Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
12 May 2011
by Mike Tanier
I am the Bruce Gradkowski of NFL journalism.
Last week, I went to NFL Films for another NFL Top Ten studio session. Trips to NFL Films are always exciting, even if the energy at the facility itself was a little slack this time. The NFL Films cafeteria, which has been mentioned once or twice in past Walkthroughs (Rueben soup), has been closed as a cost-cutting measure during the lockout.
Closing the cafeteria makes little sense. It's a pay cafeteria, mind you, and not a cheap one. It's run by a food services contractor that probably bid for the right to set up shop. It's not a high school cafeteria, so I can't imagine there's some kind of league subsidy in place to make sure Ron Jaworski doesn't have to pay too much for his pierogies. NFL Films is in a huge commercial park, and the nearest food is about a mile away, across a busy highway in a crowded shopping complex, so the cafeteria had almost no competition and a large clientele of hungry people (remember, many staffers are ex-football players, and many interns are 24-year-old, 230-pound ex-Villanova linebackers) willing to pay for a hearty lunch. How can the NFL not make money off a cafeteria in these circumstances? Why, they have a virtual monopoly on an extremely desirable product that sells itself, yet they claim they must shut down food service in the name of protecting long-term profits! I cannot think of any analogy here.
Perhaps they should open the books and show where all of that soup money went.
At any rate, when you see me on Top Ten these days, I am probably quoting a statistic. I am one of the last people they call in to shoot scenes, and I am often asked to highlight particular statistics so the voiceover announcer is not stuck explaining that Kurt Warner threw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns in 1999. I am very good at clearly reading off long lines of numbers because I taught math for 17 years. It is not as easy to do as you think. Read Warner's stat line above -- four thousand, three hundred and fifty-three yards and forty-one touchdowns -- and do it with some enthusiastic inflection in your voice. Now, do it without looking at the numbers. Tricky!
That's my talent. If Top Ten were Star Trek: The Next Generation, I would be Levar Burton, forced to spout all of the scientific babble that has nothing to do with the drama of the show and translates to: "there's something wrong with the engines that prevents us from escaping right now. I will fix it with four minutes left in the show." They may even give me a VISOR next time, which would help, because I could just duct-tape the stats inside of it and read them on camera.
But this Walkthrough is about how I am the Bruce Gradkowski of NFL journalism, not the Jordi LaForge of football television programming.
One of the segments required me to comment on Gradkowski. The episode is not about Gradkowski, mind you -- there's no Top Ten Polish Quarterbacks in the queue, though it might be interesting to see Jaworski and Steve Bartkowski battle for the top kielbasa -- but Gradkowski comes up when talking about one of the other players on a list. I would say more, but I sign a long legal document every time I film a Top Ten segment, and I fear that it is a non-disclosure statement that will land me in jail if I reveal secrets like:
I don't actually read the document, mind you, I just sign it; so I imagine it is full of non-disclosure horrors. So, let's just leave it at this: Bruce Gradkowski may or may not come up in a future episode of Top Ten, and I might comment upon his merits. I might also say something to the effect that Gradkowski is FEMA, because if he shows up in your huddle, it means there has been a disaster.
It's true, right? Gradkowski became the Buccaneers starter when Chris Simms ruptured his spleen. He took over in Cleveland when three other quarterbacks got hurt. He resurfaced in Oakland in 2009 as the quarterback least likely to stumble around Walgreens at 3 a.m. waving a stack of bills and muttering about big daddy having post-nasal drip. Gradkowski's presence in the huddle is typically a sign that Plan A is FUBAR and Plan B was Derek Anderson.
So I made my Gradkowski jokes. Then I wondered, how different am I from Gradkowski?
Let's backtrack a week or so. I attended the draft this year, not to mention several NFLPA "events," some of which deserved those quotes more than others. I was at the pre-draft luncheon, during those giddy moments when the lockout was lifted and DeMaurice Smith could crow about it being "a great day for America." It was a fascinating nanosecond in history, like being in Washington during the few hours Alexander Haig thought he was president. (Haig was the Bruce Gradkowski of 1980s politics).
