Antonio Brown is a late-round steal, but which active WR has beaten the odds of the draft and his QB? We studied the breakout seasons of the 20 all-time leading receivers and recent hidden gems. How important is QB play in developing a WR?
11 Dec 2013
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: The Pro Football Hall of Fame released the new list of semifinalists last month: the 25-modern era candidates who will be reduced to the 15 (plus the two senior nominees) whose candidacies will then be discussed by the Hall of Fame selectors the day before the Super Bowl. Sadly, we seem to have neglected that list to date at Football Outsiders. Time to rectify that omission. How the selectors get from the list of 15 down to the five finalists, who then receive an up or down vote, is a complicated process with an abundance of messy internal politics. Your Scramble writers have no control over that process, so we're going to ignore that and do the same thing we did last year, namely focus our discussion on the four first-year eligible candidates among the 25.
Mike: We had such better column titles last year.
Tom: Unless you want to actually look up which column was about what from a listing of columns.
Mike: Yes, well, art, and all that.
Tom: I currently have no art hanging anywhere in my work or residence.
Mike: I think you're just mad you lost the staff vote to rename the site "A Sometimes-Useful Repository of Various Retrospective Statistics and Analysis Regarding Teams and Their Composite Players in the National Football League and National Collegiate Athletic Association."
Tom: Give me a little bit of credit, Mike. That name is too much of a mouthful. The full site title could have been recondite, but I wanted an acronymable title, preferably to RECONDITE.
Mike: Now I'm going to spend half the column trying to think up words for that acronym.
Tom: The problem with RECONDITE as an acronym is you need an "F" or "G" for "football" or at least "gridiron."
Mike: Also, I feel bad for the Hall of Fame. They have a Twitter thing at the bottom of the page to aggregate everyone using their suggested hashtag, and all they got was a couple Seahawks fans. Overenthusiastic Seahawks fans are the last people you want visiting your website.
Tom: In time-honored tradition, we'll start with your favorite player, Mr. Derrick Brooks. For reference, his Pro-Football-Reference page and his NFL.com player profile with tackle stats 2001 to present. Any thoughts on Mr. Brooks?
Mike: How on earth did you remember that United Way spot?
Tom: By virtue of a great memory and fond reckoning for those spots. See also Eddie George. "On the field, Eddie's work ethic is contagious. On the football field, it's contagious. … Slackers."
Mike: Yeah, the George ad was great. Back to actual football, our stats don't seem to like Brooks that much. I must admit I find this a bit surprising.
Tom: Eh, a 42-Defeat season in 1999 is nothing to scoff at. Besides, he was a weakside linebacker. By the time we have charting coverage stats, for Pro Football Prospectus 2006, he was 32, a couple years into the downside of his career, on a non-great defense.
Tom: Eleven Pro Bowls and five All-Pro mentions certainly put him in elite company. He basically set the prototype for the contemporary weakside space linebacker.
Mike: He also was one of the driving forces that dragged Tampa out of the wilderness and back into relevance. So he is a prototypical "key player in a dominant defense with a great storyline attached."
Tom: Right, and the 2002 Buccaneers were a phenomenal defense, the second-best in the quarter-century of our numbers.
Mike: And he was arguably the best defender of that group. That seems like damning with faint praise for a Hall of Fame candidate, but remember that defense included peak Warren Sapp.
Tom: One of the criteria for greatness seems to be: did this player have any greater significance? Brooks and Warren Sapp were the two game-changers on the best and most prominent exemplar of the Tampa-2, a popular defense in the league. Sapp's already in, as you note. Brooks deserves the honor just as much, if not more.
Mike: I'm not sure it's quite that simple.
Tom: For our part of the exercise, I don't see why not.
Mike: Overall, I don't think Brooks has had the same quality of career as Sapp.
Tom: Maybe there's a distinction there, that a defensive tackle is innately more valuable than a weakside linebacker. Maybe Brooks should have to wait longer than Sapp did. But he's still worthy.
Mike: Sapp was, for instance, a Stop machine. I think the problem with Brooks is that he's going to end up with unfavorable comparisons to other candidates that have been waiting.
Mike: Yes, but he isn't just competing against other defenders. He is competing against everyone.
