If you find yourself talking about Rob Moore in the summer of 2017, it’s probably for one of four reasons.
1) You are a diehard Jets or Cardinals fan choosing to reminisce about Boomer Esiason and the halcyon days of the ’90s.
2) You just finished watching Jerry Maguire. That movie, which was released in December 1996, saw Cuba Gooding Jr. play the role of Rod Tidwell. Gooding’s character wore 85 and played wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, just like Moore (who even had a bit role in the movie, playing himself).
3) You are researching the best players in Supplemental Draft history, and Moore’s name came up. A star at Syracuse, Moore graduated early (back when it was still unusual for undergraduates to enter the draft), and therefore elected to enter the Supplemental Draft. The move cost the Jets the 8th pick in the 1991 Draft, which the Eagles used on Tennessee offensive lineman Antone Davis. Moore was the much better player.
4) You were wondering which player in the last 25 years (and, perhaps, for much longer) saw the most targets in a single season in NFL history. After some searching, you found out that the answer was Rob Moore, with 208 targets for the 1997 Cardinals.
Wait, what? Of all the players in the last 25 years, Rob Moore is the single-season leader in targets? The single-season leaders in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns are Marvin Harrison, Calvin Johnson, and Randy Moss, respectively. The most targets (since 1992) that Jerry Rice ever saw was 176, and that was in 1995, when he gained 1848 receiving yards while playing for a 49ers team that threw 644 passes, the 2nd most in the NFL. So how did — just two years later — Rob Moore see 32 more targets than Rice in ’95?
The Cardinals were not good…
The ’97 Cardinals were a bad football team: they finished 4-12, tied with four other teams for the second worst record in the NFL.1 Arizona had a bad defense and most critically, a terrible running game. Cardinals running backs Leeland McElroy (a Texas A&M bust), Larry Centers (a 29-year-old fullback), Ronald Moore (cut by the Rams in mid-season before joining the Cards), and LeShon Johnson (who flamed out in Green Bay after a magnificent college career) combined for just 956 yards and 3 touchdowns on 316 carries, a pitiful 3.03 yards per carry average.
The defense wasn’t much better. Football Outsiders had the Cardinals 26th out of 30 teams in DVOA. The offense wasn’t very good, either, so the Cardinals unsurprisingly had the 5th worst points differential at halftime of games.
So the formula was simple: bad team that is constantly trailing = lots of pass attempts.
The Most Pass-Happy Team In the NFL…. But Yet…
Arizona passed on 63.3% of plays in 1997, the most in the NFL. But this Cardinals team was noteworthy for another reason: quarterbacks Jake Plummer, Kent Graham, and Stoney Case were sacked a whopping 78 times, 2nd most in NFL history. Even still, with 602 actual pass attempts (excluding sacks), the Cards still had the 2nd most pass attempts behind the Seahawks (609).
But while 602 pass attempts was a lot in 1997, it’s not an absurdly high number. And remember, Moore is the leader in targets among all players for the last 25 years. Consider that since 1994, 101 teams have thrown at least 600 pass attempts in a season. The 2016 Ravens had 679 pass attempts. The 2012 Lions had a record 740 pass attempts! While playing on a team with a ton of pass attempts was obviously necessary for Moore to set the record, that alone was not sufficient. Moore was a talented receiver, of course, but there have been lots of talented (and a number of more talented) receivers. No, there was another factor at play…
Weak Supporting Cast
You can break targets down into the product of two components: team pass attempts and targets per team pass attempt. Obviously nobody combined those two metrics like Moore did in ’97, but so far, we’ve only been looking at the first variable. What about the second?
Unsurprisingly, Moore was targeted on 35% of all Cardinals pass attempts. That’s a really high number: among players on teams that threw at least 600 pass attempts, only a handful saw at least 30% go to one player. Only three players — Moore, Herman Moore in 1995, and Julio Jones in 2015 — saw 33% of the targets on a team that threw 600+ passes.
