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Over the last three seasons, Calvin Johnson has caught 5,137 yards of passes. That’s an incredible amount, and the most by a player over any three-year span in NFL history. That stat by itself isn’t proof of Johnson’s greatness – after all, Detroit has thrown 2,040 passes over the last three years, also the most in any three-year span in football history. But records are not just about greatness: records are a function of era, teammates, and many more elements than pure ability.

So can Calvin Johnson break Jerry Rice’s career receiving yards record? The odds are very long that Johnson will go down in history as a better receiver than Rice, but his odds at breaking his receiving yards record – almost by definition – are a little higher. The man known as Megatron has 9,328 career receiving yards, the third most of any player through his age 28 season. That gives him a 1,462-yard lead on Rice at this age, although Johnson will have to keep up his outstanding pace for a very long time if he wants to capture the record. As the graph below shows, Johnson has had an edge on Rice in career receiving yards through every age of his career to date, but it was Rice’s work in his thirties that separated the GOAT from the pack:

rice johnson

Johnson, in addition to being an all-world talent, has a few other things going for him. He plays in a pass-happy era, and for one of the most pass-happy teams in this era. Those factors will make it a little bit easier for Johnson to get to 22,895 yards. But how much easier? And how likely is Johnson to gain the necessary 13,568 yards to get the record?

Other than Rice, Tim Brown, with 10,200 yards, is the only other player to gain at least 10,000 yards during the period beginning after his age 28 season. But if we want to know how likely Megatron is to gain 13,658 more yards, looking at raw history won’t help; instead, we want to adjust for era, which might give Johnson a fighting chance.

One way to adjust for era is to translate every season in NFL history into the environment of the 2013 season. For example, the leading receiver for each team in 2013 averaged 1,106 receiving yards. In 1990, during Rice’s age 28 season, the average top gainer for each team recorded 914 receiving yards. Therefore, we would multiply the number of receiving yards gained by every player in 1990 by 121%. The table below shows how many receiving yards were gained by each team’s top receiver in each league since 1932:

Lg Year
# Tms
Avg Top Receiver
NFL2013321106
NFL2012321070
NFL2011321030
NFL201032994
NFL2009321007
NFL2008321017
NFL2007321043
NFL200632988
NFL2005321030
NFL2004321032
NFL200332999
NFL2002321052
NFL2001311077
NFL2000311031
NFL1999311081
NFL199830985
NFL1997301002
NFL1996301016
NFL1995301089
NFL1994281051
NFL199328948
NFL199228865
NFL199128945
NFL199028914
NFL1989281024
NFL198828936
NFL198728800
NFL198628962
NFL198528929
NFL198428988
NFL198328950
NFL198228538
NFL198128976
NFL198028869
NFL197928869
NFL197828781
NFL197728663
NFL197628692
NFL197526734
NFL197426629
NFL197326633
NFL197226682
NFL197126716
NFL197026755
AFL196910829
NFL196916845
AFL196810850
NFL196816798
AFL19679858
NFL196716805
AFL19669953
NFL196615878
AFL19658903
NFL196514888
AFL196481117
NFL196414858
AFL196381018
NFL196314947
AFL19628793
NFL196214964
AFL19618979
NFL196114946
AFL19608921
NFL196013773
NFL195912680
NFL195812689
NFL195712594
NFL195612679
NFL195512639
NFL195412782
NFL195312695
NFL195212784
NFL195112648
NFL195013671
NFL194910689
NFL194810596
NFL194710644
NFL194610437
NFL194510568
NFL194410410
NFL19438410
NFL194210392
NFL194110333
NFL194010383
NFL193910424
NFL193810311
NFL193710325
NFL19369305
NFL19359293
NFL193411169
NFL193310199
NFL19328176

If we translate each receiver’s numbers during their ages 26-through-28 seasons into the 2013 season environment, Johnson would no longer be the top man during this three-year period,((Note that this is only looking at players during their ages 26, 27, and 28 seasons, and not just any three-year period. As stated in the beginning, Johnson during these ages set the receiving yards record for any three-year period.)) and several other receivers come close to matching him:

