Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

23 Apr 2008

FO on ESPN.com: Adding Star WR Rarely Improves Team

After the recent success of Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, teams are chomping at the bit to trade for Chad Johnson. But Owens and Moss aside, adding a star receiver doesn't generally lead to significant improvement. Losing a star receiver, however, usually leads to decline.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 23 Apr 2008

29 comments, Last at 28 Apr 2008, 9:59pm by Alex


by Tim R (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 6:35pm

Interesting article but i'm not convinced win totals is the best way to judge the signing of a wr's impact. There are too many other variables which affect a teams win total. Would change in passing efficiency or QB DPAR/DVOA not be a better measure, although i realise this would exclude anything pre 1995 so maybe theres just not a big enough sample size.

by Schuyler (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 6:49pm

Measuring win totals is fine, but as it mentions there is no precedent for a receiver like Johnson joining a new team.

No team has ever let go of a receiver as consistently productive as Johnson.

by Zelasko (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 6:50pm

Pretty useless article. Maybe some offensive statistics would be a better judgment of the addition of a star WR.

by Reinhard (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 7:07pm

It seems like an ELITE wr has an immediate impact; these players are very hard to stop and even changing your defensive scheme sometimes doesn't help. Like when Randy Moss burns through triple coverage. Especially with the rules favoring the passing game. Short of that level however it won't drastically change your offense. It's kind of like what some teams said about Ladanian... he's really good, but we don't do anything different on defense when we play him. Boldin and Johnson are not quite good enough to transform an offense

by thestar5 (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 7:07pm

Doesn't this article just intuitively not make sense? Adding a star player doesn't help your team? Unless you don't think receivers are very important I don't see how that can be true. And when you have to qualify it with "Except for the two best receivers in football" it just doesn't really seem very logical.

Also, the Cowboys traded a 4th round pick for Pacman. You might want to make a post for that. I personally think its a great move.

by Tom D (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 7:08pm

"Owens helped the Eagles win more playoff games, not more regular-season games."

That's quite impressive that he did that from the bench.

by thestar5 (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 7:48pm

Never underestimate the power of TO.

by TomHat (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 7:48pm

I agree with the sentiment above.

Most importantly a conclusion that the loss of a player results in getting worse, whereas when the player was gained in the first place there was no gain is inherently flawed.

by Jon (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 7:52pm

Plaxico Burress didn't leave Pittsburgh on a high note. I think he's been worth every penny.

by joe skolnik (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 7:56pm

Its very interesting tht TO helped the eagles get to the super bowl WHEN HE WASNT EVEN PLAYING

by Fred (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 9:52pm

The problem with this way of looking at it is it takes it into a vacuum. If receiver x left one team who ended up losing more games and went to another team that ended up losing more games.... then where did these wins go?

The only thing this seems to show is that developing your own players is almost always the way to go......and thats why we have a draft circus every year.

by dmb (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 10:06pm

I feel like I'm constantly promoting FO ... but I have to admit that I wasn't impressed by this article. Even by football standards, the sample size is terribly low, and we all know that there are WAY too many other factors to expect the addition of a single player to have a direct correlation with winning.

Also, Peerless Price went from Buffalo to Atlanta, not Washington. (And the Falcons went from 9.5 wins to 5. Somehow, the win differential shown in the table, even though the team and wins(-1) are not.)

by Reinhard (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 10:21pm

Uhh.. check out my rigged up graph linked in name. Orange is how valuable a receiver is to the offense, red is talen distribution. Im guessing that if there were a higher sample size than the shape of the orange curve could be found.

by DP (not verified) :: Wed, 04/23/2008 - 10:29pm

Please forgive the word-nerdiness, but it's "champing" at the bit, not "chomping" at the bit.

by Penrose 10,000 (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 1:19am

Also, Peerless Price went to Atlanta in 2003, not Washington. Thank god.

by crack (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 8:55am


Chomp is the US version. Chomp is the US version of Champ. The action it refers to, a horse chewing noisily on its bit, isn't a UK specific thing.

by JPS (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 9:51am

I totally agree. Ha! I am not sure if Owens really helped anything for Eagles. Eagles made four consecutive playoffs and three consecutive conference championships before Owens. And Owens didn't play during the playoff except for the Superbowl. However, the wrong statement about Owens still does not dispute the analysis.

by bravehoptoad (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 11:36am

One reason these players haven't been more important to their new teams is that 1,000-yard receivers who change teams have usually tended to be very good No. 2 receivers like Boldin, rather than superstars like Johnson.

This might have made a better thesis for the article.

Though who says Boldin is the No. 2? I've heard that half the Cardinals staff considers him the No. 1.

Interesting question: when you've got two 1000+ yard receivers on your team, what happens to both of them when you split them up?

by Pete (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 1:16pm

I suspect there are a number of things overlooked here. Often the receivers moving are the #2 receivers going to a team where they are expected to be #1 receivers (facing tougher coverage, sometimes running different routes) and are often on a weaker team. This is a classic case for Peerless Price. He was a decent #2 receiver for 1 year or so and then his confidence was shattered in Atlanta (and he decided his body was not worth sacrificing, given his wealth). Is the player moving to a better situation or a worse situation? (compare other receiving threats, QB, OL, Running game, system)

Something else to consider is that WR switching teams may have to learn new schemes and terminology. They may also have to make decisions in a slightly different manner.

Finally, (and most important, IMO) is that a WR is hugely tied to a specific QB. Take a look at Marvin Harrison and Peyton Manning. Because they have been together for so long they are able to look at a situation or coverage and know what the other is thinking and how they will react. Typically, this level of confidence in each other takes a good bit of time and practice. Training camps and off-season and after-hours work together can make a significant difference. Plaxico Burress and Shockley have almost always (before this past year) spent their time in Miami rather working with Manning and I believe this has resulted in their performing below expectations.

