Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

22 Jan 2009

ESPN INSIDER: Is Fitzgerald Better Than Rice?

In this feature for ESPN Insider, we analyze the best receiving performances in NFL history.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 22 Jan 2009

36 comments, Last at 27 Jan 2009, 5:05pm by Patrico


by qed :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 1:03pm

I don't argue that Rice's raw stats should be adjusted for league-wide style of play and number of games played, but percentage-above-next-best seems like an odd way to do it. Seems like the peak fantasy points scored by the second-best WR in a given year is going to be awfully volatile. Why did you pick that instead of, say, percentage above a 3- or 5- year moving average of WR fantasy points? Or above a 3- or 5- year average of the peak WR playoff points.

(I posted this on espn.com without thinking. Obviously this is the correct forum for an intelligent response.)

by Independent George :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 1:20pm

Anybody else see the irony of the Outsiders posting something in the Insiders section?

by Yes Man (not verified) :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 2:41pm


by Max (not verified) :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 1:31pm

I have to concur with George, why the hell would you link to ESPN's Insider section? I am quite curious to read the article on Fitzgerald vs. Rice, but not a chance I'll give ESPN a dime of my money. Perhaps, FO could reprint some or all of the article here? Course, I should add that I died a little the day Rice (aka the GOAT) left San Fran. [We'll see you in Canton, Jerry].

by NY expat :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 1:48pm

Someone from FO explained this before on one of the earlier Insider items. They could just not list the links, but it is stuff that some readers might be interested in, so they have kept the links.

I don't think ESPN would take too kindly to them posting contents of a for-pay article here -- I assume there is a contract somewhere with some wording about that.

by dryheat (not verified) :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 2:05pm

That would be funny, since ESPN re-packages articles available freely elsewhere on the internet and charges you to read them. Or at least they used to...haven't stopped by lately.

by Independent George :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 4:01pm

Just to clarify - I'm not really complaining about it being on Insider; I'm just making a painfully obvious semantic joke.

by bobisimo (not verified) :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 8:13pm

I laughed. :)

by Nathan S (not verified) :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 4:10pm

Yeah I agree, this is saddening. The irony also, of Outsiders having an article in the Insiders section, is apparent.

I understand that they probably won't be able to print it here, but it's sad that I won't have access to some content created by a site I've been reading for three of four years now. Hopefully the site doesn't travel too far down the commercializing path, or else the title "outsiders" could cease to mean genuinely interested people financially untethered to the machine of football-coverage-for-a-living and become only a vestige of its prior incarnation.

I also get that you all work tremendously hard on this content and that in order to offer it, money is required. It's great to get paid to do something you love.

I don't mean to be overly cynical, I just want to see the Outsiders stay independent of commercial influences. This journalism (or whatever you wish to call what this site does (stats? analysis?)) has always been top notch, specifically because it has been genuinely interested, reflective about its own validity and application of methods, and unhindered by traditional methods of football statistics or the trappings of conventional wisdom. I'm hoping that the growth of its reader base does little to change that.

by JD (not verified) :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 4:17pm

That's pretty much everything I've been thinking, except that you put it eloquently.

by andrew :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 7:41pm

And it really sucks how Green Day went commercial, how dare they sell out for boatloads of cash, I could respect them when they were scraping by on morsels a week... they used to be about the music, they cared and it meant something but now they're just rich corporate tools for the labels, man... :/

This was already discussed the last time...

by Bill Barnwell :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 1:31am

I appreciate what you're saying, Nathan, but it would be different if we were shifting content off of Outsiders and onto ESPN Insider.

Say we charged people for Walkthrough in FO Premium, and advertised that fact to get people to sign up. If we then moved Walkthrough to ESPN Insider, that would be real awful of us. Even if Walkthrough suddenly started appearing on Insider, I could understand being disappointed because it's a column you've been reading for free.

The pieces that we've been writing for ESPN Insider, though, aren't regular columns; they're content that's in addition to everything else we already offer. The majority of our content is still free, which includes everything you've been reading on our site for years now.

In the case that some of our content did eventually end up behind a pay wall, I would hope that the quality of work you've seen from the site for several years now would be enough to convince you of its worth as a commercial product. I would also hope that everything you said in your final paragraph would remain to be the case.

by Boston Dan :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 5:50pm

How about a short version for F.O. premium subscribers?

by Nathan S (not verified) :: Sun, 01/25/2009 - 4:28pm

I understand what you mean, and am relieved that it's additional content. I guess one of my concerns is/was the leverage of paying media entities on the direction and application of FO's work.

