Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

26 Feb 2009

Should Anyone Take a Chance on Marvin Harrison?

Paul Kuharsky has a nice bit up at ESPN with discussing what the future holds for Marvin Harrison. Will he get a bite when free agency begins tonight? As Charley Casserly points out, you essentially have a slower possession receiver who isn't good playing from the slot and isn't used to being the second or third option.

Anyway, I got thinking a bit about Harrison and decided to run some similarity scores for him. I limited my sample to players who were coming off their age 34 year or older (Harrison was 36 last season). Here are the ten most similar players over a three-year span. Remember that the most similar players will be guys who didn't play much in the middle year, because Harrison was injured most of 2007.

Keenan McCardell, 2003-2005 (35): Comes out similar because of the 2004 holdout and trade, but his age 35 season has four touchdowns and nearly 300 more yards than Harrison's age 36 season. McCardell had 36 catches and 437 yards the next year, with no touchdowns, and that was pretty much it.

Ed McCaffrey, 2000-2002 (34): 19 catches the next year, 195 yards, end of career.

Tony Martin, 1999-2001 (36): Career over.

John Stallworth, 1985-1987 (35): Career over.

Isaac Bruce, 2004-2006 (34): Continued to be a useful starting wideout in 2007 and 2008, but he was two years younger and, although similar, better than Harrison in the years we're comparing.

Joe Horn, 2004-2006 (34): Aborted half season in Atlanta, end of career.

Art Monk, 1991-1993 (36): Monk played forever at roughly the same level. He had 46 catches for 581 yards and three touchdowns for the 1994 Jets. He had a 10.8% DVOA and was third in the NFL at age 37 with a 71 percent catch rate. (Yes, that's a taste of FO content to come.)

Terance Mathis, 1999-2001 (34): Signed in Pittsburgh and caught 23 balls for 218 yards to finish his career.

Irving Fryar, 1997-1999 (37): Played one more season and played well, with 41 catches, 548 yards, and five touchdowns.

The next four players on the similarity list are Frank Lewis (1981-1983), Cliff Branch (1982-1984), Drew Hill (1991-1993), and Steve Largent (1987-1989). None of them ever caught another pass in the NFL.

I suppose that Harrison could end up with a season like Fryar and Monk had. I don't see Harrison as really being similar to Monk outside of longevity. Fryar is a better comparison. Still, the most likely scenario is that Harrison is done, even if "done" actually turns out to be a 250-yard season for some random team like Detroit or Tennessee instead of retirement.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 26 Feb 2009

31 comments, Last at 03 Mar 2009, 2:45am by tuluse


by Temo :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 6:13pm

Also, he might have shot a dude. You should find a way for the similarity scores to reflect that as well.

But in all seriousness, the future doesn't look for Harrison. Too old and too past his prime.

by billycurley :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 6:16pm

Rae Carruth is actually on that list too, Temo.

Hey, football players normally don't shoot people. Stabbing seems to be the assault du jour.

by Bobman :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 6:35pm

That's certainly a leap from "his gun was likely used in a shooting but the convicted felon victim cannot get his story straight" to "orchestrated a premeditated murder of his pregnant girlfriend and nearly his offspring."

Damn, Carruth was a name I would have been happy not hearing the rest of my life. I need to take a shower now, just for sharing the same species with him.

Back to Harrison, Wow, the Indy management really seemed to sing his praises and thought he hadn't lost a step. All window dressing? There were a handful of instances last year when the INCs looked more like Manning's fault (over/underthrew) but with limited TV angles and knowledge of the play/pattern, hard to tell. 18 was certainly "off" for close to half the season. 88's separation did seem to be an issue, which might make a QB alter his throws, or not target him at all.

If I were an NFL owner in need of a WR boost for a couple years, or to act as a (silent) mentor for young egomaniac head-cases, I'd be willing to part with a couple million, plus incentives to get a couple 40 catch/500 yard seasons out of him. Hell, I'd be honored to do so and I think he has them left. He's taken little physical abuse for a 13-year vet. He'd be a 2nd/3rd depending on the roster and if he was 3rd, I'd move the #2 guy into the slot and keep Marvin on the line. They actually moved him around a bit the past couple years, instead of being wide right 99% of the time as in his first decade.