Smith fit an entire offseason's worth of grandstanding into those few hours, and the media presence at the first Rookie Debut event was substantial, all of us huddled in the hallway of a Manhattan hotel, squabbling over the few seats and fewer AC outlets. I recorded lots of interviews and asked several questions -- not of Smith, who was snappy and nearly tore the head off one journalist known and loved by FO readers -- but of Kevin Mawae, Von Miller, and others. I wrote a New York Times article that was long on humor and light on content, and good thing I did because everything discussed and crowed about at the pre-draft event became completely irrelevant less than 24 hours later.
The next morning, after a long night of draft blogging, I went back to the same hotel. It was then that I began to feel Gradkowski-like. Media attendance was sparse, and rookie attendance was even sparser. The reporter next to me had braces, which confused and worried me. Draft Day was also "Take Your Child to Work" day, but this was Friday, and I doubted that media credentials extended across generations. When Prince Amukamara took the podium, two hours after the event began, no one asked a question for the first 10 seconds. This was the Giants' new No. 1 pick, at a press conference, in Manhattan, and none of the 15 reporters on site had an immediate question. I broke the silence with the first question, which is unusual, because I usually wait for veteran beat writers to ask things like "how does it feel," or "who are your role models" before I ask things like what the player had for breakfast or how he sets his feet in press coverage when he knows he has help over the top. Amukamara (who was in New York for the first time in his life and had never even ridden a subway before) was nervous, referring to the NFL's "18 teams" at one point. The press conference was among the most awkward, muddled spectacles I have ever been a part of. Which saying something, as I am the patron saint of awkward, muddled spectacles.
At least the kid with braces got his questions in. He was Brad Wolff, webmaster of the King of Sports blog and the latest wunderkind for whom I will be working in eight years. Wolff is a little like the kid from Almost Famous, except that he covers sports instead of music, which means less interactions with Kate Hudson and more with Prince Amukamara. Wolff did a bang-up job with his questions, but for all his merits as a young phenom, the NFLPA would probably rather have seen Jason La Canfora and Jason Whitlock in the front rows than me and someone young enough to classify Selena Gomez as a "cougar." I couldn't shake the feeling that a) I am incredibly old and b) the Friday Rookie Debut event hadn't turned out the way the NFLPA had hoped. It was not the worst thing that happened to them that day, mind you.
If you are curious, Wolff was chaperoned by his father. Later in the Rookie Debut, Cameron Jordan and his father (former Vikings tight end and labor leader Steve Jordan) took the podium and filibustered to kill time in the long gaps between rookie arrivals. It was Take Your Child To Work Day 2, and I felt guilty about leaving eight-year-old CJ at home. He's very emo, and he's good at playing the "Cats in the Cradle" card, even when I am only going away for 36 hours. "Cats in the Cradle," by the way, makes no internal sense. Harry Chapin neglects his kid horribly, then when the kid gets older, he blows his dad off by saying "my new job's a hassle and the kids have the flu." The narrator realizes -- oh, the irony -- that his son is exactly like him! Except that he isn't. One of the son's main stressors is his sick children, which means he is helping to take care of him instead of jet setting around the country while they learn to walk. So the son is a much better father by the narrator, but the narrator is a narcissistic wuss. So instead of reassuring his boy to take care of the grandkids and let ole grandpa get drunk in front of the Phillies game, he whines that he himself is being ignored. The putz.
Where was I? Oh yes, Friday, April 29th, Manhattan.
