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:
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:
Avg Top Receiver
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:
Age 26 Adj. Rec Yds
Age 27 Adj. Rec Yds
Age 28 Adj. Rec Yds
Age 26--28 Adj. Rec Yds
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.
Age 29+ "2013 Rec Yds"
Age 29+ Actual Rec Yds
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.
Adj Rec Yds Thru Age 28
Adj Rec Yds After Age 28
# – 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….