FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers
by Danny Tuccitto
With Week 1 of the 2013 season fast approaching, it's time to wind down our anniversary series looking at the best and worst players since 1991 by Football Outsiders stats. Today's penultimate article looks at advanced stats for wide receivers. If you haven't read the previous installments, here are the links:
Today, I'm not going to devote any words to some clever introduction, a pop quiz, or a question about the Hall of Fame. Instead, I simply ask you to consider the following thought experiment: For eight seasons during the primes of their careers, the No. 1 quarterback ever, No. 2 wide receiver ever, and No. 3 wide receiver ever play on the same team. What proportion of each player's value in that time should be credited to the other two? What if we flip that around and consider the worst of the worst playing together?
(Christian) Ponder that as you read the rest of this column.
(Ed. Note: Numbers below will differ slightly from the numbers posted on our stats pages because of a recent fix for an error where receivers were mistakenly given a small amount of touchdown credit for being the intended receiver on a pick-six. To give one example, this fix moves Randy Moss' 2007 season ahead of Calvin Johnson's 2011 season in total DYAR. We haven't had a chance to fix all those numbers on all the pages yet, but will soon. -- Aaron Schatz)
Below are the best and worst receiving DVOA seasons by a wideout since 1991:
And there you have it: Since 1991, the most efficient hypothetical pass combination over 50-100 passes would be 1992 Wade Wilson to 2002 Dennis Northcutt. It's fourth down, and you absolutely have to have a conversion? That duo is your best bet. I kid, I kid. Obviously, Jordy Nelson's 2011 season has a better argument for being the most efficient ever (so far). Nevertheless, as was the case with Wilson two weeks ago, let's take this rare opportunity to give Northcutt some internet space; we may write zero words about him between now and FO's 15th anniversary series. (A quick search of Northcutt appearances in FO content reveals that the only times we've mentioned him since he retired were equally dismissive on the one hand and downright abasing on the other.)
In his triumphant 2002 season, Northcutt had 39 targets from Tim Couch, 11 from Kelly Holcomb, and one from Frisman Jackson. That sentence certainly constitutes an exception that proves the "wide receivers are only as good as their quarterbacks" rule. Much of Northcutt's efficiency that season came via his yards per target (11.9), which is the eighth-highest in our database over a minimum of 50 targets, and his catch rate (78 percent), which ranks third. (Austin Collie is the current record-holder with an 82 percent catch rate in 2010; that's the non-exception that proves the rule.) Taking a more Hidden Game of Football perspective, an astonishing 36 of his 40 catches resulted in a successful play -- 31 of which moved the chains -- and his 9.8 percent touchdown rate ranks in the 97th percentile of all wide receiver seasons with 50 or more targets since 1991. Putting the "D" in "DVOA," Northcutt also benefitted from posting his best two games yardage-wise against that seasons' first- and sixth- ranked pass defenses.
On the list of worsts, here's hoping that a Jesus Jones lunchbox-toting Rivers McCown had not yet started forming indelible memories when Tony Jones was spending all his time dropping passes in Houston. (Unfortunately, we're both plenty old enough to remember this Jones though.) The amazing thing about Tony Jones' 1991 season is how singularly awful it was in the context of an otherwise potent passing game. Before using remnants of it to Super Bowl effect with the Giants, Kevin Gilbride unleashed the entirety of his run-and-shoot scheme in Houston, with Hall of Famer Warren Moon in his NFL prime at the time. The 1991 Oilers' pass offense finished ninth in DVOA, Moon was the the second-most valuable quarterback in the league, and four receivers finished in the top 30 of our DYAR rankings. Despite platooning with Curtis Duncan throughout the season, Jones was clearly a fifth wheel -- even in the sound bites of his teammates. As Ernest Givins told Sports Illustrated that December, "There's no defensive coverage in the world that can stop four good wide receivers. The other team can't say, 'We're going to freeze Haywood Jeffires.' You freeze him, Curtis steps up, or Drew, or me. But if we weren't outstanding receivers, we wouldn't have the ability to step up and have great games. We do." It's as if Tony Jones didn't exist! (That offseason, he ceased existing in Houston's locker room, moving to Atlanta with teammate Drew Hill in Plan B free agency.)