I sincerely hope he does not drag out a forgettable couple seasons snagging 15 balls for 200 yards on a 4-win team; 4-win teams have bad QBs and bad QBs contribute to 50% catch rates. As a fan, that prospect saddens me, but as an elite athlete, maybe he'd need to do that to mentally/emotionally come to terms with the end of his career.

You know how old politicians or inspirational athletes (Rudy) go on to make zillions giving motivational speeches? Maybe Marvin can do that as a retirement gig, sort of a motivational mime circuit. Sit quietly on the stage for 30 minutes, pondering while a roomful of conventioneers is eating, then gets up to the mic, thanks everyone for coming, and leaves.

by The Anti-Dave (not verified) :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 6:27pm

I like imagining Marvin as the R. Kelly character from South Park.

"Now I'm trapped in the free agent closet. Nobody will sign me. SO I PULL OUT MY GUN!"

by James-London :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 6:44pm

Er, given his age, that list and the fact he doesn't play ST, the short answer appears to "no".

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

by jimbohead :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 7:02pm

I dunno, the niner's might take him to replace bruce. It couldn't be worse than signing Lelie to a 2-year $4 million dollar deal, could it?

by jds (not verified) :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 7:30pm

Isn't he just this year's Jerry Porter?

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 7:56pm

Would it make ANY sense to bring him in to, sort of, tutor a rookie? Or is that kind of thing just some mass-media-made myth? I guess what I'm asking is, if he could teach a young player a thing or two, that the WRs-coach can't?

by Sean :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 8:13pm

He could teach them how to shut up and do the job that they're paid for.

by shake n bake :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 8:17pm

Marvin's not exactly a teacher. Apparently he didn't talk to Reggie Wayne for most of Wayne's first two years. Reggie thought Marv hated him until he took a step back and realized that Marvin didn't talk to anyone. They buddied up a bit more after that.

by Kevin Eleven :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 8:15pm

I'll stop short of saying "no one should take a chance on him". Just short.

Really, the most a team should do is invite him to camp, and as a class act and certain Hall Of Famer I genuinely hope Harrison doesn't go out like that.

After the 1997 Draft a friend told me that the Jets should have traded down and grabbed Marvin Harrison. I rebutted him as if he were the stupidest person in the world for suggesting that Keyshawn Johnson and Marvin Harrison were remotely interchangable.

Well, they weren't. Except I thought it would be Keyshawn that would be the certain Hall Of Famer 12 years later.

by SilverdomeMania (not verified) :: Sat, 02/28/2009 - 6:52pm

I think we need to let go of the idea that he's a "class act". whatever that means.

he was quiet... that was it

by Key19 :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 9:34pm

I hope he lands in Philly. With lots of guaranteed money on a long-term deal.

by Temo :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 11:23am

Unfortunately, Philly management is too smart for that. Maybe if he was a Defensive Lineman.

by Aloysius Mephistopheles (not verified) :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 10:22pm

Somewhat off-thread, but on the subject of Marvin tutoring a younger wideout -- do actual 'mentoring' relationships occur that often between vets and rookies? There's a pretty severe tension if the two men play the same position. The older player is on his way out, but wants to hold on to his starting job for as long as he can, both for the money and because he's a competitor. The younger player wants to learn, but even more he wants to start, for the same reasons. Why would the older player try to help the younger player take his job? I'm not saying mentoring doesn't happen, but I don't think it happens much between players that compete directly for snaps, and I think it's overblown by the press. Case in point, reporters talking about how great it would be for Matt Leinart to have Kurt Warner mentoring him in Arizona.

by jimbohead :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 12:24am

My impression is that for some vets it makes perfect sense. If no one would give you a job based on your declining skill set, but you have a reputation as a guy who is relatively ego-less and a good mentor, then you can keep playing, keep making money, and stay in football long after your physical skills are gone. A great example of this is Trent Dilfer, who was never a great quarterback, and probably would've been out of the league soon after he left Baltimore, except that he took on the role of mentor for Alex Smith. Not that it did much good, but he still got to stay in the league longer and make a few more million dollars.

