the kind of receiver most teams don’t have, and don’t realize they need,” said Bill Walsh. After ’82, Clark remained a good player, but not a great one. He never again made a Pro Bowl, and never had another 900-yard season. After four more pretty good seasons, Clark was reduced to a role player in 1987, and then retired, after less than a decade in pro football. For a couple of years in the early ’80s, though, he was the best possession receiver in the NFL.

James Lofton
Green Bay Packers, 1978-86; Los Angeles Raiders, 1987-88; Buffalo Bills, 1989-92; Los Angeles Rams, 1993; Philadelphia Eagles, 1993
764 receptions, 14,004 yards, 75 TD

James Lofton never caught 75 passes in a season, never scored double-digit TDs, and never led the league in a major statistic, unless you count yards per reception (which he led twice). But he had six 1,000-yard seasons, and probably would have had eight if not for the strikes in 1982 and 1987. He had 43 100-yard receiving games, the most between Don Maynard and Jerry Rice. He made eight Pro Bowls, and he was all-pro four times, first-team all-pro twice. He had a 16-year career that wasn’t just holding on at the end, and he retired with the most receiving yards in the history of professional football.

Like many of the best downfield receivers, Lofton challenged defenders because he was fast and explosive. He ran a 4.3 40, and at Stanford, he was not only a second team All-American football player, he was a successful sprinter and the NCAA long jump champion. Lofton averaged 18.3 yards per reception over his long career, including 18.8 in his final 1,000-yard season, when he was 35. At the time, he was the oldest player with 1,000 receiving yards in a season. On October 21, 1991, Lofton caught 8 passes for 220 yards and 2 touchdowns; he is still the oldest player with 200 yards from scrimmage in a game (35 years, 108 days).

Lofton also excelled in the playoffs, despite that most of his postseason games were played after his 33rd birthday. He caught a TD in each of his first five postseason appearances, finally breaking the streak against the Giants in Super Bowl XXV, when he didn’t score but did catch a 61-yard pass. The top five oldest players with a 100-yard receiving game in the postseason are: Jerry Rice, Steve Smith, Cris Carter, and James Lofton twice — he had 149 yards and a touchdown in the 1991 Divisional Playoff, then 113 yards and 2 touchdowns in the AFC Championship. Lofton also had a team-best 92 yards in Super Bowl XXVI, when he was 35.

Art Monk
Washington, 1980-93; New York Jets, 1994; Philadelphia Eagles, 1995
940 receptions, 12,721 yards, 68 TD

James Arthur Monk was the last player to concurrently hold NFL records for most receptions in a season and most receptions in a career; he also held the mark for consecutive games with a reception. He had five 1,000-yard seasons and won three Super Bowl rings. When Monk caught 106 passes in 1984, no other player caught as many as 90; Monk led the league by 17 receptions (almost 20%). The record stood for nearly a decade.

Despite the rapid growth of pass-oriented horizontal offense near the end of his career, Monk held the all-time receptions record for two years and was ahead of everyone except Jerry Rice for four more. Although his touchdown totals are comparatively modest, Monk was also the first player to catch a touchdown pass in 15 consecutive seasons.

His statistical accomplishments are especially impressive because head coach Joe Gibbs preferred ball-control offense. In 1983, the year before Monk shattered the single-season reception record, Washington led the league in rush attempts. When he broke the record in 1984, they ranked 3rd in rush attempts. And of course — like most players of this era — Monk’s numbers would be even higher if he hadn’t missed a dozen games in his prime because of two strike seasons.

Monk was also the best blocking wide receiver of his era, and at times, Gibbs used him almost like a tight end. Monk was big (6’3″, 210) and strong, and a dedicated blocker, which many wide receivers aren’t. Gibbs raved, “Art’s the strongest outside receiver I have ever coached, and he’s caught a lot of balls inside and taken the hit. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s intelligent, he has everything.” Monk certainly wasn’t one of the faster receivers in the league, but he had underrated quickness and agility, and he plowed into tacklers rather than shuffling out of bounds or dropping like a quail. Lance Alworth praised him, “I like watching Art Monk, the way he fights for the ball. You don’t see a lot of guys doing that.” The media didn’t love Monk, because he was quiet and a reluctant interview subject, but fans in Washington and around the league appreciated his class and dedication to the team.

Monk was a groundbreaker, and a consistent and clutch performer. But he was turned away from the Pro Football Hall of Fame seven times before his election in 2008. Fans around the league celebrated the overdue induction of a record-breaking, championship-winning player who was the opposite of today’s diva receivers. When Monk was inducted into the PFHOF, he received the longest standing ovation in HOF history, timed by NFL Films at 4:04. Four minutes is a long time; it was really something.

Stanley Morgan
New England Patriots, 1977-89; Indianapolis Colts, 1990
557 receptions, 10,716 yards, 72 TD

Stanley Morgan was the seventh player to reach 10,000 career receiving yards. That milestone has now been met 45 times (most recently by Brandon Marshall), but it used to be a pretty big deal. Seldom among the league leaders in receptions, Morgan was a speed demon who three times led the NFL in yards per reception. He is the only player in history to average more than 19 yards per catch in a career with at least 500 receptions, and this distinction will probably stand forever.

Morgan was chosen for four Pro Bowls and two second-team all-pro designations. His 38 career 100-yard receiving games through 1987 were then the 4th-most in history — trailing only Don Maynard, Lance Alworth, and Steve Largent — and he remained in the all-time top 10 until 2003. Through 2015, he’s tied for 22nd, with Anquan Boldin. That’s amazing for a player whose career began in 1977.

Morgan played in essentially the same era as Steve Largent, James Lofton, Wes Chandler, Roy Green, Drew Hill, and perhaps Art Monk (1980) or John Stallworth (1974). Morgan’s statistics fit well in that group:

Player      Rec  Yards   TD
Lofton      764  14,004  75
Largent     820  13,292 101
Monk        940  12,721  68
Morgan      557  10,716  72
Hill        634   9,831  60
Chandler    559   8,966  56
Green       559   8,965  66
Stallworth  537   8,723  63

Looking at those stats, you understand why Morgan is not in the Hall of Fame, but it’s also clear that he’s one of the best receivers who isn’t.

