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Did you just grab my torch?

Did you just grab my torch?

Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. From time to time, a franchise with a star wide receiver manages to draft another one. At that point, we just wait and see how long it takes the young pup to steal the spotlight. Everyone succumbs to age, and eventually, the torch will be passed to the younger receiver. Even the GOAT wasn’t immune to Father Time (well, at least while he was in SF), as Terrell Owens eventually surpassed Jerry Rice as the 49ers top wideout.

Last year, Julio Jones and Roddy White both finished in the top 12 in fantasy points scored by wide receivers (using the formula 0.5 point per reception, 0.1 points per yard, and 6 points per touchdown). Since 1970, there have been 20 different pairs of wide receivers who met the following criteria:

  • Each wide receiver finished in the top 12 in fantasy points (using a 0.5 PPR scoring system)
  • The receivers were at least four years apart in age; and
  • The younger receiver was 26 year old or younger.

2012 FalconsJulio Jones (23) and Roddy White (31) (Matt Ryan)

Let’s start with the most recent entry.  At just 23 years old, Jones has established himself as one of the game’s best wide receivers.  White is presumably on the downside of his career, but he’s had a remarkable run.  Wide receiver numbers must be adjusted for era, but here’s a fun stat: White has topped 80 catches, 1100 yards, and 6 touchdowns in six straight seasons (2007-2012), a feat previously accomplished by only Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice.

2007 PatriotsWes Welker (26) and Randy Moss (30) (Tom Brady)

The Patriots traded for Welker and Moss in the 2007 off-season, one of the best pair of trades ever executed.  For three straight years, Welker and Moss were top-twelve fantasy receivers.1  In 2010, a 33-year-old Moss wore out of his welcome and was traded to the Vikings.  After the 2012 season, the Pats opted not to resign Welker, choosing to sign the younger Danny Amendola, a potential (but far from guaranteed) Welker clone.

2004 TitansDrew Bennett (26) and Derrick Mason (30) (Billy Volek)

One of the all-time fluky stretches.  After Steve McNair was lost for the season, Bennett and Volek lit up the scoreboard.  In three straight losses, Bennett caught 28 passes for 517 yards and 8 touchdowns that was no more believable then than it is now. Volek threw for 1,187 yards and 11 touchdowns in those three games, but neither player was ever able to recapture that magic with any sort of consistency. Bennett never had another 1,000-yard season, while Mason would hit that mark four more times in his career after 2004.

2004 ColtsReggie Wayne (26) and Marvin Harrison (32) (Peyton Manning)

This feels like a good comparison to Jones/White, although Wayne didn’t have his breakout season until his age 26 year. The 2004 Colts were the 2004 Colts, of course, so even Brandon Stokley got in on the action with a 1,000-yard season. But the torch wasn’t about to be passed: Harrison, after scoring more fantasy points in ’04, out-produced Wayne in both 2005 and 2006, too.  Just when it seemed like Wayne would always play the role of Robin, Harrison’s career fell off the map, starting with a knee injury suffered against the Broncos in 2007. Wayne led the league in receiving yards in 2007, while Harrison was limited to just five games.  In ’08, Wayne had another big year, while Harrison produced 636 yards in his final season.

2000 RamsTorry Holt (24) and Isaac Bruce (28) (Kurt Warner)

The second comparison that “feels” similar to Jones and White, although again, the ages do not really match up.  Holt was only four years younger than Bruce, a gap that always felt much larger than that. Bruce wouldn’t go away for awhile — he averaged 75-1,114-6 from 2001 to 2004 — but Holt almost always produced better numbers.  Looking back, it’s hard to see how anyone could ever complain about Holt’s numbers, but at the time, there was a sense for years that Holt was more 1A/1B with Bruce than the team’s top wideout. Part of the reason is because Bruce, despite his struggles early in his career, wound up being a much more durable receiver. Holt had one of the earliest declines for a Hall of Fame caliber receiver: he retired after his age 33 season, and caught just three touchdowns after his age 31 year.

1998 49ersTerrell Owens (25) and Jerry Rice (36) (Steve Young)

This was your classic changing of the guard scenario, and the cherry came when Owens made The Catch II to defeat the Packers in the playoffs.  Rice had just 830 and 805 yards in ’99 and ’00 with the 49ers, before experiencing a career revival across the Bay with the Raiders. Owens, after a breakout ’98, slumped in ’99, before embarking on an incredible nine-year stretch from 2000 to 2008. Of course, due to him being T.O., he was only with San Francisco until 2003.

