≡ Menu

## The Greatest Postseason Games By Receivers, Part II

Smith nearly drops the chip on his shoulder

Measuring receiver play is really tricky, and that’s before you even get to things like supporting cast. But I want to at least put something out there to measure receiver play in the postseason, something that would be an improvement on just looking at the leaders in receiving yards. So here’s what I did. Let’s use two great playoff performances as our examples.

1) Calculate each player’s Adjusted Catch Yards in a game. In a 1974 playoff loss to Pittsburgh, Oakland wide receiver Cliff Branch had a great game. He caught 9 passes for 186 yards and 1 touchdown; giving him 5 yards for every reception and 20 yards for every touchdown, that translates to 251 Adjusted Catch Yards.

In 2012, Calvin Johnson dominated the Saints defenses in the lone playoff game of his career; Johnson finished with a 12/211/2 stat line, worth 311 ACY, tied (with Reggie Wayne against Denver) for the third most ACY in a playoff game since 1960.

2) But we need to account for era, and we should also account for the quality of the opposition. So I looked at every team since 1960, and calculated the ACY allowed to all opposing players in every regular season game. Then, I took the top 16 (or fewer, in non-16 game seasons) performances during the regular season to calculate the average ACY allowed by each defense to the top opposing receiver.

This is a very, very high baseline, of course, but I am trying to measure dominance. If a team allows 80 yards, on average, to the opposing WR1, then an 80-yard playoff performance shouldn’t stand out as special.

The 2011 Saints allowed an average of 155 ACY to the top 16 players it faced that year. As a result, Johnson gets credit for 156 ACY over expectation. The 1974 Steelers? Well, they allowed just 94 ACY to the top 14 players it faced during the regular season. That gives Branch 157 ACY over expectation.

So Branch slightly beats Megatron using this formula, as gaining 251 ACY against a defense that usually allows 94 is seen as a hair better than gaining 311 against a defense that usually allows 156. Is this formula perfect? Of course not, but it’s a start. Branch’s game checks in as the 8th best since 1960, while Johnson’s is 10th. The top game? That honor belongs to Steve Smith, naturally.

The table below should be pretty easy to read, but let’s use the Ricky Sanders as an example. Sanders has the 4th best game since 1960, and he it came when he played for Washington against Denver in 1987. You can click the ‘Boxscore’ cell to see the Boxscore, and this game occurred in the Super Bowl. Sanders had a 9/193/2 stat line, for a whopping 278 ACY. Denver’s “average rating” was 108 ACY, so Sanders was at +170 that day.