1985-94

Fastest Receiver: Willie Gault

Best Deep Threat: Henry Ellard

Best Hands: Sterling Sharpe

Best Possession Receiver: Sterling Sharpe

Toughest Receiver: Art Monk

Underrated in 2016: Henry Ellard

Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Jerry Rice

Best Single Season: Jerry Rice, 1987

Best Overall WR: Jerry Rice

In this era, Jerry Rice rewrote our ideas of what a wide receiver could do. Was Rice the greatest possession receiver of the decade? Probably. But he was so much more than that. Was he the finest deep threat? Possibly. I don’t want to pigeonhole a player as dynamic as Jerry Rice, and I don’t want the best-of list for this decade to be dominated by a single player. Throughout this series, in cases where there’s a close call in the superlatives, I’ve tried to get away from selecting the superstar, instead highlighting less celebrated players. But I’d hate for anyone to think I don’t get the greatness of Jerry Rice.

Drew Hill had a strange career, and didn’t get a chance to shine until he was almost 30, a little like Keenan McCardell or Rod Smith. A 12th-round draft pick in 1979, Hill’s first six years were wasted as a kickoff returner (he did have a KR TD in 1980). In 1985, Hill escaped the Rams and moved to the Houston Oilers, where he became one of the most consistent and productive receivers in the league. Hill went over 900 receiving yards for seven consecutive seasons, over 1,100 yards in four of them. In his prime, Hill compared favorably to Andre Reed (see below).

Gary Clark
Washington, 1985-92; Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, 1993-94; Miami Dolphins, 1995
699 receptions, 10,856 yards, 65 TD

Despite playing alongside Hall of Famer Art Monk, Gary Clark led Washington in receiving yardage six times in eight years — including the 1987 and 1991 Super Bowl seasons — and he was the leading receiver in Super Bowl XXVI, with 7 catches for 114 yards and a score. He made four Pro Bowls and three all-pro teams, including a first-team selection in 1987.

Clark played well for the USFL’s Jacksonville Bulls in 1984, and made an immediate impact in Washington when the rival league folded. Clark was the first player in NFL history to catch at least 50 passes in each of his first 10 NFL seasons, and as of 2016 is still one of only five to accomplish the feat (Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald). You probably think of those four players as being better than Gary Clark, maybe a lot better, even though they played in much more favorable passing environments, and they played with Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks, which Clark did not.

For years, Monk was passed over in HOF voting partially because Giants players told the New York sportswriters that Clark was Washington’s best receiver. Their lack of respect for Monk may explain why he caught 900 passes, but Clark was the deep threat and the touchdown guy — the one who would really make you look bad. Monk kept the chains moving, and that helps the team, but Clark could burn you deep and embarrass you. Undersized at 5’9″ and 175 lbs., Clark nonetheless was a relentless downfield blocker.

I split up this project to look at decades every five years, rather than every 10, because of players like Clark, whose career split down the middle between the ’80s and ’90s. When you look at the 10 seasons from 1985-94, Clark probably has the best numbers this side of Jerry Rice:

Player          Rec  Yards   TD
Gary Clark      662  10,331  63
Henry Ellard    617  10,268  48
Andre Reed      676   9,536  66
Drew Hill       574   8,484  50
Art Monk        632   8,351  46
Sterling Sharpe 595   8,134  65
Irving Fryar    489   7,842  49
Mark Clayton    503   7,471  65
Michael Irvin   416   6,935  40
Andre Rison     475   6,453  60

Clark isn’t usually regarded as a serious HOF candidate, because he only played in the NFL for 11 seasons, and doesn’t have the big career numbers. Ellard, Reed, and Monk played 16 seasons each. Drew Hill played 15 seasons, Irving Fryar 17. Obviously we shouldn’t ignore longevity, but when they were in their athletic primes, Clark was perhaps the one who stood out most. Playing with a host of mostly mediocre quarterbacks (Jay Schroeder, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Steve Beuerlein), Clark posted five 1,000-yard seasons and is distinguished by truly great years in 1987 — when he didn’t have huge stats because of the strike, but gained over 1,000 yards in just 12 games — and 1991, when he had more yards (1,340) than Rice and more touchdowns (10) than Michael Irvin.

Twenty of the 25 wide receivers enshrined in Canton played with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Clark had a cup of coffee with Dan Marino in 1995, but played almost his whole career with average QBs. The knocks on Clark are his short career, and the spotlight shared with Art Monk and Ricky Sanders. Was Clark truly a great player, or was he just on a good team, in the right system, with defenses focused on the Hall of Famer on the other side of the formation? Is it more fair to reward a player for continued production past his prime, or to judge receivers mostly on what they did at their best? Clark was a two-time Super Bowl champion, a good blocker, and the playmaker who created opportunities underneath for Art Monk, while posting five 1,000-yard seasons of his own.

Henry Ellard
Los Angeles Rams, 1983-93; Washington, 1994-98; New England Patriots, 1998
814 receptions, 13,777 yards, 65 TD

When Henry Ellard retired, I figured he was a cinch for Canton. He was third all-time in receiving yards, and not just as a compiler; he was tied with Lance Alworth and Michael Irvin for third all-time in 1,000-yard seasons (7). Ellard had three seasons of over 1,300 yards, plus he was a superb punt returner: 11.3 average, 4 TDs, first-team all-pro in 1984. But receiving statistics have exploded since then, Andre Reed emerged as the most celebrated non-Rice receiver of the era, and the Hall of Fame voters ignore special teams. Ellard has received very little support from the PFHOF voters, never even reaching the semi-finalist stage, the group of 25.

I don’t entirely understand the case against Ellard. He made only three Pro Bowls, one of them as a returner. However, Ellard was not chosen to the Pro Bowl in 1990, when he was 2nd in the NFL — not just in the NFC — in receiving yards (1,294). The same thing happened in 1994, when Ellard’s 1,397 yards ranked 2nd in the league, and he was passed over. Personally, I believe reaching 1,000 yards with Heath Shuler as your quarterback deserves a statue in your honor, to say nothing of almost 1,400, but evidently the voters weren’t impressed.

Ellard may be tough to evaluate partly because he was sort of a unique receiver: a deep threat who caught a ton of passes. There are 33 players with at least 800 career receptions. Among those 33, Ellard has the highest average yards per reception — by almost a full yard. He’s 0.95 ahead of Steve Largent, 1.35 ahead of Randy Moss, 1.90 in front of Irving Fryar, and better than two yards ahead of anyone else. James Lofton, who caught 764 passes and had an even higher average than Ellard, is really the only comparable player. Paul Zimmerman described Ellard as “a possession receiver who can also burn deep.”

Ellard was a great deep threat, but he was also a chain-moving possession receiver. Nearly 90% of Ellard’s receptions went for first downs, the highest figure in his generation and probably one of the highest all-time (first down data is spotty prior to 1991). In 1994, Ellard caught 74 passes for 71 first downs, a 95.9% rate that is the highest on record. Thirty of those 74 receptions went at least 20 yards. Calvin Johnson is the only player since 1991 with more than thirty 20+ yard receptions in a season.