1998 VikingsRandy Moss (21) and Cris Carter (33) (Randall Cunningham)

Probably the best comparison in terms of “feel” to Jones and White.  Moss and Carter actually qualify in both 1999 and 2000, too, with Jeff George and Daunte Culpepper in those seasons. Jones may not be in the Randy Moss/Calvin Johnson genetic pool, but he and fellow 2011 classmate A.J. Green aren’t very far behind.  It’s hard to say that Jones and White are better than a pair of Hall of Famers, but the Falcons duo is no more than a tier behind. Jones isn’t as explosive as Moss was (who is?) and White isn’t the possession receiver Carter was (who is?) but both may have more well-rounded games.  In 2012, you might be surprised to learn that White averaged 11.2 air yards per catch and 3.6 yards after the catch, while Jones was at 9.3 and 5.9, respectively.2 In other words, Atlanta likes to throw the ball down the field to White and run more screen passes to Jones than you might think. The two are complete wide receivers, instead of complementary parts (like a Carter (or Welker) and Moss).

There was no “passing of the torch” in Minnesota because Moss was arguably a better player from day one. Carter produced three strong seasons with Moss, a mediocre one in 2001, and then finished out his career with a forgettable season in Miami in 2002.

1995 LionsHerman Moore (26) and Brett Perriman (30) (Scott Mitchell)

From 1989 to 1994, the Lions ran the Run-and-Shoot offense under Mouse Davis and then Dave Levy.3 In 1995, Fontes again reassigned to Levy to the role of assistant head coach. This time, quarterbacks coach and future Peyton Manning-whisperer Tom Moore was promoted to offensive coordinator. That season, Mitchell, Moore, Perriman, and Barry Sanders helped the Lions lead the league with 6,113 yards.

Moore, like Julio Jones, was a former top-ten pick, but it took him a little while to turn into a superstar. But from ’95 to ’97, Moore was a first-team All-Pro, while Perriman would lose his job to Johnnie Morton and was out of the league after 1997. Moore’s career totals may not be impressive, but by some measures, he was a top-twenty wide receiver in league history.

1992 FalconsMike Pritchard (23) and Michael Haynes (27) (Chris Miller)

From ’91 to ’96, Atlanta ran the Run-and-Shoot under June Jones. The ’92 Falcons did not have a tight end and no running back gained even 100 receiving yards. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that they’re the only team since the merger to have three top-twelve fantasy wide receivers: 23-year-old Mike Pritchard (77-827-5), 25-year-old Andre Rison (93-1119-11), and 27-year-old Michael Haynes (48-808-10). As you can see, Rison was the superstar, Pritchard the possession receiver, and Haynes the deep threat.

The three receivers had a strong follow-up season, but the core unraveled after 1993. With a new salary cap in place and Pritchard likely to leave after the season, Atlanta traded him to Denver on draft day in 1994. Haynes, already a free agent, also joined his hometown team, signing a big contract with the Saints. A year later, Rison signed the richest contract ever by a wide receiver to join the Browns. That didn’t work out too well, either.

1987 OilersErnest Givins (23) and Drew Hill (31) (Warren Moon)

Hill, the 4th wide receiver on the ’92 Falcons, experienced a breakout season at age 29 when he joined the Oilers in 1985. From ’85 to ’91, Hill averaged 69 catches, 1,068 yards, and 7 touchdowns, staying productive through age 35. In ’86, Houston selected Givins with the 34th overall pick, and he set what would be a career high with 1,062 yards that season. In 1987, Houston was not yet a run-and-shoot offense (although June Jones was the quarterbacks coach), but the pieces — Moon, Hills, and Givins — were being put into place. Givings may not have topped 1,000 yards again, but he was a remarkably consistent force, and from ’87 to ’93, averaged 64 catches, 907 yards, and 6 scores. 1987 was a strike-shortened season, but Hill and Givins combined for 160 receiving yards per game. The duo kept playing well, but the torch was never passed — Hill was generally the better player, and then Haywood Jeffires and Curtis Duncan made them a dynamic quartet.

Who knows when White will pass the torch to Jones, although most expect that to happen this year. That’s not a knock on White, of course, but a nod to the elite talents of Jones and understanding of player age curves. I thought it would be fun to go back and review some of the more recent cases of “similar” players, but let me close with some older examples. If you want to add your stories in the comments for any of the following pairs – they all meet the criteria from the beginning of this post — I’d enjoy reading them.

1986 JetsAl Toon (23) and Wesley Walker (31) (Ken O’Brien)
1984 SteelersLouis Lipps (22) and John Stallworth (32) (Mark Malone)
1981 ChargersWes Chandler (25) and Charlie Joiner (34) (Dan Fouts)
1981 49ersDwight Clark (24) and Freddie Solomon (28) (Joe Montana)
1980 ChargersJohn Jefferson (24) and Charlie Joiner (33) (Dan Fouts)
1979 CowboysTony Hill (23) and Drew Pearson (28) (Roger Staubach)
1978 VikingsSammy White (24) and Ahmad Rashad (29) (Fran Tarkenton)
1975 RedskinsFrank Grant (25) and Charley Taylor (34) (Billy Kilmer)
1974 RaidersCliff Branch (26) and Fred Biletnikoff (31) (Ken Stabler)
1970 ColtsEddie Hinton (23) and Roy Jefferson (27) (Johnny Unitas)

