The Atlanta Falcons have a pretty good group of skill position players. Tony Gonzalez has a comfortable lead on Jerry Rice’s career receptions pace; Gonzalez will one day become the first tight end inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Steven Jackson is a borderline Hall of Famer who was stuck on perpetually lousy teams. Roddy White may not be Hall of Fame caliber, but he’s better than you realize: I ranked him as the 37th best receiver of all time in February and he ranked 21st on the list of best six seasons in True Receiving Yards. And he has shown little sign of slowing down, either: White’s recorded at least 80 catches, 1100 yards, and 6 touchdowns in each of the last six years, a mark previously achieved by only Rice and Marvin Harrison. But White will soon pass the torch to Julio Jones, who will battle with A.J. Green and Dez Bryant over the next decade for the title of most freakishly athletic receiver. As for the quarterback, well, Matt Ryan’s 56 wins is the most of any quarterback through five seasons in NFL history.
With those five men, the Falcons have one of the best quintets in league history. Of course, with eleven men on the field and only five offensive lineman on most plays, “skill position players” generally refers to a group of six players. According to Football Outsiders, Harry Douglas was usually that sixth man last year, as he was on the field for 585 snaps in 2012. Douglas is a fine player as a third receiver, but he will bring down the value of this group.
Which made me wonder: which teams have fielded the best six skill position players ever? It’s tricky to even know what “best” means: a 30-year-old Earl Campbell isn’t the same as the 24-year-old version, but if you look simply at productivity in that season, you’re making a list of the best offenses. So here’s what I did.
1) I included in my data set every player who scored at least 5 points of AV in a particular season. This should minimize players who didn’t make any significant contribution in that season.
2) Next, I measured the top six non-lineman offensive players for each team according to their career AV.
3) Then, I took the geometric mean of the career AV of those six players to come up with a team grade.
This is far from a perfect measure — it’s actually quick and dirty — but it was the easiest thing I could think of. Of course, we’ll have to wait a few years for players like Jones and Ryan to rack up their career AV, so I thought it would be fun to look at the current top ten groups.
Before moving on to them, let’s take a look at those who deserve honorable mentions:
1959 Cleveland Browns (77) – QB: Milt Plum (67); RB: Jim Brown (148); RB: Ray Renfro (60); WR: Billy Howton (79); WR: Bobby Mitchell (95); TE: Preston Carpenter (45)
#10) 2004 Kansas City Chiefs (Geometric mean of 78) – QB: Trent Green (career AV of 94); RB: Priest Holmes (83); RB: Larry Johnson (51); WR: Eddie Kennison (69); WR: Johnnie Morton (69); TE: Tony Gonzalez (115)
These Chiefs finished in the top two in points, yards, first downs, and rushing touchdowns. From ’02 to ’05, Willie Roaf, Brian Waters, and Will Shields gave Kansas City one of the league’s best lines every season. In ’03, the team started 8-0, finished 13-3, and finished in the top two in yards, points, first downs, passing yards, net yards per pass, and rushing touchdowns. In reality, All-Pro fullback Tony Richardson was the sixth skill position player for these Chiefs teams, but Johnson became a valuable contributor in ’04 and has more career AV, which is why the ’04 club makes it into the top ten.
#9) 1992 Minnesota Vikings (78) – QB: Rich Gannon (99); RB: Roger Craig (93); RB: Terry Allen (61); WR: Cris Carter (98); WR: Anthony Carter (63); TE: Steve Jordan (65)
[Also: 1991 Minnesota Vikings (76) - QB: Rich Gannon (99); RB: Herschel Walker (79); RB: Terry Allen (61); WR: Cris Carter (98); WR: Anthony Carter (63); TE: Steve Jordan (65)]
In ’92, Gannon threw 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in twelve starts, but the Vikings finished 4th in points scored and made the playoffs with an 11-5 record (the defense finished second in the league with 42 forced turnovers). The year before, with Walker instead of Craig at running back, the team finished 8-8 and finished below average in most passing categories. The team also had a couple of Hall of Fame offensive lineman on the left side, and you should read Jason Lisk’s review of the ’91 Vikings posted a few years ago (see also Doug’s post on prestigious rosters). One last footnote: the 1993 version became the first NFL team to roster five players who had a 1,000-yard receiving season in their career (Jake Reed was already on the team, so drafting Qadry Ismail that season gave them a fifth such player as Craig, Carter, and Reed all returned in ’93).
It’s hard to top the Greatest Shot on Turf Rams when it comes to four-deep talent at the skill positions; Proehl and Hakim were fine role players for St. Louis, but drag down the group as a whole. From ’99 to ’01, this was as dominant an offense as we’ve ever seen.
It’s hard separating the 49ers teams — I think the ’90, ’92, and ’94 teams (listed together as #5) had more in common with each other, so I’ve left this team here at number seven . Without Craig or Watters, the ’95 team — coached by Marc Trestman — graded as my most pass-happy team in NFL history. The 1996 team was only less exciting by those standards; otherwise, this was your typical high-octane 49ers team. Young led the league in passer rating and completion percentage, Rice led the NFL in receptions, and San Francisco went 12-4 and won the NFC West.
This is a group that only looks better with the passage of time, as Turner and Jackson have now starred in the NFC South, too. San Diego went 14-2 and led the league in points scored, but was upset by the Patriots in the playoffs. Much of this core was on the ’08 squad that made the honorable list, including another future NFC South running back. Like the Chiefs teams, the sixth player was often a star fullback: in this case, Lorenzo Neal.