Tom: Sure, but that's the whole complicated process of getting from 25 to five. I think Brooks is clearly worthy and should make the Hall of Fame. That doesn't guarantee he makes it, though.
Mike: I agree that he is worthy. I think Sapp's induction makes Brooks' induction more likely. I'm just not sure he makes it across the finish line. Definitely not this year.
Tom: Next up, continuing with the Buccaneers theme, Tony Dungy. P-F-R coaching page, because unlike Dick LeBeau, I cannot see his playing record having anything to do with his candidacy. Career record 139-69, a .668 winning percentage. 54-42 in Tampa, 85-27 in Indianapolis. 2-4 the postseason in Tampa, 7-6 and the Super Bowl XLI win with the Colts.
Mike: Dungy is a shoo-in because he is universally beloved.
Tom: He ranks 22nd in wins. Among coaches who coached for at least ten seasons, Dungy ranks eighth in winning percentage.
Mike: I wish the analysis would be more nuanced, but his teams had a seemingly never-ending run of (regular season, at least) dominance, and he is basically the Football Pope. Now, the fact that a lot of this success came with the great fortune of fielding possibly the greatest sportsman of all time for nearly every snap of every game is perhaps reason to question Dungy's contribution, but there is no good way to separate coaching factors. And unlike Marty Schottenheimer, he actually won the Super Bowl.
Tom: Maybe this is just on the top of my head because of the Houston '93 episode of NFL Network's "A Football Life," but I distinctly remember Steve Young on ESPN after the 2001 Buccaneers were blown out by the Eagles in the playoff, talking about how the Buccaneers had joined those Oilers teams and some others as units that never could quite get over the hump. As you note, it's hard to separate Dungy's legacy from his players. And he's Football Pope, beloved, so he's going in sooner or later.
Mike: Sooner, rather than later, I wager.
Tom: Like Parcells the first time he was up for consideration, I wonder if voters will take into account that he might not really be done. He's still only 58, young enough to coach again.
Mike: I think he's having so much fun with his clicker diagramming the safetymen that he'll get back on the field.
Tom: Maybe. That's a question the selectors will have answer, even if it's just to decide to ignore it.
Mike: For instance, Harrison made a jump his sophomore year, moving into the league-wide top 15 by both DYAR (253, 12th) and DVOA (14.3%, 14th). This was 1997, of course, the year before Manning's career began.
Tom: Right, we have some evidence he was a good player before Peyton arrived, then went to stratospheric heights. I raised the question a while ago, was Emmitt Smith "just" a Curtis Martin-level player who ended up in a great situation? So, was Marvin Harrison "just" Jimmy Smith with Peyton instead of Mark Brunell? Since I made that Smith-Martin comparison, Martin made the Hall of Fame on his second attempt, a decision I both was surprised by and did not agree with.
Mike: I agree with both the Smith and the Harrison comparison.
Tom: As with Smith, though, the numbers (at least in the regular season) are just so overwhelming the question is left as an abstract exercise. Unless the Hall of Fame voters get absolutely hinky, which with wide receivers is basically what's going on. Does Harrison go in this year? Does Tim Brown? Does Andre Reed? Will the supporters divide into three different camps and none of the three make the cut-down to 10? Who knows.
Mike: Well, Harrison led the league in receiving DYAR three times. Manning fed him the ball a tremendous amount, however. In 2002, Peyton Manning threw the second-highest number of passes of his fairly pass-heavy career. Harrison was the recipient of a full one-third of those 591 passes. So yes, Harrison accumulated unreal counting stats. Only in two of his 12 years, however, did he manage to crack the top 10 in value per play.
Tom: That doesn't strike me as that unusual with high-volume No. 1 wide receivers. Larry Fitzgerald has only been in the top ten in DVOA twice in his career.
Mike: Randy Moss was six times in 14 years.
Tom: Fine. Moss is arguably the fourth best receiver in NFL history. Harrison isn't quite at that level.
Mike: Jerry Rice was top 10 in five of the 13 years we have DVOA for him.
Tom: Rice ranks above Moss in the pantheon of great wide receivers in NFL history.
Mike: Isaac Bruce did it three times.
