Legends of DVOA: Derrick Mason
Derrick Mason was one of the most elusive players of his era. So elusive, in fact, that he managed to elude superstardom.
Mason was an outstanding slot receiver at a time when the football world was just learning to appreciate them. He was an elite return man who missed his chance to be part of one of the most famous kick returns in NFL history. He played for teams that ran the ball a little too often and were stopped a yard or two short of making history. Yet he finished in the top five in receiving DVOA three times.
This is the story of a player and a team that were much better than you might remember.
The High-Strung Warrior
Mason's college football career got off to a rocky start. A former Detroit high school football and track standout, he nearly transferred from Michigan State to Colorado after his freshman season because he was frustrated by his lack of playing time. "He was a little high-strung in terms of what his expectations were," former Spartans coach Nick Saban later said of Mason. "But I've always kind of liked that in players, as long as they do it within the construct of the team, and he did."
Patience paid off for Mason, who became the Spartans kickoff returner in his second season and earned a starting job at wide receiver across from future Panthers stalwart Muhsin Muhammad in his third. Mason caught 53 passes in each of his final two collegiate seasons and returned a total of five kickoffs and punts for touchdowns.
In the 1997 Pro Football Weekly draft preview, Joel Buchsbaum described Mason as "well built, tough, physical, and competitive" and as a "warrior." But Buchbaum noted that Mason was "more quick than fast" and "lacks top deep speed." Buchbaum's final appraisal: "A good, tough football player with solid return skills who should be able to make a team as a backup receiver and contribute on special teams."
Gosh, I miss the days of simple, succinct draft capsules.
After his college career ended, the high-strung, competitive, more-quick-than-fast Mason became a fourth-round pick and the second wide receiver selected in the 1997 draft by the Tennessee Oilers.
Yes, the Tennessee Oilers.
Rise of the Titans
The long, blundered transformation of the Houston Oilers into the Tennessee Titans in the mid-1990s is one of the greatest clusterhumps in modern American sports ownership history. The details are also a little beyond the scope of this series, so I'll be brief. When efforts to get a new stadium in Houston fell through, owner Bud Adams picked up the Oilers in 1996 and plopped them in Tennessee in 1997 without a ready-to-use stadium, new branding in place, or even the foggiest sense of the demographics or socio-politics of his new market. The Tennessee Oilers were officially located in Nashville but played their home games in Memphis, which is a little like placing a team in Philadelphia but making them play home games in Baltimore. Fans in Tennessee initially ignored the new arrivals.
Adams slowly figured out all the things he was doing wrong—he moved home games from the Liberty Bowl to Vanderbilt's Nashville Stadium after one season and eventually landed on the "Titans" name and logo—but the Oilers/Titans still struggled to find a new fanbase.
While Adams stepped on every rake in the yard, the product on the various fields remained respectable, thanks to some fertile drafts and an even-keeled head coach. Jeff Fisher was a Buddy Ryan disciple who had also stood out on George Seifert's 49ers coaching staff. Fisher replaced Ryan as the Oilers defensive coordinator in 1994, becoming head coach that same year when Jack Pardee was fired after a 1-9 start (thanks in part to much meddling from Adams).
Early in his coaching tenure, Fisher combined Ryan's defensive creativity and player-friendly approach with Siefert's relatively no-nonsense personality. The Oilers went 7-9 in his first season and 8-8 in each of the three years of transition to becoming the Tennessee Titans. The jokes about those records are left to the reader as an exercise. But Fisher and general manager Floyd Reese were slowly rebuilding the roster beneath that .500 facade. Among the new arrivals was workhorse running back Eddie George and a small-school quarterback who spent two seasons slow-cooking on the bench: Alcorn State's Steve McNair.
McNair took over as the Oilers' starter in Mason's rookie season. Mason overtook fellow rookie Joey Kent for the No. 3 receiver spot, but the 1997 Oilers were George's team: Mason had little to do in an offense built to hammer the ball between the tackles. Mason replaced 36-year-old Mel Gray as the primary return man midway through the year but made little impact in the role.