It seems like you've thought through these concerns yourself already, so that's the best I could ask for.

So, thanks for the response. As always, I'll be reading.

by Will :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 1:40am

Obviously they hope to eventually go the Baseball Prospectus route. BP seems to be pretty successful, and I don't mind plopping down the $20/yr (or whatever it is) to support that site.


by wr (not verified) :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 1:51pm

I hope it's only comparing the single
year playoff performance record (I'm not giving ESPN
any money, either...). Any other comparison
is bogus until/unless there's several more years of Fitzgerald performing at a consistently high level.

by JQ (not verified) :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 3:46pm

You can read the article even if you don't have ESPN Premium. I do't have Premium but still was able to read the whole article.

At this point in time were the 49ers the only team using the WCO? If so then Rice benefits alot thanks primarily to the offensive system he was in in. The most extreme hypothetical example would be if the other 31 teams decided they would only run the ball. In this scenario with merely 1 reception a receiver on team #32 would have an infinite value in relation to #2 yet I don't contend this would reflect that receiver's dominance

by MCS :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 5:27pm

I assume you subscribe to the magazine. The website told me that I had to pay a subscription or give the information from the ESPN The magazine mailing label. Since I don't subscribe...

aka Cheezer

by Biebs (not verified) :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 4:35pm

I'm not sure I agree with the conclusion, because it seems to me that it would have been pretty rare, by the mid to late 80s, that no receiver would manage more than 20 fantasy points (140 yards and 1TD) during a playoff run. For example, Webster Slaughter had 2 TDs and 60 yards receiving during the Cleveland loss in the 1st round.

Wouldn't a better measure of playoff dominance be measuring against 3 game (or 4 game stretches) of the regular season? This is too reliant on the lack of data from only having 10-12 games.

by qed :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 5:12pm

For those without ESPN Insider access, Bill's article looks at the "Most Dominant Playoff Performances" by receivers since 1970. Playoff performance in this case is an entire postseason. The method is to compute the total fantasy points earned by a receiver through an entire post season, then compare it to the next-highest receiver from that same year's post season. Fitzgerald comes out second with 23 catches for 419 yards and 5 TDs. That puts him 117% above the second-place receiver from this year (Brent Celek). Rice comes out first with 21 catches for 409 yards and 6 TD, which was good for 273% above the second-best receiver in 1988.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 5:58pm

Thank you for that, qed.

by Yaguar :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 6:39pm

Yuck, I don't like that at all. It's super-small-sample-sizey and touchdown-centric.

by Ben Stuplisberger :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 8:15pm

This is really annoying. With all the advertising money ESPN is getting, why do they need this for pay BS? I'm won't be paying them, and this is just another sign of FO cashing in and losing their integrity.

by David :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 8:20am

Whilst this is a sign of FO cashing in, I don't believe that getting paid for what you do is axiomatically related to losing your integrity

A sense of Entitlement is a terrible thing

by Ben Stuplisberger :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 8:27pm

They lost their integrity not because they sold-out, but because they fail to acknowledge it as such and give dumb explanations to wriggle their way out of it.

On top of that, if they are going to associate themselves with the fluff that passes for analysis on the ESPN site, that is a sign to me that they have lost their integrity. There is not one other piece I would want to read on the Insider site. If they want to be part of that, they should ESPN advertise it, and leave it off this site.

I have no idea what your talking about regarding a sense of entitlement.

I have no problem with people cashing in, as long as they acknowledge it and don't try to pass it off as something its not. Rant over.

by Ben Stuplisberger :: Mon, 01/26/2009 - 8:23pm

Thanks for the votes. Keep drinking the Kool-Aid.

by Jake (not verified) :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 8:43pm

it's not terribly touchdown-centric, giving a point for every 10 yards. 60 yards might be worth a little more than a touchdown, but not too much.

by Eddo :: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 11:47pm

Yeah, but a TD equaling 60 yards is a bit high. According to adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), used by p-f-r.com's blog (and initially developed for The Hidden Game of Football), a TD is equal to 20 yards, which would make it worth 2 fantasy points.

