On Tuesday, I looked at running back records and argued that Steven Jackson had taken the mantle from Ollie Matson as the most prominent elite running back to have toiled for losing teams for the majority of his career. It’s easy to feel bad for a player like Jackson, relegated to consistent attack as the focal point of opposing defenses for a decade, continuously grinding out yardage while playing for bad teams.
Things are a little different for wide receivers. In fact, it’s often easier for wide receivers to produce better stats while playing for bad teams, since trailing teams are forced to throw later in games. Further, wide receivers don’t face the constant pounding that running backs encounter, making them slightly less sympathetic figures. Still, it’s an interesting question, and one that’s easy enough to answer. Which wide receivers have played for the best and worst teams? Any guesses? The results, after the jump.
None of the names at the top of the list are surprising. Biletnikoff played during a sustained period of success in Oakland, and he and Branch take the top two spots on the list. Paul Warfield played on Blanton Collier’s success Browns teams before being traded to the Dolphins right before Miami became one of the league’s best teams. Reggie Wayne spent nine of his first 10 seasons on 10+ win teams in Indianapolis. Had I written this article a year ago, Wayne would be second on the list with a 0.750 weighted winning percentage. From the ages of 23 to 40, Jerry Rice played on 16 teams that won at least 10 games.
On the other side of the ledger, it is Billy Howton bringing up the rear with the single worst career record of any receiver with at least 7,500 career receiving yards. Howton is forgotten by most fans today because of the miserable teams he starred on, but he’s a name football historians know well. Howton was drafted by the Packers and touted in 1952 by some to be the next Don Hutson; he didn’t take long to deliver on his potential. Howton shattered two rookie receiving records, becoming the first rookie to ever record 1,000 receiving yards or more than 10 touchdowns in a season. Howton languished in Green Bay for six seasons as the Packers went 26-52-2 from ’52 to ’58. When Vince Lombardi arrived, one of his first moves was to trade Howton to Cleveland, ostensibly because Howton wasn’t a good blocker and therefore not a fit in the Packers offense. Some, including Howton, believed that Lombardi traded him because he was the head of the first ever NFL Players Association, and Lombardi did not approve of having such a player on his roster. Others, like David Maraniss, thought the trade was more about acquiring halfback Lew Carpenter and defensive end Bill Quinlan than about trading Howton. In any event, Howton spent a year with the run-heavy Cleveland Browns before being acquired by the Cowboys in the expansion draft. Dallas would go 13-38-3 in Howton’s four years with the team. He retired after the 1963 season as the all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards, passing Don Hutson in both instances. You can listen to an old PFR podcast where Doug talked about Howton here, too.
If you lower the threshold to 5,000 career receiving yards, Carl Pickens (0.340) and Darnay Scott (0.334), who suffered together for years in Cincinnati, had it even worse than Howton. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson has a career weighted winning percentage of 0.328, while the bottom two spots on the list are reserved for Broncos great Lionel Taylor (0.293) and Archie Manning’s favorite target, Danny Abramowicz (0.289). To find a receiver with a higher weighted winning percentage than Biletnikoff, you need to drop the threshold to under 4,000 career receiving yards. Browns Hall of Famer Dante Lavelli had a weighted winning percentage of 0.789 in the NFL. If you include Lavelli’s time with the Browns in the AAFC, the teams he went on went an incredible 110-24-4 (0.812).
- As was the case in the running backs post, I am using each player’s weighted average winning percentage, weighted based on the amount of receiving yards he gained in a season. For Chad Ochocino, the 2011 Patriots don’t count for 9% of his career record even though he spent one of his eleven seasons in New England. He gained only 2.5% of his career receiving yards with the Patriots, so only 2.5% of his weighted winning percentage is based on New England’s 13-3 record last season. Since he gained 13% of his career receiving yards on the 7-9 Bengals in 2007, 13% of his weighted winning percentage will be based on the Bengals’ 0.438 winning percentage that year. [↩]
- Note that this time, I’ve pro-rated all seasons of fewer than 16 games to 16-game seasons. This feels more appropriate, and probably should have been done in the Jackson/Matson post. [↩]