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WOWY: Which Receivers Elevate Their Quarterbacks the Most?

by Neil Paine on September 5, 2013

in G.O.A.T., History, Passing, Quarterbacks, Receiving, Statgeekery

Straight cash, homey.

Straight cash, homey.

In 1998, 21-year-old Randy Moss made a stunning NFL debut, racking up 17 touchdowns and 1,260 True Receiving Yards, the 2nd-best total in football that season. The Vikings’ primary quarterback that year, Randall Cunningham, was a former Pro Bowler and MVP, but all that seemed like a lifetime ago before the ’98 season. He’d been out of football entirely in 1996, and in 1997 he posted an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt average that was 1.2 points below the league’s average (for reference’s sake, replacement level is usually around 0.75 below average). With Moss in ’98, though, Cunningham’s passing efficiency numbers exploded: he posted a career best +3.2 Relative Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, miles ahead of his perfectly-average overall career mark. If we adjust for the fact that Cunningham was also 35 at the time (an age at which quarterbacks’ RANY/A rates tend to be 1.1 points below what they are at age 27), Cunningham’s 1998 rate was actually 4.3 points better than we’d expect from the rest of his career, a staggering outlier.

The following year, Jeff George took over as the Vikings primary quarterback, and he promptly posted a Relative ANY/A 2.2 points higher than expected based on his age and the rest of his career.1 George left Moss and Minnesota after the season, and he would throw only 236 passes the rest of his career, producing a cumulative -0.6 RANY/A in Washington before retiring.

From 2000-04, Moss was the primary target of Daunte Culpepper, whose RANY/A was 0.7 better than expected (based on Culpepper’s career numbers) when Moss was around.2 Although he’d enjoyed one of the best quarterback seasons in NFL history in 2004, Culpepper was never the same after Moss was traded to Oakland; in fact, he never even had another league-average passing season, producing a horrible -1.2 RANY/A from 2005 until his retirement in 2009.3

Moss’s stint with the Raiders was famously checkered — although Kerry Collins’ RANY/A was 0.6 better than expected in 2005, Aaron Brooks played 2.5 points of RANY/A below his previous standards in 2006 — but we all know what happened when he joined the Patriots in 2007. With Moss, Tom Brady’s RANY/A was a whopping 1.3 points higher than expected from the rest of his career, and Moss also played a big role in Matt Cassel’s RANY/A being +1.0 relative to expectations after Brady was lost for the season in 2008.

While Moss’s post-Pats career hasn’t exactly been the stuff of legends, the majority of his career (weighted by True Receiving Yards) saw him dramatically improve his quarterbacks’ play relative to the rest of their careers. In fact, his lifetime WOWY (With or Without You) mark of +1.1 age-adjusted RANY/A ranks 3rd among all receivers who: a) had at least 3,000 career TRY, b) started their careers after the merger, and c) played exclusively with quarterbacks who started their careers after the merger. And the first two names on the list are possibly explained by other means. The table below lists all 301 receivers with 3,000 career TRY. The table is fully sortable and searchable, and you can click on the arrows at the bottom of the table to scroll. The table is sorted by the QB WOWY column.