RkReceiverTmOppYearBoxscoreRdRecYdsTDACYSOSDiff
1Steve SmithCARCHI2005BoxscoreD122182318127191
2T.Y. HiltonINDKAN2013BoxscoreW132242329150179
3Eric MouldsBUFMIA1998BoxscoreW92401305130175
4Ricky SandersWASDEN1987BoxscoreS91932278108170
5Anthony CarterMINSFO1987BoxscoreD102270277107170
6Reggie WayneINDDEN2004BoxscoreW102212311145166
7Jerry RiceSFOCIN1988BoxscoreS112151290130160
8Cliff BranchOAKPIT1974BoxscoreC9186125194157
9Michael IrvinDALSFO1994BoxscoreC121922292135157
10Calvin JohnsonDETNOR2011BoxscoreW122112311155156
11Julio JonesATLSFO2012BoxscoreC111822277135142
12Steve WatsonDENPIT1984BoxscoreD111771252116136
13John StallworthPITDEN1978BoxscoreD10156122694132
14Demaryius ThomasDENPIT2011BoxscoreW42041244112132
15Andre ReedBUFHOU1992BoxscoreW81363236107129
16Randy MossMINSTL1999BoxscoreD91882273144129
17Terrell OwensSFONYG2002BoxscoreW91772262134129
18Pierre GarconINDNYJ2009BoxscoreC11151122699127
19Preston PearsonDALRAM1975BoxscoreC7123321893125
20Larry FitzgeraldARIPHI2008BoxscoreC91523257133124
21Thurman ThomasBUFCLE1989BoxscoreD131502255131124
22Jerry RiceOAKNYJ2001BoxscoreW91831248124124
23Fred BiletnikoffOAKKAN1968BoxscoreD71803275154121
24Shannon SharpeDENRAI1993BoxscoreW131561241121120
25Jerry RiceSFOSDG1994BoxscoreS101493259139120
26Jerry RiceSFODEN1989BoxscoreS71483243124119
27Haven MosesDENOAK1977BoxscoreC51682233116117
28Kellen WinslowSDGMIA1981BoxscoreD131661251137114
29Rob GronkowskiNWEDEN2011BoxscoreD101453255146109
30Fred BiletnikoffOAKNYJ1968BoxscoreC71901245138107
31Art MonkWASSFO1990BoxscoreD101631233127106
32Marques ColstonNORSEA2013BoxscoreD111441219118101
33Amani ToomerNYGSFO2002BoxscoreW81363236135101
34Vernon DavisSFONOR2011BoxscoreD71802255155100
35Sidney RiceMINDAL2009BoxscoreD61413231131100
36Ernest GivinsHOUPIT1989BoxscoreW11136223113398
37Charley TaylorWASDAL1972BoxscoreC7146222112398
38Amp LeeMINCHI1994BoxscoreW11159123413797
39Mark DuperMIAPIT1984BoxscoreC5148221311697
40James LoftonBUFMIA1990BoxscoreD7149120410896
41Stephone PaigeKANMIA1990BoxscoreW8142120210894
42Dan RossCINSFO1981BoxscoreS11104219910594
43Deion BranchNWECAR2003BoxscoreS10143121311994
44Brett PerrimanDETGNB1993BoxscoreW10150122012793
45Larry FitzgeraldARIGNB2015BoxscoreD8176123614393
46O.J. McDuffieMIABUF1995BoxscoreW11154122913792
47John JeffersonGNBSTL1982BoxscoreW6148221812692
48Johnny PerkinsNYGSFO1981BoxscoreD7121219610591
49Larry FitzgeraldARICAR2008BoxscoreD8166122613690
50Willie JacksonNORSTL2000BoxscoreW6142323214587
51Antonio FreemanGNBDEN1997BoxscoreS9126221112487
52Marvin HarrisonINDDEN2003BoxscoreW7133220812286
53Ike HilliardNYGMIN2000BoxscoreC10155224516085
54Demaryius ThomasDENSEA2013BoxscoreS13118120311885
55Gary CollinsCLEBAL1964BoxscoreC5130321513085
56Steve SmithCARSTL2003BoxscoreD6163121312984
57Michael HaynesATLNOR1991BoxscoreW6144221413184
58Larry FitzgeraldARIPIT2008BoxscoreS7127220211983
59Wesley WalkerNYJRAI1982BoxscoreD7169122414183
60Lynn SwannPITDAL1975BoxscoreS4161120111883
61Fred BiletnikoffOAKNWE1976BoxscoreD9137120212083
62Brandon StokleyINDDEN2003BoxscoreW4144220412282
63John WilliamsSEACIN1988BoxscoreD11137121213082
64Darrell JacksonSEASTL2004BoxscoreW12128120812781
65Frank LewisBUFNYJ1981BoxscoreW7158223315281
66Jeff JanisGNBARI2015BoxscoreD7145222013981
67Austin CollieINDNYJ2009BoxscoreC712311789979
68Isaac BruceSTLTEN1999BoxscoreS6162121213577
69Willie RichardsonBALMIN1968BoxscoreD6148017810177
70Tony HillDALGNB1982BoxscoreD7142017710374
71Andre ReedBUFMIA1990BoxscoreD4122218210874
72Plaxico BurressNYGGNB2007BoxscoreC11151020613274
73Hakeem NicksNYGGNB2011BoxscoreD7165224016674
