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Harrison actually caught this pass.

Harrison actually caught this pass.

In a couple of weeks, the newest class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be announced. Only five modern-era wide receivers have been selected enshrinement on their first ballot: Jerry Rice, Paul Warfield, Steve Largent, Raymond Berry, and Lance Alworth. This year, in his first year of eligibility, Marvin Harrison is one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I suspect the majority will view Harrison as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but there are a few minority voices who disagree.

As best as I can surmise, there are three primary reasons why Harrison shouldn’t be selected in 2014. Two of those reasons can be addressed rather easily, but let’s start with the more complicated issue to analyze.

Harrison’s numbers are inflated because of Peyton Manning

Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver of all time. Rice was probably better at his position than any football player has ever been at theirs. Rice might be the most dominant sportsman of his generation. Rice probably isn’t in the discussion of greatest athletes in the history of mankind, which is about the only negative thing I’m willing to say about him. All of that is important background to say, being worse than Jerry Rice is not a negative, but just a fact of life as a wide receiver.

We all know that Harrison benefited greatly from playing alongside Peyton Manning, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time. Roughly 87% of Harrison’s receiving yards came from passes out of Manning’s right arm. I’m not going to try to tell you how much of a discount rate should be applied to Harrison’s numbers because of Manning. Instead, let’s work the opposite way.

Take a moment and create a mental picture of a first-ballot Hall of Fame wide receiver. Now, put that receiver with Peyton Manning for a decade. What sort of numbers would this receiver produce? We know he couldn’t become the most statistically dominant receiver ever. But would he be number two? Number three?

Harrison isn’t the only wide receiver to spend most of his time with a Hall of Fame quarterback, of course. We all know that Rice was able to spend much of his career catching passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young, but he’s not alone, either. Several Hall of Fame wide receivers gained the majority of their receiving yards from Hall of Famers, including Charlie Joiner (63% of his receiving yards from Dan Fouts and 11% from normative HOFer Ken Anderson), Michael Irvin (79%, Troy Aikman), Don Maynard (52%, Joe Namath), Charley Taylor (67%, Sonny Jurgensen), and Raymond Berry (58%, Johnny Unitas). In Pittsburgh, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth had the chance to catch passes from Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw and play opposite shutdown defenses that helped them earn four rings. Hall of Fame hopeful Andre Reed had 71% of his receiving yards came from Jim Kelly, while future HOF hopeful Reggie Wayne has spent nearly his whole career catching passes from Manning or Andrew Luck.

Better hands than Crabtree?

Better hands than Crabtree?

But, for the sake of argument, I’m willing to set the bar pretty high for Harrison. We know that no one can touch Rice. And I’m going to exclude Don Hutson from the discussion, since well, he’s already entrenched in the innermost circle of the Hall of Fame and did most of his work in the pre-WWII era. But I think it’s pretty easy to make the case that Harrison is the second most statistically accomplished wide receiver since 1950. And if that’s the case, how can he be excluded from Canton? After all, he’d be doing exactly what the mythical first-ballot HOF wide receiver would have done.

So, let’s get to the threshold question: is Harrison the second-most dominant wide receiver, at least statistically? Looking at career totals places too much of an emphasis on longevity and is biased in favor of more modern players, but there are several ways of measuring wide receiver dominance. Let’s start with a Gray Ink test, which assigns points for finishing in the top ten in a category in a given season (a tenth-place finish is worth 1 point, a ninth-place finish worth 2, and so on). For example, in 2000, Harrison led the league in receptions (worth 10 points), finished 6th in receiving yards (5 points), and 2nd in receiving touchdowns (9 points). So for that season, he gets 24 points. Two years later, he led the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards and ranked 3rd in touchdowns, giving him 28 points for his work in 2002. I did this for every season of his career, and for every season of every other wide receiver’s career since 1950.

This method is very biased in favor of receivers who played in smaller leagues. Lance Alworth, Maynard, and Art Powell played the majority of their careers in the AFL, which had between 8 and 10 teams. To indicate those players who are at an obvious advantage, I’ve listed (1) the first and last year of each wide receiver’s career and (2) in the far right column the percentage of each player’s total points that came from their time in the AFL. Those three each finish in the top five, along with Rice and… Harrison.

