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.
05 Apr 2012
by Mike Tanier
Where does your team lie along the Jets-Giants Axis?
On the left are the Jets: bold, daring, reckless, brilliantly disorganized, arrogant, sloppy by design. Any team that thumbs its nose at convention more than the Jets -– the Buddy Ryan Eagles, perhaps, or the Jerry Glanville Falcons -– lies off the current spectrum of visible football. They are infrajets.
On the right are the Giants: buttoned down, conservative, implacable, disciplined, infuriatingly slow-and-steady. To the right of the Giants, in the ultraviolet range, are the Vince Lombardi Packers and some Jesuit prep academies.
You can line the other 30 NFL teams up at various points on the Jets-Giants axis. The Lions lie somewhere on the Jets side. The Steelers stand right next to the Giants, just a hair to the left. Some teams are hard to place right now, because of major coaching and personnel changes. Who knows where the Buccaneers now rank? There is probably a team smack dab in the origin, one that has created a precise blend of low- and high-risk personnel strategies, on-field tactics, and media relations policies. That team is also probably boring, like an over-blended mass market whiskey. It’s probably the Cardinals or somebody.
When evaluating prospects for the draft, it’s important to keep the Jets-Giants Axis in mind. I did so in an Alshon Jeffery scouting report for Yahoo!'s Shutdown Corner. Jeffery is a very talented receiver with great pure catching skills, but he gained weight and lost focus last year when South Carolina grew tired of giving their quarterback a breathalyzer before taking the field and switched to a power running offense. Jeffery pulled it together just enough to make a handful of big catches in the Capital One Bowl, then got into a donnybrook with Alfonzo Dennard and was ejected in the third quarter. He has since lost anywhere from 20 to 40 pounds, gotten his 40-time up, and looks like a great prospect as a possession receiver.
Take that resume and project it onto the Jets. Pass the lasagna, Alshon! Can you see a kid like Jeffery losing focus while blocking for Wildcat plays, learning bad habits from the in-house malcontents, and generally not developing while Rex Ryan does stand-up routines and Tony Sparano tinkers with unbalanced lines?
Now, put him on the Giants. One pound overweight is a fine. Two pounds is a severe talking-to. Three, and Ramses Barden is running your routes, no matter where you were drafted. Also, your role in the offense is well-defined, your expectations explicitly stated. Headcase receivers are tolerated to a degree, as Plaxico Burress can attest, but there are limits and parameters, and Plax had some pretty darn good years with the Giants.
The basic theory at work is that prospects who need more direction and discipline need to play for teams closer to the Giants side of the axis. Who would fare better on the Jets side? Disciplined players who could use some tie-loosening, or super-talented types who bristle and atrophy inside the box. The kinds of kids who thrive in Montessori schools, or young men who would perform great feats at Internet startups with pool tables in the middle of the production floor. Dont’a Hightower is going to be a fine linebacker anywhere, and with a Giants-type team he would play within the system and aid the cause. For a Jets team, he could become a holy terror. Chris Rainey would drive Tom Coughlin completely insane with his laid-back smart-aleckiness, and he wouldn’t be a great fit in a conservative offense. Put him in a sandbox environment, and he could gain 1,400 yards from scrimmage. He could also implode, or get forgotten as everyone lurches to the next paradigm, but that’s the nature of the Jets axis.
This is all an oversimplification, of course, but it is still useful for discussion purposes. The fact that the two endpoints of the axis share a stadium and a region adds a touch of irony. The Jets and Giants remind us that football teams can be as different from one another as any other pair of corporate entities, and just as Fortune 500 companies must attract employees who match their corporate culture, teams must be realistic about which players fit their system, not just strategically but as people.
Traditionalists will point out that the Giants have won two Super Bowls by adhering to their side of the axis. Further, football is such a team sport, and the salary cap such a harsh mistress, that teams are always wise to take the conservative path. I said something similar in Walkthrough a few weeks ago. On the other hand, the Jets have had some deep playoff runs doing things their way, the conservative approach has led a lot of teams into a .500 vanilla mush, and the Eli Manning trade was the kind of daring move that can make investors a little nervous. More importantly, those of us who advocate a slow-and-steady approach are often iconoclasts and risk-takers in our own lives. I would last three days working for Tom Coughlin. Trust me. I went to Catholic school. You probably excel in an unstructured environment, though some of your co-workers may not.
But then, what’s good for me or you might not be good for Alshon Jeffery.
So where does your team rank on the Jets-Giants Axis? And more importantly, where do you rank?
1. Jim Taylor
The Emmitt Smith of the early 1960s. Like Emmitt, Taylor was one of the two best backs of his era, and while the other back was more impressive, Taylor got much more jewelry. Like Emmitt, Taylor gets folded into his system a little bit. NFL Network’s Top 10 is doing a countdown of underappreciated players, and both Paul Hornung and Bart Starr are on the list, because all of the classic Packers suffer from a case of Credit Jenga. If anything, Hornung is overrated, and Starr has plenty of loud supporters who want to push him ahead of Johnny Unitas because he won more championships. Taylor is the underappreciated one: second fiddle to Jim Brown, a shell of his former self once the Super Bowl era kicks in and the cameras flicker on, a player with an outstanding five-year peak whose success is rarely differentiated from his team’s.