Mike: Yeah, I was getting to them. I think that all illustrates my point rather nicely, however. Being an extremely productive counting player does not impair your ability to be an extremely productive rate player.
Tom: I think that's a bit of an arbitrary endpoints issue, though, and I think you're unfairly discounting the total value Harrison brought to his team. When we ran our anniversary article on wide receivers, he ranked second in best career DYAR among wide receivers who debuted in 1991 or later, behind only Moss.
Mike: It is absolutely biased due to my preference for rate stats, I will agree. But in my defense, I view the split as a way, to use a wide receiver example, of sifting through the Wes Welkers of the world. Not in any way comparing Welker and Harrison, but a wide receiver is part of a battery. And consistent, per-play value to me is about as good an indicator as we can have that an individual receiver is great and not just being fed the ball.
Tom: Welker never ranked in the top 40 in DYAR or top 20 in DVOA without a Hall of Fame quarterback. Harrison did. Harrison ranked 29th in DVOA and 6th in DYAR in 1999. The WR2 on that team was Terrence Wilkins.
Mike: As I said, there is no comparison between the two.
Tom: Marvin Harrison that year was probably both great and fed the ball all the time. That offense ranked fourth in the league in pass DVOA. That doesn't happen if Harrison isn't fed the ball.
Mike: And Harrison is absolutely deserving of a spot as a semifinalist. I'm just not sure he deserves a spot in the Hall.
Tom: When Mike Tanier wrote about the current class, he advocated putting them all in. My point is not that I'm absolutely sure Harrison is among the five most deserving of the current crop of semifinalists, but that he's certainly Hall worthy.
Mike: Do not try to turn Tanier and me against each other! This is where we get into a philosophical discussion about big halls versus small halls and the readers all fall asleep.
Tom: I think one of the features of Harrison's candidacy right now is he's not going against any real "true contemporaries." Right now, we don't have to debate him versus Wayne or TO or Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt. Those debates may be coming in future years, especially if Harrison doesn't make it in this year. Maybe I'd feel differently if the argument was "pick which five wide receivers to put in the Hall of Fame in the next ten years," including guys like Andre Johnson who may retire soon enough they'll be eligible no later than 2022. I think he's clearly ahead of both Reed and Brown, the current semi-finalists.
Mike: I agree. I just don't think that matters much.
Tom: You're sitting in the room, Harrison is one of the final five. Yes or no?
Mike: I think my answer is no. There have been too many great wide receivers who did not have the benefit of such a uniquely great quarterback, receivers who dominated the position in a way Harrison simply did not. All in recent memory.
Mike: Yeah, it's Walter Jones.
Tom: Certainly deserved NFL MVP honors in 2005 more than Shaun Alexander, but that's a separate argument, and one about media members instead of players. How convenient that the great tackles of the mid-1990's come up in separate years. Jonathan Ogden went in last year. Jones is up this year. Orlando Pace will be up next year or the year after.
Mike: I wonder if they planned it that way?
Tom: If they all retire at the same time, we may be having a wide receiver-like logjam created by separate yelling camps. If they did intentionally stagger their retirements, it was brilliant.
Mike: It would be a bit of coordination worthy of their storied line careers.
Tom: I don't think I'd ever checked this before, but the Seahawks only ranked 25th in Adjusted Line Yards on runs at left tackle in 2005. That ended a streak in which they'd ranked in the top six for six of the previous seven seasons. Are you now down on Jones' candidacy?
Mike: Is that sarcasm I detect?
Tom: Would I ever be sarcastic?
Mike: Perish the thought.
Retrospective Efficiency Coefficients On NFL Dudes In Toto Experientia, by the way.
Tom: Hmm, maybe. I was thinking Recapitulation Of Numeric Data In … eh, whatever. Good luck with the actual selectors to all the semifinalists.
Quarterback: And once again, Geno Smith ... wait, the much-maligned rookie actually finished with 23 Loser League points, helping sink the fate of many a team that has prospered on the backs of his struggles in recent weeks. In fact, a struggling AFC East rookie did finish atop the LL standings this week, but it was EJ Manuel, who threw four interceptions and finished with 4 points.