Best and worst receiving DYAR is displayed below:
Aaron Schatz has written at length about Irvin's record-setting (so far) 1995 season. As a 49ers fan, my favorite statistical nugget explaining why it's No. 1 is buried in -- of all places -- the 2012 preseason DVOA ratings column: Irvin "drew" defensive pass interference 10 times for 202 yards that year. If my memory serves me correctly, all of them came on what should have been offensive pass interference calls in Week 10.
Moving to the other table, among 1,764 wide receiver seasons with 50 or more targets since 1991, Chris Chambers' 39 percent catch rate in 2006 ranks 22nd-worst. Of the 782 with over 100 targets, it's third-worst. And of the 143 with over 150 targets, it's dead last. You want to know how to get a horrible catch rate over a massive number of targets? Pair a rag-armed quarterback like Joey Harrington (or a broken-down one like late-career Daunte Culpepper) with a deep threat like Chambers who is coming off a Pro Bowl season. I can almost picture the offensive meetings in Miami during the second half of the season.
Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey: Alright guys, this week we're going to focus on getting our No. 1 receiver the ball. He's earned it.
Harrington: No offense to Chris, but that Pro Bowl is ancient history at this point.
Mularkey: No offense to you, Joey, but at least a Pro Bowl is in his history.
Marty Booker: Marty Booker too.
Harrington: But coach, we've been forcing the ball to Chris all season, and it's not working. Also, who is this Marty Booker guy?
Cleo Lemon: I think he's an intern or something.
Mularkey: Joey, it's because you can't throw a deep ball to save your life. Daunte was throwing with half-a-shoulder, and he was still better than you.
Harrington: And where is he now? On a boat eating some peppa puddin'? If you think I can't make those throws, why do you keep calling them?
Mularkey: Because our other receiver is this youngster, Wes Welker.
Booker: Marty Booker too.
Welker: Hey, here's an idea! Joey can't throw deep passes very well, and I'm the underneath guy. How about featuring me in the offense instead?
Harrington: Yeah, you're no Pro Bowler like Chris Chambers.
Booker: Marty Booker too.
Welker: Dude, I know you're just trying to put your best foot forward, but seriously. Who are you?
Culpepper (conferencing in from Lake Minnetonka): I think he is a quality control assistant or maybe a videographer.
Chambers: His name doesn't ring a bell, but I can tell you one thing that does ring a bell, Wes. I'm the man here, so you'll just have to wait your turn.
General Manager Randy Mueller (over the loud speaker): Hey, pipe it down in there! I need to focus. Nick Saban's in my office talking out of both sides of his mouth. Besides, if the right side of his mouth is the one telling the truth, then none of what you're arguing about will matter. I'll be in charge, and you'll all be gone by this time next year...except for Booker. He's a stud.
Here are the 10 best and worst games since 1991 (box scores linked in the "Week column; asterisk means the team won):
|Best Receiving DYAR, Game, 1991-2012|
|Worst Receiving DYAR, Game, 1991-2012|
On the plus side of the ledger, we have another data point favoring one of the best wide receivers in NFL history who can't even get himself into the finals of Hall of Fame voting. Like a fellow snub that we discussed last week, Jimmy Smith had the most valuable single-game performance of anyone in his era to go along with great advanced career stats (which we'll present shortly). His 21 targets were nearly as many as the rest of the team combined (25). Thirteen of Smith's 15 catches resulted in successful plays, 10 of which produced a first down. He became only the sixth receiver since the merger to have three touchdowns traveling more than 40 yards; it hasn't been done since. Smith's final touchdown on the day, a go-ahead 40-yarder with 1:55 left in the game, came after the rest of his Jaguars teammates took only one quarter to relinquish a 23-7 halftime lead. (And, true to form, the defense allowed Tony Banks and company to march down the field in just over a minute for Baltimore's game-winning touchdown.) Of course, it isn't just that Smith was the best Jacksonville player that day; it isn't even that he seemed to be the only competent Jacksonville player that day. No, one has to remember that he accomplished those feats against one of the best defenses ever.
