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.
29 Mar 2012
by Mike Tanier
For those of you keeping score at home...
It is now possible to claim that the Saints victory in Super Bowl XLIV was tainted. Not just possible, but fashionable: a few major football analysts have made off-the-cuff remarks to that effect in recent weeks.
It is also possible to use some combination of Spygate and the Tuck Rule to void any and all of the Patriots Super Bowl victories. The Tuck Rule is a non-starter among knowledgeable fans and writers; it was a poor rule that was poorly applied, but a rule is a rule, and the Patriots still had to tie the game and come back, blah, blah, blah. Spygate still lingers in the minds of many people who send me long e-mails, and the Giants' victory in Super Bowl XLVI provides ammunition to conspiracy theorists, who claim that the Patriots are 0-2 in the Super Bowl when they don’t have secret knowledge of the other team’s game plan, blah, blah, blah.
Super Bowl XL can also be nullified by those who think the officials nudged the Steelers to victory because they are a popular team with an international fan base, while the Seahawks are the Seahawks. Please, for the love of heaven please, do not rehash the particulars of this game in the discussion thread. I promise to not editorialize on my personal feelings about this or that call, or the specifics of Spygate or Bountygate for that matter, because the individual scandals are not quite the point here. I look forward to your thoughts on scandal-mindedness or the phenomenon of discounting championships, but if I see a frame-by-frame analysis of Darrell Jackson’s exact arm movements in the end zone seven years ago in the discussion thread, I will treat it like a penis enlargement advertisement.
That now potentially taints, nullifies, or otherwise disparages five of the last 11 Super Bowl winners. If you are conspiracy-minded, or scandal-minded, or you just like to be contrary and have a thing for dethroning champions, you now have the power to erase nearly half of recent NFL history and rewrite it the way you wish. And that is without digging too hard to find steroid scandals or blown late-season calls that affected the course of future events.
During editing, the guys reminded me that the Broncos were fined for circumventing the salary cap during their Super Bowl seasons. That makes seven of 15 championships! There have been debates on our message boards and elsewhere about whether CapGate was worse than SpyGate, where BountyGate belongs in the hierarchy, and so on. Usually, the rankings fall along strict fandom lines, with Seahawks fans abstaining and stomping their feet a lot. And of course, the whole -gate suffix phenomenon secretly makes me wish that Nixon tried to break into the Bandershit.
This is an alarming amount of nonsense fodder, and I fear it could cause an epidemic of the inane. It’s one thing to still have a handful of people treating Super Bowl III like it was the moon landing. It’s another thing to give an entire recent decade completely over to revisionists. All that’s at stake when we sprinkle winking little suspicions over championships is the credibility of the sport itself, plus the delicate joy of the fan experience.
Baseball fans appear to be okay with the fact that an entire generation of players, events, and championships has been briskly labeled "The Steroid Era," which basically turns many joyous memories of my early adulthood into a cesspool of homogenized filth. Baseball’s steroid scandal was a real, league-wide issue that was hijacked by bleating, ill-informed alarmists and sensationalists and flown directly to Crazyland. The NCAA does this sort of thing to our memories all the time, literally wiping teams and seasons out of the record book, but I think we all know that the first qualification for working for the NCAA is to read a lot of George Orwell, and the second qualification is to completely misunderstand it.
We are one big scandal away from allowing the same thing to happen in the NFL. What if we learn that Tom Coughlin has secret cameras, or the 2010 Packers had a bounty system, or the Manning brothers did something heretofore unimaginable but dangerous to opponents' health or competitive balance? Welcome to The Scandal Era. Or the Spygate-Bountygate-ManningVampireGate Era. The era when the team that won the Super Bowl didn’t deserve it, so that parade your father took you to might as well have been a tickertape parade for a serial killer.
Only cool heads can prevent such a thing.
So let us vow to be those cool heads. Repeat after me:
Bounties are bad. They are also probably much more common than most fans realize and nearly every NFL team has done something only slightly less sinister than the Saints did at some point. Whether or not bounties played a role in the Saints Super Bowl victory, championships are often won under unusual circumstances, and directly crediting "bounties" misleadingly oversimplifies a complex situation in the name of recklessly cheapening an accomplishment which brought excitement to millions of fans.
Videotaping opponents’ defensive signals was bad. It was also much more common than most fans realized at the time, and many NFL teams did something only slightly less sinister than the Patriots did in the Spygate scandal. Whether or not Spygate played a role in the Patriots Super Bowl victories, championships are often won under unusual circumstances, and directly crediting "Spygate" misleadingly oversimplifies a complex situation in the name of recklessly cheapening accomplishments which brought excitement to millions of fans.
Bad officiating is bad. It is also incredibly common, as most fans realize, and every NFL team benefits from dubious officiating at some point. Whether or not bad/biased officiating played a role in the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory, championships are often won under unusual circumstances, and directly crediting "officiating bias" misleadingly oversimplifies a complex situation in the name of recklessly cheapening an accomplishment which brought excitement to millions of fans.