The 1998 season brought more of the same. George thundered. McNair threw sparingly, scrambled, and ran some quarterback draws. Mason served as a third receiver and returned punts without generating any thrills. "After watching Mike Archie and Derrick Mason be punt and kick catchers instead of returners, Fisher also wants a return specialist," quipped an AP wire writer at the end of that season. Fisher did, in fact, seek a playmaking upgrade in the offseason: the Oilers added Kevin Dyson with the 16th pick in the 1998 draft. Mason was heading in the wrong direction on the depth chart.
Then the Oilers became the Titans, and everything clicked. They won 13 games in 1999 behind McNair, George, tight end Frank Wycheck, and rookie edge rusher Jevon Kearse. Mason caught just eight passes but had an outstanding season as a return man. So outstanding, in fact, that Fisher and his staff designed a special teams trick play for Mason and Wycheck, who sometimes showed off a precise spiral during practices: Wycheck would catch a kickoff as one of the "up" men and fire a lateral to a returner outside the numbers, who could then race up the sidelines if the Titans needed to get into field goal range in the waning seconds of a game.
The Titans needed to run this "home run throwback" play when trailing the Bills 16-15 in the waning seconds of the 1999 wild-card game. But Mason, who had earlier returned a kickoff for 42 yards, had been knocked out of the game with a concussion. That left Fisher to explain the play to Dyson.
"I went to Dice [Kevin Dyson] during the TV timeout," Fisher said, per Turron Davenport's excellent Music City Miracle retrospective, "and said, 'Remember home run throwback from practice?' He said he never paid attention to it. So I told him what we wanted was for him to—no matter what—stay 10 yards behind [Frank] Wycheck and outside the numbers, then get ready for the ball and get as much as you can."
Dyson didn't quite stay 10 yards behind Wycheck, but he ended up making NFL history instead of Mason. And while Mason did catch a pass in the final drive of Super Bowl XXXIV, it was Dyson who would spend eternity reaching toward the goal line, never quite scoring the game-tying touchdown that could have reshaped so many legacies.
Stereotyped in the Slot
As Mason entered his fourth season, his Pro Football Weekly scouting report was proving prophetic. Mason was a great return man and useful backup, but his chances of someday being profiled as a legend of analytics 20 years later were dwindling, because the defending AFC champion Titans were about to add a former Pro Bowl receiver to the mix.
"He knew the organization was courting Carl Pickens," wrote Paul Kuharsky for The Tennessean in 2000. "He watched the two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver arrive at MetroCenter to negotiate. He walked by the throng of media awaiting the first formal chance to talk to Pickens.
"And when the Titans signed Pickens on July 26, Derrick Mason drooped."
"It was hard to swallow at first," Mason said in Kuharsky's article, "Knowing I went from getting an opportunity to play at wide receiver a lot to not playing at all.'"
Mason was relegated strictly to return duties for the first two games of the 2000 season. Then Dyson tore an Achilles in practice. Pickens was only sporadically effective before being shelved with a hamstring injury. Mason became McNair's second-favorite target after Wycheck, catching 63 passes for 896 yards and five touchdowns. Mason finished second to Randy Moss in DVOA that year. The Titans finished 13-3 but lost to the Ravens in the playoffs.
The Titans offense was evolving under coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who had replaced 1980s throwback Les Steckel before the 1999 season. Heimerdinger had been Mike Shanahan's college roommate and one of his top lieutenants with the Broncos for several seasons. In Tennessee, Heimerdinger tinkered with some new variations on the bunch formations that were gaining popularity. The Titans often split big targets such as Wycheck wide with smaller receivers such as Mason in the slot years before the Patriots made such formations more popular. One of Heimerdinger's most successful wrinkles involved bunching Mason and Wycheck in the slot with another receiver split outside the numbers; when the huge Wycheck and tiny Mason crisscrossed on their routes, one of them was bound to end up with either a mismatch or settling down in a gaping hole in the zone. The Titans even began to use some formations with four receivers bunched to one side; Mason often got the ball on a quick toss in those situations.