Receiver
Debut
Career TRY
QB WOWY
Tm Off Rating
Tm RANY/A
QB Career RANY/A
Ed McCaffrey19917,182+1.3125.9+0.9+0.1
Rod Smith199510,772+1.2123.3+0.7-0.0
Randy Moss199814,172+1.1130.6+1.2+0.3
J.J. Birden19903,239+1.0106.5+0.7+0.4
Wes Welker20047,540+1.0142.6+1.6+0.9
Mike Pritchard19914,879+0.9105.4+0.4-0.1
Percy Harvin20093,020+0.9104.8-0.5-0.4
Ashley Lelie20023,316+0.9111.6+0.4-0.3
Sidney Rice20073,105+0.9113.9+0.7+0.3
Todd Christensen19796,099+0.8101.1-0.0-0.4
Wes Chandler19788,700+0.8122.1+1.1+0.4
Brandon Stokley19994,791+0.8123.4+1.4+0.7
John Taylor19875,204+0.8143.3+2.3+1.4
Hakeem Nicks20093,202+0.8114.8+0.9+0.3
Terry Kirby19933,136+0.7114.9+0.8+0.6
Charlie Garner19943,630+0.7112.0+0.6+0.2
Bennie Cunningham19763,401+0.7114.5+0.6-0.0
Cris Collinsworth19816,553+0.7126.7+1.3+0.7
Wesley Walker19778,738+0.7110.3+0.1-0.4
Joe Jurevicius19983,895+0.799.4+0.2-0.4
Brent Jones19875,020+0.7141.9+2.0+1.4
Terance Mathis19908,386+0.7100.4+0.2-0.2
Stephone Paige19835,956+0.793.8+0.2-0.2
Antwaan Randle El20024,267+0.7101.1+0.5+0.1
Shannon Sharpe19909,614+0.7117.6+0.4+0.1
Dave Meggett19893,293+0.7104.9+0.4+0.0
Nate Burleson20034,565+0.7108.2+0.6+0.1
Mark Ingram19873,761+0.7115.2+1.0+0.4
Curtis Martin19953,718+0.7105.2+0.4-0.1
Tim Brown198814,181+0.7103.7+0.4+0.1
James Jett19933,951+0.799.5+0.3-0.0
Mike Sherrard19863,702+0.7110.8+0.5+0.1
Henry Childs19744,011+0.699.6+0.0-0.7
Pete Holohan19813,755+0.6113.5+0.9+0.4
Joey Galloway199510,110+0.686.7-0.5-0.6
Keyshawn Johnson19969,855+0.697.8-0.0-0.3
Justin McCareins20013,390+0.6101.9+0.5+0.1
Jake Reed19915,961+0.6109.9+0.6+0.3
Michael Timpson19893,530+0.689.7-0.4-0.5
Earnest Byner19844,806+0.6108.8+0.7+0.3
William Andrews19793,100+0.6109.4+0.4-0.1
Tony Galbreath19764,857+0.698.4+0.2-0.5
Jerry Rice198521,438+0.5131.5+1.6+1.1
Marcus Allen19825,993+0.5101.3+0.1-0.1
Braylon Edwards20055,063+0.588.7-0.9-1.1
Brian Westbrook20024,017+0.5105.5+0.7+0.1
Bernard Berrian20043,724+0.595.1-0.4-0.3
James Lofton197813,241+0.5104.1+0.1-0.3
DeSean Jackson20083,754+0.5107.0+0.3-0.1
Santana Moss20018,953+0.596.9+0.4+0.2
Jabar Gaffney20025,045+0.598.6-0.1-0.5
James Jones20073,106+0.5129.0+1.8+1.5
James Brooks19814,031+0.5126.0+1.2+0.7
Davone Bess20083,146+0.593.4-0.4-0.5
Eddie Brown19855,900+0.5124.6+1.2+0.6
Cris Carter198713,580+0.5112.0+0.5+0.2
Javon Walker20023,766+0.5111.6+0.5+0.3
Jerry Porter20003,725+0.599.6-0.1-0.2
Michael Crabtree20093,111+0.4100.0+0.4-0.2
Bobby Engram19967,155+0.498.0+0.2-0.2
Alvin Harper19913,202+0.4117.0+0.7+0.1
Jason Witten20038,175+0.4108.5+0.7+0.7
Donte Stallworth20024,300+0.4110.0+0.6+0.2
Freeman McNeil19813,090+0.4106.0+0.2-0.2
Devery Henderson20043,417+0.4128.2+1.4+1.0
Michael Irvin198811,143+0.4117.0+0.8+0.4
Marques Colston20066,234+0.4131.4+1.5+1.1
Hines Ward199812,039+0.4107.4+0.4+0.2
Chris Calloway19905,332+0.485.3-0.7-0.9
Ricky Watters19924,322+0.4118.5+0.7+0.3
James McKnight19943,336+0.499.0-0.3-0.0
Curtis Conway19937,578+0.491.5-0.1-0.1
Kellen Winslow19796,673+0.4126.3+1.3+0.9
