Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

26 Oct 2006

FO on BSMW: Pass-Catching Backs

There's nothing wrong with having a bit of a man-crush on Larry Centers, right? This week's Football Outsiders feature on the Boston Sports Media Watch looks at Centers, Chester Taylor, and other running backs who lead their team in receptions.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 26 Oct 2006

33 comments, Last at 27 Oct 2006, 8:24pm by Bill Barnwell


by stan (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 2:27pm

What would be interesting is to learn which backs have been used to consistently pick up first downs and which ones are just dump off and punt guys.

My first recollection of a 3d down back is Dave Meggett with the Giants in the 80s. If 2 runs found them in a passing stituation on 3d down, Meggett would go in the game, out-quick a LB on an option route and Simms would hit him for the first down. Sometimes they'd use his quickness by running him on a draw. But my recollection is that he picked up first downs regularly. He was a real weapon.

Going back even further, I recall that Fran Tarkenton had a FB named Bill Brown (I think) who was "known" as a good receiver (of course, I might only "know" that because I likely heard it from a broadcaster on TV). Tarkenton was derided a little at the time for throwing a lot more short passes than was common. (I don't even know if the stats back that up.) If so, in reality, he was just smarter, sooner.

I'd be curious to see if the stats show that the Vikings' backs caught significantly more passes than most teams' of the day.

by Doug Farrar (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 2:33pm

Bill, MASSIVE kudos for the John L. Williams namecheck. Boy, that guy was something.

Minnesota HB Chuck Foreman ranked 8th in the NFL in receptions in '74, 1st in '75, 5th in '76 and 7th in '78. Four top ten finishes and a league lead over five seasons? Pretty exceptional for the time, I would think.

by Jake (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 2:46pm



by Disco Stu (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 2:50pm

Kimble Anders was my fantasy sleeper that year. After two weeks I was a genius! After 16 weeks I was out of the playoffs.

by Old James (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 3:05pm

Dave Meggett -- he was a solid player. I work for a newspaper in eastern North Carolina and was surprised to find that Meggett was parks and recreation director for a very small town here.

He's unfortunately run into some legal trouble:

by Bulgaroktonos (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 3:28pm

Old James, not to pry too much, but which paper or where? I grew up in New Bern, so I'm always excited to see that other people from Eastern NC exist.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 3:40pm

Jerry Burns, offensive coordinator or head coach for the Vikings from 1967 through 1991, really was one of the pioneers of using running backs prominently as receivers, and the Vikings had success with it; four Super Bowls, two other NFC championship games, and about 15 playoff appearances overall in those 25 years.

There is no doubt, however, that Taylor being the leading receiver this year has a lot to do with this being the worst Vikings receiver corps in decades. Fortunately for Vikings fans, this roster has the best linemen, when both sides of the ball are considered, since at least 1987, when they were beaten in a close NFC Championship game by the Redskins in JFK. If this team had an elite wr, they would be contenders for a conference championship game, even with a quarterback who has no fastball left.

by Alaska Jack (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 3:46pm

Did anyone ever consider just making Centers a wide receiver?

- Alaska Jack

by beedubyuh (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 3:49pm

I haven't read the article yet. I just wanted to say that I am soooo excited by some of the names being dropped here. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping for an Eric Metcalf reference!

by Mike (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 4:03pm

As a Bills fan, I can say that all we can remember about Ronnie Harmon was in a playoff game at Cleveland in 1989, he dropped a sure touchdown pass on 3rd and goal with the Bills down four. Jim Kelly was intercepted by Clay Matthews the next play, and the season was over. Had it not been for wide right the next year, this would have been the most depressing play in that Bills era.

by Pacifist Viking (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 4:07pm

In 1978, Viking RB Ricky Young led the league wtih 88 receptions. The weird thing? Foreman was still on the team and caught 61!

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 4:12pm

Jerry Burns, offensive coordinator or head coach for the Vikings from 1967 through 1991, really was one of the pioneers of using running backs prominently as receivers,

I always thought it was a perfect dovetailing of Burns' philosophy with Tarkenton's skill set (during his 2nd go-round with the team); it was not uncommon to have 2 or 3 Minny RB's among their top 5 receivers in a given year

he doesn't fit the criterion of the article, because he played before 78 & also led the team in rushing, but Lydell Mitchell caught an ungodly number of balls for the Colts

by Vince (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 4:56pm

Hooray for receiving backs! That's always been my name for guys like those discussed in the article. I've always had a fondness for them, for no real reason.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 4:58pm

I think FO is doing some interesting work in regards to historical evaluations, and I thought something that Aaron wrote recently (can't remember where) about quarterbacks through the years was particularly so, as a Vikings fan, in that Tarkenton was rated so highly. Once one factors in that Tarkenton never had good teammates until 2/3 through his long career, when he was past his physical prime, and I think a case can be made that he was among the top three qbs ever, which will certanly cause howls among those who adhere devoutly to the "Big Game" or "How Many Rings?" theory of football performance.