by Aloysius Mephistopheles (not verified) :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 10:03pm

Yeah, I think those are good examples of mentor-mentee relationships. Probably telling, though, that in both situations you had a young starter and a veteran backup with clearly defined roles on the team. If the younger guy is the backup it becomes more difficult.

by Jerry :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 2:23am

I know that with the Steelers, Willie Parker still listens to Jerome Bettis, and Hines Ward mentors the young wideouts. Whether that's just the people involved or an organizational thing, I can't tell you.

by Bobman :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 4:05am

I think it depends on both the men and the position. Marvin is, as Shake implied, silent. It's not just the media. He just doesn't talk. Plus WRs tend to be somewhat isolated personality-wise and responsibility wise, when compared to QB/RB/OL types who have many teammate interactions and cross-responsibilities on every play. In Indy, the outside guys don't even huddle when they run a standard O--they line up wide and look back to Manning when he breaks the huddle. Of course running the no-huddle is the same thing.

So I think Marvin would not be a great mentor, aside from the fact that he'd set a very good example of cool professionalism. That could serve a talented young egomaniac well. "Study the master on the field, off the field, and in-between plays as well." If you're expecting a buddy-cop movie, he's not your costar.

I know a lot of QBs have close relationships with their backups which seems odd on the surface, until you realize how much interaction they typically have--the backup QB often calls in all the plays, acts as a sounding board and consultant, etc. Probably break down film together, etc. They are forced into a brotherhood despite the competition angle.

Now guys don't even have to be teammates (ala a retired Bettis advising Parker). Edgerrin James "mentored" Joe Addai long-distance when 32 went to the Cards and 29 joined the Colts. Showing what a stand-up guy he is. Not sure if they had ever even met before that relationship started.

He is NOT Jerry Porter! Porter's signing last year was an attempt to recreate the Moss magic in Foxboro from the year before (by a desperate team). Disgruntled semi-productive Raiders WR with no QB... I think I see a pattern. NOT. Harrison lost a year to injury at age 34, then had a down year at 35 with an injured QB and musical chairs OL, and he is now 36.... He still had 60 catches as the number 2 guy. Very different situations. Anybody signing him has no more than a 2-year time horizon and no great production expectations. I think Harrison would be a steal at $2M a year plus incentives if he'd accept it. He's still better than most WRs in the game (assume 32 teams x 4 WRs = 128 WRs); where he fits in price-wise is the issue, along with the short time-horizon.

Much as I hate to contemplate it, a team with a closing window and an older QB in need of WR help should jump at him. Like Tennessee if they keep Collins who also has a closing career window. Their D is good, their coaching good, and they know him well. Their run game means he'd likely face a lot more single coverage than he ever has (or ever had before 2007--like Fezzik said, "Fighting one man is different; you use different moves. I am used to fighting three or four at once.").

Possibly the first and last time you'll see Marvin Harrison and the late Andre the Giant compared.

by Anonymous, please? (not verified) :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 11:53am

Re: QBs with close relationships with their backups.

Haha, Favre and Rodgers. *sigh*

by D :: Thu, 02/26/2009 - 10:25pm

Well if he is done he'll retire 2nd in receptions (behind Rice), 4th in rec yards (Rice, Bruce, Brown), and 5th in rec TDs (Rice, Owens, Carter, Moss). If he returns he might be able to catch Brown in yards, but Owens would probably pass both of them. Just thought I'd throw that out.

by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 3:11pm

Interesting stuff, Aaron.

I am struck by two things (aside from the number of good-but-not-great receivers on your list that I wouldn't normally classify Harrison as being among), and they both involve the unnatural wonder that was Jerry Rice. While the Al Michaels of the world used to gush about how Harrison was going to challenge Rice's records, it now appears unlikely it will even be close. Here are Harrison's career total as a % of Rice's career and Rice's career through age 36: REC 71%, 97%
YDS 64%, 83% TDS 65% 78%. As great as Harrison has been, Rice's career totals are simply absurd.