RkReceiverFirstLastRecRec YdRec TDPts% AFL
1Jerry Rice1985200486105982890%
2Lance Alworth19621972546452170100%
3Marvin Harrison199620084949701680%
4Don Maynard19581973466160167100%
5Art Powell19601968535553161100%
6Randy Moss199820122057771540%
7Raymond Berry195519675940411400%
8Steve Largent197619893746521350%
9Cris Carter198720025316621310%
10Lionel Taylor19601968594423126100%
11Tommy McDonald195719683339511230%
12Billy Wilson195119605441281230%
13Terrell Owens199620101526721130%
14Del Shofner195819673443351120%
15Bobby Mitchell195819684934281110%
16Charley Taylor196419775526291100%
17Sterling Sharpe198819943633371060%
18Fred Biletnikoff1965197838284010642.5%
19Billy Howton195219634339231050%
20Charley Hennigan19601966333735105100%
21Torry Holt19992009334620990%
22Bob Hayes19651975133549970%
23Pete Pihos19501955342932950%
24Larry Fitzgerald20042013323329940%
25Andre Rison19892000312240930%
26Otis Taylor196519743132299258.7%
27Lenny Moore19561967273230890%
28Andre Johnson2003201348383890%
29Calvin Johnson20072013173634870%
30Tim Brown19882004283127860%
31Chris Burford1960196733203285100%
32Elroy Hirsch19501957233032850%
33Kellen Winslow19791987372126840%
34Reggie Wayne20012013283916830%
35Paul Warfield1964197772947830%
36Wes Welker2005201353236820%
37Michael Irvin19881999274113810%
38Brandon Marshall20062013431817780%
39Harold Jackson19691983223421770%
40Herman Moore19912001332419760%
41Harold Carmichael19711984161842760%
42Sonny Randle19591968212232750%
43Mark Clayton19831993101744710%
44Gary Garrison19661977933297139.4%
45John Stallworth19741987152630710%
46Harlon Hill19541962152629700%
47Pete Retzlaff19561966292417700%
48George Sauer1965197032251370100%
49Gary Clark19851995133422690%
50Rod Smith19952006272417680%

Of the top 20 names on this list, thirteen began their careers in 1965 or earlier, when league sizes were significantly smaller. The other seven names are Rice, Harrison, Randy Moss, Steve Largent, Cris Carter, Terrell Owens, and Sterling Sharpe. That’s a pretty good sampling of the most dominant receivers of the last 40 years, and Harrison has everyone beat other than Rice. (By the way, did you notice that Rice is over 100 points ahead of everyone else!)

The Gray Ink test is simple to understand but obviously has some drawbacks. Here’s another method, which measures excellence and controls for different league sizes. For every season since 1950, N represents the number of teams in that league. Then, I made N/2 (rounded up, if necessary) represent the baseline wide receiver: so in 2013, WR16 is the baseline, while it’s WR5 when we’re discussing the 1966 AFL and WR14 when looking at the 1977 NFL.  Then, determine who is the baseline wide receiver in each season in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns (a different receiver in each statistic, of course), and the give every wide receiver who finished above the baseline credit only for their production above the baseline. Finally, we sum the totals for a career grade.

Let’s begin with receptions. This season, Pierre Garcon led the NFL with 113 catches, while the person with the 16th most receptions in 2013 had 85. That means Garcon is credited with 28 catches above the baseline. The best single season since 1950 using this method came from Harrison in 2002, when he caught 143 passes and the baseline receiver had 81 receptions. That means Harrison gets marked down for +62 for that season (as an aside, how insane is it that Harrison caught one in every 72 completed passes in the NFL that year). Over the course of his career, Harrison caught 189 passes over the baseline. That’s third since 1950, behind only Rice and receptions machine Wes Welker. Take a look at the leaders:

RkReceiverFirst YrLast YrRec
1Jerry Rice19852004248
2Wes Welker20052013191
3Marvin Harrison19962008189
4Cris Carter19872002162
5Andre Johnson20032013140
6Lionel Taylor19601968138
7Brandon Marshall20062013126
8Sterling Sharpe19881994115
9Torry Holt19992009112
10Reggie Wayne20012013110
11Herman Moore19912001108
12Jimmy Smith1995200597
13Tim Brown1988200494
14Raymond Berry1955196790
14Larry Fitzgerald2004201390
16Kellen Winslow1979198785
17Michael Irvin1988199983
17Art Monk1980199583
19Randy Moss1998201282
19Roddy White2005201382
21Rod Smith1995200681
21Todd Christensen1981198881
21Hines Ward1998201181
24Charley Taylor1964197780
24Tony Gonzalez1997201380
26Lydell Mitchell1972198079
26Jason Witten2003201379
28Andre Rison1989200067
29Charley Hennigan1960196666
29Steve Largent1976198966
29Anquan Boldin2003201366
32Chad Johnson2001201164
32Derrick Mason1997201164
34Dwight Clark1979198763
35J.T. Smith1979199062
36Haywood Jeffires1987199660
37Billy Wilson1951196058
37Lance Alworth1962197258
37Al Toon1985199258
40Calvin Johnson2007201356
40Roger Craig1983199356
42Terrell Owens1996201055
42Ozzie Newsome1978199055
44Isaac Bruce1994200952
44Rickey Young1975198352
46Keenan McCardell1992200751
47Andre Reed1985200050
47Muhsin Muhammad1996200950
49Ahmad Rashad1972198249
49T.J. Houshmandzadeh2001201149