Running Back: Willis McGahee, Alfred Morris, Bilal Powell, and Stevan Ridley each finished with a ho-hum 3 points.
Wide Receiver: Ten wide receivers finished with no more than 1 Loser League point this week. Of that decatet, James Jones was the only one who wore a jersey number higher than 19. T.Y. Hilton and Ted Ginn were the only members of that group at 0, while the others were at 1.
Kicker: Halfway through the early slate of games on Sunday, your Scramble writer was prepared to research when the last time the two kickers in a game finished in a tie atop the Loser League leaderboard with 0 points of fewer. Then the Lions committed a false start penalty following a fourth-quarter touchdown, David Akers missed his extra point for his -5, and Alex Henery remained planted firmly to the bench outside of kickoffs. Bah, humbug.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: What is the best, most direct way to cost your team the game? How about stepping an unforced step out of bounds on the final play when there are no defenders between you and the end zone? The only thing that separates Antonio Brown from the greatest KCW accomplishment of all time is he did not hurt teammates in a minor and amusing fashion in the process.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: The best way to win in the NFL, as a general rule, is by throwing the ball. There are exceptions. One of those is, perhaps, when facing a terrible run defense, a defense missing several linebackers and even more defensive tackles, and the run has already "been established," as the kids say. Naturally, after handing the ball to DeMarco Murray 13 times and gaining 99 yards on their first three offensive possessions, the Dallas Cowboys decided ... what, exactly? That running the ball was not sufficiently interesting, or did not present enough of a strategic challenge to their great intellect? Whatever the cause, Murray had one carry on the next three possessions combined. By the time Bill Callahan remembered it might be a good idea to call run plays, the game had gone from 14-14 (after that third possession) to 42-14 (and then 42-21 after the fairly easy run-driven romp).
Tom: Weekly reminders: all lines are courtesy of Bovada link, and all picks are made without reference to the FO Premium picks for that week. Unless directly stated otherwise, no actual money is involved in hypothetical wagers made in Scramble for the Ball. Last week, I trusted in our numbers, and the Chargers, paragons of unreliability, came through for me, while the Panthers did not for you.
Mike: Boy did they ever not. Unlike last week, I see a number of attractive lines, here. The ones that really pop out are Seattle -7, Indianapolis -6 and New England -3. I have no idea where that last one is coming from.
Tom: Miami is playing at home and is not that bad. Weighted DVOA suggests a line closer to NE -1.
Mike: How on earth are you calculating that? NE has 21%, MIA -1%.
Tom: Right, and Miami is at home. Home DVOA edge is 17%, which is roughly 3 points. Adjusted, you get NE 21%, MIA 16%, a 5% differential. 5 : 17 :: x : 3, x ~1.
Mike: I think you're drilling general numbers down too far into the specific.
Tom: Just to clarify-the home DVOA edge is 17%. The home-field betting edge is about 3 points. This is just a crude rule of thumb.
Mike: Miami is also terrible defending against No. 2 receivers, tight ends and running backs. While Rob Gronkowski may be out, Tom Brady does nothing well if not spread the ball. I just don't think Miami can stop the Patriots' offense in nice weather. For the half they actually show up to play. New England Patriots -3 at Miami Dolphins.
Tom: This may end up making me look silly. But the San Francisco 49ers are favored by 5.5 points. They're playing a 1 p.m. ET game across the country. They're playing the Buccaneers, a team now playing much more like the average team DVOA indicated they might be. Yes, granted, it's Mike Glennon against a good defense. But Weighted DVOA suggests this should be much closer to a pick'em than the road team favored by so much. Yes, trusting a Greg Schiano team bothers me. But I don't believe in San Francisco that much. Tampa Bay Buccaneers +5.5 vs. San Francisco 49ers.
Mike: I think this makes you an honorary Schiano Man.
Tom: I should have noted this last week, but I was a bit disappointed Buccaneers defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan's offer to fans to show up early at the facility and help him draw up a game plan didn't draw a Loser League team name. Something like Bill Sheridan's 5 a.m. Planning Session, or some actually good name.
Mike: Alas, the missed possibilities.
Tom: Now watch them lose 38-0.
112 comments, Last at 19 Dec 2013, 4:00pm by tuluse