My teacher instincts kicked in when sitting next to Wolff, which meant I wanted to help him while simultaneously using his advanced technical knowledge for my personal gain. Wolff is more advanced in his understanding of Twitter than I am -- there are aboriginal medicine men more advanced in their knowledge of Twitter than I am. He also followed most of the first-round picks, whereas I only had access to J.J. Watt and a few other players. Wolff read off a list of new draftees scheduled to appear at Rookie Debut who instead Tweeted about hopping on planes and heading straight for their team's practice facilities. I verified Wolff's tips and plopped them straight into an article. Exploitive? I have counted on 14-year-olds to fix my classroom VCRs and help me use my cell phone for years; it was a student first showed me how to put my phone on silent mode back in 2008. And those kids' parents, the taxpayers of New Jersey, paid me thousands of dollars so I could use their kids as tech support. Wolff got off easy, as far as I am concerned.
I left the Rookie Debut thinking of the sparse turnout, and noting that several reporters I spoke to at the draft gave me the "better you than me" treatment when I told them I was covering the Friday morning pressers. Culture critic Joe Queenan published a book in the 1990s, If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must be in Danger. Queenan, who wrote for Spy at the time, was such a snarky gadfly that he only got blood-in-the-water assignments, and publicists only answered his queries as a last resort for clients who could actually benefit from some public ridicule. I feared after the Rookie Debut that I might acquire a Queenan-like reputation. If You Are Credentialing Tanier, Your Event May Have More Humor Value Than News Value. Or, worse, your event is a sinking ship, and I am on hand to perform the media equivalent of pouring one last cognac and striking up the band. Extreme unction, they called it in religion class. In football, they call it Last Gradkowskis.
It was a lot to think about. Outside the rookie debut, crowds of Times Square visitors sat on bleachers watching the royal wedding on those enormous screens that always make me think of replicants and origami swans. The Prince and Princess (or Duchess, for I am told that is her official title; it kind of makes the marriage sound more like perma-adultery, which may be the royal turn-on that started the tradition) kissed on the jumbo screen, and the crowd cheered. "It won't last," said the lady next to me, wearing a royal wedding T-shirt. The day before, the EA Sports people crowned new royalty in front of those very bleachers: Peyton Hillis was granted the cover of Madden 12 by popular uprising. Soon, young gamers will have no idea who John Madden was, and it may not be very long before we forget who Peyton Hillis was. I fear that this great video football franchise, like British royalty, may soon be on its way to ceremonial irrelevance.
Those were the dark thoughts that filled my mind on an otherwise beautiful Manhattan morning. I was trapped in an alternative world where the NFL Commissioner gets booed and the prince of England is cheered, where pretty good players earn the Madden cover and the arrival of the Giants No. 1 draft pick is met with media silence. While waiting for a lunch meeting on Friday, I discovered that the lockout was back in place, which tomahawked the last of my surviving optimism. It was time to return to Philly, where everything was back to normal, except that I couldn't get a darn sandwich at NFL Films, and I kept stumbling over Kurt Warner's stat lines.
So yes, the last few weeks left me feeling a little typecast, as a court jester on the one hand and as the plot exposition character on the other. Blame the lockout. It was making me whiny about my chosen fate, like the "Cats in the Cradle" dad. I love writing "wacky world of sports" articles, and events like the Rookie Debut are my briar patch -- the goofier they are, the less I have to write about how much Cameron Jordan admires his father.
I love filling a specific need for Top Ten, and spouting specific stats is vastly preferable to going on and on about how much of a "winner" somebody was. These are fun gigs, and walking around Times Square on a cool April morning kicks the holy daylights out of standing in front of a class of kids who would rather just escape. Really, what's wrong with being Gradkowski? He is in year six of what could be a long, lucrative career. His coaches respect him. He gets to play football for a living, or at least wear a headset and stand at the ready on the sideline for a living. Gradkowski isn't the joke. Guys like JaMarcus Russell are the joke -- overpaid and terrible and disrespected. Gradkowski shows up, tries hard, and finds a niche.