74Andre ReedBUFDAL1992BoxscoreS8152019211974
75Steve JordanMINSFO1989BoxscoreD9149019412173
76Steve SmithCARDAL2003BoxscoreW5135118010773
77Billy ParksDALSFO1972BoxscoreD7136119112071
78Justin GageTENBAL2008BoxscoreD10135018511471
79Darrell JacksonSEAWAS2005BoxscoreD9143120813771
80Harold JacksonRAMMIN1974BoxscoreC3139117410470
81Darren SprolesNORSFO2011BoxscoreD15118121314370
82Max McGeeGNBKAN1966BoxscoreS7138221314370
83Jordy NelsonGNBPIT2010BoxscoreS9140120513570
84Jimmy SmithJAXMIA1999BoxscoreD5136220113170
85Rob GronkowskiNWEDEN2015BoxscoreC8144120413470
86Muhsin MuhammadCARNWE2003BoxscoreS4140118011070
87Jeremy MaclinPHIDAL2009BoxscoreW7146120113170
88James LoftonBUFRAI1990BoxscoreC5113217810969
89Jerry RiceSFOCHI1988BoxscoreC5133219813068
90Wallace FrancisATLPHI1978BoxscoreW6135118511768
91Lynn SwannPITDAL1978BoxscoreS7124117911267
92Willie GreenDETDAL1991BoxscoreD8115219512867
93George SauerNYJBAL1968BoxscoreS8133017310667
94Earnest BynerCLEDEN1987BoxscoreC7120117510867
95Charlie BrownWASRAM1983BoxscoreD6171020113566
96Isaac BruceSTLNOR2000BoxscoreW7127118211765
97Steve LargentSEAHOU1987BoxscoreW7132220714265
98Martavis BryantPITDEN2015BoxscoreD9154019913465
99Jerry RiceSFODAL1992BoxscoreC8123118311965
100Ed PodolakKANMIA1971BoxscoreD8110117010664
101Michael IrvinDALGNB1993BoxscoreD9126119112764
102Fred BiletnikoffOAKMIA1974BoxscoreD8122118211864
103Sterling SharpeGNBDAL1993BoxscoreD6128117811464
104Jermaine KearseSEACAR2015BoxscoreD11110220514264
105Cris CarterMINNOR2000BoxscoreD8120118011763
106Alvin GarrettWASDET1982BoxscoreW6110320013763
107Leonard ThompsonDETWAS1982BoxscoreW7150018512362
108Michael CrabtreeSFOGNB2012BoxscoreD9119220414362
109Keyshawn JohnsonNYJJAX1998BoxscoreD9121118612562
110Fred BarnettPHINOR1992BoxscoreW4102216210161
111Jerry RiceSFOMIN1989BoxscoreD6114218412361
112Harold CarmichaelPHICHI1979BoxscoreW6111218112061
113Santonio HolmesPITARI2008BoxscoreS9131119613660
114Paul WarfieldMIABAL1971BoxscoreC212511559560
115Zach MillerSEAATL2012BoxscoreD8142120214260
116Keenan AllenSDGDEN2013BoxscoreD6142221215360
117Marques ColstonNORSFO2011BoxscoreD9136120114358
118John StallworthPITDAL1978BoxscoreS3115217011258
119Michael IrvinDALBUF1992BoxscoreS6114218412658
120Don HasselbeckNWEMIA1982BoxscoreW78711428557
121Sterling SharpeGNBDET1993BoxscoreW5101318612957
122Dwight ClarkSFODAL1981BoxscoreC8120220014456
123Roy GreenSTLGNB1982BoxscoreW9113015810355
124Charlie JoinerSDGOAK1980BoxscoreC6130220014555
125Dwayne BoweKANIND2013BoxscoreW8150121015555
126Deion BranchNWEPHI2004BoxscoreS11133018813355
127Randy MossMINNOR2000BoxscoreD2121217111754
128Bill MillerOAKGNB1967BoxscoreS58421499653
129Webster SlaughterCLEBUF1989BoxscoreD3114216911653
130Rod SmithDENATL1998BoxscoreS5152119714552
131Herman MooreDETPHI1995BoxscoreW7133118813652
132Haywood JeffiresHOUBUF1992BoxscoreW898217812652
133Reggie BushNORCHI2006BoxscoreC7132118713552
134Alfred JenkinsATLDAL1980BoxscoreD4155119514352
135Rocket IsmailDALMIN1999BoxscoreW8163020315251
136Paul WarfieldMIAKAN1971BoxscoreD7140017512451
137Julian EdelmanNWESEA2014BoxscoreS9109117412351
138Steve BreastonARIGNB2009BoxscoreW7125118012951
139Art MonkWASCHI1984BoxscoreD10122017212151
140Frank WycheckTENPIT2002BoxscoreD10123119314351
141Greg JenningsGNBARI2009BoxscoreW8130119014050
142Donald DriverGNBNYG2007BoxscoreC5141118613650
143Deion BranchNWEDEN2005BoxscoreD8153019314350
144Keith JacksonMIASDG1994BoxscoreD8109218913950
145Jerry PorterOAKNYJ2002BoxscoreD6123117312450
146Victor CruzNYGSFO2011BoxscoreC10142019214349
147Jermichael FinleyGNBARI2009BoxscoreW6159018914049
