Today’s guest post comes from Adam Harstad, who is also part of the Smitty Fan Club. You can follow Adam on twitter at @AdamHarstad.
IS STEVE SMITH THE GREATEST POSTSEASON WR IN HISTORY?
Prior to this last weekend’s slate of games, I remarked to several friends what a treat it was that we got to watch Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Steve Smith all playing on the same weekend. In addition to being three of the best receivers of the last decade, all three could lay claim to the best per-game postseason numbers in history, depending on where you set the cut-offs.
Calvin Johnson had only appeared in one postseason game prior to this season, but he made it count with 12/211/2 receiving in a losing effort. Calvin was actually the fourth player in history to top 10 receptions, 200 yards, and 2 touchdowns in a single playoff game,1 but each of the three previous have played additional games to bring their per-game numbers down. Among players who appeared in at least one playoff game, Calvin’s 211-yard “average” was the best by a mile.
If you moved the cutoff to 6 games, Larry Fitzgerald’s postseason averages took over the spotlight. Following the 2008 NFL season, Fitzgerald had arguably the greatest postseason run by a wide receiver, hauling in 6/101/1, 8/166/1, 9/152/3, and 7/127/2 in his four games, including what would have been the Super Bowl-winning touchdown and a likely MVP performance if not for some heroics from Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes. Fitzgerald followed that up with a strong showing in the 2009 playoffs, catching 12/159/2 over two games. All told, Fitzgerald had 53/705/9 receiving in just six postseason appearances, for a per-game average of 8.8/118/1.5.
If, instead, you moved the cutoff to 9 games, Steve Smith’s numbers rose to the top of the heap. In his nine appearances spanning four playoff seasons, Smith had caught 51 passes for 856 yards and 8 touchdowns. Additionally, Smith had 5 carries for another 45 yards and a touchdown, bringing his offensive totals to 901 yards and 9 scores in 9 games- or essentially an even 100 yards and 1 touchdown per game.
After noting these fantastic performances, I opined to my friends that, while it would be good to see these receivers in postseason play again, they were almost certainly going to wind up doing serious damage to their career averages for one reason or another. For Calvin Johnson, his first postseason game was such an outlier that it would be almost impossible not to regress. For Fitzgerald, he would have to overcome playing with arguably the worst quarterback to ever start a playoff game. And for Smith, he would have to reckon with the fact that, at 35 years old and hemorrhaging speed, he was no longer close to the dominant force he had been in his youth.
It turns out that I was right on two out of three, as both Calvin and Fitzgerald saw their career averages decline substantially, but Steve Smith found the fountain of youth, hauled in five passes for 101 yards, and actually managed to increase his per-game average by a fraction of a yard. Now, Football Perspective has a well-known Steve Smith Bias, but even in Chase’s definitive apologia, he failed to mention just how favorably Smith’s postseason numbers compare to his Hall of Fame peers. Which left me wondering: could it be possible that Steve Smith is the greatest postseason receiver in NFL history?
There have certainly been a lot of phenomenal playoff receivers through the years, from Stallworth and Swann to Art Monk to Michael Irvin to Larry Fitzgerald. All told, 13 receivers have topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage in postseason play. Every single one of them, however, has played at least four games more than Smith’s 10. He is one of seven receivers to score 60 points in the playoffs, and each of the other members of that club have appeared in at least five more games than Smith. Smith has certainly earned his seat at the table in any discussion of great postseason receivers.
As with any other question about the greatest receivers, though, in the end, it all comes down to Jerry Rice. In fact, Rice’s career postseason numbers tower over the field even more than his regular season numbers do (you know, to the extent such a thing is even possible). In the regular season, Jerry Rice has 44% more yards than his next-closest competitor. In the postseason, that gap is 71%. In the regular season, Rice is 26% ahead second place in receiving touchdowns. In the postseason, that gap is 83%! (Rice has 22; John Stallworth is second with 12). Steve Smith still needs another 153 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns before he’s even halfway to Rice’s career totals.
But, with all due respect to Rice, he played for a team that made the postseason 13 times in 14 years. He undoubtedly contributed to that run of excellence, but it’s hard to give him the lion’s share of the credit for that feat. Steve Smith played for a franchise that made the postseason 4 times in 13 years. While it’s not fair to penalize Jerry Rice for the fact that his supporting cast was so good, it’s even more unfair to penalize Steve Smith for the fact that his supporting cast was not.