We can do the same thing for receiving yards. The best season comes from Elroy Hirsch, who had 1,495 receiving yards in the 12-team NFL in 1951. That was 906 more yards than the receiver who ranked 6th in receiving yards! Harrison’s best year came in 2002, when he produced 634 yards over the baseline. I think receiving yards is the best of the three receiving stats to judge wide receivers, and in this metric, only Rice is ahead of Harrison. Welker, who narrowly edged Harrison in receptions over the baseline, comes in at #26 in this metric. Of note: Megatron is already in sixth place on the career list.

RkReceiverFirst YrLast YrRec Yd
1Jerry Rice198520044821
2Marvin Harrison199620082517
3Randy Moss199820122411
4Torry Holt199920092318
5Michael Irvin198819992203
6Calvin Johnson200720132168
7Andre Johnson200320132011
8Lance Alworth196219721872
9James Lofton197819931791
10Steve Largent197619891763
11Reggie Wayne200120131553
12Chad Johnson200120111544
13Isaac Bruce199420091515
14Don Maynard195819731496
15Steve Smith200120131471
16Jimmy Smith199520051460
17Sterling Sharpe198819941436
17Larry Fitzgerald200420131436
19Henry Ellard198319981421
20Terrell Owens199620101376
21Tim Brown198820041370
22Roddy White200520131296
23Herman Moore199120011228
24Gary Clark198519951222
25Del Shofner195819671166
26Wes Welker200520131148
27Charley Hennigan196019661098
28Elroy Hirsch195019571097
29Brandon Marshall200620131085
30John Gilliam196719771077
31Billy Howton195219631066
32Wes Chandler197819881034
33Rod Smith199520061006
34Harlon Hill195419621004
35Raymond Berry19551967999
36Cliff Branch19721984976
37Bob Hayes19651975972
38Bobby Mitchell19581968930
39Roy Green19791992928
40Cris Carter19872002917
41Harold Jackson19691983906
42Andre Rison19892000868
43Otis Taylor19651974864
44Drew Hill19791993858
45Anquan Boldin20032013852
46Kellen Winslow19791987828
47Art Monk19801995823
48Drew Pearson19731983819
49Joe Horn19962007818
50John Stallworth19741987785
51Gene A. Washington19691979779
52Mike Quick19821990778
53John Jefferson19781985758
54Mark Clayton19831993754
55Charlie Joiner19691986750
56Homer Jones19641970745
57Art Powell19601968737
58Billy Wilson19511960736
59Harold Carmichael19711984726
60Carlos Carson19801989708
61Mark Duper19831992705
62Eric Moulds19962007692
63Gary Garrison19661977668
64Stanley Morgan19771990655
65Santana Moss20012013646
66Warren Wells19641970643
67Ken Burrough19701981620
68Tommy McDonald19571968617
69Irving Fryar19842000614
70Charley Taylor19641977612
71Lionel Taylor19601968610
72Buddy Dial19591966609
73Pete Pihos19501955604
74Demaryius Thomas20102013602
75Anthony Miller19881997580
76Paul Warfield19641977574
77Andre Reed19852000571
78Yancey Thigpen19922000561
79Antonio Freeman19952003560
80Dave Parks19641973558
81Lenny Moore19561967555
82Steve Watson19791987554
83Dwight Clark19791987549
84Rob Moore19901999527
85A.J. Green20112013514
86Greg Jennings20062013512
87Hines Ward19982011494
88Cris Collinsworth19811988493
89Wesley Walker19771989492
90David Boston19992005488
91Alfred Jenkins19751983482
92Roy Jefferson19651976477
93Jake Reed19922002475
94Vincent Jackson20052013467
94Josh Gordon20122013467
96Mel Gray19711982458
97Anthony Carter19851994456
98Todd Christensen19811988448
99Bob Boyd19501957444
100Victor Cruz20112013439

Finally, let’s apply the same principles to receiving touchdowns. Rice (’87) and Moss (’07) both tied for the most receiving touchdowns over the baseline in a single season, with 15. A couple of Harrison’s contemporaries have him beat by this metric, which drops him all the way down to…. fourth.