148Steve LargentSEAMIA1984BoxscoreD6128117813048
149Charlie BrownWASSFO1983BoxscoreC5137118213448
150Earnest GrayNYGSFO1981BoxscoreD3118115310548
151Wesley WalkerNYJCIN1982BoxscoreW8145120515748
152Ron JessieRAMMIN1978BoxscoreD6108115811048
153Robert BrooksGNBDAL1994BoxscoreD8138017813048
154Freddie SolomonSFONYG1981BoxscoreD6107115710948
155Keith JacksonPHICHI1988BoxscoreD7142017713047
156Vincent JacksonSDGNYJ2009BoxscoreD711101469947
157Jimmy SmithJAXNYJ1998BoxscoreD5104216912346
158Anquan BoldinSFOCAR2013BoxscoreD8136017613046
159Demaryius ThomasDENNWE2013BoxscoreC7134118914445
160Hines WardPITNYJ2004BoxscoreD10105117513045
161Bill BrooksBUFRAI1993BoxscoreD696216612145
162Tony HillDALRAM1983BoxscoreW9115118013545
163Hines WardPITCLE2002BoxscoreW11104117913445
164Mark JacksonDENCLE1987BoxscoreC4134117413044
165Deion BranchNWEPIT2004BoxscoreC4116115611244
166Jabar GaffneyNWESDG2006BoxscoreD10103117313043
167Jerry RiceSFOMIN1988BoxscoreD561314610343
168Carroll DaleGNBRAM1967BoxscoreD6109115911643
169Gary ClarkWASBUF1991BoxscoreS7114116912643
170Ahmad RashadMINRAM1978BoxscoreD78411399742
171Bob HayesDALCLE1967BoxscoreD5144118914742
172Haywood JeffiresHOUDEN1991BoxscoreD799115411242
173Otis TaylorKANMIN1969BoxscoreS68111318942
174Jordan ReedWASGNB2015BoxscoreW9120118514342
175Mickey ShulerNYJBUF1981BoxscoreW6116116612442
176John StallworthPITMIA1984BoxscoreC4111217113041
177Tom WaddleCHIDAL1991BoxscoreW9104116912841
178Dwight ClarkSFONYG1984BoxscoreD9112117713641
179Drew PearsonDALRAM1973BoxscoreD28721379740
180Russ FrancisNWEHOU1978BoxscoreD8101116112240
181Carroll DaleGNBDAL1966BoxscoreC5128117313439
182Dave CasperOAKBAL1977BoxscoreD470315011139
183Mike BarberHOUNWE1978BoxscoreD583214811039
184Hines WardPITJAX2007BoxscoreW10135018514738
185Cris CarterMINSFO1997BoxscoreD693216312538
186Tony NathanMIAPIT1984BoxscoreC8114015411638
187Brent CelekPHIARI2008BoxscoreC1083217313637
188Marshall FaulkSTLNOR2000BoxscoreW799115411737
189Roy JeffersonWASGNB1972BoxscoreD58411299237
190Travis KelceKANHOU2015BoxscoreW8128016813237
191Bill BrownMINBAL1968BoxscoreD882114210636
192John HendersonMINKAN1969BoxscoreS7111014611036
193Ernest GivinsHOUBUF1992BoxscoreW9117016212636
194Ronnie HarmonSDGIND1995BoxscoreW10133018314835
195Hakeem NicksNYGATL2011BoxscoreW6115218515035
196Billy CannonHOULAC1960BoxscoreC3128116312835
197Derrick MasonTENNWE2003BoxscoreD790114511035
198Harold JacksonRAMDAL1976BoxscoreD6116014611135
199Andre ReedBUFCLE1989BoxscoreD6115116513134
200Antonio GatesSDGNYJ2009BoxscoreD89301339934
• After Sanders’ great game — that earned him a shout out from the president — the top three Super Bowl games all belong to Jerry Rice, including in the two years following Sanders’ game. The 5th best Super Bowl performance? That came from Bengals tight end Dan Ross, in a remarkable performance that has been forgotten. He caught 11 of 13 targets for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns, while playing an ’81 49ers defense that ranked in the top 3 in points, yards, yards per attempt, and passing yards.
• Both of Lynn Swann’s games against the Cowboys in the Super Bowl crack the top 100, although neither make the top 50. That would change quite a bit, of course, if we gave more weight to Super Bowl performances. Should we?
• In case you were wondering, as I was, Don Maynard’s game against the Raiders in the 1968 AFL Championship — 6/118/2 — checked in at 201 on the list. That’s because the “expectation” against the Raiders was a whopping 154 ACY, making the ’68 Raiders similar to the ’11 Saints. Does that make any sense?