At first glance, Andre Roberts sitting atop the list of worst games made me conclude that I will not be drafting him in my fantasy leagues this year. At second glance, I noticed that five of the 10 receivers made the Pro Bowl at some point during their careers, and Vincent Brisby's nadir came during his best season as a pro. In that way, this list resembles the one we saw in "Worst Running Backs:" Good, and sometimes great, skill position players can have total implosions on any given Sunday. My personal favorite, though, is Carl Pickens' game. That's the highest-target zero-catch game in our database. (But really, I just chose to talk about Pickens and Roberts because both performances came at the hands of the 49ers.)
Here are the worst career receiving DYARs according to a simple sum, a weighted sum, and an average of the wideout's six best seasons (asterisk means the wide receiver's still active):
I remember watching the NFL a decade ago, and there was this guy named Dez White on the Falcons. All I knew was that he used to suck for the Bears and was a Loser League All-Star. Then the Falcons drafted Roddy White, and my brain spent 2005 never being able to resolve the confusion of two receivers on the same team named "Unorthodox First Name White." Thankfully, Dez Bryant didn’t join the league until long after Dez White's career ended. (Incidentally, there were no Dezes in the 20th-century NFL, but the first decade of the 21st century delivered four Dezes, three of whom played wide receiver: White, Bryant, and Dezmon Briscoe.)
Each time we've presented the worst career DYARs, the absolute worst are, by definition, a product of repeated opportunities despite below-replacement level performance. Ryan Leaf would not have earned "Worst Quarterback" if he wasn't the No. 2 pick for a desperate franchise. Leonard Russell would not have been the face that launched 1,000 ships from 1992 to 1995 if he wasn't offensive rookie of the year in 1991 (despite a -198 total DYAR, mind you). Dez White, however, was merely a third-round pick who didn't produce much in the way of standard stats in his rookie year, so his path to ignominy took a different route. Essentially, White was "fortunate" (or shrewd) enough to hide himself in the middle of awful wide receiver corps. Behind the involvement of Big Marty Studd, White only had to beat out David Terrell and Marcus Robinson for targets in Chicago. With the Falcons, he vied for playing time against Peerless Price, Brian Finneran, and Michael Jenkins. The truth, of course, is that White was, in fact, worse than all of those wideouts; but it's easier to get away with being awful when other guys are failing all around you.
Finally, here are the best career receiving DYARs according to a simple sum, a weighted sum, and an average of the wideout's six best seasons (asterisk means the wide receiver's still active):
Prior to Super Bowl XLVII, people got emotional when Randy Moss said he was the best wide receiver ever. If he would have just added, "since 1991 -- according to Football Outsiders," he would have saved 1,000s from a trip to the cardiologist.
But aside from Moss' largely predictable spot at the top of our career rankings, the main takeaway for me is that these tables prove how hard it is to decouple the statistical interactions between players on a football field. Commenters have raised this issue in previous installments of the anniversary series, but it's nowhere more plainly evident than right now. By my count, there are 24 different receivers across the three tables, and 10 of the 24 played together in their prime years: Moss and Welker, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. Three other pairs played together, though not while both were in their primes: Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson, Marques Colston and Joe Horn, Roddy White and Horn. (Did I miss any? Those were just the ones I noticed off the top of my head.) And what do almost all of these duos (especially that first group) have in common? Great quarterbacks.
Obviously, the relationship isn't one-to-one, but the problem of answering "How good is he independent of his teammates?" lies at the heart of football analysis. How much of Welker's perceived value is skewed by his years with Moss and Tom Brady? What if he had spent his all-important third year with Moss and Brady instead of Chambers, Harrington, and a late-career Culpepper? How much of Moss' perceived value is skewed by his years with Brady, early career Culpepper, and newly minted Hall of Famer Cris Carter (who will show up on this table in five years as long as his first four seasons were better than -500 DYAR)? How much of their own perceived value do Keenan McCardell and Mark Brunell (one of our top 22 quarterbacks) owe to the presence of Jimmy Smith? And bringing this column full circle, how much do Harrison, Wayne, and Peyton Manning owe each other for their lofty career DYARs?
I think framing any player debate in this way is useful, and it's probably most useful in the context of wide receivers. To me, that consideration makes the careers of Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, and Calvin Johnson rise to higher rankings than what their current (or eventual) career DYARs suggest (or may suggest).