## Wide Receivers and Weighted Team Pass Attempts

Megatron at his best.

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.

YrRecYdTPAPercTM * %
2013149263416%101.4
2012196474021.1%155.8
2011168166618%120
2010112063312%76
200998458510.5%61.7
2008133150914.3%72.6
20077565878.1%47.6
Total93284354100%635.2

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.

1Jerry Rice198520043032289554725765
2Terrell Owens1996201021915934537407310
3Randy Moss1998201221815292541327014
4Isaac Bruce1994200922315208569106819
5Tony Gonzalez1997201327015127550205657
6Tim Brown1988200425514934514595943
7Marvin Harrison199620081901458055615774
8James Lofton1978199323314004482836036
9Cris Carter1987200223413899550195941
10Henry Ellard1983199822813777496796034
11Reggie Wayne200120131961356657876915
12Torry Holt19992009173133825786773
13Andre Reed1985200023413198497785650
14Steve Largent1976198920013089481846524
15Irving Fryar1984200025512785539365085
16Art Monk1980199522412721506715747
17Andre Johnson200320131541266153643822
18Jimmy Smith1992200517812287513606916
19Steve Smith2001201318212197479856720
20Charlie Joiner1969198623912146514575183
21Hines Ward1998201121712083484825660
22Derrick Mason1997201123012061514585280
23Michael Irvin198819991591190449480757
24Don Maynard1958197318611834453906427
26Rod Smith1995200618311389518556230
27Keenan McCardell1992200720911373530475471
28Larry Fitzgerald20042013156113675904739
29Anquan Boldin2003201315611344558137311
31Joey Galloway1995201019810950507705563
32Gary Clark1985199516710856525506525
33Stanley Morgan1977199019610716448915569
34Keyshawn Johnson1996200616710571539356328
35Harold Jackson19681983208103723881105089
36Lance Alworth196219721361026642296756
37Andre Rison1989200018610205538395568
38Santana Moss2001201318710167513625472
39Donald Driver199920122051013757784992
40Shannon Sharpe1990200320410060535454994
41Eric Moulds199620071869995513615475
42Drew Hill1979199321198315255147106
43Jason Witten200320131759799555175658
44Amani Toomer199620081909497549225088
45Roddy White200520131419436552186721
46Rob Moore199019991539368544286131
47Wes Welker20042013153935859236132
48Calvin Johnson2007201310693286351881
49Raymond Berry1955196715492753791126035
50Antonio Gates200320131639193510675651
51Herman Moore199120021469174509686329
52Anthony Miller198819971559148539375942
53Charley Taylor1964197716591104141005566
54Tony Martin199020011779065532465181
55Brandon Marshall20062013123905053644748
56Harold Carmichael197119841828985427944993
57Mark Clayton19831993158897458655746
58Fred Biletnikoff19651978190897439810547102
59Wes Chandler197819881508966544296038
60Roy Green1979199219089655017647103
61Ricky Proehl1990200624488785274936120
62Mark Duper19821992146886957096133
63Terry Glenn199620071378823545276426
64Terance Mathis1990200220688095304843113
65Mark Carrier198719981778763513635091
66Joe Horn199620071638744538385476
67John Stallworth197419871658723429935379
68Johnnie Morton199420051828719540344898
69Cliff Branch19721985183868540910247100
70Laveranues Coles200020091538609503725652
71Paul Warfield1964197715785653321185570
72Plaxico Burress200020121478499512665845
73Billy Howton1952196314284593581156039
74Tommy McDonald1957196815284103971065562
75Eddie Kennison1996200817983455165647105
76Marques Colston20062013117833763327113
77Wesley Walker197719891548306459895473
78Carroll Dale19601973189827733111944112
79Curtis Conway199320041678230541334995
80Ernest Givins198619951478215555165659
81Jeff Graham199120011608172543305182
82Eric Martin198519941538161468885377
83Sterling Sharpe198819941128134557147312
84Webster Slaughter198619981628111548245086
85Haven Moses19681981199809140610341116
86Art Powell195919681178046470876918
87Bill Brooks1986199616980015017547101
88Don Hutson1935194511679912561216917
89Tony Hill197719861417988498775748
90Ozzie Newsome1978199019879805136440117
91Bobby Mitchell1958196814879544111015474
92Jackie Smith19631978210791840610438119
93Jimmy Orr1958197014979143791135378
94Drew Pearson197319831567822416995084
95Bobby Engram1996200917677515482344111
96Anthony Carter198519951407733503735565
97Chris Chambers200120101537648512655087
99Nat Moore1974198618375464239541115
100Roy Jefferson19651976162753939310747107
101Gary Garrison196619771347538416985653
102Ed McCaffrey1991200318574225245240118
103Bob Hayes1965197513274143741145655
104Pete Retzlaff1956196613274123881095656
105Wayne Chrebet199520051527365543314897
106Vincent Jackson200520131237362524536037
107Greg Jennings200620131117341558126623
108Otis Taylor1965197513073063531165654
109Boyd Dowler19591971162727031512045109
110Antonio Freeman199520031327251559115567
112Lionel Taylor195919681217195492815940
113Darrell Jackson200020081237132518545844
114Carl Pickens199220001297129537425564
115Ken Burrough19701981156710238811146108
116Isaac Curtis1973198416771014219743114
117Reggie Rucker1970198115970654479244110
118John Gilliam19671977151705639210847104
119Elroy Hirsch1946195712770293491175561
120Shawn Jefferson1991200319570235374136121
121Pat Tilley197619861477005474864899
• 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).
• James