Chris Cooley20044,620+0.489.3+0.1+0.1
Paul Coffman19784,640+0.4100.1-0.1-0.4
Mickey Shuler19785,331+0.4108.0+0.2-0.2
Michael Haynes19886,043+0.497.7+0.3-0.0
Brian Brennan19844,135+0.499.5+0.3+0.2
J.J. Stokes19954,095+0.4125.1+1.2+1.0
Wayne Chrebet19956,867+0.398.5+0.0-0.1
Vincent Jackson20055,271+0.3129.2+1.4+0.9
Miles Austin20063,554+0.3108.4+1.0+1.0
Yancey Thigpen19914,636+0.3112.1+0.3+0.0
Kellen Winslow Jr.20044,515+0.385.1-0.8-0.9
Lance Moore20063,306+0.3133.6+1.4+1.1
Floyd Turner19893,913+0.397.6+0.1-0.3
Barry Sanders19893,191+0.3107.0-0.0-0.3
Lee Evans20045,693+0.386.3-0.7-0.9
Emmitt Smith19903,971+0.3112.9+0.6+0.2
Tony Martin19908,219+0.3101.7+0.2+0.1
Eddie Kennison19967,504+0.3111.3+0.4+0.2
Michael Jackson19915,172+0.397.4+0.4-0.2
Tony Dorsett19774,064+0.3115.1+0.9+0.7
Tony Gonzalez199713,645+0.3113.4+0.6+0.4
Gary Clark198510,060+0.3113.9+0.8+0.6
Marcus Robinson19984,345+0.389.1-0.3-0.4
Willie Davis19914,326+0.3103.9+0.4+0.5
Patrick Crayton20043,238+0.3118.1+1.1+1.0
Priest Holmes19973,054+0.3120.8+0.8+0.5
Greg Jennings20065,643+0.3122.9+1.5+1.5
Curtis Duncan19873,697+0.3124.0+0.9+0.3
Ben Coates19915,358+0.399.4-0.1-0.3
Wesley Walls19895,306+0.3101.2+0.1-0.1
Edgerrin James19993,518+0.3132.5+1.8+1.4
Antonio Bryant20025,127+0.377.2-0.7-0.5
Tony Hill19777,830+0.3115.3+0.8+0.6
Dallas Clark20035,130+0.3133.7+1.5+1.2
Mervyn Fernandez19873,706+0.3102.0+0.4+0.1
Herman Moore19918,763+0.3107.1+0.1-0.2
Carlos Carson19805,836+0.392.3-0.1-0.2
Amp Lee19923,056+0.299.0+0.2+0.2
Mark Bavaro19854,765+0.2100.8+0.3+0.0
Derrick Mason199711,311+0.2100.8+0.3+0.1
Jay Novacek19854,805+0.2117.5+0.6+0.2
Todd Heap20015,783+0.290.3-0.5-0.5
Shawn Jefferson19916,167+0.2103.0+0.1-0.2
Brett Perriman19886,352+0.2109.0+0.2-0.1
Steve Smith200110,599+0.296.4-0.1-0.1
Roy E. Williams20045,073+0.291.9-0.3-0.3
Joe Horn19967,935+0.2104.7+0.3+0.1
Nate Washington20054,223+0.298.7-0.0+0.1
Plaxico Burress20007,887+0.2107.9+0.1-0.1
Andre Rison19899,807+0.2104.5+0.3-0.1
Johnnie Morton19947,795+0.2108.3+0.1-0.0
Richie Anderson19933,353+0.292.6-0.3-0.2
Bert Emanuel19944,390+0.298.6-0.0-0.2
Peerless Price19994,945+0.294.4-0.3-0.5
Mark Duper19827,829+0.2129.7+1.7+1.3
Mark Clayton20053,109+0.291.3-0.2-0.2
Reggie Wayne200111,441+0.2131.7+1.5+1.2
Muhsin Muhammad199610,701+0.296.7-0.2-0.2
Mike Wallace20093,408+0.2104.4+0.8+0.7
Brandon Marshall20066,958+0.297.4-0.1-0.2
Alfred Jackson19783,118+0.2100.0+0.1-0.2
Andre Johnson200310,009+0.2102.9+0.3+0.1
Ozzie Newsome19788,231+0.299.1+0.1+0.1
Larry Fitzgerald20048,996+0.289.2-0.3-0.3
Ike Hilliard19976,015+0.288.8-0.2-0.3
Dan Ross19793,749+0.2115.1+0.6+0.5
Brian Finneran19993,028+0.2105.2-0.2-0.1
Thurman Thomas19884,784+0.2118.4+0.7+0.4
Ernie Jones19883,312+0.280.7-0.9-0.9
Malcom Floyd20043,351+0.2126.2+1.3+1.2
Al Toon19856,242+0.2102.9+0.0-0.1
Jimmy Smith199211,277+0.2107.3+0.5+0.2
Az-Zahir Hakim19983,843+0.2113.4+0.5+0.1
Roger Craig19835,129+0.2123.4+1.6+1.2
Rodney Holman19824,916+0.2118.9+0.8+0.4
Michael Pittman19983,550+0.283.2-0.3-0.3