The 2011 Saints ranked 30th in passing yards allowed; the ’68 Raiders ranked 4th. New Orleans allowed 260 passing yards per game, while the Raiders allowed just 161. So what gives? Well, this comes back to the distribution of things.

In 14 games, the Raiders allowed 6 100-yard games, and 6 more games of at least 80 receiving yards. If you sort from top to bottom, the average of the 14 players with the most receiving yards against the Raiders in 1968 was 113 yards. The Saints allowed 8 100-yard games, and 13 games of 80+ yards, which is pretty comparable over 16 games. And the ’68 Raiders had two games worse than the ’11 Saints. As a result, the ’11 Saints allowed “only” 107 receiving yards, on average, in their worst 16 games. Using ACY instead of receiving yards make New Orleans slightly worse, but the real issue is that distributions were much narrower in the late ’60s than they are today, which offsets the crazy pass numbers we see today.

I’m not sure what the “right” way to adjust for era is when dealing with wide receivers, so I’ll open this one up to the comments. I don’t love this formula, but I do think it does a decent enough job of isolating the best games that I like it enough for our purposes. Any tweaks, of course, would be welcome (including whether we should adjust for pass attempts).

{ 24 comments }
• Adam

Shouldn’t the TD bonus be 15 yards, since you’re already giving a 5 yard bonus for the reception?

• I don’t think so, but I’m willing to think it over.

• Adam

If you’re using receptions as a proxy for first downs, then wouldn’t the 5 yard bonus be redundant when a TD is scored?

• I am incredibly burned out on WRs just now, but I agree with Adam. In fact, my current TSP formula uses +15 for TDs instead of +20 for that very reason, though I use estimated first downs instead of receptions.

See also my response to Bryan above.

• Adam

What formula do you use for estimating WR first downs?

• You’re saying it is like using 11 instead of 20 when doing ACY with modern numbers, because the TD counts as a first down too. In this case, I’m on board with not making it 15, because giving a 5 yard bonus to try to account for first downs means you are implicitly saying receivers catch first downs 55.56% of the time. That isn’t the case. While quarterbacks throw first downs on about 55% of their completions, that number is dragged down significantly by running backs (36% conversion rate). WR and TE caught first downs at a rate of 60.1% last year. Given the fact that passers of old threw longer passes and had higher Y/C, I’d be willing to bet that receivers had higher 1D/R rates back in the day. All that taken into account, I think it’s fair to leave the bonus at 20.

• Adam

Thanks, that’s a great explanation. It didn’t occur to me that WR’s would have different 1D/R rates than QB’s, but it makes sense.

• Aren’t you arguing that 5 for receptions is too low, rather than 15 for TDs?

Incidentally, with all due respect to Brian Burke’s work on this subject, I believe 9 yards is too high for a WR’s first down. I realize that’s a longer discussion, and my perspective is that WR skill usually doesn’t make much difference between a 9-yard or 10-yard reception on 2nd-and-10, which isn’t necessarily the only way to approach this. But the 10-yard reception being worth more than twice as much feels really wrong to me, especially since that distinction may or may not be reflective of the WR’s talent. While WRs obviously have some control over whether their catches result in first downs, that’s often dictated by team circumstances rather than individual performance. Did a WR who caught a six-yard pass on 3rd-and-1 make a better play than the one who caught a six-yard pass on 1st-and-10? Probably not.