RkReceiverFirst YrLast YrRec TD
1Jerry Rice1985200471
2Randy Moss1998201260
3Terrell Owens1996201047
4Marvin Harrison1996200839
5Cris Carter1987200232
6Mark Clayton1983199326
7Sterling Sharpe1988199425
8Steve Largent1976198921
8Bob Hayes1965197521
8Andre Rison1989200021
11Calvin Johnson2007201320
12Art Powell1960196819
13Tommy McDonald1957196818
13Paul Warfield1964197718
15Larry Fitzgerald2004201317
15Cliff Branch1972198417
15Mike Quick1982199017
18Carl Pickens1992200016
19Lance Alworth1962197215
19Gene A. Washington1969197915
19John Jefferson1978198515
19Harold Carmichael1971198415
23Antonio Freeman1995200313
23Fred Biletnikoff1965197813
23Cloyce Box1950195413
23Rob Gronkowski2010201313
27Elroy Hirsch1950195712
27Billy Howton1952196312
27Raymond Berry1955196712
27Roy Green1979199212
27John Stallworth1974198712
27Warren Wells1964197012
27Jimmy Graham2010201312
27Gary Collins1962197112
35Herman Moore1991200111
35Harlon Hill1954196211
35Hines Ward1998201111
35Bill Groman1960196411
35Sammy White1976198511
35Antonio Gates2003201311
41Isaac Bruce1994200910
41Charley Taylor1964197710
41Greg Jennings2006201310
41Dez Bryant2010201310
41Sonny Randle1959196810
41Tony Gonzalez1997201310
41Hugh Taylor1950195410
41Joey Galloway1995201010
41Lynn Swann1974198210
41Nat Moore1974198610
41Dave Casper1974198410
41Vernon Davis2006201310
53Torry Holt199920099
53Tim Brown198820049
53Del Shofner195819679
53Brandon Marshall200620139
53Wesley Walker197719899
53Isaac Curtis197319849
53Daryl Turner198419879
60Reggie Wayne200120138
60Wes Chandler197819888
60Rod Smith199520068
60Bobby Mitchell195819688
60Harold Jackson196919838
60Kellen Winslow197919878
60Mark Duper198319928
60Gary Garrison196619778
60Demaryius Thomas201020138
60Muhsin Muhammad199620098
60Braylon Edwards200520128
60Frank Clarke195719678
60Eric Decker201020138
60Jerry Smith196519778
74Stanley Morgan197719907
74Anthony Miller198819977
74Rich Caster197019817
74Terance Mathis199020027
74Jordy Nelson200820137
74Dick Gordon196519747
74Louis Lipps198419927
74Bob Chandler197119817
74Michael Jackson199119987
74Michael Haynes198819977
74Chris Chambers200120107
74Leon Hart195019577
74Wesley Walls198920037

You might be surprised to see Harrison so high on the list: after all, he’s ahead of Cris Carter, who ranks 4th on the career receiving touchdowns list. But that’s a function of longevity: Harrison had more receiving touchdowns in his three best seasons (44-43), and his best four (56-55), five (68-66), six (80-76), seven (91-85), eight (101-94), nine (109-101), ten (116-107), eleven (122-113), twelve (127-119), and thirteen (128-124) best seasons, too. That’s all Harrison played, but Carter picked up six more touchdowns in his three worst seasons.

Moss and Owens ranks ahead of Harrison on this list, and that seems appropriate to me. But look at where the three ranked in all three metrics. Harrison was 3rd in receptions, 2nd in yards, and 4th in touchdowns. Moss was 19th, 3rd, and 2nd. Owens was 42nd, 20th, and 3rd (although in his defense he would look better on a per-game basis, as he usually missed a couple of games each season).

If you want more nuanced analysis about Harrison’s statistical dominance….

  • When I ranked the most dominant wide receivers of all time — based purely on advanced statistics — Harrison ranked third, behind only Rice and Hutson.
  • When analyzing why Paul Warfield was underrated, I look at the production of the top wide receivers in history on a per pass attempt basis over the course of their seven best seasons. Harrison was 3rd, behind only Rice and Alworth.
  • Looking at True Receiving Yards, Harrison ranks 2nd (behind Rice) on the career weighted list, and third on the list of best six seasons (behind Rice and Alworth).

I won’t argue too much if someone wants to say Alworth was statistically superior to Harrison, although I’m not sure if that’s a particularly relevant debate for us to engage in. And, of course, Rice and Hutson have their places on Mount Catchmore. But if you gave Peyton Manning a first-ballot, HOF-caliber wide receiver, I don’t know what more you could expect from him other than to be the 2nd most statistically dominant wide receiver since at least 1970. And that’s exactly what Harrison is.

The Wide Receiver Backlog

I get it: It took Carter six tries to make the Hall of Fame, Tim Brown and Andre Reed are once again finalists. The wide receiver backlog is another reason proffered as to why Harrison should not be selected this year. All else being equal, I don’t have a problem with the idea that a younger player should have to “wait his turn” in order to ensure that older players aren’t forgotten. And I personally think at least Brown and perhaps Reed deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. And I agree that putting Harrison in on the first ballot could conceivably hurt both of their chances of getting to Canton.