Pacifist, it is interesting to think about Ricky Young, in that his arrival with the team, as productive as it was, indicated the beginning of the decline of the Bud Grant era, largely due to cheap ownership. Ed White was a near HOF-quality guard, who subsequently was an integral part of the great Coryell/Chargers offense, and he only was traded because White wasn't going to let ownership screw him.

It is amazing that the Vikings have had as much success as they did from 1967, when Grant arrived, until this year, given that the ownership that took over this year is the first in franchise history that has been willing to make even an average NFL commitment financially, in terms of trying to win games.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 6:33pm

Man, there must something weird in the air in 1994, when the two leading receivers for the Steelers, receptions-wise, were Williams and TE Eric Green.

Bill Cowher teams almost never throw to the backs or TEs!

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 7:12pm

Tarkenton never had good teammates until 2/3 through his long career, when he was past his physical prime, and I think a case can be made that he was among the top three qbs ever, which will certanly cause howls among those who adhere devoutly to the “Big Game� or “How Many Rings?� theory of football performance.

I don't want to turn this into a Tarkenton thread, but, I think his overall reputation (which is, let's face it, that his stats are based on longevity rather than excellence) is hurt by

1. his repuation as a scrambler, which by definition to some people implies some sort of helter-skelter gimmicky play. Anyone who saw him play knows this is nonsense; he scrambled early because he HAD to. He was certainly one of the smartest QB's ever to play the game

2. his "no rings"--but it isn't just that; it's that he played remarkably poorly in the postseason compared to the regular season. He had a weird postseason career--no postseason games until his 13th season, then crammed 11 postseason games into the next 5 years. And he NEVER had a great game, not once. His performances ranged from indifferent to downright awful. Lifetime rating of 58.9; 10 TD's, 16 picks in 11 games. His lifetime record in those games is 6-5, which includes three years of W,W,L (the "L" being the Super Bowl), but even when they won, he didn't play particularly well.

I'm not sayin' this SHOULD be an overriding criterion to judge career greatness, but, like it or not, it is

by Vince (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 7:43pm

Hooray for receiving backs! For whatever reason, I've always had a fondness for guys who run a little and catch a lot.

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 7:53pm

another guy I remember is Tony Galbreath of the Saints/Vikes/Jints--caught passes wherever he went

about 15-20 years ago, there was a trivia question: only 2 players with 4000 yards rushing and 4000 receiving; amazingly, at the time the answers were Walter Payton and Galbreath

there's a buncha other ones now

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 8:29pm

Hey, Princeton; where do you find stats from old playoff games? I really couldn't find anything prior to 1975. I seem to remember Tarkenton having a pretty good NFC Championship game against Dallas in 1973 in Texas Stadium, but I was a kid, so my memory may be off.

In any case, it is so unusual for a HOF caliber quarterback to to have his first playoff game in his 13th season, that I think the postseason-centric way of evaluating a player works even less well with Tarkenton than with most players. The guy for the most past had such hideous support for the first 2/3 of his long career that it is amazing that he did as well as he did. Imagine Archie Manning playing for the Broncos, instead of Elway, in the Super Bowl against the Giants at the end of the 1986 season, to get some sense of what a weird situation it was, in terms of a guy having nothing to work with for an extremely long time, and then suddenly having a chance at the tail end of his career. Gosh, the guy was NFL MVP is his fifteenth season, when he was 37!

by Adam Gretz (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 10:20pm

I remember a Steelers-Eagles game in 1994 at Three Rivers Stadium...it was one of the coldest damn games I was ever at, Rod Woodson left the game with an injury, and the Steelers lost their top two running backs in the game to injury (Barry Foster and Leroy Thompson)....this left the Steelers with John L. Williams carrying the ball for the rest of the game.

He ended up putting a 100 yard day.

He also had an awesome touchdown run in the Steelers opening playoff game that year against the Browns (the first of two three game sweeps of the Browns...that Browns team was coached by some guy named Belicheck......never really made it there).