Anything else? The Manning brothers are not vampires. Earl Morrall did not see Johnny Orr in the end zone. And since major league baseball did not ban steroids until much later, no one was cheating, because breaking the law is not cheating, nor is "violating the sacred sanctity of our green cathedrals blah blah pontifiblah."
Every champion gets lucky. Every team in history has leaned on a few rules, sometimes inadvertently. We all drive 70 miles per hour in 55-zones. None of us would dance to an IRS audit with a shoebox full of itemized receipts, whistling "I have nothing to hide," even if we are saintly accountants, because we know the tax code has dark corners where we can get lost, and that client dinner did not have to end at 3:45 a.m., inside a Tattletales.
Every champion earned its championship. We can conjure up acts of obvious cheating –- poisoning the opponent’s team breakfast, for example –- that could be cause to nullify a championship. But they haven’t happened, and probably won’t.
Let’s condemn bounties and praise the 2009 Saints. And let’s be angry about recent scandals for the most important reason: because we really, truly love football.
FRAN TARKENTON: The meeting of the Forgotten Old Great Ex-Superstars of Yesteryear is now in session! Gentlemen, we have a lot to talk about today, including this whole Tebow phenomenon, with that kid riding on his white horse to New York. I think it’s an embarrassment.
CHORUS OF 1972 DOLPHINS: He doesn’t understand perfection!
TARKENTON: That’s correct, hive mind. But fear not: Agent Namath is on the case there. Our most important item of business is to deal with a turncoat among the ranks of ex-players. Sergeant at Arms, wheel him in!
GEORGE ATKINSON: I present to you ... Troy Aikman!
TROY AIKMAN: Mmmph!
TARKENTON: Sergeant, remove the ball gag. Troy, do you understand what you stand accused of?
AIKMAN: Well, I’m not exactly sure what the big deal is. I just said that Tony Romo was a better quarterback than me.
CHORUS OF 1972 DOLPHINS: Gasp!
TARKENTON: Silence! Heresy! Heresy! Unacceptable! Aikman, do you realize that Romo is a current player? What’s worse, he is a current player who has never won a Super Bowl...
AIKMAN: You never won a Super Bowl.
TARKENTON: Silence! Silence! Chorus of Dolphins, read the Retired Athletes Creed to this infidel!
CHORUS of 1972 DOLPHINS: All current players are inferior to former players. All current players are greedy and selfish. The game was much harder in the old days. Old players were tougher. We would all have played for free. The 1972 Dolphins will always be the best team that ever played. And no retired player with a Super Bowl ring can ever, ever be ranked below a current player with no ring.
TARKENTON: Let alone three rings. What do you have to say for yourself?
AIKMAN: Well, I honestly believe it. I think Romo is outstanding, and while I have a high opinion of my own skills, I know how lucky I was to play with such great teammates. The game has grown so fast and complicated since my day, let alone yours.
ATKINSON: Let me spear him, Fran.
TARKENTON: Easy, George.
ATKINSON: Please? I am sick of hearing about these modern players and their bounties. The old Raiders never had bounties. Oh sure, we had pools for big hits. And "big hits" at the time meant clotheslining a guy or driving a helmet into him when he was lying on the ground. And sure, we cultivated an atmosphere of disrespect for the well-being of our opponents that bordered on criminal. But we never said the word "bounty," and that makes us morally superior, as well as much tougher for some reason.
TARKENTON: ...We have drifted off topic, here.
CHORUS OF 1972 DOLPHINS: Use the Truth Scanner! Use the Truth Scanner!
TARKENTON: Great idea! The Sacred Truth Scanner of Bednarik will tell us whether you really believe this crazy Romo fantasy. If you do, you are insane, and we can blame concussions. If you are just trying to curry favor with younger fans, I will put you in my eight-month re-education clinic. Now, let me just hot glue this spaghetti colander to your temples ... there. Now, tell the truth as you see it.
AIKMAN: Tony Romo is a better quarterback than I was. Norv Turner is an offensive mastermind. Joe Buck is...
TARKENTON: Enough! I understand now. You have a completely warped view of reality.
AIKMAN: Yes. After all, who can accurately appraise his own accomplishments? I never watched myself play, after all. When I was watching my teammates and contemporaries, it was as a competitor, and I now have a whole different perspective. The only difference between me and you is that I am secure enough in myself to not retreat into a fantasy in which the world essentially stopped spinning in 1982 and I need to constantly reaffirm myself.
ATKINSON: No! Shut it off! Shut it off!
CHORUS OF 1972 DOLPHINS: Imperfection! Imperfection!
TARKENTON: No, he is right. Maybe we need to be a little more open-minded about modern football, and to take a longer look at ourselves. We got paid well. I had a television career, thanks to football. These players really do work harder and have more pressure than we did. Maybe we...
AIKMAN: Uh oh.
TARKENTON: Arrgh! Take this one to the lava pits! I must ... ruminate on this news.
If you are wondering, I am doing one team at a time through the draft, as we have plenty of other things to talk about. That way, we can do two or more teams come late spring and summer.