Here’s the problem: we’re not in “all else being equal” territory. In the Gray Ink test, Harrison had 168 points (ranking 3rd), Brown had 86 (ranking 30th), and Reed had 60 (ranking 59th). Harrison ranked 3rd-2nd-4th in receptions-yards-touchdowns over the baseline. In those same categories, Brown ranked 13th-21st-53rd. Reed ranked 47th-77th-87th. Yes, Harrison had Manning, but… he literally did as much as you could possibly expect, producing the second most statistically dominant career by a wide receiver other than you know who. To not vote for Harrison because you don’t want Brown or Carter left behind is to assume that they have similar enough cases for induction. I won’t tell you how to weight “statistical production” versus everything else, but Harrison has a significant head start on the group.

Alleged shooting of Dwight Dixon

The details are pretty murky on this one, but Dwight Dixon alleged that Harrison shot him in April 2008. Here’s what we know: Harrison was never charged with a crime related to the incident. Not murder, not reckless whathaveyou, not obstruction of justice. Nothing.

That doesn’t mean Harrison didn’t shoot Dixon, of course. But I have no way of knowing, and I don’t think any of the Hall of Fame voters have any way of knowing, either. And, frankly, it’s not their job to know. Here’s what the HOF has to say regarding off-the-field conduct:

The only criteria for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame are a nominee’s achievements and contributions as a player, coach, or contributor in professional football in the United States of America.

Had Harrison actually been found guilty of a felony, I wouldn’t necessarily argue with voters who chose to ignore that particular bylaw. Jim Tyrer had an arguably HOF-worthy career, but his chances of Canton evaporated the moment he killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself.

But being accused by a civilian of committing a felony just as clearly falls short of the standard to bar induction. I have no idea where Dixon’s claim falls on the spectrum of “completely unsupported nonsense” to “Harrison did it” but we know he wasn’t charged with a crime. There are people who believe Ray Lewis is guilty of murder and we know that he obstructed justice, but I don’t think that’s going to prevent him from being a first-ballot selection. Was Harrison’s “off-the-field issue” issues1 more of less severe than those of Lewis? Jameis Winston just won the Heisman Trophy despite facing a rape accusation that may have been more credible than Dixon’s, but again, I’m not in the business of judging the credibility of accusations.

And in this particular case, waiting doesn’t seem likely to solve matters. This time next year, we aren’t going to know whether Harrison was guilty of shooting Dixon. I can understand the reluctance to honor a felon — frankly, how can anyone not understand that — but an uncharged accusation does not make the accused a felon.

  1. Sidenote: I, like Drew Magary, hate referring to things lie this as “off-the-field issues.” []
{ 25 comments }
  • Neil Paine January 14, 2014, 7:43 am

    The only real argument against Harrison is the Manning disentanglement issue, which led him to have a WOWY of -0.0:

    http://www.footballperspective.com/receiving-wowy-extended-back-to-1950/

    (I’m guessing his WOWY would actually be slightly lower if we re-ran this after Peyton had another ridiculous RANY/A season this year, at age 37.)

    It’s not necessarily something that breaks Harrison’s 1st-ballot bid, but it’s also true that Harrison’s presence or absence from a team didn’t exactly make much a dent in the efficiency of the passing attacks in which he played. Manning and Harbaugh both got along just fine without him, which is a strange thing to be able to say about a guy who’s 4th in cumulative Receiving AV since the merger:

    +-----------------+--------+---------+----------+-----------+----------+-------------+
    | name_common     | sum(g) | sum(gs) | sum(ctc) | sum(cyds) | sum(ctd) | sum(rec_av) |
    +-----------------+--------+---------+----------+-----------+----------+-------------+
    | Jerry Rice      |    299 |     271 |     1549 |     22895 |      197 |         234 |
    | Terrell Owens   |    219 |     201 |     1078 |     15934 |      153 |         155 |
    | Randy Moss      |    218 |     193 |      982 |     15292 |      156 |         155 |
    | Marvin Harrison |    190 |     188 |     1102 |     14580 |      128 |         151 |
    | Tony Gonzalez   |    270 |     253 |     1325 |     15127 |      111 |         141 |
    | Reggie Wayne    |    196 |     182 |     1006 |     13566 |       80 |         138 |
    | Tim Brown       |    255 |     202 |     1094 |     14934 |      100 |         136 |
    | James Lofton    |    233 |     212 |      764 |     14004 |       75 |         134 |
    | Steve Largent   |    200 |     197 |      819 |     13089 |      100 |         134 |
    | Cris Carter     |    234 |     209 |     1101 |     13899 |      130 |         131 |
    | Isaac Bruce     |    223 |     186 |     1024 |     15208 |       91 |         129 |
    | Andre Reed      |    234 |     217 |      951 |     13198 |       87 |         127 |
    | Henry Ellard    |    228 |     199 |      814 |     13777 |       65 |         126 |
    | Michael Irvin   |    159 |     147 |      750 |     11904 |       65 |         125 |
    | Art Monk        |    224 |     193 |      940 |     12721 |       68 |         125 |
    | Charlie Joiner  |    232 |     203 |      743 |     12069 |       65 |         125 |
    | Rod Smith       |    183 |     158 |      849 |     11389 |       68 |         119 |
    | Jimmy Smith     |    171 |     135 |      862 |     12287 |       67 |         118 |
    | Hines Ward      |    217 |     190 |     1000 |     12083 |       85 |         117 |
    | Torry Holt      |    173 |     145 |      920 |     13382 |       74 |         117 |
    +-----------------+--------+---------+----------+-----------+----------+-------------+