I am happy with the little rut I have carved. I just want free agency, minicamps, and football to write about. When the football world is buzzing, this is a lively gig. Right now, it's like a Cormac McCarthy journey through a wasteland that only bears a haunting resemblance to the NFL offseason. And I am becoming the monster, hoarding resources, stealing from adolescent boys, and scratching at the door of a closed cafeteria, hoping for a scrap of food.
The lockout isn't really a cataclysm, but it can feel like one when you are in the middle of it. And in the event of an actual cataclysm, do you know who is 24th in line for the presidency, behind the Secretary of Agriculture? You guessed it: Bruce Gradkowski.
Here it is, folks: the long-awaited cover art to The Philly Fan's Code
In case you missed the news, I had to change the title from The Phanatic Code because the Phanatic is the registered trademark of some organization or another. I just finished copy edits, and I am waiting for galleys, pages, and other things I don't quite understand. All of the Russian names from the Flyers chapters have been spell-checked, and some last-minute adjustments have been made. The book should be available by the summer!
I have been going division-by-division ranking the top five quarterbacks in each team's history, but the NFC West has two teams with a lot to write about -- the Rams and the 49ers. Instead of giving either team short shrift, or going on for 12,000 words, I will devote this segment exclusively to the Rams. That gives you two full weeks to sharpen your Joe Montana versus Steve Young arguments!
The Rams' Top Five may be the thorniest in the league to untangle. Here's what we are up against:
How muddled is the Rams quarterback history? Everett and Bulger rank first and second in Rams all-time passing yards. If you look at the all-time franchise page at Pro Football Reference you will see that, for most franchises, the all-time leading passer has a pretty good case for being the all-time best quarterback. The Browns and Redskins are exceptions, but the Rams are the only team for whom many would argue the all-time passer does not even belong among the Top Five. We can solve the problem by ranking Bulger at No. 5 and leaving Everett off the list, but that denies how similar their two careers were. We can ditch both of them and put Harris or Ferragamo on the list, but then we are ignoring 45,000 passing yards and about 15 years of team history, and that just doesn't feel like the correct choice.
Speaking of Pro Football Reference, their Approximate Value statistic makes a fine bull detector. I don't rank a quarterback ahead of another one whose Approximate Value is 40 points higher without doing a lot of extra research to make sure I am not off the mark. Roman Gabriel and Norm Van Brocklin are tied with an approximate value of 96, which is frustrating because they are nearly tied in my mind as well. Both Van Brocklin and Gabriel spent several seasons as spot starters or in quarterback rotations, both put up some great-for-their time numbers when they finally earned uncontested starting jobs, and both had important seasons for the Eagles after leaving the Rams. (That isn't supposed to count for their Rams rankings, but it shows how similar they are). Van Brocklin helped the Rams to a championship in 1951, but he was in a rotation with Bob Waterfield. Gabriel never won a championship, but he led the Rams to a series of 11-1-2 and 10-3-1 seasons before losing to the Lombardi Packers or Bud Grant Vikings in the playoffs.
Ranking Gabriel and Van Brocklin first and second sounds easy enough, but there's the Kurt Warner factor. Warner is the only non-committee quarterback to lead the Rams to a championship since the end of World War II, and neither Van Brocklin nor Gabriel was statistically dominant in his era, the way Warner was in 1999 and 2001. If Warner had hang-around years -- three or four of Bulger's seasons -- he would be a unanimous choice as the Rams best quarterback ever. Why should those hang-around years matter? If I were being technical, using Bill James' "peak value" and "career value" as parameters, I could rank Warner first in peak value and happily slide him down below Gabriel, Van Brocklin, and others in career value. But we're going for something more esoteric here, so that's a hard call.
Then there's Waterfield. Peter King wrote about Waterfield very disparagingly in Sports Illustrated back in 2001, suggesting in the end that Waterfield got into the Hall of Fame because of his "tryst" with Jane Russell (they were married for 25 years and adopted three children; if that's a tryst, my wife and I are still on second base). In his Quarterback Abstract, John Maxymuk responds sharply to King's comments. Waterfield shared the quarterback position with Van Brocklin during the 1951 championship season and had several fine seasons in the 1940s, leading the NFL in touchdown passes in 1945 and 1946 and taking the Cleveland Rams to the 1945 championship. He was a defensive back, punter, and kicker in addition to being a quarterback, and Maxymuk points out that it was not his fault the Rams had two all-time great quarterbacks on the roster in 1951.