Brian Blades19887,190+0.189.7-0.8-0.9
Stacey Bailey19823,073+0.192.2-0.4-0.4
Butch Johnson19763,322+0.1115.2+0.8+0.6
Anquan Boldin20038,890+0.195.7+0.1+0.2
Jeff Graham19917,100+0.192.0-0.3-0.3
John Jefferson19785,791+0.1118.3+0.8+0.5
Irving Fryar198411,700+0.194.0-0.1-0.2
Derrick Alexander19946,057+0.1103.9+0.4+0.2
Keenan McCardell199210,604+0.1110.7+0.6+0.3
Kevin Walter20033,950+0.1112.9+0.8+0.7
Brandon Lloyd20034,952+0.189.5-0.4-0.3
Owen Daniels20063,979+0.1109.0+0.7+0.6
Isaac Curtis19738,477+0.1110.1+1.0+0.8
Koren Robinson20013,710+0.1105.1+0.3-0.0
Marshall Faulk19947,029+0.1121.9+0.9+0.6
Terrell Owens199614,999+0.1117.9+0.8+0.7
Carl Pickens19926,817+0.195.6-0.1-0.2
Don Beebe19893,187+0.1122.7+0.8+0.5
Eric Martin19858,124+0.1102.0+0.2-0.0
Ricky Sanders19866,127+0.1110.4+0.7+0.6
Lionel Manuel19843,557+0.1102.1+0.3+0.1
Keith Byars19865,825+0.1109.2+0.4+0.2
Terry Glenn19967,771+0.1103.6+0.2+0.0
Kyle Brady19953,541+0.1105.3+0.3+0.2
Eric Moulds19969,282+0.197.5-0.1-0.2
Vernon Davis20064,201+0.190.2-0.3-0.4
Ken Dilger19953,935+0.1108.2+0.6+0.6
Eric Green19904,445+0.197.3+0.2+0.0
Louis Lipps19845,773+0.197.1-0.4-0.7
Tony McGee19933,769+0.087.8-0.4-0.5
Matt Bouza19813,260+0.085.1-0.9-0.9
Josh Reed20023,410+0.086.4-0.7-0.7
O.J. McDuffie19934,730+0.0107.7+0.7+1.1
Heath Miller20054,576+0.0108.4+0.7+0.7
Sean Dawkins19935,759+0.093.1-0.2-0.3
Donald Driver19998,899+0.0113.2+0.8+1.0
Dwayne Bowe20075,141+0.076.8-0.9-0.8
Isaac Bruce199413,160+0.0109.2+0.4+0.2
Antonio Gates20038,209+0.0129.6+1.2+1.2
Haywood Jeffires19876,056+0.0112.2+0.4+0.1
Anthony Miller19888,409+0.0103.8-0.2-0.1
Rocket Ismail19934,948+0.094.4-0.3-0.1
Warrick Dunn19974,717+0.096.5-0.5-0.4
Flipper Anderson19884,661+0.0103.0+0.6+0.3
Kevin Johnson19994,459+0.077.4-1.0-0.9
Quinn Early19886,123-0.095.0-0.1-0.1
Mark Clayton19838,316-0.0129.9+1.6+1.3
Doug Cosbie19793,944-0.0104.6+0.3+0.3
Willie Green19913,589-0.098.3-0.2-0.2
Frank Wycheck19935,341-0.0105.4+0.4+0.3
Roddy White20057,652-0.0111.3+0.4+0.4
Alfred Jenkins19756,925-0.091.3-0.5-0.5
Eric Metcalf19895,552-0.092.7+0.0-0.0
Darnay Scott19945,452-0.093.0-0.3-0.3
Laveranues Coles20008,191-0.093.4-0.4-0.0
Marvin Harrison199613,909-0.0131.1+1.5+1.4
Bryant Johnson20033,454-0.087.3-0.6-0.3
Willie Jackson19953,405-0.0102.0+0.0+0.0
Torry Holt199911,466-0.0116.1+0.5+0.4
Calvin Johnson20076,182-0.095.1-0.4-0.2
Santonio Holmes20064,825-0.1103.6+0.2+0.2
Reggie Langhorne19854,956-0.186.9+0.1+0.1
Jerome Pathon19983,029-0.1114.2+0.7+0.8
Keith Jackson19885,230-0.1111.6+0.6+0.4
Chad Johnson20019,851-0.1105.6+0.2+0.1
Ricky Proehl19908,411-0.198.5-0.1-0.1
Ahman Green19983,090-0.1109.5+0.6+0.6
Corey Bradford19983,116-0.186.3-0.5-0.5
Tiki Barber19975,145-0.194.5-0.1-0.2
Dennis Northcutt20004,585-0.187.0-0.7-0.5
Rod Gardner20013,039-0.182.7-0.7-0.5
Webster Slaughter19867,328-0.197.8+0.1+0.1
Mike Renfro19784,729-0.194.2-0.4-0.1
Kimble Anders19913,043-0.1101.7+0.1+0.5
Henry Ellard198312,584-0.1100.5+0.2+0.1
Amani Toomer19968,506-0.196.9-0.1-0.2