There are some exceptions. Truly elite players have such great skills and knowledge and experience that they may be able to fit in and do well. I would think there are only a few WR who will not need 6-18 months to perform at a top level (although there are several others experienced WR who could perform at a level consistent with their current performance): TO, Moss, maybe Chad Johnson, Steve Smith... and ? I am not convinced about Fitzgerald and Boldin, although they are both potential choices.

by Matt Millen (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 1:37pm

You have no idea what you're talking about. Receiver is the most important position in the game. Adding new ones is the surest path to victory.

by Alex (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 1:32am

Matt Millen wins the thread (and probably nothing else for a long time).

by Schuyler (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 8:42am

The more I look at the list, the less I like it. This is not a group of WR's who are comparable to Chad Johnson at all. Most of them managed one or two 1200 yard seasons total. When were Peerless Price and Yancy Thigpen ever considered star players?

The only one who is comparable to Johnson leading up to his trade is John Jefferson who was coming off three 1000+ yard seasons and three pro-bowls.

Chad Johnson has been to as many pro-bowls as the other five guys on the list combined.

by Alex (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 10:00am

Its very interesting tht TO helped the eagles get to the super bowl WHEN HE WASNT EVEN PLAYING

This is why it kills me when people say that the Eagles won't make the Super Bowl again until they get an elite WR, instead of "a bunch of #2 WRs", and point out that the only time they made the Super Bowl was when they had Owens. Thing is, they made the Super Bowl with Owens on the bench. McNabb was throwing to these WRs during the playoffs: Freddie Mitchell, Todd Pinkston, and Greg Lewis.

That's it. Those WRs were good enough that the Eagles could get to the Super Bowl. Is there an elite WR there? Not even close. But it was enough.

by parker (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 11:48am

Have some respect for what t.o did for that Philadelphia team. He carried the offense for 12-13 games +1 if you include the superbowl.

That other guys only had to make plays in 3-4 games. That kind of production is easy(by NFL standards). Its that guys that can do if for a whole season that are difference makers.

The Eagles made the NFC title game for 4 straight years because the NFC East was terrible. This ensured the Eagles 4 straight 2nd round games at home against a weak NFC 2nd round opponent. Making the NFC title game with that front office was almost a given.

Adding T.O made that team elite. Like 15-1 elite.

You can't look at what they accomplished as what they did without T.O. Because what they did without T.O would not have been possible if T.O didn't put them in that position to begin with.

by Tom D (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 3:11pm

There is the whole fact that in 2004, the entire NFC was terrible, except for the Eagles. Remember when they played the Packers in the regular season, and it supposed to be a battle of the two best teams in the NFC, and the Eagles just mopped the floor with them? I'm willing to bet they would have made the Superbowl with the loss of any single player other than McNabb.

by Kellerman (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 6:29pm

I do think that Jefferson is a better comp for Johnson than anyone else on the list. Similar career accomplishments, and all that. He was traded to Green Bay several games into the 1981 season and caught 7 passes for 121 yards in his first game for a team that improved from 5-10-1 to 8-8 and then made the playoffs in 1982 with the 3rd best record in the conference (5-3-1). San Diego declined from 11-5 in 1980 to 10-6 in 1981, but still made the AFC title game. So, can Johnson lift the Eagles to the playoffs or the 'Skins or Jags to the title and also not hurt the Bengals by his loss?

Well, my story about Jefferson is a little misleading. He caught 7 passes in his first game in GB, but only 38 for the whole season and throughout his tenure was clearly #2 behind James Lofton. San Diego covered the loss of Jefferson by fleecing the Saints of Wes Chandler. The moral of this story probably IS that Johnson may help a new team, though not single-handedly transform them, while the Bengals look vainly for their Wes Chandler. (Hey! What about Boldin?)

by Alex (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 7:27pm

You say this:

The Eagles made the NFC title game for 4 straight years because the NFC East was terrible. This ensured the Eagles 4 straight 2nd round games at home against a weak NFC 2nd round opponent.

and then this:

what they did without T.O would not have been possible if T.O didn’t put them in that position to begin with.

What position did TO put them in? In the playoffs? I thought you said they would've made the NFC title game regardless, since the rest of the NFC East was so bad.

Are you suggesting that the NFC East was good in 2004, and that TO helped them make the playoffs in spite of that? Because 2004 was the only year in the Eagles run of NFC Championship Game appearances when all of the other NFC East teams had losing records. Sorry, but that just doesn't hold water.

Look, I have no trouble believing that TO made the Eagles substantially better, and he did have an excellent game in the Super Bowl. But the Eagles almost certainly would've made the playoffs without him in 2004, and they did make it through the playoffs without him. The Eagles would've made the Super Bowl whether TO was on the team or not. Having him helped, but it wasn't necessary for them to succeed.

by parker (not verified) :: Mon, 04/28/2008 - 4:22pm

Alex re 27,
He made them elite. They always had the chops to make NFC championship. His being on the team allowed them to be fresher at the end of the season so that the role players were filling in for an injured star instead of an injured role player going down and being replaced by someone below replacement level.

by Alex (not verified) :: Mon, 04/28/2008 - 9:59pm

They won the NFC Championship Game 27-10. Somehow, I doubt that a couple games of resting starters is worth 17 points. Owens made the team much better, but they were already good enough to get to the Super Bowl that year, with or without him. He did help them get within 3 points of a Super Bowl win, which is great, but I think the Eagles would've gotten to the game whether he was there or not.