1. Barry Sanders We now have DVOA and DYAR for most of Sanders’ career, and the numbers are about what we would expect. He finished second in DYAR three times, behind Emmitt Smith (1994), Jerome Bettis (1996), and Terrell Davis (1997). He finished seventh in 1995. He will finish second or third in 1991 when we finalize those numbers, because Emmitt and Thurman Thomas are the only players who can touch him, and he probably has another top-ten appearance or two among his early seasons.
Our numbers also show low Success Rates, which is exactly what we would expect; Sanders usually hovered between 44 and 46 percent. His value as a receiver comes out as replacement level, which will happen if you only average 5.7 or 6.1 yards per catch, as Sanders did in his best rushing seasons. Sanders had more receiving value early in his career, when the run ‘n’ shoot was new to the NFL. The scheme colors everything Sanders did before 1997, including those receiving numbers. Just as Sanders’ rushing output came against nickel and dime defenders, his receptions were all swings and screens, with no tight ends or fullbacks to block for him, against defenses spread out to stop the pass.
None of us here at headquarters, and none of you longtime readers, had any expectations that DVOA could solve an Emmitt versus Barry Sanders argument. I was pleased to see Sanders vindicate our methods, rather than vice versa: had Sanders finished 23rd in retroactive DVOA for 1994, I would probably have asked Aaron Schatz to give the mainframe a swift reboot. Those second-place finishes can be interpreted both ways: Sanders was always second fiddle, or it’s an accomplishment for any Lions player to consistently finish second in anything. I personally think Emmitt Smith was better than Barry Sanders, but there are so many factors to interpret that I think it is silly to argue with anyone who disagrees.
2. Billy Sims Four and one-half seasons of Beast Mode, then a knee injury. Every single Sims run –- every one of them –- looked exactly like this.
3. Dutch Clark Clark was an A-formation tailback, which means he took direct snaps and was the Lions’ leading passer a few times. He could be considered a quarterback, but he ran the ball 120-130 times per year and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns three times. As a rusher-passer-kicker-contributor, he ranks ahead of Sims. As a pure rusher, it’s hard to say. Clark was among the two or three best runners in the NFL in his best seasons, but so was Sims. I am sticking with the guy I saw leap on one defender’s back to kick the other in the face.
4. Doak Walker The gap between first and second place on this list is incredibly huge, as is the gap between third and fourth place. Walker was a college superstar, and he was a first-team All-Pro four times. Much of his All-Pro value came as a kicker, however: Walker was one of the two or three best field goal kickers of his generation, along with Lou Groza and a few other candidates. As a running back, it was not unusual for him to finish third on the Lions, sometimes behind quarterback Bobby Layne or the next guy on this list, albeit with more yards from scrimmage, some return value, and of course the value of being a reliable kicker in the era before specialists.
5. Bob Hoernschemeyer Bob Whoshenmeyer? A real square peg of NFL history, "Hunchy" Hoernschemeyer was an AAFC running quarterback who had the misfortune of not playing for the Browns, so some of his best seasons were completely forgotten. When the AAFC merge-folded, Hunchy joined the Lions as a running back, sharing the backfield with Walker and Laybe. Hunchy reached two Pro Bowls, as a running back and not a kicker/running back, and he had 96- and 85-yard runs, so he had a little Sanders in him. He was the leading rusher on two NFL champions.
There is not a lot of scholarship on "Hunchy’s" NFL career. The guy is kind of a blank slate. The following honorable mentions may explain why I ranked him fifth.
Lions history is filled with "Other Backs" who had long careers with the club. Dexter Bussey was the team’s leading all-time rusher for a while and still ranks third somehow. Bussey was a good little all-purpose player who led the Lions in rushing a few times in the 1970s, then hung around as Sims’ backup and sometime fullback. Nick Petrosante had a pair of great seasons in the early 1960s, then settled into a long career as an ordinary fullback. He could rank ahead of Hunchy, but their best years were only a decade apart, and Petrosante’s numbers are not significantly better, so I see no reason to pick him over a guy who out-rushed the Hall of Famer with whom he shared a championship-winning backfield.
Altie Taylor shared the backfield with Bussey late in his career and Steve Owens early in his career. He was a fine player who lingered through a bunch of .500 seasons. "Superstar" Mel Farr shared the backfield with Taylor and Owens late in his career. He was a big-play guy, better known for his auto commercials. Do you get the idea? The Lions have tons of guys with overlapping careers who rushed for 850 yards once and then 550 yards six or seven times, with some receiving value. Most teams have a few of these guys, and they would fill spots nine to 14 on any responsible list. The Lions have a dozen of them vying for the top five.
The last of these Lions Other Backs was James Jones, who was also one of the last pure fullbacks ever drafted in the first round. Jones replaced Bussey as Sims’ backfield mate, then became the featured back in 1984, because when you prematurely lose one of the most exciting backs of his era, it’s best to compensate by giving 300 touches to his blocker. Jones kept the lights on in Detroit in the years between Sims and Sanders by rushing for precisely 3.6 yards per attempt every year (look it up) while catching far too many passes. The Lions wrung every drop of production they could from Jones, then realized that they never wanted to see a fullback carry the ball again, so they switched to the run ‘n’ shoot.
So there you go: at least Hunchy was interesting.
185 comments, Last at 08 Apr 2012, 1:29am by jjewell