Mason typically lined up in the slot, as you might remember/imagine, even when he became the full-time starter. "At his size as a receiver," Ozzie Newsome said in Kuharsky's article, "you always think of a No. 3 guy who works the slot and can be a return guy for you. [Mason]'s stereotyped that way, but I think he has played above it." Indeed, the No. 3 guy was becoming more of a No. 1 or No. 2 guy in high-precision passing offenses.
Mason would continue playing above his role-player stereotype. He would finish second in DVOA again in 2001, this time behind Ricky Proehl, who played a somewhat similar role for Kurt Warner's Rams. McNair finished second among quarterbacks behind his Super Bowl rival Warner.
Mason's DVOA fell off despite a career high 79 catches in 2002, but he finished fourth in DVOA and third in DYAR with a 95-1,303-8 stat line in 2003. Mason finished behind Randy Moss and Torry Holt but ahead of Marvin Harrison, Chad Johnson, and many others in DYAR that year. McNair finished second to Peyton Manning in DVOA; they shared league co-MVP honors. The Titans returned to the playoffs with a 12-4 record but lost to the Patriots in the divisional round. More on that game in a moment.
Tennessean columnist Joe Biddle sang Mason's praises after Billy Volek led the Titans to victory in relief of McNair in a must-win December game against the Bills. Mason caught nine passes in that game, recovering a George fumble and taking back the return chores when Justin McCareins was unavailable. "If it had not been for Derrick Mason, Volek would be a footnote in the team's playoff obituary," Biddle wrote. Based on the tone of that column, even some local fans might still have been taking Mason for granted, despite back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The Titans still had a reputation as a running-and-defense team, and Mason had never ranked in the top 10 in receptions or receiving yards before finishing fifth in both categories in 2003.
Mason went on to catch 96 passes in 2004. But McNair missed half the season, Mason's advanced metrics dipped, and the Titans fell to 5-11. Mason, now 31 years old, signed with the Ravens as a free agent. Five years after praising Mason as more than a stereotypical slot receiver, Newsome signed him to be the focal point of Brian Billick's passing game.
One year later, Newsome would also add McNair.
3.4 Yards and a Cloud of Dust
Before we wrap up Mason's career, we should talk for a moment about Eddie George.
George recorded a positive DVOA in just two seasons: his rookie year in 1996, when he ranked 14th in DVOA, and the 1999 Super Bowl season, when he ranked 18th overall. When George carried the ball a Curse of 370-provoking 403 times in 2000, he posted a negative DVOA and finished 13th in DYAR, a low ranking which indicated just how close to replacement level George actually was. Chiefs fullback Tony Richardson recorded more DYAR than George that season on 257 fewer carries. George offered positive value as a receiver for most of his career, but again, he was getting 300 to 400 handoffs per year, so a little more positive value as a rusher would have been lovely.
It didn't take advanced metrics to spot the fact that George's contributions to the Titans offense were slightly suboptimal by the early 2000s. His yards per carry plunged to 3.0 in 2001 and never climbed above 3.4 again. He never gained more than 40 yards on a play from scrimmage after 1999. By 2003, the last hurrah of the Fisher-McNair Titans as a Super Bowl contender, George's DYAR dipped to -73. He was hurting the Titans with every carry.
George was, of course, one of the most dedicated and well-respected individuals in the NFL. He was sculpted out of marble, had a likeable personality, had been a superstar at Ohio State, and began his career as a Rookie of the Year. He really did do the "little things" well: pass protection, avoiding negative plays, taking care of the football in his final seasons, and so forth. Still, the Titans would have been better off with a garden-variety committee back soaking up most of George's carries after the 2000 season.
The game was changing at the turn of the millennium, as it always is. The Titans should have fully embraced spread-and-bunch concepts that allowed McNair to feed players such as Mason and Wycheck underneath. Instead, Fisher and his coaches merged those tactics with an old-fashioned cloud-of-dust mentality. They couldn't seem to grasp just how detrimental their running game was to their offense.
The Titans trailed the Patriots 14-7 late in the third quarter of their 2003 playoff game when Mason, operating out of the slot with an empty backfield on third-and-10, caught a quick out from McNair and barreled up the sideline for a game-tying touchdown. The teams then traded possessions on an icy evening. When the Titans got the ball at their own 10-yard line with 10:28 to play, they ran the ball on their first four plays. George, playing with a separated shoulder, rushed three times for 8 yards. The Titans drive stalled at the 17-yard line and the Patriots took over in Titans territory after a short punt, setting up a game-winning drive and field goal.