Since 1992, only six players were targeted on 34% or more of their team’s pass attempts: Brandon Marshall leads the way with a 40% rate2 on the 2012 Bears, followed by Sterling Sharpe (36% on the ’93 Packers), Harrison (35%, 2002 Colts), Moore (35%), Roddy White (34%, 2008 Falcons) and Herman Moore (34%, ’95 Detroit).
Here was how the targets were broken up on the ’97 Cardinals:
The Cardinals ran a pro set offense, with a fullback and a tight end joining the starting running back and two wide receivers. The Arizona passing game during this era revolved around Moore, Sanders, and Centers. Sanders was a solid but unspectacular wide recever, making him fine as a WR2: he could keep defenses honest but wasn’t going to steal too many targets. Larry Centers caught 200 passes in ’95 and ’96, making him the top pass-catching fullback in NFL history. In ’95 and ’96, Moore, Sanders, and Centers each topped 100 targets, with no other Cardinal seeing more than 50 in either year.
But in ’97, Jake Plummer arrived, and checking down to the fullback wasn’t quite so appealing. In ’95, Centers (119 targets, 962 yards) and Moore (116, 907) had similar numbers, but Moore’s average catch went for about five more yards (14.4 to 9.5). In ’96, Moore averaged 17.5 yards per catch, while Centers gained just 7.7 yards. Centers still had good football left in him, but he saw his target numbers drop to just 75 in ’97.
With the exception of Lomas Brown, the Cardinals offensive line (see the yards per carry and sack numbers) was terrible in the mid-’90s. And while checkdowns to Centers was the modus operandi in ’95 and ’96, taking a sack or throwing it to Moore was the move in ’97. The tight ends, Chris Gedney and Pat Carter, were blocking types. The other running back, McElroy, contributed nothing as a receiver.
So on most plays, you had a running back and a tight end on the field that were not legitimate targets, a fullback who was a good receiver but wasn’t going to move the chains, and Sanders and Moore. The third and fourth receivers were not legitimate options, either, in Kevin Williams and Anthony Edwards: Williams was a return man playing receiver, while Edwards retired after the season.
Feed Him Some Moore
Add it up, and the Cardinals didn’t have a lot of options. Arizona had a terrible running game and was usually trailing, so the Cardinals had to pass. The running back and tight end positions didn’t offer much help, and the fullback was a necessary part of the passing game so it kept a WR3 off the field (not that there was much of one there, anyway). Moore finished with 11 targets in every single game that year. In one drive in the final two minutes of a blowout loss, Moore saw 6 targets! Moore had a third of his targets come in the 4th quarter, which isn’t too surprising given the context of the ’97 Cardinals. Moore was a much better bet to pick up a first down than a running back with bad hands, a fullback, a blocking tight end, or Frank Sanders. Add in a bad defense and a terrible running game, and you have the recipe for the most targeted season of the last 25 years.
What Came Next?
In 1997, Moore had 35% of Cardinals targets, but Moore, Sanders, and Centers combined for 71% of the team’s targets. That didn’t change much: the next year, that trio saw 70% of the team’s targets. The difference? The ’98 Cardinals looked a lot more like the ’95 or ’96 Cardinals: Moore had 146 targets, Sanders had 144, and Centers had 94, with no one else having 50 targets. And Arizona trailed less often (the Cardinals even made the playoffs, though they were still terrible and actually had a worse SRS in ’98), which led to fewer pass attempts. As a result, Moore’s target numbers fell dramatically, though 146 is still a pretty high number.
Even for his era, Moore’s catch rate was terrible if you’re the sort of person who cares about catch rate. And he was a better receiver than people remember. He ranks 51st in career receiving yards, and he was typically saddled with below-average quarterback play: 24% of his passing yards came from a raw Jake Plummer, 23% from a post-Bengals Boomer Esiason, 18% from a past-his-prime Ken O’Brien, 12% from Kent Graham, 9% from a 37-year-old Dave Krieg, and 7% from Browning Nagle.
Moore isn’t the greatest receiver of all time, and he isn’t the greatest receiver in a single season, ever. But for one season, 20 years ago, one team leaned on him as much as it’s possible to rely on one wide receiver.