Ellard was a great leaper, a champion triple jumper2, and he was blazing fast, with split-second acceleration that defenders couldn’t match. He had tremendous agility, and he was an excellent route runner. Norv Turner called Ellard “the best route-runner I’ve ever seen.” Jim Everett rhapsodized about Ellard’s precision routes: “Every step has a purpose.” Writing on Twitter in 2014, Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders singled out Ellard as the receiver who gave him the most trouble.3

Ellard had seven 1,000-yard seasons, and probably would have had eight without the 1987 strike (799 yards in 12 games). Through 1994, he and Jerry Rice were the only receivers with four 1,250-yard seasons. In 1996, Ellard became the second-oldest player — 16 days younger than James Lofton — with a 1,000-yard season, and the oldest (35) to lead the league in receiving average. He three times ranked first or second in the NFL in receiving yardage, and at various times he led the NFL in receiving yards (1988), yards per reception (1996), punt return average (1983), and punt return TDs (1983 and 1984). In ’88, when Ellard caught a team-record 86 passes and led the league in receiving yards, head coach John Robinson lamented the loss the league’s most explosive returner, “Part of me still wants Henry returning punts.”

Andre Reed
Buffalo Bills, 1985-99; Washington, 2000
951 receptions, 13,198 yards, 87 TD

How many great receivers have ended their careers in Washington? Several outstanding receivers spent most or all of their careers with Washington, but there’s also Irving Fryar and Henry Ellard and Andre Reed, plus Keenan McCardell and Joey Galloway. It’s like Florida for wide receivers.

You can sum up Andre Reed’s career with two stats: he made seven Pro Bowls and was never first-team all-pro. This is a player who was always good but seldom great. He never led the league in any statistic, and in his best season ranked 5th in the NFL in receiving yardage. Reed ranks 2nd in Super Bowl history in receptions (27) and third in receiving yards (323), but never won a championship. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

Reed had four 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and he might have had five if not for the 1987 strike (752 yards in 12 games). But he was just the 25th player with four 1,000-yard seasons, and many of his contemporaries had as many or more. Brian Blades had four 1,000-yard seasons. Anthony Miller had five. Henry Ellard had seven. Jerry Rice had 14. Today, Reed is one of 69 players with at least four 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Even his seven Pro Bowls are as much a reflection of the AFC’s weakness as anything. Who was he beating out? Haywood Jeffires, Reggie Langhorne, and Al Toon?4 The real competition (Clark, Ellard, Irvin, Rice, Rison, Sharpe) was all in the NFC.

Let’s be honest about the quality of competition in the AFC. The AFC won three Super Bowls during Reed’s 16-year career, all in his last four seasons. While his peers in the NFC were going up against tough defenses, Reed feasted on the weak AFC East. During Buffalo’s Super Bowl seasons, the Colts, Jets, and Patriots went a combined 61-131 (.318). The Dolphins were pretty good, but mostly because of Dan Marino, not a strong defense.

Reed’s Bills were four times the best team in the AFC. Where would they have ranked in the NFC, competing with San Francisco, Dallas, Washington, the Bill Parcells Giants, the Brett Favre Packers, the Mike Ditka Bears? Buffalo’s dominance was at least partly an illusion created by lack of competition. To some extent, that has to color our assessment of Andre Reed, too. Let’s compare Reed to a contemporary AFC wide receiver, Drew Hill. Reed was a 21-year-old rookie in 1985, when Hill was 29 but just coming into his own. Both played on bad teams that got good around 1988.

            Reed               Hill
Year   Rec   Yds  TD     Rec   Yds   TD
1985   48    637   4     64   1,169   9
1986   53    739   7     65   1,112   5
1987   57    752   5     49     989   6
1988   71    968   6     72   1,141  10
1989   88  1,312   9     66     938   8
1990   71    945   8     74   1,019   5
1991   81  1,113  10     90   1,109   4
Total 469  6,466  49    480   7,477  47

Hill, who was 35 by the end of the ’91 season, has 1,000 yards more. Maybe you think there are mitigating factors that might help Reed draw closer, and certainly he had a much longer career as an effective player; Hill’s productivity was largely limited to those seven seasons. But Reed’s stats are more consistent than outstanding, and that’s without adjusting for strength of schedule or the quality of the AFC.

Reed was a great player. He had a long career as an effective player, and he made some spectacular plays. Reed had good hands, and he was tough. He was terrific with the balls in his hands, and gained more rushing yards (500) than any career WR except Jerry Rice. He made four Super Bowl appearances and seven Pro Bowls, and he was the first player with fourteen 500-yard seasons.

But it seems to me that Reed’s long career and his visibility on a high-powered offense that appeared in four Super Bowls have led him to receive substantially more recognition than other, equally worthy players. The 1990s Bills have more Hall of Famers (6) than any of the teams that beat them in the Super Bowl. Buffalo obviously had a lot of talent in those years, but did it really have more Hall of Fame-caliber personnel than the Giants (2), Washington (4), and Dallas (4)?

It’s easy to watch Reed’s highlights and see a player who was better than his stats. But it’s also easy to consider the context of the AFC in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and conclude that Reed’s stats — more consistent than exceptional — are even less impressive than they appear.

Jerry Rice
San Francisco 49ers, 1985-2000; Oakland Raiders, 2001-04; Seattle Seahawks, 2004
1,549 receptions, 22,895 yards, 197 TD

Jerry Rice, like Don Hutson 50 years before, was so exceptional that he completely skews our idea of what mere humans can accomplish. He set every major career receiving record, and set them far out of reach. He had fourteen 1,000-yard receiving seasons and ten seasons of double-digit TDs. He led the league in receptions twice, in receiving yards and TDs six times each. He holds every major Super Bowl receiving record, and he was MVP of Super Bowl XXIII.

Rice’s numbers are staggering. He had 100 catches four times. He had 1,500 yards four times. He had 15 TDs five times. I named his 1987 season the best of this decade, so let’s look at that. In 12 games, Rice caught 65 passes, for 1,078 yards and 22 TDs. He also had a rushing TD. That’s 23 touchdowns in 12 games, when the 16-game record was 24. Most major news organizations named Rice NFL MVP, the only pure wide receiver ever chosen.

