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Larry Fitzgerald, innocent bystander

In the preseason, I wrote a post showing what percentage of each receiver’s receiving yards came from each of their quarterbacks. Using that same methodology, here’s an updated look at the quarterbacks responsible for Larry Fitzgerald’s career numbers entering week 14. The second receiving yards column (and second games column) shows the percentage of Fitzgerald’s receiving yards came (and games) that came from that quarterback:1

QBRec YdsRec YdGGYd/G
Kurt Warner457244%53.539%85.5
John Skelton125812%15.611%80.6
Josh McCown121512%19.715%61.6
Kevin Kolb100810%12.99%78.4
Matt Leinart99810%14.110%70.6
Derek Anderson6096%9.57%64.2
Max Hall1521%2.12%71.7
Shaun King1121%1.81%61.4
Richard Bartel991%1.11%90.3
Tim Rattay871%0.91%97.1
Ryan Lindley621%2.72%22.7
John Navarre611%1.61%38.7

Fitzgerald ran away when he heard who his quarterback was going to be.

On Sunday, the Cardinals went into Seattle and played the type of game that leads people to wonder if a college football team could beat the worst NFL team. Coming into the game, Larry Fitzgerald had recorded a reception in 129 consecutive games, the second longest streak in football behind Tony Gonzalez. Against the Seahawks, Fitzgerald was kept off the stat sheet until seven minutes remained, and, when trailing 51-0, Ryan Lindley completed a two-yard pass to Fitzgerald to keep the streak alive. Fitzgerald, perhaps the best wide receiver of his era, has now recorded one catch in three of his last four games.

In 13 games this season, Fitzgerald has just 652 yards, an average of 50.1 yards per game. Entering week 14, Fitzgerald ranked 40th in receiving yards, and we can safely assume he is no longer ranked in the top forty.

How rare is it for an elite receiver to have such a miserable season at the age of 29? First we need to define what ‘elite’ means without asking ESPN. I came up with a quick and dirty system where I gave a receiver credit for his receiving yards over the Nth ranked receiver, where N represents the number of teams in the league in that season. For example, in 2011 Calvin Johnson receives credit for 794 yards, since he gained 1,681 yards and the 32nd receiver gained 887 yards. If you gained fewer yards than the Nth best receiver, you get zero yards for that season. The table below shows the career leaders using this formula (excluding 2012), and the column on the right pro-rates the data for non-16-game seasons.

RkPlayerYards over NProrated
1Jerry Rice77617789
2Don Hutson49877404
3Randy Moss45674567
4Marvin Harrison43694369
5Torry Holt43204320
6Lance Alworth34793976
7Terrell Owens38033803
8Michael Irvin36903690
9James Lofton34433647
10Steve Largent35573640
11Don Maynard31263573
12Isaac Bruce35323532
13Jimmy Smith34253425
14Tim Brown33583358
15Chad Johnson31643164
16Henry Ellard30673076
17Reggie Wayne30203020
18Jim Benton19102906
19Larry Fitzgerald28852885
20Art Powell24382786
21Rod Smith27732773
22Cris Carter27702770
23Steve Smith27052705
24Andre Johnson25752575
25Sterling Sharpe25592559
26Herman Moore25572557
27Gary Clark25242551
28Mac Speedie20622519
29Del Shofner19702426
30Charley Hennigan21032403
31Harold Jackson21162378
32Wes Chandler19032354
33Raymond Berry17152262
34Charlie Joiner20402209
35Billy Howton16552207
36Lionel Taylor19182192
37John Gilliam19092182
38Andre Reed21362142
39Roddy White21352135
40Bobby Mitchell18672134
41Art Monk20852085
42Derrick Mason20702070
43Bob Hayes18102069
44Joe Horn20472047
45Elroy Hirsch15252031
46Mark Clayton19982006
47Drew Hill19631985
48Cliff Branch16511941
49Donald Driver19201920
50Andre Rison19151915

Now that we have our set of top receivers, let’s look for comparables to Fitzgerald. To avoid looking at players who had poor seasons for age or injury reasons, for these 50 players, I limited the data to just their seasons between the ages of 27 and 31 and excluded all seasons where the receiver played in fewer than ten games. The table below lists, for each wide receiver, his worst season between the ages of 27 and 31, his rank in that Worst Year, his receiving yards, age, team, and quarterback during that season, and his production the next year.