Basically, using raw numbers gives Jerry Rice too much credit for team success. Of course, we could try slicing Jerry Rice’s postseason career various different ways to get comparable samples. For instance, we could compare Rice’s first 10 postseason games to Smith’s first 10 postseason games, which would give us 944 yards and 12 touchdowns for Rice to 1002 yards and 9 touchdowns for Smith, (with Smith adding an additional 59-yard punt return for a touchdown, as well). Or we could use Rice’s best 10-game stretch, which would yield 1097 yards and 13 touchdowns for Rice. If we compare each receiver through age 30, Rice averaged 94 yards and 1 TD through 13 games while Smith averaged 103 yards and 1 TD through 8 games. And remember, Jerry Rice was busy compiling these numbers while playing with the best playoff quarterback of the Super Bowl era, while Steve Smith spent 80% of his postseason career playing with Jake Delhomme, owner of the 3rd-worst passing performance in postseason history.2
Even more telling about Steve Smith’s postseason play is how consistent it has been. Arguably Smith’s worst game from a receiving standpoint came in the 2005 NFC Championship Game, with Smith catching 5 of 11 targets for 33 yards, no touchdowns, and a lost fumble. Even that poor performance comes with a massive caveat, though; Carolina’s offense had been hit by injuries, and outside of Smith the only players to gain a yard were Nick Goings, Jamal Robertson, Brad Hoover, Drew Carter, Kris Mangum, and a 37-year-old Ricky Proehl. Those 8 players would combine to gain an average of 209 more yards over their remaining careers. Seattle opted to triple-cover Smith and dare someone else to beat them, and despite the increased attention, Smith still managed to impact the game with a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown.
The NFC Championship Game was one of just three games for Smith’s career where he was held below 70 receiving yards. The other two were a 3/26/0 performance in a game where Carolina only attempted 14 passes, and a 2/43/1 performance in Jake Delhomme’s meltdown against Arizona. This last weekend’s 5/101/0 performance represents just the second time Smith has been held out of the end zone in the playoffs.
In addition to his consistency, Smith’s top-end playoff production is among the best in history. Smith is one of just eight receivers to top 200 yards in a playoff game. Smith is one of just four receivers to top 150 yards in multiple playoff games, (the others are Rice, Fitzgerald, and Fred Biletnikoff, all of whom have done it just twice each). In 2005, Smith faced the Chicago Bears— the best defense in the NFL— and shredded them for 244 offensive yards and two touchdowns. The yardage total still stands as the 3rd-highest total by any player at any position in playoff history.3
When you really slice the data, Steve Smith’s production is comparable or even superior to Jerry Rice’s across the board. He has comparable splits for his first 10 games, nearly comparable splits for his best 10 games, comparable top-end performance, and better consistency. And he did it all with a much worse supporting cast. So, case closed, right? Steve Smith is the best receiver in playoff history. Right?
Betteridge’s Law of Headlines states that when the headline of an article ends in a question mark, the answer is always no. Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to crown Steve Smith, Betteridge wins again. You see, while all of these methods produce a more apples-to-apples comparison, they fail to give Rice credit for his unbelievable longevity. Steve Smith just had a 100-yard receiving game at age 35, which is impressive. Jerry Rice had 183 yards and a touchdown at age 39, which is unbelievable. When Oakland made its Super Bowl run in 2002, Jerry Rice contributed 14/203/2 despite having already celebrated his 40th birthday. If Jerry Rice and Steve Smith were comparably valuable in their primes, then Jerry Rice still wins the comparison because of all the value he added after his prime.
And, of course, the elephant in the room is Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl performances. Rice had 33/589/8 receiving in four Super Bowl appearances, compared to 4/80/1 in one appearance for Smith. Smith also added just 8/59/0 receiving in two NFC Championship Game appearances. Again, football is a team sport and Jerry Rice’s supporting cast undoubtedly was a big reason why he made so many Super Bowls while Steve Smith struggled to get past the divisional round, but any additional weight given to performances in biggest of games tips the scale greatly in Rice’s favor.
I would love to say that there’s a compelling argument to be made for Steve Smith, but better per-game stats based on wildcard and divisional round dominance isn’t enough. Jerry Rice is not the GOAT for no good reason, and it would take a lot more than a great 10-game stretch to dethrone him.
I do know this, however: while Fitzgerald and Johnson saw their postseasons draw to an early close, Smith’s Baltimore Ravens survived to play another week. Paired with a quarterback with a history of postseason heroics, Steve Smith will have up to three more games to continue to make his case to a skeptical public. Early reports suggest that Smith will be lining up against Darrelle Revis when the Ravens play the Patriots this weekend, which seems like an intimidating matchup, but I’ve learned my lesson about betting against the second-best postseason receiver in NFL history.
- Oddly, all four receivers to reach those marks were active this past weekend; in addition to Calvin Johnson, they were Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith, and T.Y. Hilton. [↩]
- Despite the awfulness of his late-career meltdown, early career Jake Delhomme was actually a very good postseason quarterback. Prior to this season, Chase estimated that Delhomme was the 20th best postseason quarterback, sitting between Phil Simms and Joe Flacco, even with his awful game against Arizona dragging down his numbers. Despite this, I’m sure most would concede the point that Jake Delhomme was no Joe Montana. [↩]
- Chase note: Anecdotally, that remains one of the best individual performances I’ve ever witnessed. [↩]