Also, you mentioned stats going back to 2006, so I don’t know whether you have this data: WR-only first down percentage over the last 25 years:

1991-95 — 68.3%
1996-00 — 67.5%
2001-05 — 66.0%
2006-10 — 65.0%
2011-15 — 63.9%

My research indicates that this is primarily attributable to yds/comp dropping over time. I would suggest, though, that — a propos of Brian’s work, which (pretty intuitively) found that moving the chains on third down is more valuable than second, which is more valuable than first — WRs probably gain more first downs on early downs now than they did in the past, meaning WR first downs may be less valuable today than they were in previous eras. It’s a complicated discussion.

But getting back to the original point, I agree with Adam about the value of TDs. The receptions/1st Downs thing is a larger, trickier issue.

• I am arguing that it doesn’t really matter, because it doesn’t really matter.

• A different thing: I think first down receptions are generally a better measure of WR success than just plain catches, but I’d really prefer to use “successful catches” as the primary stat. Unfortunately, I don’t have that information, and Football Outsiders fellows didn’t seem keen on publishing it when I presented the idea. I have PBP going back to the mid-1990s and could calculate it myself, but it would be pretty time consuming. Given the fact that GSIS just blew up their Gamebook archives, I guess I won’t be “wasting” any more of my time collecting spike/kneel data, so I can go ahead and divert my attention to some other tedious exercise.

• Adam

My gut feeling is that receivers have less influence over first downs than passers or runners. The QB decides where he wants to throw in relation to the sticks, and the RB has the ball in his hands for almost the entire play. Meanwhile, the WR is largely at the mercy of the QB’s decisions.

• I didn’t take the time to find SOS, but 1950 was a great year for receivers picking up ACY in the postseason. Dante Lavelli put up 223 ACY against the Rams, while Tom Fears put up 181 of his own against Cleveland. Even more impressive is Fears’s 293 ACY against Chicago in the divisional playoff.

Raymond Berry’s 258 ACY against the Giants in the Greatest Game Ever Played is also pretty astounding.

• Joe Wright

I’m sure the list put Rice on your brain, but you’re thinking of Dan Ross in XVI. Dan Rice appears to be from a Keanu Reeves movie. 🙂

• sacramento gold miners

Dan Ross had a good game, but much of his production came against San Francisco’s prevent defense. The Niners were more concerned about allowing completions out of bounds late in that Super Bowl.

• Richie

27 yards and 1 touchdown came when the game was out of reach. Everything else came while the score was within 13 points and over 10 minutes to play in the game.

• sacramento gold miners

My bad, it was six catches for 49 yards in the fourth quarter. Watching the game live, it just didn’t feel like a great game by Ross in comparison to other receivers. Kenny Anderson was horrible in the first half of that game, as Cincinnati fell behind 20-0.

• Richie

Even Ross’ late TD made it a 1-score game. With only 20 seconds remaining, a comeback was highly unlikely, but not impossible.

• Fixed!

• Tom

Well, I’m sitting here congratulating myself – I said in the last post that Pierre Garcon’s 2009 game and Preston Pearons 1975 game would crack the top 20…Garcon is at #18 and Pearson is at #19!

• Tom

Regarding championship leverage (giving more weight to bigger games), that’s a tough one. At the moment, I think just looking at a table of the best Super Bowl performances (using your formula) would be cool, and Lynn Swann would be in the Top 15 I’m thinking.

• Richie

I don’t think Super Bowls should be counted more. Both teams want to win every playoff game. It’s not like a team is trying harder because the game is the Super Bowl vs. a Wild Card game.

• I think whether you weight Super Bowls more heavily depends on what you’re trying to measure. With a title like Greatest Postseason Games, I would say yes, Super Bowls should count more. I feel like all other factors being equal, a 150-yd/2-TD game in a Super Bowl is “greater” than the same statline in the wild card round.

I don’t know how strongly I feel about that, but I do think you’re underrating older players like Branch. Why did you use raw +/- rather than a percentage? Branch and Michael Irvin both had +157 ACY, but Branch’s [251-94] strikes me as far more impressive and significant than Irvin’s [292-135]. The ’70s in particular were a brutal passing environment, as you’ve argued in the past for players like Harold Jackson. I’m not sure the system you’ve used here recognizes that to the degree that it should.

• I’m inclined to agree about weighting big games more heavily if you’re calling them “greatest” as opposed to “best.”