RkPlayerProratedYearWorstYrYardsAgeTmQBN+1 RkN+1 Yd
19Larry Fitzgerald2885201229ARIJohn Skelton
43Bob Hayes2069197211220030DALCraig Morton56360
47Drew Hill198519849539028RAMJeff Kemp51169
37John Gilliam218219769029231ATLScott Hunter160133
26Herman Moore255720008943431DETCharlie Batch26576
46Mark Clayton200619908640629MIADan Marino101053
23Steve Smith270520108155431CARJimmy Clausen51394
3Randy Moss456720067355329OAKAndrew Walter21493
15Chad Johnson316420087254030CINRyan Fitzpatrick201047
50Andre Rison191519986754231KANRich Gannon162218
44Joe Horn204719996558627KANElvis Grbac81340
34Charlie Joiner220919745939027CINKen Anderson17726
49Donald Driver192020035162128GNBBrett Favre101208
32Wes Chandler235419844270828SDGDan Fouts41199
6Lance Alworth397619713848731DALRoger Staubach115195
22Cris Carter277019923768127MINRich Gannon71071
29Del Shofner242619653638831NYGEarl Morrall13819
30Charley Hennigan240319663331331HOUGeorge Blanda
48Cliff Branch194119773154029OAKKen Stabler26709
35Billy Howton220719603136330DALEddie LeBaron16785
31Harold Jackson237819743051428RAMJames Harris7786
16Henry Ellard307619923072731RAMJim Everett13945
27Gary Clark255119932681831PHOSteve Beuerlein35771
9James Lofton364719862584030GNBRandy Wright10880
21Rod Smith2773199924102029DENBrian Griese21602
8Michael Irvin369019962396230DALTroy Aikman91180
38Andre Reed214219932385429BUFJim Kelly51303
42Derrick Mason2070200221101228TENSteve McNair51303
36Lionel Taylor219219662044831DENJohn McCormick36233
33Raymond Berry226219621968729BALJohnny Unitas20703
41Art Monk208519881894631WASDoug Williams101186
12Isaac Bruce3532200117110629STLKurt Warner171075
17Reggie Wayne3020200517105527INDPeyton Manning31310
28Mac Speedie251919501454830CLEOtto Graham6589
25Sterling Sharpe2559199414111929GNBBrett Favre
7Terrell Owens3803200313110230SFOJeff Garcia111200
39Roddy White2135200913115328ATLMatt Ryan21389
14Tim Brown3358199613110430OAKJeff Hostetler21408
45Elroy Hirsch203119521259029RAMNorm Van Brocklin2941
13Jimmy Smith3425200012121331JAXMark Brunell41373
10Steve Largent3640198312107429SEADave Krieg81164
18Jim Benton290619471251131RAMBob Waterfield
11Don Maynard357319631078028NYJDick Wood10847
5Torry Holt4320200710118931STLMarc Bulger39796
40Bobby Mitchell21341965886730WASSonny Jurgensen7905
24Andre Johnson257520106121629HOUMatt Schaub92492
4Marvin Harrison436920006141328INDPeyton Manning21524
20Art Powell278619665102629OAKTom Flores25346
1Jerry Rice778919913120629SFOSteve Young31201
2Don Hutson74041940266427GNBCecil Isbell1738

Leaving aside Drew Hill, who did not have his first big year until his age 29 season, there are three players who had miserable years during the prime of their careers and then rebounded with a top-ten season the next year.