It's very reasonable to assume that Titans history would look very different if Fisher and Heimerdinger had just handed off to George a lot less and allowed McNair to throw to Mason a little bit more.
Mason would put up some excellent raw numbers for the Ravens, but they would not be great seasons according to DVOA.
The Ravens went 13-3 when McNair replaced Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright at quarterback in 2006. Mason caught 68 passes but finished outside of the top 50 in DVOA. The Ravens lost a low-scoring game to the Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs. The whole year must have felt familiar to both Mason and McNair: a spectacular regular season for a team with an outstanding defense and a plodding rusher (Jamal Lewis at 3.6 yards per carry), followed by playoff heartbreak at the hands of a team with a next-gen offense and Hall of Fame quarterback.
Mason caught a career high 103 passes from McNair and Boller in 2007, but he averaged just 10.6 yards per reception as the Ravens fell to 5-11. John Harbaugh replaced Billick and Mason enjoyed two more 1,000-yard seasons as Joe Flacco's security blanket before slowly handing that role over to Anquan Boldin, another veteran long typecast as a complementary receiver. Mason was retired when the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII.
Fisher went on to become a legend of coaching mediocrity with his years of 7-9 bullsh*t (and 7-8-1 and 6-10 bullsh*t) with the Rams in their transition years from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Eddie George did all sorts of things upon retirement, including acting: he played Billy Flynn in a Chicago-based stage performance of Chicago and appeared on shows such as Magnum P.I. and CSI: Los Angeles. He's now the head coach at Tennessee State; Brandon Fisher is his defensive coordinator, and the last name is no coincidence.
Heimerdinger, who left the Titans for a few seasons in the mid-2000s and then returned, was in line for the head coaching job when the Titans finally got around to firing Fisher in 2010. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak got the gig instead and fired his former boss. Few outside the organization knew that Heimerdinger was undergoing chemotherapy for a rare form of lymphatic cancer at the end of the 2010 season, returning on Sundays to coach from the booth. He died in September of 2011.
McNair was shot by his extramarital lover in a murder-suicide on July 4, 2009.
Mason was a sports talk personality in Nashville for a while and an investor in an apparel company. He has been making the media rounds recently to talk about the latest wide receiver acquired to get the Titans over the top: Julio Jones.
Mason is the Ravens' all-time leader in receptions and yards, and will stay atop the list for many years; Mark Andrews is currently over 300 catches and 3,500 yards behind him. Yet when Ravens fans were asked to vote on an all-time team to celebrate the franchise's 25th anniversary in its current incarnation, they chose Boldin and Steve Smith Jr. over Mason.
"Some people are just so ungrateful," Mason tweeted after that anniversary team was announced. "It's crazy how you can clearly be the best WR in two franchises' history, but still get no respect. I feel like [Dennis] Rodman and Rodney Dangerfield all rolled in one."
Mason is fifth in Oilers/Titans history in both receptions and yards (Wycheck is third and seventh), and a solid argument can be made that he was better than Ernest Givens, Haywood Jeffries, Drew Hill, Ken Burrough, and AFL star Charley Hennigan, who rank ahead of Mason in those categories.
It's as if history was always conspiring to erase Mason. He spent years on the bench for a team that was all but trying to alienate its fans. His coach during his signature seasons has become a punchline. His quarterback was a near-great who died under circumstances that can bring an article or television conversation to a skidding pause. Mason's best teams fell short in the playoffs. His offenses were designed to feed the football to running backs. He missed his chance to contribute to one of the most famous highlights in history. He was a slot weapon in an era not yet enamored by them.
DVOA remembers Mason as one of the best receivers in the NFL at the turn of the millennium. That doesn't make him a Hall of Famer. It might not even get him onto a Titans or Ravens all-century team (though it should). The best we can do is honor him here, and remember just how strange, wonderful, and (yes) great he and some of his early Titans teams really were.