Rk
Receiver
Years
Age 26 Adj. Rec Yds
Age 27 Adj. Rec Yds
Age 28 Adj. Rec Yds
Age 26--28 Adj. Rec Yds
1Don Hutson1939--19412210191924566584
2Calvin Johnson2011--20131805203114925328
3Cliff Branch1974--19761921134617755043
4Jerry Rice1988--19901544160318194965
5Tom Fears1948--19501296162618394761
6Torry Holt2002--20041369187814714718
7Michael Irvin1992--19941786155313074646
8Lance Alworth1966--19681605130217084615
9John Gilliam1971--19731293167815864557
10Herman Moore1995--19971712141114274551
11Warren Wells1968--19701480168113704532
12Sterling Sharpe1991--19931125186914874482
13James Lofton1982--19841430151315244468
14Raymond Berry1959--19611561185810214440
15Chad Johnson2004--20061366153815334438
16Andre Johnson2007--2009903171317244340
17Charley Hennigan1961--19631973121011424325
18Henry Ellard1987--19891106167214934271
19Elroy Hirsch1949--1951523113225514207
20Harold Jackson1972--1974169915289044132

While this methodology makes Johnson’s accomplishments look less extraordinary, it also helps to provide us with a better sample size. But even using this adjusted formula, only one of these players gained over ten thousand “2013 receiving yards” over the course of their rest of their careers. That was Rice, whose numbers get translated into 16,487 yards from age 29 through the remainder of his career.

In fact, if we look at all players from their age 29 seasons and onwards – regardless of how many yards they gained from ages 26-to-28 – Rice remains the only player who has gained the necessary yards during those years that Johnson will need to steal the crown. The next closest man is Charlie Joiner, who gained 9,203 actual yards, and 12,264 “2013 Receiving Yards” after turning twenty-nine.

Rk
Name
Age 29+ "2013 Rec Yds"
Age 29+ Actual Rec Yds
1Jerry Rice1648715029
2Charlie Joiner122649203
3Tim Brown1085810200
4Terrell Owens106019764
5Don Maynard103538035
6Drew Hill101808484
7Jimmy Smith100409431
8Cris Carter98979322
9Irving Fryar98658864
10Marvin Harrison96939026
11Don Hutson94713687
12Derrick Mason91748418
13Rod Smith91448598
14Henry Ellard90928034
15Tony Gonzalez88178222
16Reggie Wayne86798092
17Donald Driver86227932
18Isaac Bruce85087909
19Art Monk84737239
20Tony Martin78207343
21Steve Largent77776555
22James Lofton77226341
23Harold Jackson76815491
24Keenan McCardell75197055
25Muhsin Muhammad73186752

Johnson has been an outstanding receiver, particularly over the past three years. But matching Rice is a truly Herculean task. Even if Johnson gains 1,568 yards this year, he will still need 12,000 more yards in his thirties (or later) to catch Rice. And other than Rice, Joiner (10,576) is the only player to gain more than 10,000 “2013 receiving yards” after turning thirty.

One factor that would help Johnson is if the NFL continues to trend towards the passing game, which would mean that “2013 Receiving Yards” are lower than “2014 Receiving Yards,” “2015 Receiving Yards”, and so on. And as long as Megatron keeps piling up dominant years, he’ll remain “on pace” to break Rice’s record. But Rice’s performance after turning thirty is legendary, which is one of the reasons he’s the greatest receiver of all time. Rice ranks just seventh in Adjusted Receiving Yards (i.e., “2013 receiving yards”) through age 28, but the rest of the top 20 fell far short of Rice’s production after turning twenty-nine years of age.