Anthony Carter19857,293-0.1105.1+0.1+0.1
Michael Westbrook19953,981-0.1104.4+0.3+0.1
Marcedes Lewis20063,022-0.199.5-0.5-0.4
Hassan Jones19863,545-0.1107.4+0.3+0.1
Travis Taylor20003,839-0.285.1-0.8-0.3
Zach Miller20073,219-0.283.3-0.9-0.9
Andre Reed198512,815-0.2108.5+0.4+0.3
Steve Jordan19826,011-0.2105.0+0.1+0.1
Qadry Ismail19934,504-0.294.8-0.3+0.0
Robert Brooks19923,891-0.2122.5+1.2+0.6
Michael Jenkins20044,178-0.2104.1-0.2+0.0
LaDainian Tomlinson20015,179-0.2114.8+0.5+0.8
James Thrash19973,451-0.2100.5+0.2+0.2
Darrell Jackson20006,632-0.2103.2-0.0-0.2
Steven Jackson20043,193-0.284.7-0.6-0.4
Deion Branch20025,988-0.2113.8+0.7+0.9
Wallace Francis19734,048-0.290.2-0.4-0.3
Ronnie Harmon19866,163-0.2104.5-0.0-0.0
Rob Moore19908,370-0.287.3-0.5-0.1
Jeff Chadwick19834,244-0.292.8-0.7-0.5
Jeremy Shockey20025,768-0.2109.6+0.3+0.4
Larry Centers19906,969-0.290.6-0.3-0.1
Drew Bennett20013,993-0.297.9-0.0+0.1
Jerricho Cotchery20044,577-0.296.0-0.7-0.2
Kelvin Martin19874,466-0.287.4-0.8-0.5
Johnny Perkins19773,051-0.278.6-1.0-0.9
T.J. Houshmandzadeh20016,751-0.2100.7-0.0+0.1
Mike Quick19825,878-0.384.3-0.4-0.0
Mark Jackson19865,129-0.3102.7+0.1+0.3
Antonio Freeman19956,647-0.3116.5+0.9+0.5
Kevin House19804,979-0.390.7+0.1+0.1
Bill Brooks19867,674-0.390.6-0.5-0.2
John L. Williams19865,156-0.390.8-0.7-0.6
Chris Chambers20017,236-0.394.5-0.3-0.1
Oronde Gadsden19983,140-0.395.7-0.1+0.4
Ben Watson20043,525-0.3112.2+0.4+0.4
Jessie Hester19855,202-0.377.6-0.6-0.3
Hoby Brenner19813,899-0.395.0-0.6-0.2
Freddie Jones19974,042-0.373.5-1.5-0.9
Andre Hastings19933,196-0.388.3-0.9-0.7
Herschel Walker19864,953-0.395.1-0.4-0.1
Marcus Pollard19954,168-0.3119.0+1.0+1.2
Desmond Clark19993,576-0.392.3-0.7-0.4
Calvin Williams19903,912-0.396.3-0.3-0.2
Kevin Faulk19993,723-0.3121.8+0.8+0.9
Ted Brown19793,047-0.395.3-0.3-0.1
Alge Crumpler20014,875-0.398.6-0.5-0.2
Dwight Clark19796,936-0.3116.0+1.4+1.3
Fred Barnett19905,004-0.497.6-0.2+0.0
Courtney Hawkins19924,391-0.487.1-0.8-0.5
Ernest Givins19867,539-0.4112.8+0.4+0.2
Charles Johnson19944,429-0.496.4-0.5-0.2
Tim McGee19864,930-0.4111.2+0.3+0.4
Chris Burkett19854,055-0.487.6-0.3-0.1
Torrance Small19924,354-0.491.1-0.3+0.3
Marty Booker19996,138-0.484.3-0.9-0.4
Drew Hill19799,172-0.4110.3+0.3+0.1
Pete Metzelaars19824,088-0.4102.4+0.1+0.4
Bill Schroeder19974,026-0.4100.9+0.2+0.2
Jackie Harris19904,437-0.592.8-0.5-0.1
Frank Sanders19955,864-0.581.0-0.9-0.3
Greg Olsen20073,269-0.596.8-0.3+0.1
Neal Anderson19863,169-0.6101.4-0.4-0.3
Earnest Gray19793,819-0.677.0-0.8-0.6
Vance Johnson19855,357-0.6108.0+0.1+0.3
David Boston19994,205-0.684.4-0.6-0.1
Sterling Sharpe19887,660-0.699.4-0.2+0.1
Preston Dennard19783,838-0.693.5-0.7-0.2
Randy McMichael20024,332-0.787.4-0.8-0.2
David Patten19974,187-0.7105.3+0.2+0.7
James Wilder19814,047-0.790.9-0.2+0.1
Gary W. Anderson19853,031-0.789.4-0.6+0.0
Troy Brown19935,995-0.8106.6+0.3+0.8
Randal Hill19913,516-0.883.8-0.9-0.4
Gerald Carter19803,211-1.087.5-0.6+0.0
Mark Carrier19878,009-1.386.3-0.8-0.1

