"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
12 Aug 2008
by Aaron Schatz
In honor of our fifth anniversary, we're running a series of articles looking at the best and worst players in the history of our advanced stats, DVOA and DYAR. If you are unfamiliar with our advanced stats -- perhaps you are a new reader visiting our website for the first time after picking up a copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2008 -- you can read all about them here. The series so far:
First up today, the top 20 total DYAR games by wide receivers since 1995. This includes rushing DYAR for a handful of players, but none of these players had a rushing touchdown.
The best receiving game of the DVOA Era took place in 2000, but which game it is changes depending on whether or not you include opponent adjustments. Before adjustments, the top game is Week 16, when Terrell Owens set the all-time record for receptions in a game (20) against Chicago. However, Chicago ranked 18th in defensive DVOA against the pass that season. Baltimore ranked sixth against the pass (and first overall), so the all-time DYAR record belongs to Jimmy Smith. At the time, it may not have seemed like quite as big a deal as it really was. Sure, Baltimore had a strong defense, but they were coming off an 8-8 season. By the time the year was over, however, we knew that Smith had put up 291 yards in a single game against one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. The second-biggest receiving day against Baltimore in 2000 belonged to Dedric Ward of the Jets with 147 yards in Week 17. Only three other players had 100 receiving yards in a game against the Ravens that year.
Looking at the list of players in the top 20, one name probably leaps out at you: Kevin Williams. As in, "who the hell is Kevin Williams?" The answer is that Kevin Williams was primarily a return guy for Dallas from 1993-1996 and three other teams from 1997-2000. 1995 was the only season Williams had more than 400 receiving yards, but believe it or not, that Week 17 performance is not a "sit the starters" special. Nearly all the Dallas starters played in the final week of 1995 (Jay Novacek was an exception) and that includes Williams, who ended up starting all year because the Cowboys never really replaced Alvin Harper after Harper signed in Tampa Bay. Not counting Deion Sanders playing both ways in a few games, the Cowboys only had three wide receivers who caught passes in 1995: Michael Irvin, Williams, and Cory Fleming (six catches for 83 yards). Anyway, Williams had first downs or touchdowns on all nine catches that day, and four of them gained at least 25 yards.
You may be surprised to see that the player with the most games in the top 20 is not Randy Moss or Terrell Owens. It's Chad Johnson. Two of these are among the great shootouts in recent history, last year's 51-45 loss to Cleveland and a 49-41 loss to San Diego from the year before. The other Johnson game in the top 20 might be even more remarkable because both Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh end up in the DYAR all-time top 20 for the exact same game. Part of this is opponent adjustments, since the Ravens ranked second in pass defense DVOA in 2004. The Bengals beat the Ravens pretty much with just those two guys -- Rudi Johnson rushed for just 56 yards on 19 carries, and all other players combined managed 50 receiving yards total.
Although Tom Brady's 2007 season included three of the top ten quarterback games of the DVOA Era, Randy Moss only shows up in the wide receiver top 20 with performances from his Vikings days. Moss's games from 2007 tend to be a bit lower than you would otherwise expect because most of them have a few incomplete passes. The best Moss performance from last year was Week 11 against Buffalo (128 yards, four touchdowns, 92 DYAR), which is the fourth-highest game of 2007 behind T.O.'s Redskins burn-a-thon (the subject of an Every Play Counts last year), Ocho Cinco against the Browns, and the day Patrick Crayton showed that St. Louis had no depth whatsoever in their secondary (Week 4; 96 DYAR).
So that's the good; now let's look at the bad, the worst wide receiver games since 1995:
I listed 12 games so we could include both the ten worst receiving games (which would include Chris Chambers) and the ten worst total games (which includes Santana Moss instead).