It’s hard to argue with that as Rice’s best year. But you could. In 1986, he gained 1,570 receiving yards and scored 16 TDs. In 1990, he caught 100 passes, for 1,502 yards and 13 TDs, leading the league in all three categories. In 1993, he was AP’s Offensive Player of the Year, with 98 receptions for 1,503 yards and 15 TDs. Receiving stats went crazy across the league in 1995, but Rice remained at the forefront, with 122 catches for 1,848 yards — a record that stood 17 years — and 15 touchdowns.

Rice had incredible work ethic, plus speed, intelligence, and sticky hands. He was probably the greatest route runner of all time, and he was sensational with the ball in his hands. He was a great postseason player, and he sustained effectiveness throughout his long career; he had a 1,200-yard season when he was 40. Don Hutson was more dominant, but in a much different league and a shorter career. Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver of all time.5

Sterling Sharpe
Green Bay Packers, 1988-94
595 receptions, 8,134 yards, 65 TD

Sterling Sharpe never missed a game in his seven-year career, but a serious neck injury in 1994 forced him to end a career that almost certainly would have led to Canton. In just seven seasons, Sharpe led the NFL in receptions three times, in receiving TDs twice, and in receiving yardage once. He twice set the record for most receptions in a season, 108 in 1992 and 112 the next year. In his final season, Sharpe caught 94 passes for 1,119 yards and 18 touchdowns. He retired at age 29.

Sharpe made five Pro Bowls and was first-team all-pro three times. He had five 1,000-yard seasons and scored double-digit TDs four times. But when you look at the great receivers of this era, how do you take someone who only played seven seasons ahead of those who played twice that long? Seven seasons is really short. Tim Brown and Michael Irvin began their careers the same year as Sharpe. In his 8th-best season, Brown gained 1,104 yards. In his 8th-best season, Irvin gained 962. Cris Carter had 1,011, Henry Ellard 945, Gary Clark 892, Andre Reed 880 — those players provided value to their teams years after the hardest part of Sharpe’s job was finding a tie to match his suit.

Forced to retire in his 20s, Sharpe’s short career limited his opportunity to cement his own greatness. During his time in the league, though, he led the NFL in a major statistic six times and broke the single-season reception record twice.

  1. In 1981, Green was a 60-minute player. He led the Cardinals in receiving TDs, scored a rushing TD, intercepted three passes, and played on four special teams. In one game, he was in for 108 plays. “The only thing Roy hasn’t done is tape all our ankles,” joked teammate Dan Dierdorf. Green was very fast, and he had good hands. Quarterback Jim Hart said, “There are certain guys you want to throw to, guys you know will hang on to the ball. Roy’s one of those.” []
  2. Ellard won the CIF California State Championships in 1979, set the into-the-wind world record of 56′ 5½” at Fresno State, and qualified for the 1992 Olympic trials, jumping 54′ 1″ despite not having triple-jumped in six years. In 2014, Ellard entered the USATF Masters Outdoor Championships. He won the M50 group easily, jumping 42′ 8″ and winning by eight inches. []
  3. During Sanders’ career, only Jerry Rice gained more yardage against Deion’s teams than Ellard. []
  4. In Reed’s seven Pro Bowl seasons, the AFC leader in receiving yards, among those who missed the Pro Bowl, was: Ernest Givins, Tim McGee, Haywood Jeffires, Drew Hill, Reggie Langhorne, Reggie Langhorne again, and Anthony Miller. []
  5. Editor’s note: I’ve written a ton about Rice, so much so that it’s hard to think of just one piece to link to. But if there’s one piece of criticism that Rice receives, here’s the answer to it. []
  • sacramento gold miners

    J.T. Smith of the Cardinals was also a terrific receiver during this era, and when teamed with Green and QB Neil Lomax, made the Cards tough to deal with. RB Stump Mitchell was highly effective, too.

    It’s a shame knee injuries derailed Dwight Clark’s career, he was a truly great receiver.

    Ark Monk was a RB his first three seasons at Syracuse, which helps explain his toughness and blocking ability. Monk is the first receiver I recall being isolated on TV replays for his blocking.

    If I’m not mistaken, Gary Clark played two USFL seasons, meaning he was an iron man in 1985. Had Clark been in the NFL only for those two years, his career numbers should look more impressive.

    I give slightly more credit to receivers like Andre Reed, Sterling Sharpe, and James Lofton, who were able to excel in terrible weather. Yes, the Bills lost three of four Super Bowls decisively, but Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas were a bigger problem, and Buffalo’s defense was shredded in those games. Drew Hill had a remarkable career, but Reed was the more versatile receiver, able to go over the middle and take a beating doing so. And I think those Bills teams were strong against the NFC in regular season competition during those postseason years with Reed.

    • JeremyDeShetler

      Not sure if Madden was the first to point him out, but I remember him loving to telestrate Monk’s blocking.

      You are correct about Clark, but according to USFL stats I could find, he only had 10 catches for 61 yards and 1 TD in 1985 despite having 18 GP. Not sure if he was injured in 85, but he had 56-780-2 the year before.

  • From 1988-90, I have Ellard with 179 receptions for 139 regular first downs and 18 touchdowns (in games with game books; I am missing 9 games with 53 catches and 4 TDs). So, for the games on which I have the data, Ellard converted a ridiculous 87.7% of his receptions for first downs. That’s 85.5% in 1988, 89.5% in 1989, and 88.1% in 1990.

    I imagine the numbers would be similar, or even go up, if I include those missing 9 games. In those games, Ellard averaged 17.3 yards per catch (15.7, 20..3, and 16.9 by year).

    In those 36 games I have on file, he converted 100% of his receptions for first downs in 20 of them.

    Given the direction passing offenses are headed, I doubt we’ll see anyone come close to matching that sort of conversion rate for a very long time, if ever. When Julio Jones broke the record for receiving first downs last year, his actual conversion rate was only 68.4%.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Henry Ellard was tremendous, but something which affects his perception would be the postseason. In ten playoff games, Ellard managed just a lone 100 yard receiving day. And in two NFC Title Games, he caught just three passes for 23 yards.

      Yes, Ellard had QB issues in the postseason. But Steve Smith played with a mediocre QB, and helped Carolina get to a Super Bowl.

      • You may like this method of rating quarterbacks https://sites.google.com/site/snbifootball/texmacsexport

      • Bret Johns

        That the Rams never made it to the SB was not Ellard’s fault. Using Steve Smith or any other receiver that made it to the SB with a “mediocre QB” means absolutely nothing when there are 40+ other guys on a team that helped them get there.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Agree it wasn’t solely Ellard’s fault the Rams never made a SB. However, he didn’t capitalize on the opportunity to help his case for Canton. Others did, but Ellard just didn’t. Only a single 100 yard day in ten games was below his standards. Great players aren’t great all the time, but at least they’re great sometimes in big games. For a borderline HOF candidate, the postseason can definitely push that player to Canton.