How insane is it that Rice played in the most games (by two seasons!), and yet is still 5th in yards per game? You’d expect players that held on for long periods at the end of their careers would hurt their per game averages, but not Rice. Or rather, he was SO good that even when he ‘held on’ it did so little to his career per game stats that they are still among the best.

To try and quantify somehow, there’s a -0.21 correlation between games played and yards per game, but that’s including Rice’s insane production throughout his career. If you remove Rice the correlation jumps to -0.29! He’s such an outlier that it skews the entire correlation of 121 players!

• Chase Stuart

It’s very insane. I was curious to see how long Rice maintained an 88 yards per game average; Through age 33 and 172 games, Rice was averaging 87.9 yards per game. I suppose Megatron could actually match that — I would not necessarily expect Johnson to average less than 88 yards per game over his next five seasons — but then the massive attempts numbers begin to factor.

• Richie

I would not necessarily expect Johnson to average less than 88 yards per game over his next five seasons

That’s a lofty expectation. Johnson is entering his age 29 season. Only one player has averaged 88 yards/game from age 29-33 (and actually played those 5 seasons). Of course, the answer is Jerry Rice. http://pfref.com/tiny/Pku53

Marvin Harrison (86.9) and Terrell Owens (84.0) came close.

Andre Johnson is at 90.6, but only has 4 seasons after age 28. He’ll need to average about 79 in 2014 to stay above 88.

Don Hutson averaged 89.9 but retired before his age 33 season.
(Every WR analysis seems to include Hutson and Rice.)

• Richie

Has anybody seen any kind of research as to what it is that causes so many NFL players to quickly lose their production as they age?

I get it that you lose athleticism as you age. It’s just a little hard for me to grasp how it happens so quickly, and even what exactly causes the problem. What happened to Torry Holt between age 31 and 32 that caused his production to drop nearly in half? Is it just inability to recover from little injuries? A tiny loss of quickness?

I assume the team situation was partially responsible, but he went from Bulger/Frerotte to just Bulger. Same head coach to start the season. Both of those Rams teams were bad.

• Kibbles

It varies from WR to WR. For Holt, it was largely the result of a degenerative knee condition.

• Ty

It is a combination of age, injuries, and motivation. In Holt’s case, it was more about injuries. The aging just accelerated the process.

• David

I was surprised to see Terry Glenn here. And after clicking on his name, I went down a Terry Glenn worm hole on PFR. I had forgotten that Belichick benched “her” for the 2001 season. “She” never even got a Super Bowl ring!

I also like the Boldin/Fitzgerald stat. Pretty weird.