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  1. Welker was too old for the combo to qualify in ’08 and ’09. If you removed the age limits from the above criteria, we would also bring in these combos: Wes Welker and Randy Moss (2008, 2009 Patriots), Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison (2006 Colts), Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce (2004 Rams), Tim Brown and Jerry Rice (2001 Raiders), Haywood Jeffires and Drew Hill (1991 Oilers), Andre Reed and James Lofton (1991 Bills), and Gary Clark and Art Monk (1989, 1991 Redskins). []
  2. Courtesy of NFLGSIS. []
  3. Well, for most of those years. After the embarrassing loss in the NFCCG to the Redskins, Wayne Fontes hired Dan Henning to run the offense in 1992. Levy was named assistant head coach, but Fontes fired Henning in December 1993 and reinstated Levy. []
  • JuanDanger

    I remember the ’95 Lions. They were a fun team to watch. Scott Mitchell in 1995 was one of the great fluke seasons in NFL history (do you have a list like that already?). He really looked like he justified his huge free agent contract in the last half of the season, but then forever turned back into a pumpkin starting with the playoffs that year.

    Herman Moore was a great receiver that everyone in Detroit has forgotten about (who could be occupying their attention at that position these days?) . If he had a half-decent quarterback during his time in Detroit, he could have been Hall of Fame material (in my opinion).

    • Kibbles

      In honor of Steve Beuerlein’s birthday this year, I came up with a list of some of the all-time fluke performances. Beuerlein, for those who forgot, was the reason Kurt Warner and the GSoT Rams didn’t lead the league in passing yardage in 1999. Beuerlein’s best season was 4400 passing yards (back when topping 4000 was a huge deal), his second best was 3700 passing yards, his third best was 3100 passing yards, his fourth best was 2600 passing yards, and his fifth best was just 1600 passing yards. Those 1999 Panthers also gave us Patrick Jeffers, who had 63/1082/12 receiving in 1999 and 35/481/2 for the rest of his career combined.

      Another fun one was the 1996 Bizarro-World Baltimore Ravens, who had a top-3 offense and a bottom-3 defense, featured flash-in-the-pan star receiver Michael Jackson (no, the other Michael Jackson), and got Vinny Testaverde his only season over 4,000 yards or 30 TDs (as well as his first of two career pro bowls).

      Ladell Betts once produced 1600 yards from scrimmage. Chris Chandler averaged NINE POINT SIX yards per attempt in 1998 (the second best total since 1954- I still cannot comprehend this), Charles White lead the league in rushing in 1987 (with a huge assist to the players’ strike), and Damon Huard threw just one INT on 244 attempts in 2006, setting the league record for int% at a microscopic 0.4%.

      Looking at a more micro scale, David Patton had a game in 2001 where he had 117 yards and 2 TDs receiving, 29 yards and 1 TD rushing, and 60 yards and 1 TD passing. He threw two pass attempts that season, one of which resulted in a 60 yard TD and the other of which resulted in an INT. His QB rating was still 95.8. You also had the game where Derrick Blaylock and Priest Holmes both scored 4 rushing touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons. I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like that again.

      Or, you have one of my favorite fluke performances of all time. Miami played the Houston Texans in 2008. In the span of 15 minutes, quarterback Chad Pennington connected with fullback Patrick Cobbs for TWO touchdowns of 50+ yards. Those two passes represented a third of Cobbs’ career receiving yards. It was sort of like the famous Randy Moss game against Dallas in his rookie year, except that instead of Randall Cunningham to Randy Moss, it was Chad Pennington to Patrick Cobbs.

      Out of all of them, if I were giving an award for biggest fluke, and with all due respect to the Beuerlein/Jeffers Panthers of 1999, I’d have to give it to that completely incomprehensible 1998 season from Chris Chandler. Seriously, 9.6 yards per attempt, 9.52 adjusted yards per attempt. I have to keep rereading the numbers, because my brain rejects them outright.

      • Chase Stuart

        Awesome stuff.

      • JeremyDe

        Great list.

        The totality of Chandler’s career was a bit strange. 17 years, 152 starts, started at least 2 games all 17 seasons….8 teams. Has any QB come close to starting for 8 different teams (counting the 2 stints with the Rams separate since there was a 10 year gap)?

        • JuanDanger

          I remember early in his career, the book on Chandler was that he was a talented player, but also an injury-prone headcase. (hence the nickname Christal Chandelier). He finally matured, stayed healthy, and was in the best possible circumstances with that ’98 team. If Jamaal Anderson hadn’t gotten hurt in in ’99, Chandler may have had a sustained Rich Gannon-type late career surge.

      • JuanDanger

        Great list, thanks for that. I remember that Chandler had a really good year in leading the Falcons to the Superbowl, but I never realized how good before. I remember that Falcons team had a nigh-unstoppable running game, which let Chandler to a lot of play-action mad bombing. The following year, Jamal Anderson got hurt, some guy named Ken Oxendine started a bunch at tailback, and that was the end of that.

  • JuanDanger

    One correction in your footnotes, Wayne Fontes fired Dan Henning in December ’93, not ’92.