Rice, Taylor, and Jones were on all three teams. Rathman was on the ’90 and ’92 team, while Young and Watters were on the ’92 and ’94 teams. The 49ers went 14-2 in 1990, 13-3 in ’92, and 14-2 in ’94. San Francisco reached the NFC Championship Game in ’90 and ’92 and won it all in 1994. These teams were loaded: the 49ers led the league in points differential in ’92 and ’94, and the ’90 team was a two-time defending champion. But none of these teams come in as the best San Francisco squad.
#4) 1985 San Francisco 49ers (86) – QB: Joe Montana (123); RB: Roger Craig (93); RB: Wendell Tyler (58); WR: Jerry Rice (160); WR: Dwight Clark (61); TE: Russ Francis (64)
1986 San Francisco 49ers (85) – QB: Joe Montana (123); RB: Roger Craig (93); RB: Joe Cribbs (54); WR: Jerry Rice (160); WR: Dwight Clark (61); TE: Russ Francis (64)
Sure, Montana, Rice, and Craig were on the ’85-’86 teams and the 1990 team, but this was a different era in 49ers history. The 1984 team was one of the all-time great teams, and the 49ers drafted Rice the next season. Clark grades out as a better player than Taylor in AV and in True Receiving Yards. The Montana-Rice-Craig-Clark quartet was complemented with some AFC East star power: Francis was a three-time Pro Bowler in the late ’70s with the Patriots, while Cribbs made three Pro Bowls with Buffalo in the early ’80s. The ’85 team had Tyler instead of Cribbs, and the former Ram had three strong seasons for the 49ers from ’83 to ’85. The ’85 and ’86 49ers teams weren’t as statistically dominant as the early ’90s version, though, and Montana was in the midst of a three-year dry spell as a playoff mortal.
#3) 1983 San Diego Chargers (87) – QB: Dan Fouts (122); RB: James Brooks (84); RB: Chuck Muncie (73); WR: Charlie Joiner (92); WR: Wes Chandler (80); TE: Kellen Winslow (76)
1982 San Diego Chargers (87) – QB: Dan Fouts (122); RB: James Brooks (84); RB: Chuck Muncie (73); WR: Charlie Joiner (92); WR: Wes Chandler (80); TE: Kellen Winslow (76)
1981 San Diego Chargers (87) – QB: Dan Fouts (122); RB: James Brooks (84); RB: Chuck Muncie (73); WR: Charlie Joiner (92); WR: Wes Chandler (80); TE: Kellen Winslow (76)
In ’81 and ’82, the team finished 1st in points, yards, first downs, and net yards per pass attempt. San Diego actually led the league in yards, first downs, and passing yards, and finished 3rd in Net Yards per Attempt in ’83… but 55 turnovers led to a 6-10 record. By ’84, Muncie was washed up and Brooks was in Cincinnati, leaving Don Coryell to use more two-tight end looks.
Coached by Don Shula and with legendary Jim Parker on the offensive line, this sextet of skill-position stars were able to dominate the league. In ’64, the team finished 1st in points, yards, turnovers given up, net yards per attempt, and rushing touchdowns. The team marched to a 12-2 record, but was upset by the Browns in the NFL title game. By ’66, age was becoming a factor as Moore, Unitas, and Berry were all 33 that season. (The ’65 team missed the list because Jerry Hill (career AV of 34) led the team in rushing, leaving Matte with only four points of AV that year.) It’s hard to argue with four Hall of Famers — Matt and Orr make quite a valuable 5-6 punch — but this isn’t even on the highest Colts team on the list.
#1) 2004 Indianapolis Colts (99) – QB: Peyton Manning (165); RB: Edgerrin James (114); WR: Marvin Harrison (124); WR: Reggie Wayne (112); TE: Dallas Clark (66); TE: Marcus Pollard (53)
2003 Indianapolis Colts (99) – QB: Peyton Manning (165); RB: Edgerrin James (114); WR: Marvin Harrison (124); WR: Reggie Wayne (112); TE: Dallas Clark (66); TE: Marcus Pollard (53)
2005 Indianapolis Colts (96) – QB: Peyton Manning (165); RB: Edgerrin James (114); WR: Marvin Harrison (124); WR: Reggie Wayne (112); WR: Brandon Stokley (46); TE: Dallas Clark (66)
We all know about the ’04 Colts, when Manning produced the second-greatest season in quarterback history. But Manning was not without help: Wayne ranked in the top 20 in all three of the True Receiving Yards lists, while Harrison ranked 5th, 2nd, and 2nd. Wayne ranked in the top 30 in my GWROAT list, while Harrison trailed just Rice and Don Hutson. At running back, James is a borderline Hall of Famer — he is one of just four players to ever record four seasons of 1500+ rushing yards, and he’s the 11th best fantasy running back of all time (and 10 of the top 12 are in, or will be in, the Hall of Fame).
Clark hadn’t matured into the 100-catch player he was in ’09, but teamed with Pollard (in ’03 and ’04) and Bryan Fletcher (in ’05) when the team used its two-tight end sets. Stokley was an excellent third wide receiver, and is still hanging around the NFL. Indianapolis ran a simple but effective offense, which tends to look even better when you have the best collection of skill-position talent in NFL history.