          • Bret Johns

            Well I think for the most part playoff numbers are below regular averages for most players. In 7 of those 10 games the Rams didn’t even crack 180 yards passing. I won’t march out all the stats I looked up, but it’s just like the regular season. Until the Rams had a decent qb (Everett) Ellard’s numbers were poor. How’s he going to get 100 yds. when the qb doesn’t get 100 yds. or only 150 yds.?

            • Richie

              Those names you mention all won Super Bowls. I think it’s easier for a player to get the “sounds like a HOFer” label if his team wins (or at least makes) a Super Bowl.

              • Bret Johns

                Okay Richie gave me an idea: I just grabbed some names. Most of these players are retired. The ones that are not, are probably just a few years or one good hit away. Which ones are HOFers?? If you’re not really familiar with that player just put n/a or pass whatever. Otherwise it’s YES or NO. No fencing it with a maybe. DO NOT need to explain your answer why or why not. We’ll just assume you’re on drugs.

                • Richie

                  Where did you list the players?

                  You could probably use Survey Monkey to create something to tally your results.

                  • Bret Johns

                    Evidently, I am the one on drugs as I forgot them. Updated now.

                • Richie

                  Quick answers without thinking a lot:

                  YES:
                  Terrell Davis, LaDanian Tomlinson , Drew Brees, Randy Moss,Ed Reed,
                  Tony Gonzales, Kurt Warner, Edgerrin James, Terrell Owens

                  NO:
                  Fred Taylor, Boomer Esiason, Sterling Sharpe, Phillip
                  Rivers, Eddie George, Vinny
                  Testaverde

                • sacramento gold miners

                  Davis, Reed, Tomlinson, Brees, Moss, Gonzale, Warner, and Owens, are in the yes category. No to the others.

                • Is this yes or no to the players joining the current Hall of Fame, or is it yes or no to them going into my own version of the HOF (which would look much different from the real one)?

                  • Bret Johns

                    As if you had a vote on the committee.

                    • If I’m voting for induction to the current HOF, yes to Sharpe, Davis, Reed, Gonzo, LDT, Brees, Moss, Warner, James, and Owens. No to the rest.

                      If I got to start from scratch with a new HOF, yes to Reed, Gonzo, LDT, Brees, Moss, and Owens. No to the rest.

                • Definitely Yes
                  Terrell Davis, Ed Reed, LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, Randy Moss, Tony Gonzalez

                  Definitely No
                  Eddie George, Vinny Testaverde

                  No
                  Philip Rivers, Tony Romo

                  I don’t like the “no maybes” provision, but I lean no on everyone else except Kurt Warner.

            • That’s a very small-Hall approach. Also doesn’t allow any room for analytics and analysis. Decisions based on gut reaction are often poor decisions.

              • Bret Johns

                Only if they are made by the uninformed. Of course whatever we do here has no bearing on actual outcome.

                • That is simply not true. With all due modesty, I am very well-informed. And when I study and consider issues, my judgment often differs from my initial gut reaction.

                  • Bret Johns

                    I didn’t mean to limit it to just those players. Is that what you mean by “very small-Hall approach”? I just picked a few names and threw them out there for some opinions. If you have to look at a players stats etc. make reasons why he belongs, then does he really belong? HOFers are the unforgettables not very good ones, great and best ever. They made play after play where you shook your head and walked away in admiration.

    • Ellard’s first down stats are amazing. There’s a little bit more about that next week.

    • Bret Johns

      I had LA Rams season tickets from 1986 until they moved after 1994 season. One thing no one mentioned is that in the first 3-1/2 years of his career the Rams had a revolving door at QB Names you remember Vince Ferragamo, Jeff Kemp, Dieter Brock, Steve Bartkowski, Steve Dils, No wonder Ellard caught very few passes early on.. The Rams didn’t throw much because 1) They didn’t have a good QB 2) They had Eric Dickerson and a big O-Line. Jim Everett came along in 1986, but it was mid-year before he started. It wasn’t until after the strike in 1987, that one could see the offense start to come together. They didn’t throw deep to Ellard very often at least when Everett was at QB. They had Drew Hill, Ron Brown, and later Aaron Cox and Willie “Flipper” Anderson. Much of Ellard’s yards came AFTER the catch. He was terrific being able to juke guys and find open spaces. I think he was a lot stronger than his size indicates. He slipped a DB’s tackle on many occasions. The Rams took advantage of his leaping ability and that’s where all of those first downs come from. Many times I remember 3rd down plays where he would go over the middle. Everett would throw it high and Ellard would use his leaping ability and come down with it in front of unsuspecting, helpless defender. It was all timing. He bowled at this one establishment where my friend worked. I went one night when he was there and caught him on his way out. He signed a few thing for me and we exchanged a few comments. Seems like an okay guy. He should be in HOF but I’m not surprised he isn’t. Look how long it took for Kevin Greene to get in.

      • sacramento gold miners

        I think unfairness will always be an aspect of player performance, many situations are different. Jerry Rice was fortunate to have two HOF QBs throwing to him, while Sterling Sharpe’s HOF trajectory was cut short by injury. All we can do is try and include all factors when making evaluations on these players. Agree with you about Kevin Greene’s delayed entry into Canton, he was very deserving.

    • Bret Johns

      In 1989, he may have missed a few games. I know he didn’t start in 4 games because of a hamstring injury. The game @ NO when Anderson set the most yards receiving record, I don’t think Ellard played. He suited up but I don’t think he was ever in there. That’s mainly why Anderson was getting so many yards 336 yds.

      • I am accounting for the games Ellard missed. I am still missing 9 game books from games in which I know Ellard participated.

    • Bret Johns

      What stats for those games are you looking for? I’m guessing it’s more than just #Rec. Yds. Td’s. more like yardage for each catch and what the down and distance was perhaps? Is a “game book” similar to an official scorers book in baseball where you can see what happened play-by-play?