    The high AV placement means he was extremely productive within extremely efficient offenses — they just were equally efficient without him as well. Most of the other names on that list (with the exceptions of Bruce, Ellard, Holt, and of course Reed) were associated with better passing efficiency from their QBs with them than without them after controlling for age. But not so for Harrison.

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart January 14, 2014, 11:48 am

      Thanks, Neil. I think Harrison is an interesting test case on WOWY. Harrison does have a +1.5 RANY/A, which is very, very high. But that’s just the flip side of the Manning argument.

      I think I’ll ignore the Harbaugh years for now and just focus on Manning. Here are his RANY/A grades: note that Harrison has between 1100 and 1600 TRY each year from ’99 to ’06, and was on the Colts until 2008 (but he played in only 5 games in 2007, and was pretty much washed up in 2008)

      year_id	RANY/A
      1998	-0.5
      1999	+1.9
      2000	+2.0
      2001	+0.7
      2002	+0.7
      2003	+2.1
      2004	+4.1
      2005	+2.7
      2006	+2.5
      2007	+1.8
      2008	+1.2
      2009	+1.9
      2010	+0.7
      2012	+2.0
      

      We do see some decline from Manning in the two decline years from Harrison. 2001 and 2002 were also “down” years, although those years seem to be more about the decline of the team under Mora and the lack of weapons than anything. If you recall, James tore his ACL in ’01 and was a shell of his former self in ’02, and he had actually been the #2 or #3 weapon in the passing game in ’99 and ’00.

      In 2001, the non-Harrison weapons were Pollard and Dilger and a rookie Wayne. In ’02, it was Pollard and a 2nd-year Wayne and Qadry Ismail. Of course, Harrison set the receptions record that year. I wouldn’t use that year against him, then.

      So I think the WOWY argument for Harrison is that (1) the Colts had great RANY/A numbers, (2) when Manning was still young and the team was not very good in ’01 and ’02, Harrison was a monster and one could argue he is responsible for dragging the Colts passing game to +0.7 RANY/A status, and (3) in ’07 and ’08, the passing attack fell off. In fact, Manning never really regained his elite play in Indy, although that may have been neck-related.

      Of course, the other thing to keep in mind is that the Colts replaced Harrison with a HOF caliber receiver. So in some ways, it’s like asking “well, how good was Cris Carter if the Vikings passing attack kept humming without him?” Well, adding Randy Moss or Reggie Wayne can do that. (Although perhaps that’s not a great example since Carter did have a +0.5 WOWY).

      Reply
  • Dave\ January 14, 2014, 1:43 pm

    I’m not going to say that Manning isn’t one of the best QB’s to ever play football, but perhaps Manning’s superfluous success is a product of having Harrison and Wayne to throw to (and Jeff Saturday at center). Manning’s Denver success may attributed to his current receivers; especially D. Thomas and now Welker.

    My point is, Harrison is a first ballot HOF’er.

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart January 14, 2014, 3:55 pm

      Fair point, Dave.

      Reply
    • Richie January 14, 2014, 4:11 pm

      If only the Dolphins would have hung onto Welker, maybe Joey Harrington or Cleo Lemon would have a HOF case.