Here’s what those column headers mean:

  • Debut – 1st NFL season
  • Career TRY – Lifetime total True Receiving Yards
  • QB WOWY – The metric described above — an average of the differences between each receiver’s quarterbacks’ RANY/A that season and every other season of their careers, weighted by the player’s TRY in each season
  • Tm Off Rating – The team’s offensive rating (points per drive relative to league average), according to Doug’s AV formula, weighted by TRY in each season
  • Tm RANY/A – The team’s ANY/A, relative to league average, for the seasons the receiver played (also weighted by TRY in each season)
  • QB Career RANY/A – The career RANY/A of every QB the receiver played with, weighted by the QB’s playing time and the receiver’s TRY in each season

At the other end of the spectrum, consider the career of Mark Carrier (no, not the safety of the same name). For starters, as a rookie Carrier just missed Steve DeBerg’s insane 1990 season (although in fairness, DeBerg was still good in 1987). Then, in Carrier’s second season, Vinny Testaverde assumed the mantle of Tampa’s starting QB, beginning a relationship with Carrier that would span the next 7 seasons (including 2 in Cleveland).

While our age adjustment may be giving old Testaverde too much credit — he’s certainly in the discussion of the best late bloomer QBs ever — Vinny T.’s RANY/A while playing with Carrier was a shocking 1.8 points (!) lower than it was over the rest of his career, after adjusting for aging effects. With Carrier, in what should have been the prime of his career (ages 24-31), Testaverde put up an ANY/A 0.8 points below the league average, and was only in the black for 1 of 8 seasons.