I really like AY/A; if you peruse the p-f-r blog for a while and read up on it, you'll see how it reflects reality quite well.

by JoRo (not verified) :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 3:21am

What happens if Fitz blows up the Superbowl?

How much will it take for him to pass Jerry?

by Chow Yun-Dan (not verified) :: Fri, 01/23/2009 - 11:19am

Does he article take into consideration who they played against? The 1988 49ers played 2 good-to-great defenses in the first 2 rounds (Minnesota and Chicago) and then a middle-of-the-road type in Cincinnati in the Superbowl (where Rice picked up the bulk of his yards). The Cardianals have played two middle-of-the-road types in Atlanta and Carolina before facing a two good-to-great defenses in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. If Fitzgerald blows up in the Superbowl, then he probably makes a compelling argument, having had two great games against two of the top defenses. I would like to see the first half of the 49ers Vikings game where Rice caught 3 TDs and see how often he was matched up against Carl Lee, who was a 1st team All-Pro at cornerback. I don't think Fitzgerald has had to face the same level of talent in the opposing defenses' backfield as Rice, yet. The Steelers will give him an interesting test, especially if they let Taylor play him at the line and double team him with Townsend or McFadden.

by parker (not verified) :: Sun, 01/25/2009 - 1:18pm

What's the freaking deal with espn being obsessed with blasphemy. First comparing Kobe to Jordan and now this. Jerry = G.O.A.T.

I read something the other day where fans voted jason kapono a better shooter than Bird. Kopono's reaction..."I'm embarrassed for Bird to be associated with me".

Why compare? I've always considered football above that sort of idiocy. Just let the games speak for themselves.

by thegunslinger (not verified) :: Sun, 01/25/2009 - 4:17pm

The important thing isn't who's better, it's "WhoZ Now".

Larry Fitzgerald is Now, Jerry Rice is not.

Therefore, Fitzgerald > Rice (and Kapono > Bird)

by Mr Shush :: Sun, 01/25/2009 - 7:57pm

Disclaimer: haven't read the article. Not an insider subscriber.

Fitzgerald's a fantastic receiver, and he's having a great post-season, obviously. But I do think people are getting a little carried away with the Fitz love. Let's keep a bit of perspective. I can think of no good argument to say that he was the best receiver in the league in the 2008 regular season: he trailed Andre Johnson in DYAR, DVOA, yards, catches, targets and All-Pro votes, and he had was catching passes from a better quarterback with better complementary receivers to draw attention away from him. And while he's certainly had some plays with real wow value, I don't see him as coming terribly close to the Good Randy in that category. Subjectively, I think he and Johnson are uncannily similar players: Fitzgerald probably has slightly better hands and body control and is a better blocker; Johnson is maybe a little faster and quicker. Really, though, their skill-sets are almost identical. And outstanding as they both are, neither is as good as a healthy, fully motivated Moss. Fitzgerald or Johnson could utterly fulfil their potential and still not be as good as Rice. If Moss had played at the highest level he is/was capable of throughout his career, he would have been significantly better.

by superBROWNS 69 (not verified) :: Sun, 01/25/2009 - 11:30pm

The only thing ESPN is good for is Bill Simmons.

by Max (not verified) :: Mon, 01/26/2009 - 4:31pm

I have to concur with Mr Shush. Had Moss worked like Rice and had stayed in a productive offense (and not the wasteland that is oakland), he could have blown up all of Rice's records. I also don't think its hard to imagine that if Johnson or Fitzgerald stay healthy, they have HOF potential. Regardless, its wonderful reminder that if you have real talent, have people around you who know how to maximize that talent, and bust your hump harder than anyone else, incredible things can be achieved. Or as Iceman would say, "Rice can be my wingman anyday".

by Patrico (not verified) :: Tue, 01/27/2009 - 5:05pm

Points to qed for great posts. Great summary of the article on 1.22, and the critique in the first comment is really all you need to read. Comparing the fantasy stats of the top 2 receivers in each season's playoffs is kind of funny, but only useful for a quick laugh, like a Jayson Stark post.

The reactionary comments to the article on the ESPN page are all prompted by ESPN's link, which asks "Is Fitzgerald better than Rice?"

As I understand it, the article writers for ESPN don't write their own headlines or links, so clearly ESPN uses its headlines and links to try to generate controversy / prompt a predictable response. I guess they know their readership, and what prompts page-hits that generate advertiser revenue. But is it necessary for FO to use the same link title?