The second note is that Rice was not among the similar players despite also having essentially missed his age 35 year, and the age 34 seasons aren't that far apart. But in his age 36 year, Rice had nearly twice the receiving yardage as Harrison had this past year. Other great receivers fell off the cliff at this point; Rice merely eased off the throttle. (note: I'm using age-in-yr as displayed at pro-football-reference.com; this might or might not be consistent with Aaron's numbers)

by Bobman :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 3:53pm

Well said. As a HUGE Harrison fan a few years back I'd enter their respective stats in Excel and project out and just gasp that Harrison would have to play until his kidney stones had grandchildren before he'd pass Rice in ANYTHING. I quickly came to the conclusion that he should be happy as #2 in everything. NO shame there when #1 is "simply absurd"

How many other position players are #1 all time and SO FAR ahead of the next 4-5 guys in line?

by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 6:36pm

That's the other thing that struck me about Rice a few years ago. WR is is the only position at which there is virtually no debate as to who was the best. For running back, we can discuss Brown versus Payton versus Emmitt. At QB, there are too many to even contemplate. Even limiting it to a narrow era, we can have a valid debate over Marino versus Elway versus Montana. MLB: Butkus, Lambert, Lewis. But receiver? Its a three minute discussion. We agree that Lance Alworth can't be rationally compared because of the generational difference then order another beer.

by Big Johnson (not verified) :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 3:44am

The wide receiver debate is still active! Rice isnt hands down the best. Don Hutson was just as spectacular as rice and definately more spectacular when compared to his dominance of the time. He led the league in receiving touchdowns 9 times finished 2nd twice and never lower than that. he led the league in receiving yards 7 times, second 3 times, third 1 time and never lower than that. i can keep going but i might as well just link the website im looking at for these stats.


The gap between rice and number 2 is closer than most people think. Give don hutson his credit. He is the lost hall of famer that was more dominant than jerry rice

by Mr Shush :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 9:25pm

If there's a debate with receivers it's Hutson, not Alworth, and the inter-era impossibility of comparison thing is obviously even more of an issue there. I'm inclined to believe that Rice's career totals will all some day be beaten (though perhaps not with era adjustment). Roughly half the time, the draft includes a player whose peak is high enough for it not to be an impossibility in at least one category. Off the top of my head, since 2003 we have Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Megatron. Maybe Michael Crabtree is next. Of course, the majority of these players will miss years during their prime and/or decline in a normal fashion, not freakishly late and freakishly slowly. But sooner or later someone probably will. The only record that could go any time soon is touchdowns, where essentially Moss would need either 4 more typical "good Randy Moss but not 2007" seasons (taking him to age 35) or three more years like that and a couple in a more limited role as a quality red-zone threat. The odds, given Moss's past record on both health and effort, are against it, but far from astronomically so. The oldest player who could possibly challenge either of the other two is Fitzgerald - hell, if he maintains his 2008 level of play for ten more years, until he's 35, and never gets hurt, he'll pretty much be there! How straightforward is that?

It probably won't be Moss, and it probably won't be Fitz, and it almost definitely won't be Andre Johnson, who's missed too much time already and would have to be an all-pro every year till he's 37 or something, but sooner or later someone will do it. And that is why Jerry Rice, although he is the greatest wide receiver in the history of football, will never join the immortal triumvirate of men who were so ridiculously much better at their jobs than anyone else who ever lived that it is neither fair nor funny: William Shakespeare and writing plays, Donald Bradman and hitting cricket balls, and Bruce Dickinson and singing power metal.

by tuluse :: Sat, 02/28/2009 - 12:58am

Also, not many receivers are going to get to play with back-to-back HOF QBs for the first 13 years of their career, followed by 2 pro-bowl level QBs to finish their careers.

by parker (not verified) :: Sun, 03/01/2009 - 2:54am

Maybe thats because not many receivers can make their qbs look as good as Rice did.

by tuluse :: Tue, 03/03/2009 - 2:45am

Montana was great before Rice got there, Garcia played at a pro-bowl level after Rice left, and Gannon made the pro-bowl before Rice arrived.

by ChicagoRaider (not verified) :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 4:52pm

Why not the Raiders? It is not like he would not be the #1 receiver on the team. Even if they get Crabtree, Crabtree could learn a lot from Marvin Harrison.

by taxistan :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 10:06pm