Waterfield was one of the NFL's biggest stars in his era, though you have to think back to those times to understand why: There was no football on television, and if you wanted your athletic exploits to be featured on pre-movie news reels, it helped to be in Hollywood where all the cameras were, and to have Jane Russell standing next to you in photo shoots. I think both King and Maxymuk are correct and that they are arguing sideways from one another (which will happen when a 2009 book responds to a two-paragraph 2001 article). It goes back to the familiar leather-helmet problem of comparing a multi-position star from early football with someone like Warner. Waterfield is a true Hall of Famer because of his all-purpose performance and proto-Namath contribution to the league's popularity. As a pure quarterback, it takes a lot of gymnastics to flip him above the other contenders.
The whole point behind this Top Five exercise is to make tough decisions, then let you guys tear them apart. So it's time to stop philosophizing and choose:
1. Roman Gabriel. An absolutely incredible quarterback from 1967 to 1969, Gabriel is forgotten because his story does not fit the NFL narrative of that era. When the Rams of the late-'60s do get mentioned, usually as foils for the Packers, Cowboys, or Vikings, we usually talk about coach George Allen or the Merlin Olsen-Deacon Jones Fearsome Foursome defense. Gabriel led the league in touchdown passes in 1969 and was a mobile gunslinger-type early in his career. Like many Los Angeles Rams, he also had an acting career, appearing on Gilligans Island once as a native and showing up in the brilliantly awful 1960s comedy Skidoo.
Gabriel was the Eagles quarterback during my early childhood, and he had a few fine seasons throwing to Harold Carmichael and the Fire High Gang. His Eagles accomplishments are even more forgotten than his Rams accomplishments. (Remember the "100 Greatest Quarterback Seasons" article from Pro Football Prospectus 2005? Gabriel's 1973 season was 11th.) NFL history in the 1960s and 1970s is all about the Packers, Cowboys, Dolphins and Steelers, with the Raiders providing a villainous foil and Joe Namath a splash of Broadway. If you weren't on one of those trains, history pretty much left you at the station.
2. Norm Van Brocklin. Van Brocklin led the NFL in yards per attempt three times when he shared the quarterback position with Waterfield and once afterward. Waterfield's yards-per-attempt were never close to Van Brocklin's, and there's plenty of evidence that Van Brocklin should have taken over the starting job in 1950. The Rams had Crazy Legs Hirsch on one side and a speedster named Bob Boyd on the other in those days, so it's easy to see how Van Brocklin could average 19 yards per completion, like he did in 1954. In fact, most of the quarterbacks on this list had amazing receiving corps; Gabriel didn't in Los Angeles (Jack Snow was his best receiver for several years), which is supporting evidence for giving him the top spot.
Van Brocklin came up in both the Eagles and Falcons lists. He was a terrible coach who went 66-100 in his career but kept holding on to jobs. He liked to fight with the media and his quarterbacks. He played the Tough Old Football Bird to a "T," which I think improved his name recognition over the years. I don't want the guy kicked out of the Hall of Fame or anything, but I feel the need to justify ranking Gabriel ahead of him, and thinking long and hard about Warner.
3. Kurt Warner.
4. Bob Waterfield. Waterfield once kicked an 88-yard punt. I put a tracer on that punt, and discovered that it happened on October 17, 1948, during a 16-0 loss to the Packers. Waterfield happened to throw seven interceptions in that game; he threw 18 in the 1948 season, when he split the job with Jim Hardy, whose passing stats were superior.