After parting ways with Carrier, Testaverde promptly produced a +1.2 RANY/A throwing to Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander, and two years later had a +2.4 mark (at age 35) with Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet. Meanwhile, in Carolina, Carrier was a part of 1 good Kerry Collins season (1996) but 2 awful ones (1995 and 1997), plus an average Steve Beuerlein season in 1998. Tellingly, the year after Carrier retired, Beuerlein immediately had one of the craziest out-of-nowhere QB seasons ever.

Other observations of note:

  • The relationship between John Elway, Ed McCaffrey, and Rod Smith continues to be one of the most interesting in NFL history. Chase covered at length the way Elway’s RANY/A jumped markedly when his receiving-corps quality improved late in his career. Mike Shanahan, McCaffrey and Smith arrived in Denver the same year (1995), which happened to basically be the same time that Elway’s numbers improved for good (he’d never strung two +1.0 RANY/A seasons together before 1995-96). For Smith’s part, he was also on hand for the best years of Brian Griese and Jake Plummer’s careers, and McCaffrey was almost never part of a below-average passing offense. Did they “make” Elway or did Elway simply never have above-average receivers until they arrived? The debate rages on.
  • J.J. Birden didn’t have a long career, but he was on hand for renaissance seasons by three veteran Kansas City quarterbacks (DeBerg, Dave Krieg, Joe Montana), plus one of George’s best seasons at the helm of the run-and-shoot Falcons. Likewise, Mike Pritchard was there for the best years of Chris Miller’s career, Elway’s aforementioned ’95, and some good-for-his-age Warren Moon seasons in Seattle. Neither was a superstar, but each consistently found roles in solid passing offenses, and it’s likely they’re both quite underrated by popular perception.4
  • Along with Moss, it’s no surprise to see Wes Welker rank so highly. In addition to 2007-2009, he stuck around during the Pats’ surprisingly powerful post-Moss attack (speaking of which, not listed above is Rob Gronkowski, whose +1.3 WOWY score would have led the list if he’d qualified). Welker gets well-deserved credit for bridging the gap between two very different flavors of dominant Brady-led offenses.
  • John Taylor looks like a beast in this metric. He had one of the highest WOWY scores of any receiver with 3,000 TRY, and nobody on the list above played for better passing offenses (+2.3 RANY/A) or overall offenses (143.3 team offensive rating) than Taylor. This could be used as both an argument for and against Taylor, but his quarterbacks played extremely well (and better than their typical average) when he was on their team.
  • It’s probable that Wesley Walker and Terance Mathis were hugely underrated in their day.5 Both racked up over 8,300 True Receiving Yards, and each saw their QBs’ RANY/A improve by +0.7 when they were in the receiving corps.
  • Marvin Harrison’s sample of QBs other than Peyton Manning is practically nonexistent (FWIW, Jim Harbaugh’s 1996-97 WOWYs were above-average but hardly great), so it’s tough to say what this means for him. But you definitely can’t say he ever elevated a QB either.
  • As much as he was admired for his contributions to the early-to-mid-2000s dynasty-era Patriots, Troy Brown does not look good here. As soon as his role in the Pats’ offense shrunk, New England suddenly started throwing the ball with much more effectiveness, and Brady backers suddenly stopped having to make excuses for his lack of production relative to Peyton Manning.
  • It’s surprising to see Sterling Sharpe rank so low, given that in his short career he produced four of the best TRY seasons ever. But Don Majkowski only ever had one above-average year on Sharpe’s watch, and Brett Favre would reach much greater heights without Sharpe, even after adjusting for age effects.
  • If McCaffrey and Smith get the credit for boosting Elway, somebody has to get blamed for holding him back, and that somebody is Vance Johnson (-0.6 WOWY).
  • In addition to Carrier, a lot of other mid-to-late-80s Bucs bear the brunt of WOWY punishment for the underperforming stats of Testaverde, DeBerg, and Steve Young while they were in Tampa. Gerald Carter is 2nd-worst behind Carrier, while RBs Gary Anderson and James Wilder aren’t far behind.

At any rate, while the WOWY metric is hardly infallible, hopefully it can give us new perspective on which receivers seem to elevate the play of their passing offenses, and which receivers tend to have an underwhelming impact despite decent-looking numbers.