Rk
Receiver
Adj Rec Yds Thru Age 28
Adj Rec Yds After Age 28
1Don Hutson139379471
2Randy Moss108545575
3#Larry Fitzgerald104411779
4Calvin Johnson99050
5James Lofton98867722
6Lance Alworth94263298
7Jerry Rice936716487
8Steve Largent91837777
9Drew Pearson88872838
10Billy Howton88733679
11Andre Reed88276337
12Torry Holt86785681
13#Andre Johnson86694941
14Gene Washington86472039
15Raymond Berry85404605
16Wes Chandler84623326
17#Brandon Marshall83501295
18Gary Garrison83032653
19Sterling Sharpe82931178
20Herman Moore82711849

# – Active

So how likely is Johnson to break the record? History suggests his odds are very slim, even with a through-age-28 lead and the friendly era. Ignoring Rice and the four active receivers, the other fifteen players on this list averaged 9,271 Adjusted Receiving Yards through age 28, and just 4,535 Adjusted Receiving Yards afterwards. In other words, these receivers — the most dominant in NFL history through age 28 – were only able to produce about half as many yards after their age 28 season as they gained through their age 28 season. For Johnson to prove that he’s got a legitimate shot at breaking the record, he’ll have to show that he’s a lot more like Rice than any other wide receiver on the list. And the only way for him to do that is to keep producing year after year after year after year after year….

{ 17 comments }
  • Richie August 14, 2014, 1:40 pm

    the most by a player over any three-year span in NFL history.

    Usually these sorts of sentences end with: “not named Jerry Rice”.

    Reply
  • Richie August 14, 2014, 1:59 pm

    I can’t remember if this has been done before, so I decided to look it up myself. Here’s the most receiving yards in a season by age:

    Age – Name, yards
    20 – Gary McDermott, 115 yards
    21 – Randy Moss, 1313
    22 – Josh Gordon, 1646
    23 – Isaac Bruce, 1781
    24 – Torry Holt, 1635
    25 – Lance Alworth, 1602
    26 – Charley Hennigan, 1746
    27 – Calvin Johnson, 1964
    28 – Andre Johnson, 1569
    29 – Michael Irvin, 1603
    30 – Marvin Harrison, 1722
    31 – Andre Johnson, 1598
    32 – Jerry Rice, 1499
    33 – Jerry Rice, 1848
    34 – Marvin Harrison, 1366
    35 – Irving Fryar, 1316
    36 – Jerry Rice, 1157
    37 – Terrell Owens, 983
    38 – Charlie Joiner, 932
    39 – Jerry Rice, 1139 (I love this one. Joiner is second with 440. Then Galloway 173, Richardson 31, Sam Baker 3, FAVRE 2)
    40 – Jerry Rice, 1211 (nobody else even has 1 yard)
    41 – Jerry Rice, 869
    42 – Jerry Rice, 429

    Reply
    • Andrew Healy August 14, 2014, 6:34 pm

      Cool post and neat list. You got me curious about who’d be on top according to Chase’s adjusted yards. Don Hutson and Rice are the only players to win the belt for more than one age. Hutson’s age 26, 29, and 31 seasons are tops.

      Name Age Year Yards Adjusted Yards
      Randy Moss 21 1998 1313 1488
      Gaynell Tinsley 22 1937 675 2300
      Don Looney 23 1940 707 2042
      Harold Carmichael 24 1973 1116 1999
      Lance Alworth 25 1965 1602 2050
      Don Hutson 26 1939 846 2213
      Mac Speedie 27 1947 1146 2078
      Elroy Hirsch 28 1951 1495 2747
      Don Hutson 29 1942 1211 3527
      Jim Benton 30 1946 981 2462
      Don Hutson 31 1944 866 2366
      Don Maynard 32 1967 1434 1925
      Jerry Rice 33 1995 1848 1885
      Marvin Harrison 34 2006 1366 1530
      Irving Fryar 35 1997 1316 1454
      Jerry Rice 36 1998 1157 1311
      Terrell Owens 37 2010 983 1093
      Charlie Joiner 38 1985 932 1126
      Jerry Rice 39 2001 1139 1169
      Jerry Rice 40 2002 1211 1273
      Jerry Rice 41 2003 869 962

      Note: Dante Lavelli would be the age 23 leader if we counted AAFC.

      Definitely slanted towards older players with the big multipliers. Still, check out Hutson’s age 29 season! Chase has written about Hutson’s incredible 1942 season before: http://www.footballperspective.com/career-receiving-numbers-translated-to-the-2012-passing-environment/.

