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Tony Gonzalez is good at not fumbling

Gonzalez has made 13 Pro Bowls.

Gonzalez has made 13 Pro Bowls.

Do you remember Robert Thomas? He was selected by the Rams with the 31st overall pick in the 2002 draft. He started 30 games at linebacker for the team in three years, grabbed a cup of coffee in Green Bay, and then had three forgettable years with the Raiders during the nadir of the Al Davis era.

In week 16 of the 2006 season, the 7-7 Chiefs traveled to Oakland to face the 2-12 Raiders. Kansas City held a 10-6 lead when they took possession with 11:38 left in the second quarter. Trent Green completed a short pass to the right side of the field to Tony Gonzalez, who was tackled by Thomas. In the process, Thomas jarred the ball loose from Gonzalez, and Kansas City’s second-string tight end, Kris Wilson, pounced on the ball and recovered, keeping possession for the Chiefs. Kansas City eventually won 20-9, and clinched the playoffs by winning the following week against Jacksonville. Oakland finished 2-14 and was rewarded with JaMarcus Russell.

Thomas’ fumble wouldn’t even register as a footnote in the game recap, let alone seven years later. But here’s the thing: from the start of the 2000 season until that play began, Gonzalez had caught 547 passes and fumbled zero times. Since that fumble, Gonzalez has caught 526 receptions… and zero fumbles. Thomas’ forced fumble was the only time since 2000 that Gonzalez has ever let the ball hit the ground.

That crazy stat comes courtesy of Bill Barnwell on this podcast. After hearing about it, I decided to see look up career fumble rates. Excluding the postseason, Gonzalez has 6 career fumbles while recording 1242 receptions, 2 rushes, and one pass attempt. That’s a fumble rate of under half-a-percent per touch! That’s the second best rate of any player to enter the league since 1950, minimum 1,000 touches (defined as every time a player touched the ball).

Who is number one? The guy who can’t stop fumbling in the NFL playoffs. Before presenting the list of the players with the top 100 fumble rates, let me get in a quick disclaimer. Fumble rates, in general, are declining. And the fumble rates are dramatically different on returns relative to running plays, which have different fumble rates than quarterbacks on pass plays, which is way higher than the fumble rates on a reception by a receiver. But hey, if you just want a list of fumbles per touch, ignoring context, check out below:
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Why did I have to play with Matt  Moore?

Why did I have to play with Matt Moore?

While reading the always excellent Football Outsiders Almanac, I was reminded that Brandon Marshall has had 1,000-yard seasons playing with Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Chad Henne, and Matt Moore (and, of course, Cutler again in Chicago). That’s pretty impressive for a player in his twenties, although regular readers know that I’m a big fan of Marshall.

Two other active players have gained 1,000 yards with four different quarterbacks. For the remainder of this post, I’ll be defining a receiver’s “quarterback” as the quarterback on his team each season who threw for the most passing yards. One of them is pretty obvious: the annually great Tony Gonzalez hit the 1,000-yard mark with Elvis Grbac, Trent Green, Damon Huard, and Tyler Thigpen (but not Matt Ryan). The third player might be a bit more difficult to guess:
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Jerry Rice’s records are essentially unbreakable. Over a marvelous twenty-year career, Rice caught 41 more touchdowns than Randy Moss, 44 more than Terrell Owens, and 67 more than every player other than Moss and Owens. He also holds the overall touchdowns mark, with 33 more touchdowns than Emmitt Smith, 46 more than LaDainian Tomlinson, and over 50 touchdowns more than every other player in NFL history. If you check the NFL records books, no player has finished his career with more than 16,000 receiving yards and fewer than 22,895 receiving yards: that’s how wide the gulf is between @JerryRice and the rest of the great wide receivers.

But there is one record that possibly, maybe, hey you never know could be broken. Jerry Rice is the career leader with 1,549 receptions. For some perspective, Steve Largent was the first player to reach the 800 receptions mark, and Art Monk passed Largent in 1992. Rice caught the still-active Monk in the final game of the 1995 regular season. Monk would retire after the season with 940 catches to his name; as he laced up his cleats for the last time, he was the career leader in receptions. When he came off the field that day, he had been relegated to number two. That’s because 700 miles away, Rice caught 12 passes against the Falcons, bringing his career total up to 942. Oh, and Rice also set the single-season record for receiving yards that day, too. Rice turned 34 in 1996; up until that point, only Charlie Joiner (325) had recorded more than 300 receptions after his age 33 season. Even though Rice missed nearly the entire 1997 season due to injury, he still caught 607 passes after 1995. Which is why we always assumed this record was unbreakable.

However, as teams began passing more frequently (and more conservatively) than ever before, some modern receivers have compiled massive receptions totals. Did you know that Tony Gonzalez is number two all-time in career receptions? With 1,242 catches, Gonzalez has a 140-catch lead on #3 man Marvin Harrison, but Gonzalez still trails Jerry Rice by 307 catches.

But what about Gonzalez’ statistical doppelganger, Jason Witten? Four years ago, I wrote that Witten was going to find himself in the Hall of Fame because of his massive numbers:

Jason Witten entered the NFL at age 21. That’s very young for a player at any position, let alone tight end. So how has he done?

  • Through age 22, he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
  • Through age 23, he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
  • Through age 25, he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
  • Through age 26 (the 2008 season), he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
  • With 40 receptions and 472 receiving yards in 2009, he will have more receptions and more receiving yards than any other tight end through the age of twenty-seven.