  1. Cunningham’s RANY/A was also 1.0 better than expected in limited action. []
  2. That number is an average weighted by the number of TRY Moss had in each season []
  3. To be fair, Culpepper tore his ACL, MCL, and PCL halfway through the 2005 season, which also was a factor in his decline. []
  4. Chase note: It would be difficult to argue that they’re overrated by popular perception! []
  5. Chase note: not by me! []

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mick September 5, 2013 at 1:01 am

Another awesome article. You are making my “must read” sites from this point forward. As a Giants fan, I was not (even remotely) surprised by Hakeem Nicks’ ranking here. Anyone who saw the 2011 postseason surely agrees.

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Red September 5, 2013 at 1:20 am

Neil, this is one of the coolest concepts I’ve seen in football analytics. Disentangling the relationship between passer and receiver is the holy grail of football analysis, and WOWY does a great job of shedding some much needed light on the subject. I would love to see this tied in with the GQBOAT series, adjusting QB’s not only for SOS and weather but for receiver quality as well.

About Elway, Smith, and McCaffery…I think Elway is overrated (and I’m a Broncos fan). When I say “overrated”, that means Elway is roughly 20th-25th on my all-time list rather than the top 10 position given to him by many observers. Were his 80′s receivers really THAT bad, to make a supposed all-time great look plainly average? Of course we’ll never really know, but I have a hard time buying that notion. Also, when people praise Elway for dragging medicore teams to the SB, they always gloss over how weak the AFC was in that era, especially at the top. If the Broncos were in the NFC, I feel almost certain that they would have never reached the SB in `86, `87, `89, and possibly not in `97 or `98 either (the Packers and Vikings could have beaten them in the NFC playoffs). Meanwhile, as you stated, Rod Smith coincided with the best years of every QB he played with, even when he was past his prime. And of course Shannon Sharpe is one of the greatest TE’s ever, and Terrell Davis forced defenses to stack the box and give Elway plenty of space to throw. This may sound crazy, but I think the 98 Broncos could’ve won the SB with Bubby Brister playing every game.

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Chase Stuart September 5, 2013 at 10:58 am

Neil is the man.

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cjfarls September 5, 2013 at 2:18 pm

As a Bronco fan, I go the otherway… Elway I put as a top-5 all time QB, even though I agree the last couple years with Shanny may have been some of the easiest ever, and as such I wouldn’t consider them any of his “best” years (stats aside).

But I blame it less on the receivers and more on Dan Reeves (who did a lot of things right as a coach, but offense wasn’t one of them). Steve Watson and the 3 amigos were average at best WRs, but there are certainly worse targets that have played in the NFL. However Reeves play calling was absolutely pathetic… pound a mediocre Sammy Winder into the pile twice for no more than 3 yards a pop, then let Elway work his magic on 3rd and long… unless it was a really long 10+ yard 3rd down whereby Reeves would completely give up and try an ineffectual draw play before punting. Whether scrambling, hitting impossibly tight passing windows with blazingly accurate fastballs, etc. etc. the entire Denver offense on those 1980s teams was Elway. Almost every other piece of the offense was below average or average at best. The only semi-interesting thing Reeves ever did was shovel passes to Steve Sewell and occassional trick plays. Elway threw lots of picks because if he didn’t force things, nothing was going to happen.

McCaffrey, Smith, Sharpe and Davis certainly were the primary engines of the great 1990s DEN superbowl teams… Elway became much more efficient because suddenly he could play more like Montana and just let his playmakers and Shanny’s innovative schemes do their thing…. But that doesn’t diminish how great Elway was on those 1980s team, stats be damned, because in the 80s he was playing sandlot ball with the JV squad against varsity players that had game-prepped.

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Red September 6, 2013 at 1:56 am

That’s a great point. I was born in `85 so I don’t remember the beginning of the Dan Reeves era, or how terrible his offensive philosophy/playcalling was back in the 80′s. I have heard the same thing from several Broncos fans, so that does make Elway look better in retrospect. Although I have to wonder why Denver management kept Reeves on board for all those years if he was holding back their franchise QB so much. Ah well, at least it makes for a fun debate.

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