      Reply
  • Kyle January 14, 2014, 2:14 pm

    Excellent article, Chase — I hope Harrison’s presenter does as good a job as you do here. I agree that Marvin’s statistical dominance far outweighs the abstract and anecdotal arguments against him. Unfortunately, the committee in recent years seems to care less about statistical analysis than whether a player has good anecdotes about his toughness, leadership, clutchness, uniqueness, etc. I think this is part of the reason that Reed has so far garnered more support than Brown, even though Brown is better by almost every statistical measure. I also think it shows in the recent choices of senior candidates, where players with good narratives (Floyd Little, Dick LeBeau, Curley Culp) are preferred to ones with better resumes (Chuck Howley, Johnny Robinson, Jerry Kramer). That being said, I think one more argument that might be proffered against Harrison is that he was not clutch in the postseason. There seems to be some statistical support for this idea also, as he had fewer than 100 yards and scored zero touchdowns in 15 out of 16 career playoff games. Do you think this is a compelling argument against Harrison going in on the first ballot, and why do you think such a dominant regular season performer dropped off so dramatically in the playoffs?

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    • Richie January 14, 2014, 4:13 pm

      Wait a minute. I thought Peyton Manning was the one who was not clutch in the post season. How could Harrison do well in the post season if Manning kept throwing worm burners?

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      • James January 14, 2014, 4:36 pm

        Read my post below. Wayne’s regular and postseason stats are nearly identical, and Dallas Clarks’ receptions and yards were up (TDs were down), while Harrison’s playoff stats are horrendously lower, unlike practically any other big name receiver.

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    • James January 14, 2014, 4:33 pm

      “That being said, I think one more argument that might be proffered against Harrison is that he was not clutch in the postseason. There seems to be some statistical support for this idea…”

      Comparing his career averages to his playoff averages Harrison is ‘missing’ 1.8 receptions, 21.5 yards, and 0.6 TDs per game for a missing total of 29 receptions, 344 yards, and 9 TDs over his 16 playoff games. I looked at a somewhat arbitrary group of his contemporaries to see how that stacked up, and as it turns out he’s a huge outlier!

      I did the same with Owens, Moss, Fitzgerald, Holt, Bruce, Wayne, Carter, Rice, Steve Smith, Ward, and Welker and as a whole they *improved* their playoff stats across the board, gaining 0.2 receptions, 6.6 yards, and 0.2 TDs per game. Three of those 11 declined across the board, but none nearly as drastic as Harrison: Moss, Owens, and Holt. Perhaps most notably, Reggie Wayne has nearly identical playoff and regular season stats.

      For each individual category the biggest decline was 0.9 receptions (Moss), 14.4 yards (Holt), and 0.3 TDs (Owens). You’ll note that Harrison’s decline in each category was nearly double anyone else’s decline. Yowza!

      It seems very likely Harrison was by far the least “clutch” playoff performer in recent NFL history. I have no explanation for that.

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      • Richie January 14, 2014, 4:45 pm

        Very interesting.

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      • Chase Stuart January 14, 2014, 5:46 pm

        Yeah, Harrison’s postseason numbers were always a head scratcher. I’m not sure if there’s much of an explanation.

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        • greg January 14, 2014, 8:12 pm

          Harrison has an many lost fumbles in the playoffs as he does TD’s. People talk about Manning declining in the playoffs but it was really Harrison who did. If you took out all the attempts Manning threw to Harrison in the postseason, his postseason numbers are identical to his regular season numbers. You can see the change by looking at his postseason stats in the years after Harrison declined (07-on).

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        • Shattenjager January 15, 2014, 2:14 pm

          Harrison never looked impressive to me when I saw him play (Which is not important for discussion of his greatness, and I’m not trying to claim that he is anything less than your post says he was.), and I have had Colts fans say that was because I mostly watched him against the Broncos and Champ Bailey was able to essentially take him away. Is it possible that because of his lack of incredible physical tools, Harrison couldn’t force himself open against top corners, and he was more likely to run up against them in the playoffs?

          A quick look at the top corners on his opponents for his playoff games: Rod Woodson, Samari Rolle, Sam Madison, Donnie Abraham, Lenny Walls (shockingly, he dominated that one), Eric Warfield (again, he dominated this one), Ty Law three times, Champ Bailey, Ike Taylor, Chris McAlister, Asante Samuel, Charles Tillman, Quentin Jammer twice (these are during his last two seasons). That seems like a very strong group of opponents, so at least that part of my theory seems to have support.

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  • greg January 14, 2014, 3:54 pm

    Harrison’s playoff numbers with Manning: ~50 comp%, 2 TD (all in 1 game), 8 INT

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  • Richie January 14, 2014, 4:06 pm

    The fact that Sterling Sharpe can rank so high on these lists, despite playing only 7 years, tells me 2 things:
    1) He was pretty dang good.
    2) NFL careers are generally pretty short, and peaks are pretty short. You think about all the passing yards and some of the guys who have been good receivers over the past 20 years, and not many were able to do it for more than a couple of years.

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    • Chase Stuart January 14, 2014, 4:13 pm

      Yup. The biggest surprise to me was seeing TO so far down on the yards list. That was a true head-scratcher since he’s 2nd on the career yards list. He also ranks 4th in TRY (career weighted) and my GWROAT post.