      • Number of catches that went for first downs. And yes, that is a great analog for the NFL gamebook. Here’s an example http://www.nfl.com/liveupdate/gamecenter/56503/NE_Gamebook.pdf

        • Bret Johns

          I saw one of those for a San Diego game vs.? Denver? around then or a bit before. It was a form but filled in by hand. Old school. Ellard’s rec. picked up a lot of FD’s. He would run like a square in ,
          ball was thrown up high before the break and he would just go up and get
          it. It was a thing of beauty.
          Which games are you missing? I don’t have any game books. I have a few media guides, newspapers from then which list the key plays in every scoring drive (Ex: Everett pass toAndersonon 3rd&8 for 32 yds. to Seahawks 32). I have a few games on video. I know it’s a longshot for maybe just one stat piece. Ned Miller was statistician for the Rams from ’78-’94. He passed away in 2010, but I know he had a large family that helped him in his work. Doubtful it will ever be online. Someone surely kept all that stuff or put it somewhere. He was very thorough, never used any computers just calculated everything in his head. He also did stats for USC Trojans Football and was an alumni. Also the OC Register and LA Times always had fairly detailed stats on at least home games. If you haven’t tried those sources yet.

          • From 1988-1990, I am missing gamebooks for:
            1988 week 5
            1988 week 6
            1988 week 15
            1989 week 1
            1989 week 5
            1990 week 5
            1990 week 7
            1990 week 11
            1990 week 16

            That’s as many as 53 potential first downs. Given his subsequent numbers, it’s probably about 46 or 47.

  • Thanks, as always, Brad. I particularly enjoyed the Gary Clark and Ellard sections. Frankly, he’s someone I haven’t given a bunch of thought to, as he’s the second most famous WR from Washington in the ’80s and the second most famous WR named Clark in the ’80s.

    • Thanks, Chase. I really appreciate the positive feedback, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. It’s gratifying when I can highlight players like Clark even for someone like you who’s so knowledgable and invested in football history.

    • Richie

      Eh, I think Robert Clark’s fame was mostly in the 90’s. 🙂

  • I do find the anti-Reed tone surprising in light of our Joiner discussions. The “But Reed’s stats are more consistent than outstanding, and that’s without adjusting for strength of schedule or the quality of the AFC” is basically exactly what I’ve been saying about Joiner, just substitute great QBs/pass-happy offenses for SOS/quality of the AFC. I’m probably less high on Reed than the average person, so I am not bothered by your analysis — if anything, I’m inclined to agree with you. I thought he was far less deserving of the HOF than Tim Brown.

    But there’s obviously something I’m missing here — what separates Joiner from Reed in your eyes?

    • This is a good question, and I’ll try to give a more complete response later. For now I’ll make two quick (for me) points:

      1. Contemporaries. I’m pretty sensitive to making sure my all-time arguments are truly all time, that they’re fair to players of every era. I think Joiner is pretty clearly the 2nd-best WR of 1975-84 (behind Largent). I think Reed, from 1985-94, is in a three-way tie for 3rd, behind Rice and Ellard, about even with Clark and Sharpe.

      Expanding to adjoining decades, I think Joiner’s ahead of everyone from 1970-79, behind Lofton and Monk in the ’80s. I have Reed behind Lofton and Monk, as well, and behind Brown, Carter, and Irvin in the ’90s. That puts Joiner 4th from 1970-89, and Reed somewhere between 8th and 10th from 1980-99. Their careers are similar, but in historical context, I believe Joiner is the more exceptional.

      2. Tone. Reed, in the light of the HOF campaign on his behalf, has been highly celebrated in recent years. In my mind, as in yours, the admiration has been excessive. His being elected to the HOF before Brown, while not a big deal, was impossible to justify. Joiner, in recent years, has been widely criticized for reasons that are, if anything, more applicable to Reed.

      I think it’s unfortunate that Reed has gotten so many accolades while Ellard has been forgotten, and it’s not obvious to me that Reed is better than Gary Clark and Sterling Sharpe, who were more exceptional in shorter careers. In contrast, Joiner-bashing is in vogue right now. I do believe Joiner was the better player, but the difference in tone is mostly because I think Reed is overrated and Joiner is underrated.

      • Fair enough. That makes a lot of sense.

        My gut reaction is that you are giving Joiner too much credit for being in sort of a “bad” era for WRs. That said, it’s easier to focus on something less abstract: I find it hard to justify Joiner over Harold Jackson, and I think it would be easy for me to make a case for Jackson over Joiner. That said, the ’70s has a whole lot of very good but not all-time WRs — both Harolds, both Steelers, both Raiders, and one of the Gene Washingtons, off the top of my head (not sure if you want to count Lofton). But I’ve always felt Joiner was in that group (or at the back of it), rather than in a different tier.

        If nothing else, I am certainly overdue for some revised WR rankings. I just need to block out 6-7 hours one weekend.

        • If anyone from the ’70s should rank ahead of Joiner, it’s obviously Harold Jackson. I could make a case either way on that one, but here’s a simple argument for Joiner. He and Jackson were rookies at the same time, 1969 and 1968, respectively. Joiner had many more catches (750-579) and many more yards (12,146 – 10,372).

          Digging a little deeper, Joiner also had more 1,000-yard seasons, and more postseason success. He was more celebrated by his contemporaries, and he had better intangibles (like blocking and leadership). He was bigger than Jackson, he had better hands, and he was a better route-runner, plus he might be the most intelligent player in the history of the position. They were both very fast as young players. Our discussion has mostly been stat-focused, but I think the subjective argument for Joiner is very strong, and relevant to the issues at hand.

          There’s a different argument to be made in Jackson’s favor, but I would be surprised to find persuasive arguments for Carmichael, Branch, Washington, or the Steelers.

          I don’t like the “bad” era for WRs line of reasoning. I don’t think every era should be equal, even setting aside size-of-league and style-of-play issues. But anyone who thinks the 9th-best WR of 1985-94 is better than the 4th-best WR of 1975-84 hasn’t thought through the era adjustments.

    • Quick follow-up to my previous comment—

      Charlie Joiner and Andre Reed had four 1,000-yard seasons each. Joiner began his career in 1969, Reed in 1985. Joiner spent half his career playing 14-game seasons, with rules that were brutal for offense. Reed spent half his career playing in the WCO era, when receiving statistics went through the roof.

      Joiner had more 1,000-yard seasons than any receiver between Lance Alworth and Steve Largent. Reed had as many as Brian Blades. That’s a pretty stark contrast.

      Obviously that’s not definitive. But the bar for “not compiling” is higher in Reed’s era than Joiner’s, and it’s a bar I’m not sure how many times he cleared. Joiner has somewhat the same problem, of course, but I think his case is a little stronger than Reed’s.

      Again, though, I don’t want to misstate my position. Andre Reed would be in my top 40 WRs of all time. But I think Joiner was a little better, and Reed typically receives more positive recognition.