It took Taylor four tries to reach the Hall of Fame. There is hope, Cris Carter.
2. Ahman Green
Green was the second-best back in the NFL in 2003, behind Priest Holmes. DYAR ranks him third in rushing behind Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson and third in receiving behind Moe Williams and Holmes that year. The rest of his career was a string of 1,200-yard, 50-70 catch years, which of course are very good, but they don't move the DVOA or DYAR meters as much as you would think. Green caught 72 passes in 2000, a season when Marshall Faulk, Tiki Barber, and a few others were setting the bar really high for all-purpose backs.
Green was only in a class with Faulk and Holmes-types for one year, but he had seven full seasons as the primary back in a great offense, so he really racked up the career value.
3. Clarke Hinkle
Hinkle retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, with 3,860 yards. He is a member of the 1930’s All-Decade Team and the Hall of Fame; he was an outstanding three-way player who played linebacker and kicked. I have the usual reservations about ranking Green ahead of him. It came down to a string of 1,200-yard seasons for great teams in modern football against strings of 380-yard seasons for great teams in Dark Ages football. Hinkle had more All-Pro selections and Green will never touch his Hall of Fame record but, you know, it’s not a nine-team league anymore.
4. Paul Hornung
The John Stallworth of the Packers: a guy who made the Hall of Fame because the voters had built up lots of Packers momentum and couldn’t stop themselves. Hornung’s All-Pro notice was as a kicker. He was a very good back from 1959 through 1961, though he was the second-best back on his team. It took 13 years for him to reach the Hall of Fame, a period during which the Lombardi Packers went from humans to mythical creatures and running back/kickers became exotic curios of yesteryear.
While researching Hornung for NFL Network, I came across this breakdown of the Heisman vote in 1956. Hornung won by a hair, beating John Majors, Tommy McDonald, Jim Brown, and Jerry Tubbs in a vote that clearly ran along regional lines. Hornung rushed 94 times for 420 yards and threw three touchdowns and 13 interceptions as Notre Dame’s leading passer. He was not an All-America selection: John Brodie was the quarterback, with Brown, Majors, and McDonald as the other backs. McDonald had more first-place votes. We were still five years away from the first black Heisman Trophy winner, so it is no surprise that most of the country left Brown off the ballot (ah, the splendid 1950s). Hornung won because he was the quarterback for Notre Dame, and when all else failed you'd cast a second- or third-place vote for the quarterback of Notre Dame back then, even if the team was 2-8.
Hornung’s Hall of Fame candidacy is a little like that. It’s not that he was bad -– he was very good –- but his contributions were diverse and hard to quantify, and when in doubt you always err on the side of the 1960s Packers.
5. Tom Canadeo
In baseball terms, Canadeo would be Bill Terry or Lloyd Waner, an old-timer who made the Hall of Fame in a particularly weak moment by the voters.
Canadeo had an All-Pro season in 1943, doing all-purpose duty for a 7-2-1 Packers team filled with guys who had deferments or whose draft numbers weren’t called yet. The Packers beat the Steagles that year, to give you a reminder of where we are in world history. Canadeo’s own draft number was eventually called, and when he returned in 1946 he was no longer a "quarterback" and the Packers were terrible. Canadeo had a few relatively strong seasons as a rusher, then suddenly doubled his established production and became the third back in history to rush for over 1,000 yards, gaining 1,052 in 1949.
I am going to bring up Beattie Feathers in a bit, wading into the controversy about his 1,000 yard season. Canadeo’s season is not in dispute, but it was achieved under some mighty hinky circumstances. The Packers were a terrible 2-8 team. They lost games 17-0, 45-7, 35-7, 30-0, 24-3, and so on. Their quarterbacks completed 30.4 percent of their passes and threw 29 interceptions. Their passing line in the season opener: 0-for-13, with four interceptions. They rushed 40 times for 187 yards in that game, and their blowout losses are filled with suspicious rushing totals: 188 yards in a 30-7 loss to the Steelers, 55 carries for 183 yards in a 35-7 loss to the Rams, and so on. Yes, teams ran more and threw less back then, but it’s not hard to imagine the Packers giving up and just pitching the ball to Canadeo over and over in search of a record, with opponents adopting the 1940s equivalent of a prevent defense and allowing some easy fourth quarter yards. Canadeo had 26 carries for 122 yards in that 35-7 Rams game (not all box scores are complete for that year), including a 45-yard run. On a better team, a lot of those Canadeo runs would have been passes.