Vincent Brisby's awful day took place in the middle of one of those Broncos blowouts that Patriots fans have gotten used to. Denver won 37-3 and somehow Brisby managed to catch zero of the 11 passes Drew Bledsoe threw at him. That's the record for passes without a catch, at least since 1995. Two players went 0-for-10: Chambers in 2006 and -- surprise, surprise! -- Chad Johnson in Week 4 of 2002. (That game doesn't show up at the bottom of the list because of opponent adjustments for the Tampa Bay defense.)
Tony Martin caught his first pass during Week 12 of 1996, an 18-yarder to convert on second-and-8. He then had 12 incomplete passes in a row -- in a close game that the Bucs ended up losing by just a touchdown. Six of those incompletes were on third down.
Lest you think we can blame these games on the quarterbacks alone, notice that Dennis Northcutt is the only player to appear twice among the worst DYAR games. He did this with three different quarterbacks -- Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn in 2000, and Tim Couch in 2001.
One advantage of game charting these last few years is that we can look to see how much the receivers had to do with their very bad days. Santana Moss definitely has himself to blame for his awful day against Green Bay in Week 6. That -24 rushing DYAR came when Charles Woodson stripped Moss on a reverse and returned it for a touchdown. Out of the six incompletes, we have two listed as dropped, two as defensed by Al Harris, one as "receiver tripped," and one as "thrown ahead." (In Moss's defense, one of those "drops" was a confusing Harris interception where some fans felt there was simultaneous possession by both players.)
Drew Bennett has two passes listed as defensed by Roderick Hood, plus one each of "thrown ahead," "thrown behind," "underthrown," and "out of bounds" (i.e. Bennett caught it out of bounds, not an intentional throw-away). Bennett fumbled the one catch he did make, although he recovered the ball.
Jennings's awful day took place in that rainy 9-7 game with the Vikings two years ago, one of those games that will eventually get adjusted for weather when I figure out how to finally make weather adjustments for passing work correctly.
This just in: Tony Gonzalez is good. Shannon Sharpe too. Two of Sharpe's three touchdowns against San Diego in Week 6 of 1996 actually came right on the edge of the red zone, from the 20-yard line.
Perhaps you see Ken Dilger on the list and think "well, sure, Peyton Manning loves to throw to the tight end." Look closer and you'll notice both of those games took place before Manning was in Indianapolis. Dilger's 1997 game gets 72 DYAR despite only five catches, since three of them were touchdowns and another went 43 yards on third-and-1. The 1996 game features four different Jim Harbaugh-to-Dilger passes of 22 yards or more, all to convert on second down.
Ricks was drafted as a wide receivers and it is reasonable to wonder if he should be listed as a wide receiver rather than a tight end in 1998, but no matter what, that game sucked. Ricks didn't have a single first down and fumbled away one of his three catches.
One of the strange things here is how many good tight ends show up on the list of the worst DYAR games. Dallas Clark? Ben Coates? Todd Heap? Jeremy Shockey twice?
Clark's awful game was the week the Colts had everyone injured; that includes Clark, who came back too soon from an injury that had kept him on the sidelines the week before. Three of those incomplete passes were tipped at the line before they even got near Clark, but he also dropped two of them. (Yes, I know we're counting Clark as a wide receiver in 2007, but I'm counting him as a tight end for the purposes of adding together career totals so I counted him as a tight end for this too.)
We can also look up those Shockey games on game charting. In Week 8 of 2006, he dropped two passes, caught a third out of bounds, and had a fabulous tight end screen that went zero yards. This being Eli Manning prior to the 2007 postseason, there is of course also an overthrown pass. There are also two thrown away on purpose; I wish we had a way to not count those, but of course we have no clue which incompletes from 1995 through 2004 were thrown away on purpose. The Week 16 game against New Orleans has two listed as thrown behind, a drop, a "thrown ahead," the requisite (pre-08) Eli Manning "overthrown," and a complete pass that actually lost seven yards because Scott Shanle read the screen from the moment the ball was snapped.
Later this week: wide receiver seasons and career totals.
36 comments, Last at 18 Aug 2008, 8:31am by Ralph