  • Thanks to everyone who’s reading this series. I’m curious how people feel about this format. As a writer, I like it a lot. I can discuss the era, throw in a paragraph about interesting or overlooked players, and then profile the best WRs of the era. And since I’m comparing players against their contemporaries, everything’s in historical context. We don’t jump back and forth between the days when 1,000 yards would lead the league, and today, when anything under 1,500 probably won’t make the top three.

    But these articles are very long, and I’m not sure that’s the best format for everyone. Furthermore, I recognize that this isn’t as compelling as last year’s QB series, organized as a ranking. I’ve already written this same series for running backs — in fact, it was finished before I began this one. I don’t know if, when, or via what medium I’ll publish that, but I’m curious what format readers prefer.

    A. This is great!
    B. Same format, but shorter, five players per week instead of 10.
    C. Rankings!
    D. Something else!

    Thanks for any feedback.

    • I definitely agree with A.

      I strongly disagree with B; if anything, I’d lean towards more, not fewer players.

      C — eh, rankings have their place, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone, but you need to be able to explain why a guy ranks a certain way and whether that’s a flaw in the methodology or not.

      D — maybe split up each article into two? So ’70 to ’79 is different than ’75-’84? But I assume you’ve gone in a different direction intentionally.

      • Oops, I was unclear. What you wrote in D is actually what I meant for B. I’m going to edit for clarity.

        • Gotcha, and that makes sense. Although if you are reading about ’65 to ’74, you might wonder stuff about ’70 to ’79! I do agree the articles are long (sometimes very long) but I think that’s OK. Probably makes sense to hear from other voices here. Anyone got thoughts for Brad?

    • I’d enjoy a combo of A and C. I don’t mean incorporating rankings into this format, but, instead, posting a separate ranking article at the consummation of this series. Sort of like “hey, I’ve given you a wealth of information on the top receivers in history, now here’s my top 10/20/30/50/somenumber…” I think 20-25 might be the sweet spot. Ten leaves off some great players, and once you get past the twenties many players become interchangeable. The upper echelon is the most important, and I think the difference between one and ten may be greater than the difference between 50 and 100 (or 200 and 300).

      • Good idea, but I would suggest doing a top 120 to make sure Joiner is on there.

      • That actually had occured to me, to wrap this up with a ranking. I’m not sure how to format it, though, and I welcome suggestions if you had something in mind. The final article already includes a list of my top 100, but it’s just a list in alphabetical order.

        I’m also concerned that my rankings might make Chase’s head explode.

        • Well, Chase is a lawyer, so I’m sure he has gotten his affairs in order in the event of accidental head explosion.

          I’d honestly prefer the end to an epic series to be a simple list that doesn’t have much explanation, unless it is really warranted. I think you’ve provided enough information in the series that readers don’t need to be given more arguments for your subjective top 20 (unless, say, you have Charlie Joiner ranked ahead of someone like Rice or Alworth).

          It would also be interesting to see your top 100 as rated by TSP, because who doesn’t love a good statsnack every now and then?

          • I’m flattered by your interest in WR-TSP, but there’s a major upgrade I’m working on, and I actually don’t have career rankings that I’m comfortable publishing at this point. I’ve hit a snag, and actually, I think you’re a really good person to ask about it — I’ll email you.

            As a point of interest, in my old system Charlie Joiner and Andre Reed were essentially tied.

    • A.
      I like them organized how they are. I wouldn’t ever complain about length and I think that organizing into era rather than rankings allows for more discussion of how different players played instead of having to compare them to one another. And I really like the decade-every-five-years idea as a way of getting more players into the discussion.
      What’s most interesting about this series to me isn’t seeing who had the best hands of each era so much as it is seeing the difference between how James Lofton and Henry Ellard played. I can look at their stats and tell that they were both great receivers who obviously caught a lot of deep passes, but I wouldn’t see much beyond that, and that’s what I find most fun about this series.

      • Just so I’m clear — the superlatives (like Best Hands, Fastest, etc.) don’t do much for you, but you like the summaries? I’m actually surprised not to have gotten any shit about “How could you name So-and-So the best deep threat of the Whenevers?! It was obviously this other guy!

        • That’s pretty much it. Not that the superlatives are bad or useless, but the summaries are what I find easily the most interesting.

    • TN

      A. This is great! Each entry could be twice as long as it is and they’d still be fascinating.
      Don’t bother with rankings. Anyone can do rankings, and what happens is that people start arguing about who is ranked Number 6 when they should be at Number 2, and the beauty of the holistic assessment of a player’s career is gone.

      • I actually kind of like those arguments, explaining why I ranked a player why I did. But you’re right that this format allows a lot more focus on “the holistic assessment of a player’s career.” Thanks for the feedback. I want to write things that people want to read!

  • Adam

    Am I crazy for thinking Andre Reed doesn’t deserve to be in the HoF? He was never a dominant receiver at any point in his career, and that’s despite playing most of it with Jim Kelly. Reed’s career reminds me a lot of Wes Welker’s – big numbers from consistently good but not great play, lost a bunch of SB’s, and benefited from HoF QB’s. Hall of Very Good, but that’s it.

    • Here’s what I wrote in December 2009: much of that still holds up as good analysis, I think. I always viewed Reed as a borderline player: not an injustice if he got in, but there were probably more deserving choices.

      http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=4837

      • “I always viewed Reed as a borderline player: not an injustice if he got in, but there were probably more deserving choices.”

        That’s more or less my position as well.

  • Until I read this post, I had never realized that Henry Ellard wasn’t in the Hall of Fame. I just assumed he was. I had already pretty much lost interest in the Hall of Fame because it is so often illogical, but that is an indictment as strong as anything I had thought previously. I really don’t understand that one.

    • sacramento gold miners

      I think anytime in sports you have a borderline HOF candidate, the postseason can often make the difference. I’m a little surprised Cliff Branch isn’t in already, perhaps the Veterans Committee will nominate him soon. In the cases of Ellard and Harold Jackson, both had ample opportunities, and it just didn’t happen. Ellard had just two big playoff games in ten, while Jackson went over the 100 yard receiving mark just twice in 14 attempts. Yes, neither man had a HOF QB throwing him the ball, but I would point to Andre Reed working with Frank Reich or Hines Ward with Tommy Maddox as examples of a premium receiver getting it done regardless of the QB.

      • Richie

        I wish there was an easy way to look up WR-QB combos. But I don’t think Ward and Maddox hooked up all that much. Ward’s best season was probably 2002, and Kordell Stewart started in 5 of those games (and most of Ward’s best games came in the Stewart starts,

        with the exception of his 139-yard game against Atlanta).