I found a game summary of that Packers-Rams game in a Wisconsin newspaper, and reporters were blasé about the interceptions and silent about the punt. (I needed another article to confirm that I had the correct game). Reporters in the 1940s did not think of five-, six-, or seven-interception games as noteworthy; I noticed this when researching Jonny Lujack a few years ago and reading about how he had "a fine game" even when he threw five interceptions. Quarterback was still an evolving position in the 1940s and early 1950s, and I think both coaches and reporters were catching up to the idea that these guys weren't supposed to execute a million fake handoffs, run the ball, punt and return punts anymore, but to throw the thing 20 times per game and not let the opponents catch it.
That evolution plays into the King-Maxymuk argument, though neither of them quite addresses it. Waterfield was not nearly as good as Van Brocklin, and he also put up inferior numbers to Bob Hardy, with whom he shared the job in the late 1940s. Coaches were still catching up to the idea that the best kicker, punter, free safety and ball handler wasn't automatically the best choice at quarterback. Waterfield was a transitional fossil, but he was a very good one. It's not like he was a mess as a quarterback, just one of a disappearing breed.
5. Jim Everett. Going back to Maxymuk, he devotes most of the Everett article to two events: the Jim Rome interview and the Phantom Sack in the 1989 playoffs. These two events, which occurred five years apart, define our memories of Everett, and by devoting most of his time to them, Maxymuk gives credence to the perception of Everett as some kind of all-time weakling.
The Phantom Sack occurred in a playoff game after the 1989 season, which the Rams lost 30-3. It was Everett's only sack in the game, but he was knocked down several times. On the play, Larry Roberts (credited with the sack) and Charles Haley converge on Everett, who briefly looks downfield, appears to get confused, and crumbles to the turf. Everett later admitted to taking "a dive," and the play looks horrible on film. That said, it also occurred in a lost cause of a game against a vastly superior opponent, and it took place a week after Everett threw two touchdown passes (and endured two Lawrence Taylor sacks) to lead the Rams past Bill Parcells' Giants. Two weeks earlier, Everett threw two touchdown passes and endured Reggie White and Jerome Brown sacks, leading the Rams to victory against Buddy Ryan's Eagles. Everett, in his prime, could deliver against some scary defenses.
As for Jim Rome, well, he's a ninny. If calling a quarterback by a woman's name is really your A-material, well, heck, you are on television and I am not, but you are still a ninny. The worst thing about the Chris Everett joke is that it was more of an insult to Chris Evert than to Jim Everett. Chris Evert was one of the best athletes in the world in the 1980s, and anyone who ever spent time with female tennis players (even at the college level) knows that these are incredibly strong individuals, both mentally and physically. Evert was nearly 40 when Rome and Jim Everett did their little table dance on television, and I am certain she could have beaten the living crap out of Rome if she wanted to, without a racket. Rome's jokes were obvious, sexist, and completely unfunny, and Everett's response was even dumber.
It sounds like I am trying to defend Everett here; I am really just trying to justify his place as the No. 5 quarterback on this list. Like Bulger, he took over a pretty good team, took them to a few playoff games, then hung around for years as his supporting cast got worse and worse. Both managed to keep their jobs through 3-13 seasons. Both threw to amazing receivers -- Everett to Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson -- and survived massive paradigm shifts when the Rams changed coaches. They were similar, but Everett has an awful reputation, while Bulger will probably be remembered as the little kitten hanging from the clothesline in the inspirational poster. Given either in their prime, I would probably take Everett. Jay Cutler is on his way to having Everett's career, so if you want to understand where Everett stood circa 1990, think of Cutler now.
Bulger, of course, shares honorable mention with Harris and Ferragamo. Pat Haden also deserves mention; the Chuck Knox-Ray Malavasi Rams were running-and-defense teams in a running-and-defense era, so it was hard for any quarterback to compile interesting statistics. Sam Bradford is years away from cracking this list, of course.
92 comments, Last at 25 May 2011, 5:30pm by Raiderjoe