Witten hasn’t slowed down since I wrote that article. With 806 receptions, he has the most catches of any player through age 30 in history (although Larry Fitzgerald should catch him next year). I thought it would be interesting to chart the career receptions totals of Rice, Witten, and Gonzalez. The graph below shows the career receptions of each player at the end of each season, with age on the X-axis and career receptions on the Y-axis. Witten is in Cowboys blue and silver; unfortunately Chiefs fans, I chose to reserve red and gold for Rice, leaving Gonzalez in Falcons black and red.

Rice Witten Gonzalez career receptions

Even now, Gonzalez has a lead on Rice, and he’ll be 36 catches ahead of Rice after 2013 even if he doesn’t catch a single pass. Of course, Rice went (literally) off the chart in his final years, making it essentially impossible for Gonzalez to catch him.

But Witten has basically had the same career as Gonzalez but with an even larger buffer against Rice. Witten’s lead on Gonzalez grew significantly this year thanks to a 110-catch season at age 30 (the year Gonzalez had just 73 catches), but ages 31 to 33 were ridiculous years for both Gonzalez and Rice. The odds are very much against Witten getting to 1,549 catches, but becoming the second player to hit the 1400-catch mark is a realistic (and incredibly impressive) goal.

The left columns in the table below shows the number of career receptions through each age for each of Rice, Gonzalez, and Witten. The right three columns show the number of catches by each player at each age.

AgeRice (C)Gonzalez (C)Witten (C)Rice (S)Gonzalez (S)Witten (S)

Witten has a nearly 200-catch lead on Rice through age thirty. If we assume Witten can stay healthy in each of the next five years, he’ll get an even bigger buffer when he hits age 35. If we give Witten 351 catches over the next five years, he’ll be at 1157, giving him a 100-catch lead on Rice. Based on what Rice did after age 35, that’s not going to be anywhere near enough. If Witten wants a realistic shot, he’s going to need to keep pumping out 90-100 catch seasons for the next four years, at least. In any event, Witten will be able to keep this dream up for awhile: he needs just 38 catches in 2013 to end the year with the most receptions of any player through age thirty-one.


NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 10

This week at the New York Times I looked at several interesting statistical developments in both the 2012 season and in week 10.

Even in today’s pass-happy N.F.L., it pays to have one of the best running backs. In one of the bigger surprises of the season, the best of the best is Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.

He’s a four-time Pro Bowler and a two-time first-team All-Pro selection, but few expected a big year out of Peterson. That’s because last year, on Christmas Eve, Peterson tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee against the Redskins. Such a brutal injury often permanently robs a player of his elite ability; the rule of thumb tells us that it’s not until the second full season after the injury that the player regains his old form, if he ever does.

An injury so late in the 2011 season had most people figuring his 2012 season would be a lost year. Instead, Peterson leads the league in rushing with 1,128 yards and is on pace for a remarkable 1,804. Peterson is the first player since 2009 to rush for 1,100 yards in his team’s first 10 games, and he’s showing no signs of slowing. He has rushed for 629 yards in his last four games, including an impressive 171 rushing yards in a victory over the Lions on Sunday.

Peterson is also averaging 5.75 yards per rush the season, the most among players with at least 100 carries. He joins Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Chris Johnson as players with 1,100 or more rushing yards and such a high yards-per-carry average after his team’s first ten games.

Minnesota’s passing game ranks 26th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt and last in the league in yards per completion, a sign of an offense that doesn’t stretch the field through the air. But despite a passing attack that doesn’t scare any defense, thanks to Peterson, Minnesota is 6-4 and a potential playoff team.

The Return of Megatron

For most of the season, N.F.L. fans wondered what was wrong with Calvin Johnson. It wasn’t until the final minutes of Detroit’s loss to the Vikings on Sunday that Matthew Stafford and Johnson connected on a touchdown pass this season (Johnson did catch a touchdown pass from Shaun Hill earlier this year). Well, after a 207-yard game against Minnesota, Johnson is again leading the league in receiving yards. With 974 yards in nine games, Johnson is actually ahead of last year’s pace, when he gained a league-high 1,681 yards. The big difference: in 2011, he caught 16 touchdown passes, but he has only two in 2012.

Continued Dominance in New England

When it comes to the Patriots, mind-boggling offensive numbers are the norm. That means we occasionally ignore just how impressively the New England machine is operating. The Patriots lead the league in points scored, yards gained and first downs. Since 1990, only the 1993 49ers, the 1997 Broncos, the 2001 Rams and the 2007 Patriots have finished first in each metric.

The Patriots are averaging 33.2 points per game, 3.1 points more than the second-place Broncos. At 430.3 yards per game, the Patriots far outpace the rest of the league; Detroit (406.1) is the only other team averaging more than 400 yards per game.

But where New England really stands out is the 259 first downs it has gained. Last year, New Orleans set the N.F.L. record for first downs in a season with 416; the 2011 Patriots also broke the old record (held by the 2003 Kansas City Chiefs) with 399. This year’s team is on pace for an incredible 460 first downs. And the Patriots are on pace to crush the record in a surprising way: New England leads the N.F.L. in rushing first downs with 92, and Stevan Ridley leads all running backs with 54 rushing first downs.

You can read the full article here.

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