  • In 1988 and 1989, Mark Clayton gained 2,140 receiving yards, but in 1990, he had just 406 yards in 10 games. Part of that was due to a knee injury, but even on a per-game basis Clayton struggled. Dan Marino also had a down year, with the lowest Y/A average of his career (excluding his age 37 and 38 seasons). But in 1991, Marino and Clayton rebounded. Still, since a 51-year-old Marino is an upgrade over Ryan Lindley, this isn’t a very useful comparison.
  • Steve Smith was one of the game’s best receivers a few years ago, but many thought he was washed up after a horrible 2010 season. Like the 2012 Cardinals, the 2010 Panthers ranked last in NY/A, and Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore were terrible. Smith gained just 554 yards and 2 touchdowns in 14 games, but in 2011, with Cam Newton, Smith made the Pro Bowl and gained 1,394 yards.
  • You’d be hard pressed to find two players with more different personalities than Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss; the Cardinals star has never had any ‘play when he wants to play’ drama tarnishing his good name. But the similarities between the two are striking. Both entered the NFL at the age of 21 and were superstars early in their careers. But at age 29, in Moss’ second season in Oakland, he bottomed out and caught 42 passes for 553 yards and 3 touchdowns in 13 games, nearly identical to Fitzgerald’s production so far during his age 29 season. Like the 2010 Panthers and 2012 Cardinals, the 2006 Raiders ranked 32nd in net yards per attempt. The following season Moss was traded to New England, and enjoyed a career revival with Tom Brady. In 2007, he gained 1,493 yards and caught 23 touchdowns.

Fitzgerald’s monster contact makes a trade just about impossible, although it is tantalizing to imagine what Fitzgerald could do in New England. Arizona is likely to finish with a top-five pick this season, so we’ll see if they can go the Cam Newton route and find a franchise quarterback for him in the draft. The other alternatives aren’t very enticing. But the bottom line is right now, Fitzgerald is an innocent bystander in the Cardinals quarterback train wreck.

  1. Note: To determine quarterback games, I gave each quarterback credit for his number of pass attempts in each game divided by the team’s total number of attempts in the game. []
  • Chase Stuart

    Another interesting note when looking at Fitzgerald, Steve Smith and Moss.

    In 2006, Ronald Curry actually averaged 45.4 yards per game to Moss’ 42.5 yards per game.

    For the 2010 Panthers, David Gettis had 508 yards/3 TDs to Smith’s 554 yards/2 TDs.

    One could argue that even in a horrible situation, you should still be able to be the star on your own team. Obviously that’s just a generalization, and a player like Moss playing on a team with a bad OL and a quarterback with a bad deep ball was going to struggle, but I still remember thinking how odd it was that Curry had better numbers.

    Well this year, Andre freakin’ Roberts has more receiving yards than Larry Fitzgerald.

    • Andrew

      I would say that this phenomenon of the second or even third best reciever on a team outperforming the guy who was clearly better at his job is more a matter of the quarterbacking situation and what they are more likely to do when they’re not very good. The number one reciever is typically the one running the deepest, most complicated routes. Unfortunately, this also often results in throws to them being the most difficult. Add to that that all of these teams had terrible offensive lines, forcing the QB to throw to whomever he saw first (i.e. the short route) and I think that explains it. Of course, you have to then wonder why the coaching staff isn’t trying to get the number one more involved in the short passing game, especially when you have a guy like Steve Smith or Randy Moss who is so fast that a short pass can easily become a long play. Oh, and when the second best reciever on a team is David Gettis or Ronald Curry, I’m just triple teaming Moss or Smith and daring them to throw to the other guy. Because why not?

      • Richie

        Also, I assume Fitzgerald is getting covered by more and better defensive backs than anybody else on Arizona.

        • Chase Stuart

          I think you guys hit on the likely explanations. I will note a couple of countervailing thoughts:

          — People love to talk about how a great quarterback “hit so many weapons” on a drive or in a game. Spreading the ball around is arguably a sign of good quarterback play because…

          — It’s often expected (rightly or wrongly) that a backup QB will have tunnel vision on the team’s #1 WR. The assumption is he isn’t as good as reading the defense and therefore just focuses on his number one read.

          — Calvin Johnson.

          That said, I think those are just general trends, and in the cases of Moss, Smith, and Fitzgerald, I think your explanations are probably right.

        • Richie

          Sorry, I missed Andrew’s last sentence about triple teaming.

  • Richie

    Is Vince Young wrong? Couldn’t he help?

    • Chase Stuart

      I believe the correct answer is “he couldn’t hurt.”