Canadeo did average over five yards per carry, and I don’t want to take his accomplishment away from him, but the 1,000-yard season is just about the only Hall of Fame worthy achievement on his resume, and under scrutiny it looks more like a curiosity than a feat. There’s nothing else on his resume that looks superior to Bob "Hunchy" Hoernschemeyer or several other players from his era who will never get near the Hall of Fame and probably don’t belong.
Read Canadeo’s Hall of Fame biographies, and he is praised as an all-purpose player: he ran, caught, threw, returned kicks, and played defense! If you have been reading these Top Fives, you know NFL history is littered with these guys. Pro Football Reference is an invaluable aid in learning about them and sifting through them: we can put Canadeo and Hunchy side-by-side in a matter of seconds, line up Dub Jones on one side of them and Steve Van Buren on the other, and see who really matches up with whom. Hall of Fame voters could not easily do that in 1974, and the Senior Committee (which selected Canadeo) has never been inclined to do that sort of thing, anyway.
Canadeo was a broadcaster and popular figure in Green Bay during the Lombardi era. He was inducted into the Packers Wall of Fame, and that is exactly the kind of honor a player of his caliber deserves. In terms of wins and losses, I don’t think he ranks very far ahead of...
Honorable Mention: Dorsey Levens
Levens only ranked 14th in DVOA in 1997, his best season. His receiving skills added value, but not that much. Had he ranked higher in 1997, I would have ranked him above Canadeo. He was a very good complementary back in the years when he was not the featured back.
I omitted Beattie Feathers from the Bears Top 10 two weeks ago because I got mixed up, not because of any sort of protest about his 1,000 yard season. He should probably have been at least ninth or tenth.
As many of you brought up on the message boards, Feathers was the first player ever to gain 1,000 rushing yards in a season, gaining 1,004, or so, in 1933. That number was a source of controversy for many years. Dr. Z found it suspicious, and wrote on several occasions that he believed punt or kick return yardage got merged into Feathers’ numbers accidentally. The crew at Pro Football Researchers Association had some serious debates about Feathers in the 1980s, which I will summarize:
Researcher David Neft, the mastermind behind the first generation of accurate football encyclopedias, was able to use independent newspaper reports to correct a few mistakes in Feathers’ record, but was left with the overall impression that Feathers gained 1,004 yards. Mark Purcell, a very respected college and NFL researcher in his own right, felt there were enough discrepancies and convenient "boosts" in Feathers’ numbers to suggest that the 1,004-yard figure was either an error or a bit of fudgery by a league looking to increase fan excitement about a new star. The late Bob Carroll, then the leading voice in football historical research, refereed the discussion, generally giving Neft the Jordan treatment. In 1992, the Elias Bureau changed Feathers’ attempt total from 101 to 119 but kept his 1,004-yard number intact.
The debate over Feathers gets into conflicting game-by-game accounts. Much of it is esoteric, even by our standards: NFL sources that don’t gibe with magazine sources, in-season totals mentioned in Feathers articles that do not quite add up, games for which only Feathers’ longest runs are known (because the reporter specified an 82-yard touchdown, for instance) from which we must extrapolate that the figures in a later source are more-or-less close enough. The debate grew a little unpleasant in the 1980s: some of the stronger PFRA personalities could be quite a handful, so there are instances in which half of Purcell’s article was published, with the other half abruptly replaced with an explanation that the rest was "essentially libelous."
At any rate, Doctor Z’s kick return theory from decades ago does not appear to hold weight; it would be an unprecedented, one-time error at a time when the NFL, for all its primitiveness, knew a punt from a scrimmage play. More concerning was a 20-yard discrepancy in Feathers’ favor in his final game, which he left early due to injury. Twenty yards would be enough to quietly boost Feathers past 1,000, except for one problem: early accounts gave him 1,052 yards, a number which was later revised down!
So what happened? My guess is that Feathers gained about 1,004 yards. He had an 82-yard run. He had an 18-carry, 140-yard game in which Neft was able to verify five carries and 99 yards. He had a 7-for-114 game which was also verified. Just by looking at those numbers, we know he must have had several runs of 40 or more yards. Top running backs of the era rushed about 130 times, so three or four big plays could cause an amazing data swing. History is full of pretty good running backs who cracked the 1,000 yard barrier by getting about 15 percent of the total from a few big plays and trudging along at an ordinary clip the rest of the time. Feathers happened to be the first player to do it, and then no one else managed the trick for over a decade.
The rest of Feathers’ career was completely unremarkable, which is what got the Doctor suspicious and sent Neft and Purcell on the trail. Ultimately, Purcell’s effort to clarify/refute the 1,004 yard number validated Feathers’ strange accomplishment: even if some extra yards appeared somewhere, Feathers still rushed for more yards from scrimmage than any running back before Steve Van Buren. As for the cause of football research, we have come a long way since 1985, but we are still dependent on the work of men like Neft who clawed through old microfilm to create the searchable databases we now enjoy, as well as men like Purcell who played Devil’s Advocate and like Carroll who provided a forum.
68 comments, Last at 15 Apr 2012, 10:35am by jebmak