• Quinton

I don’t disagree with any of the conclusions (especially the ones about the Smiths. I love Jimmy and you’ve long convinced me of Smitty’s underappreciatedness) but I will say there needs to be some consideration, if not empirically then in reading the results, that supremely talented players like Calvin Johnson will impact their teams strategy. If Johnson is so good it might make sense for his team to pass more

• jack sprat

OP is a little too cavalier with his conclusions for my taste. Jerry Rice got a LOT of breathers, working those short routes over the middle. (Even under the old rules, when guys could go head hunting, there was relatively little risk of Rice getting the typical physical abuse, what with the insane accuracy of the two guys who were throwing to him.) Johnson runs a LOT of deep routes. Plus he blocks aggressively. This HAS to have an effect on him. How much, I don’t know, but I’ve a very clear picture in my mind of Randy Moss, loafing about like a man without a care in the world, when his name wasn’t called. It’s a damn sight harder to show up for every play.

• sn0mm1s

How far back do your target numbers go? I don’t think there is a good way of interpreting pass attempts/targets when judging era. The more past decade or so has more WRs and TEs going down the field and I feel that QBs spread the ball quite a bit more. Back a couple of decades there may be less pass attempts – but also less WRs/TEs officially part of the passing offense.

I would be curious to see what percentage of receptions/targets the top 1-3 WRs/TEs received on each team (remove RB/FB receptions entirely with a 1 to 1 removal of the pass attempts). My guess would be that the #3 WR (and perhaps the #2 WR) is playing a greater role in today’s offenses while in the mid 90s and prior the #1 WR got the vast majority of the team targets. I would think the number of pass attempts in the recent NFL would be somewhat offset by the fact the #1 WR in previous eras would get a much higher percentage of the targets.

In other words – I wouldn’t expect the number of targets/game to the #1 WR to increase nearly at the rate of team pass attempts.

• Kibbles

One of these days, I’m going to let one of these posts pass by without marveling yet again at how insanely dominant Lance Alworth was. Today is not that day. When Alworth was the same age Calvin Johnson is today (just following his age-28 season), his career average was 97.2 receiving yards per game. He also averaged 50% more touchdowns per game than Calvin. And his team was below league-average in pass attempts.

• Richie

When Alworth was the same age Calvin Johnson is today (just following his age-28 season), his career average was 97.2 receiving yards per game.

And then he put up one more 1,000-yard season, went to Dallas and his career fell off a cliff. This either speaks to a rough aging curve for him, or the weakness of the AFL or a little of both.

• Kibbles

Different era. From 1960 to 1970, there were 79 instances of a player putting up 1,000 receiving yards. Only 7 times (8.9% of the time) was that receiver 30 or older. And three of those seven instances were from Don Maynard, a Hall of Famer and one of the best “old receivers” of all time. For comparison, about 25% of the 1200 yard seasons in the last decade have gone to receivers age 30 or older. It’s much more common for receivers to age gracefully today, and that unfairly impacts our expectations of how receivers would have aged 50 years ago. At the time of his retirement, Lance Alworth and Don Maynard were the only two receivers in history with 10,000 career receiving yards. Guys just didn’t hang around as long back then.

In the early ’60s, there were absolutely “quality of competition” concerns surrounding the AFL (similar to concerns surrounding the NFL during WWII, and concerns surrounding the Cleveland Browns’ stats from the AAFC). I think that’s a big reason why Charley Hennigan’s massive seasons get treated with a little bit of suspicion (another big reason is because people underrate all-time-great seasons that don’t come from all-time-great players). By the mid-to-late ’60s, when Alworth was going nuts, the AFL had gone a long way towards closing the talent gap. The NFL was still the better league, but I get the sense that it was only in the same way that the NFC was a better conference than the AFC last year- i.e. one was superior, but both were at least in the same ballpark.

• Couldn’t agree more on Steve Smith, by the way. His 2005 and 2008 seasons were insane. It’s weird that he wasn’t All-Pro in 2008, and then Fitzgerald somehow made it seem less not-OK by going crazy in the playoffs (still, Warner >> Delhomme). A thought experiment: Still give him the crappy QBs, but put him in a major market like New York. I think his HOF stock goes up a lot, particularly given the attention he’d get with his Smittyisms.