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 10:31am

Hey, Princeton; where do you find stats from old playoff games? I really couldn’t find anything prior to 1975. I seem to remember Tarkenton having a pretty good NFC Championship game against Dallas in 1973 in Texas Stadium, but I was a kid, so my memory may be off.

had to compile the stats by hand from the Profootball Encyclopedia

Tarkenton's very 1st playoff game in vs Dallas 73 was indeed his best

16-28, 222,2,1

it was the only postseason game where he threw more TD than picks--rating for this one game is 91.7. Never had a rating higher than 75 in any other game & went as low as 5.6 (SB vs Steelers)

by Kevo (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 11:29am

I don't know how easily this could be fixed, but it talks about Keith Byars having 133 carries in 1999. I'm guessing that's supposed to be '89.

by Kevo (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 11:34am

Oh, and great article. I loved guys like Centers and Kimble Anders. And as a very young Eagles fan, Keith Byars was one of the more memorable players I watched (though I might say my favorite memory of him was as a Dolphin when he stuck it to the Cowboys on Thanksgiving with a snow angel celebration after a touchdown).

by Flux (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 11:42am

It's neither here nor there, but Ronnie Harmon with the Chargers had the most field awareness of any player I've ever seen. I recall several instances of him actually making moves before he caught the ball on dump off passes. He would see the ball in the air, see a defender waiting, and angle or throw a headfake while the ball was coming in, then whirl back and catch the pass while the befuddled defender lunged helplessly.

I often wonder why more players can't do this; when passes hang up on them, so many WRs just stand where the ball is coming down, or slow their speed to match the ball, like a centerfielder. This lets defenders, who seldom see the ball in flight, home in on the target. If the receivers ran full speed past the ball, then whirled and came back, or slowed up early and then caught it with a burst of speed, defenders would be left clueless, or called for lots more interference penalties. It requires Willie Mays like reflexes and agility and trajectory estimation skills, obviously.

I've long though this would work great on punts too; signal for the fair catch and align yourself 3 yards to the side of where the ball is coming down, then dive sideways and crash into a defender just as the ball lands. The return man would force a penalty for obstruction every time, or at least force punt coverage guys to stand way, way back once they learned.

by Torn (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 1:01pm

Didn't Tomlinson have like 100 receptions one year? Any other halfback top that?

by paytonrules (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 1:14pm

Great article. It's nice to read a sports-related column where the author has a hypothesis, measures it, and proves it not true.

I've been reading ESPN.com for years, and I thought you were supposed to cherry-pick random data that supports your theory, then rant loudly.

by Bill Barnwell :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 1:52pm


#1 - Top 5 YPC for RBs who led their team in receptions: Amp Lee, 1997 (13.5); Bruce Harper, 1980 (12.7); Brian Mitchell, 1997 (12.2); Darrin Nelson, 1983 (12.1); Marshall Faulk, 1999 (12.0)

#13/#17 - were you drunk at work Vince?

I have a feeling that history will lump Peyton Manning in with Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton if he never wins a Super Bowl. Is it a good way of judging players? Of course not. Hopefully, we can have some say into that one day.

My bad on the Byars carries being listed as '99 - obviously, it was '89. Bruce Allen's actually out of town, and by the time he comes back, it'll be buried anyway, so it's not a huge concern.

#25 - Tomlinson had 100 in 2003. One person had 101, eight years later. That man was Larry Centers. What a wonderful man.

#26 - I don't even like cheez doodles.

by Lance S (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 1:56pm

No mentions of the near-great William Andrews? For shame ...

by dryheat (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 5:21pm

I seem to remember Tony Collins leading the Patriots in receptions for a couple of years in the early 80s, and finish in the NFL top 10 at least once.

by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 6:12pm

Does anyone here remember any RB being a "3d down back" before Meggett did it for the Giants? And what year did he start being used that way?

I know that Marino had a bunch of productive backs who could run and catch in his second season (1984?). Wasn't Tony Nathan a good receiver as a RB? But I don't recall that Miami used him like Meggett -- ONLY on 3d down.

by Vince (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 6:34pm

#27: I wish I'd been drunk. No, a whacky computer problem led me to believe the first post hadn't made it.

Though, speaking of drinking, Larry Centers had 101 catches eight years BEFORE LaDainian Tomlinson had 100, not AFTER.

by BHW (not verified) :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 7:36pm

Steve Sewell slightly pre-dates Dave Meggett in the league, though I'm not sure if his third-down usage does. He less passes per year than Meggett did, but pretty much played exlusively on third downs.

by Bill Barnwell :: Fri, 10/27/2006 - 8:24pm

Don't underestimate Centers in 2011 now.