        Not that Kordell Stewart was much to write home about. But Ward’s HOF case really comes from his 2 Super Bowls with Ben Roethlisberger.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Couldn’t agree more, Ward’s HOF case mainly comes from #7. Too bad Ward had about five seasons of mediocre QB play, before 2004 arrived. Ward enjoyed two big years in 2002 & 2003, with a total of 207 receptions. The vast majority of those catches were from Maddox in 2002, and virtually all the following season.

          I was using the Reed/Reich and Ward/Maddox connection for not only the regular season, but the playoffs. Like Reed, Ward had a great game in a wild playoff comeback victory. It was the 36-33 win over the Browns in 2003.

  • Ryan

    Great series Brad, a reminder for why football-perspective is a must stop website.

    Certainly your letter A holds true, the group including myself are interested in C, but not at the expense of less analysis and historical perspective. I’m glad you’ve touched on short of hall of fame types Wes Chandler, Charley Hennigan, and Isaac Curtis that deserve to be remembered. If anything, I would love to hear more about Carroll Dale, Gene A. Washington (had a blurb), Gary Garrison, Roy Jefferson, Jimmy Orr, Lionel Taylor (blurb), Ken Burrough (blurb), Boyd Dowler, and Ray Renfro.

    Through this point in pro football history, I would strongly advocate the PHOF to reconsider the candidacies of:
    Harold Jackson, Billy Howton, and Henry Ellard.

    Agreed with your point on why Reed was chosen over Ellard, the first down conversion rate is a huge overlooked part of Henry’s greatness, as well as early career value on special teams.

    Regarding Joiner, you mention “There’s a different argument to be made in Jackson’s favor, but I would
    be surprised to find persuasive arguments for Carmichael, Branch, Washington, or the Steelers.” I will be interested to see Chase next WR series, but a link to one of the recent ones:
    http://www.footballperspective.co/true-receiving-yardsv2-0extended-back-to-1950/

    Outside of the 3 guys I mentioned earlier, Carmichael and Branch have 2 of the stronger arguments by true receiving yards, scoring weighted career values at the Joiner level, with significantly stronger best 6 seasons. Washington and Swann fall short, while Stallworth is worthy of discussion. Maybe the true receiving yards isn’t representative of the entire package that is inflating the rank of Harold and Cliff ahead of Charlie?

    • Thanks, Ryan. I’m surprised and flattered to see people suggesting that I expand the articles to write about more players. These are already very long, text-heavy pieces, but I’m glad folks are interested in what I have to say.

      I absolutely agree about Jackson, Howton, and Ellard. IMO those are the three most flagrant WR snubs in Canton, excluding players who are relatively new to the ballot. I’m not wild about true receiving yards.

    • Richie

      I feel like Ellard was hurt by playing in the same division as Jerry Rice. If Jerry Rice didn’t exist, Ellard would probably be much higher regarded.

      • I actually wrote up an exercise titled If Jerry Rice Didn’t Exist. I specifically wondered how Henry Ellard, Sterling Sharpe, Andre Reed, and Gary Clark might be viewed differently if Rice had become an accountant or something. And I agree with you that Ellard would benefit strongly.

        “Ellard would be, along with Raymond Berry, the only Modern Era players ever to lead the NFL in receiving yards three times. Heck, add Don Hutson in the early 20th century and Lance Alworth leading the AFL three times — that doesn’t diminish anything. Alworth, Berry, Hutson, and Ellard. That’s maybe the three best (non-Rice) receivers in history, and Ellard. He likely would have made several more Pro Bowls, and his climb up the record boards would have gotten more attention.

        As much as anything, the difference between Ellard in his best seasons and the rest of the league becomes a lot more apparent when Rice isn’t there to look just as good. Now in 1988, Ellard gains 1,414 yards and second place is Eddie Brown at 1,273. Ellard’s all by himself. Two years later, Ellard leads the league with 1,294, way ahead of runner-up Andre Rison (1,208). That 1,294, leading the league by almost 100 yards, is perceived totally differently than when Rice gains 1,502 and Ellard is a distant second. You don’t have to change anything Ellard does, but remove Rice from the picture and he emerges as a truly exceptional player.”

        • Maybe one day people will care about first downs. How that isn’t considered a major stat blows my mind. Seriously, Julio Jones broke the single season record for receiving first downs, and like four people said something about it.

            • History is for losers. I should know – I have a BS in history.

          • Richie

            Yeah, it’s interesting how just about all of our football statistics were decided decades ago. We’ve made a few updates/modifications to the things we track publicly, but not much.

            Of course, football statistics barely even existed before the 1940’s.

            I read an interesting book called “The Numbers Game” which talks about the history of baseball stats. They made a lot of changes in the early days of baseball as to what stats to keep track of, how to calculate batting average, etc. and pretty much kept those traditions for over a century now.

            Stats are kind of meaningless without history to compare them to. So once history provides SOME kind of statistic, it’s difficult to get fans to accept anything different.

            Instead we get people complaining about “nerds with calculators” and how numbers are ruining the game, all the while they are leaning on calculator-based statistics like ERA and average.

            • Nerds with calculators? I would love to upgrade to a calculator! I’m stuck in my mom’s basement using a slide rule.

              • Bret Johns

                Hey they went to the Moon using calculations done on a slide rule.

            • We’re no better sometimes. We still use 45 yards for interception penalties when the real number is probably much high than that today (and much lower in the 70s or 40s). This is one of the reason Danny Tuccitto’s work is so important – we need checks and balances.

        • Richie

          Interesting, I am going to check out that column.

          • The Rice section is near the end.

  • Richie

    “Mark Duper was born Mark Dupas.”

    I did not know that.

  • Richie

    Slight nitpick on Anquan Boldin. You said he caught at least 50 passes in each of his first 10 years (now 13 years), but mostly from HOF QB’s. Kurt Warner was the leading QB for only 4 of his 7 Arizona seasons. Maybe Flacco is HOF level, but I don’t think so. He had 3 seasons with Flacco. Then the last 3 seasons in San Francisco with Kaepernick/Gabbert.

    I’m not sure how much of a beneficiary he is of HOF QB play.

    • Hmm, I’m not sure where you got “mostly” from. The article says Boldin and co. “played in much more
      favorable passing environments, and they played with Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks, which Clark did not.” That seems accurate to me.

      I do broadly agree that it’s probably not accurate to consider Boldin a significant beneficiary of excellent QB play, and I’ll have more to say about him in the ’00s article.