      But upon further review, he was a TD machine and a bit of a compiler in receiving yards. He only has 26 points of Gray Ink in that metric, which I found pretty shocking. I mean, Wes Welker ha 23 points of Gray Ink in receiving yards. Rod Smith has 24. Tim Brown has 31. Andre Rison has 22. Meanwhile, Harrison, Holt, and Moss are all at 45+. I do think a lot of it, though, was his tendency to miss some games. Perhaps something to investigate in the offseason.

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      • Richie January 14, 2014, 4:41 pm

        It looks like the worst thing for Owens was losing 9 games in 2005. He was averaging 109 yards/game in the 7 games he played. (Was that the year he was doing pushups on his front lawn?) If he could have kept that up for 16 games, he would’ve had 1744 yards, and added 643 yards above baseline – putting him at 2019 for his career.

        If you give him back his average yards/game for all the games he missed in good seasons, that would be another 829 yards above baseline (I think. I just added back his y/g each year he missed a game – assuming he was already above baseline that year.) That would put him at 2848 yards above baseline. Which would be second all time. But then, you could do that for all the WR’s who missed games, although it looks like most of the top WR didn’t really miss many games in seasons where they were putting up 50+ yards/game.

        As I was looking at those stats, I discovered that only 37 times has a player averaged 100+ yards/game (minimum 500 total yards for the season). http://pfref.com/tiny/Q05Ch

        In 1961, Charley Hennigan had 1,044 receiving yards in his teams’ first 7 games (compared to 763 for Owens). That translates to 2,386 yards in a 16-game season. He finished with 1746 in 14 games, which was the single-season record for 34 years!

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        • Kibbles January 14, 2014, 11:24 pm

          Some of the better players’ stats from the early AFL years were sort of like some of the Browns’ players stats from the AAFC years. Meaning yes, those guys were legitimate talents, but the competition that they faced was not. Take a look at Mac Speedie- he averaged 78.7 yards per game the three years before the Browns joined the NFL, and 60.2 the three years after. Or Otto Graham: he ranks way up on all the career leaderboards, but that’s inflated by his AAFC stats, where he averaged 9.5 YPA and a 99.1 passer rating, with a better than 2:1 TD:INT ratio. Strictly against the NFL (i.e. year 1950 onwards), Graham had 8.6 YPA, a 78.2 rating, and more INTs than TDs. Very good numbers for his era, still, but not anywhere near as unfathomable as his career totals would make you think.

          Similar quality of competition criticisms can be leveled at Don Hutson’s 1942 season (when WWII severely depleted the league’s talent level). A lot of the biggest outliers in history weren’t so much outliers as they were great players who happened to play against a bunch of nobodies. If the XFL had survived for another decade, and Roddy White had opted to join that instead of the NFL, he’d surely have several 2,000 yard seasons under his belt. If the leagues merged and part of the merger agreement stated that the NFL would honor all XFL statistics, then 50 years later we’d have people digging through the statistics and wondering who Roddy White was and why he never got his proper due as one of the greatest receivers of all time. Statistics are powerful tools, but they can be dangerous without context.

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          • Chase Stuart January 15, 2014, 12:54 am

            I don’t think anyone here would disagree with you.

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            • Kibbles January 15, 2014, 1:31 am

              I wouldn’t think so, either, I just wanted to provide a little bit of context to Hennigan’s ridiculous 1961 season.

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        • Shattenjager January 15, 2014, 2:24 pm

          I find Charley Hennigan fascinating. Not only did he have that insane season, but three years later he had 101 catches for 1546 yards, when the AFL was a bit closer to the NFL (though as I recall from Jason Lisk’s work, they were still not anything like equivalent for 2-3 more seasons). Obviously, his numbers were boosted a great deal by level of competition and the Oilers’ pass-wacky ways and he had a short and very up-and-down career, but his best seasons are still just insane for his time.

          A fun story I read somewhere is that the Oilers cut Willie Brown for being unable to cover Hennigan. Brown of course went on to have a Hall of Fame career, but he could never cover Hennigan. In 1964, Hennigan came into the final game with 93 catches. Lionel Taylor then held the record at 100 in a season. Hennigan caught 8 in the game. Legend says they were all against Brown, though I don’t think there is any way to check that part.

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  • Archer January 16, 2014, 10:33 pm

    Josh Gordon is already on the Rec yards over average despite only playing for two years.
    Only four other players in the top 100 all-time haven’t played at least 7 seasons: current A.J. Green, Cruz and D. Thomas (3, 3, 4 respectively) and 50s Eagles player Pete Pihos (6).

    Reply

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