      If we look post merger, there’s a little more to get out of it. Here’s what I get:
      Name Age Year Yards Adjusted Yards
      Randy Moss 21 1998 1313 1488
      Josh Gordon 22 2013 1646 1646
      Drew Pearson 23 1974 1087 1928
      Harold Carmichael 24 1973 1116 1999
      Dwight Clark 25 1982 913 1875
      Wes Chandler 26 1982 1032 2120
      Calvin Johnson 27 2012 1964 2030
      Jerry Rice 28 1990 1502 1818
      Rob Moore 29 1997 1584 1750
      Marvin Harrison 30 2002 1722 1810
      Jerry Rice 31 1993 1503 1754
      Jerry Rice 32 1994 1499 1578
      Jerry Rice 33 1995 1848 1885
      Marvin Harrison 34 2006 1366 1530
      Irving Fryar 35 1997 1316 1454
      Jerry Rice 36 1998 1157 1311
      Terrell Owens 37 2010 983 1093
      Charlie Joiner 38 1985 932 1126
      Jerry Rice 39 2001 1139 1169
      Jerry Rice 40 2002 1211 1273
      Jerry Rice 41 2003 869 962
      Note: Strike year a little wacky. If we drop 1982, it’s Michael Irvin for age 25 and Cliff Branch for age 26.

      Rice leads 9 times, and five excluding the post-36 years. Only Marvin Harrison wins even two other ages.

      Reply
      • Chase Stuart August 14, 2014, 9:19 pm

        Great stuff, Andrew. Crazy that Rice led with the best age 31, age 32, and age 33 years, on top of ages 39-41, too. Love the Carmichael ’73 season. Surprised to see Clark ’82 so high, but I guess that’s what 9 games does to ya.

        Reply
        • sn0mm1s August 16, 2014, 12:39 am

          Rice is the only player (besides Brett Favre catching his own tipped pass) to catch a ball at the age of 40 or older.

          Reply
    • Chase Stuart August 14, 2014, 9:17 pm

      Fun stuff. Josh Gordon is one of those names that could look real peculiar to folks years from now. Andre Johnson with a pair of showings is impressive.

      Reply
  • David August 14, 2014, 2:57 pm

    I’m not saying Jerry Rice is not the GOT; because he is. However, Jerry Rice played with two HOF QB’s and two others that had pro-bowl seasons while throwing to Rice. I think for Johnson to come even close to Rice’s record, he’ll need his next QB to be as good or better than Stafford.

    In Rice’s 20 seasons, his QB went to the pro bowl in 15 of them. (Montana 5, Young 7, Garcia 1, Gannon 2)

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart August 14, 2014, 3:58 pm Reply
      • Richie August 14, 2014, 8:06 pm

        The chart you linked in that post is really worth looking at again: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/play-index/tiny.cgi?id=xzTOC

        Reply
        • Richie August 14, 2014, 8:10 pm

          The next guy who even has a chance to make that list looks to be Reggie Wayne, but he wouldn’t play his age 40 season until the year 2018.

          Interestingly, Rice and Wayne both had significant injuries in their age 35 seasons.

          Reply
          • Chase Stuart August 14, 2014, 9:20 pm

            Yeah, I’m not putting any money on Wayne catching balls at age 40.

            Reply
    • Joel August 14, 2014, 4:24 pm

      “while throwing to Rice” is the key part there. Jerry Rice made his QBs better, full stop. No question Montana was a great, but when you go down that list, you can legitimately ask: would Young be in the HOF today, or would the other two have made the pro-bowl if they hadn’t been throwing to Rice? Maybe, but if you think about Young’s defining game as a QB, the Super Bowl win, Rice absolutely torched the Chargers: 10 receptions for 149yrds and 3TDs. That’s a significant chunk of Young’s MVP performance (24/36, 325yrds, 6TDs).

      Rice was almost literally always open, so he made the jobs of his QBs much easier.

      Reply
  • John Kotanides September 10, 2014, 12:21 pm

    Calvin is and will be the greatest not just for the numbers BUT for the spectacular aerial receptions that are way more spectacular than any of puny Jerry’s – sorryJerry – Calvin is a beast. You were a junior.

    Reply
    • C throw September 19, 2014, 12:19 pm

      You ain’t got to apologize “puny Jerry”, He done hit the HOF already, now it’s just when will “Megatron” join him shouldnt be too long though

      Reply

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