In his seven-year career, Calvin Johnson has already recorded 9,328 receiving yards. And for those curious about these sorts of things, he’s the career leader in receiving yards per game at 88.0, too. But Johnson has also benefited greatly from playing on teams that have thrown a weighted average of 635 pass attempts per season.
What is a weighted average of team pass attempts? I’m defining it as an average of pass attempts per season weighted by the number of receiving yards by that player. Why use that instead of a simple average? When thinking about whether a receiver played for a run-heavy or pass-happy team, we tend to think of that receiver during his peak years. If he caught 10 passes for 150 yards as a rookie on a very pass-happy team, that should not be given the same weight as the number of pass attempts his team produced in his best season. For example, here is how I derived the 635 attempt number for Megatron.
Twenty-one percent of his career receiving yards came in 2012, when Detroit passed 740 times (excluding sacks). Therefore, 21% of his team pass attempts average comes from that season, while 18% comes from his 2011 season, 16% from his 2013 season, and so on. In the table below, the far right column shows how we get to that 635 figure: by multiplying in each season the percentage of career receiving yards recorded by him in that season by Detroit’s Team Pass Attempts.
TM * %
There are 121 players with 7,000 career receiving yards. Unsurprisingly, Johnson has the highest weighted average number of team pass attempts, which must be recognized when fawning over his great raw totals. Marques Colston is just a hair behind Johnson, but no other player has an average of 600+ team pass attempts.
The table below contains data for all 121 players (by default, the table displays only the top 25, but you can change that). Here’s how to read it, starting with the GOAT: Jerry Rice ranks first in career receiving yards, and he played from 1985 to 2004. Rice played in 303 games, gained 22,895 receiving yards, and his teams threw a weighted average of 547 passes per season. Among these 121 players, that rank Rice as playing for the 25th highest or most pass-happy team. Rice also averaged 76 receiving yards per game, which ranks 5th among this group.
- Did you know: Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin have each played in 156 games. And they’ve produced nearly identical receiving numbers, with Fitzgerald at 11,367 yards and Boldin at 11,344 yards. But Boldin’s teams have averaged 558 pass attempts, compared to 590 for Fitzgerald.
- We all know I am in love with Smitty, but here’s some more Steve Smith HOF ammunition. Smith ranks 20th in career receiving yards, but everyone ahead of him played on teams that averaged more (weighted) pass attempts per season. Only three receivers gained more receiving yards per game than Smith and played on teams with fewer team pass attempts: Don Hutson, Lance Alworth, and Art Powell. That’s two of the greatest wide receivers ever and a receiver whose numbers need a significant AFL adjustment. And all of them played in an era of 12- or 14-game seasons, so comparing yards per game and attempts per season is a little clunky here, too (Powell would drop out if we looked at pass attempts per team game, leaving just Alworth and Hutson).
- One more note on Smith: it’s really not appropriate to compare his numbers to his peers, because Smith played for Panthers teams stuck in the ’70s and ’80s. Consider: Smith and Steve Largent have nearly identical numbers: Largent’s teams averaged 481 passes, Smith’s 479, while Largent averaged 65 yards per game, Smith 67.
- Another Football Perspective favorite is Jimmy Smith, who is just a slightly less-exaggerated version of Smith. The Jaguars had a weighted average of 513 pass attempts per season during Smith’s career, and he averaged 69 receiving yards per game. The only players with a higher per-game output and fewer team pass attempts: Hutson, Alworth, Powell, and Michael Irvin.
- Irvin, of course, is another favorite going back to the days of Doug Drinen. Irvin is “only” 23rd in career receiving yards, which leads some to think he’s a Hall of Famer only because he was on dominant Cowboys teams that won three Super Bowls. But Irvin ranks 7th in yards per game, which reflects his shorter career and lack of stat-padding seasons that most receivers have at the tail ends of their careers. Irvin (74.8 RecYd/G) and Alworth (75.5) are the only two receivers with over 70 yards per game who played on teams that averaged under 500 attempts. The next closest players are Hutson and Powell, with Steve Smith, Largent, and Don Maynard rounding out the group. Irvin played in the ’90s, but you wouldn’t know that by examining this list.
- One last Football Perspective regular is Paul Warfield. The Browns and Dolphins star ranks 4th from the bottom in team pass attempts, which isn’t too surprising. He remains one of the more complicated receivers to analyze in NFL history.
- Hutson’s place in wide receiver Mount Rushmore is forever reserved, and we all know about Alworth and Don Maynard, too (at least, I hope we do). But this post puts Billy Howton, Raymond Berry, and Otis Taylor in very good lights, too
- One reason I sided with Tim Brown over Cris Carter for the HOF was that Carter benefited from playing in a more pass-happy offense. As you can see, Carter’s teams passed an average of 550 times compared to just 514 for Brown. Andre Reed’s teams averaged 497 pass attempts, which would would be another argument for him if the rest of his resume wasn’t so weak.
- Let’s close with a more HOF-worthy Andre: Andre Johnson. Johnson is second in career receiving yards per game, but he’s already 17th on the career receiving yards list. Among players in the top 20 in the receiving yards list, only six — Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, both Smiths, Torry Holt, and Johnson — have played in fewer than 200 games. Wayne, Harrison, and Holt played on significantly more pass-happy teams than Johnson, and Johnson holds a considerable edge (for now) over both Smiths in per-game production. If nothing else, Johnson seems like the prime candidate to carry on the Smith-Smith torch of under-appreciated wide receivers (with common names).