FanPost

The Myth of the #1 Wide Receiver

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Author's Note: I'm posting the contents of the article as a fanpost in order to maintain the article's visibility and, more importantly, the subsequent discussion for a bit longer given the amount of time than usual.

The argument that the Baltimore Ravens "need a '#1 Wide Receiver'" has long been a popular topic around these parts. This is especially so this year as our best receiver potentially enters Free Agency and the 2015 NFL Draft possesses uncommonly good receiver talent. It may also be because we've seen too many playoff games end on the hands of a receiver. Or it maybe because the Ravens have never had what feels like a true #1 receiver (our leading receiver in franchise history by yards is 1996 Michael Jackson with 1,201 yards -- I know right?)

But rather than wax poetic about about how the top receivers in the NFL are almost all top 5 picks (where we haven't picked since 2000), or how Baltimore's best receiver years by receiving yards were also our worst as a franchise (1996, 2013, 2007, 2005), I thought I'd do a numbers study to see if we can get to the bottom of this question objectively. If I don't persuade you, that's OK. It's not an argument with a definite right or wrong in the strictest sense.

However....I do believe this study's evidence supports one conclusion strongly: that there is virtually no correlation between having a dominant #1 Receiver and team success; in fact it may be the opposite. Therefore, the argument that the Ravens must acquire one for Flacco is a myth.

With that out of the way...

Defining a true #1 Receiver to start our study

The term "#1 Receiver" is a subjective term. Sure, every team on the depth chart has a "WR1" but that's not how we really use it. We really mean a dominant player equaled by few at his position. Unfortunately there's no standardized way to define that, especially across multiple seasons. Do you use fantasy points? That's not good because touchdowns are fluky statistic. Marcedes Lewis had 11 touchdowns in 2010 and a lot of fantasy points. He's been a total bust since Jacksonville overpaid the hell out of him following that fluke season.

Yards is probably the simplest and best measure here. A receiver with lots of yards in a season probably isn't a fluke. Lots of receivers can have a 10 touchdown season by being right place right time (think Laurent Robinson on Dallas in 2011, who coincidentally also went to Jacksonville the year after and was a total bust also) but few receivers are going to lead the NFL in yards and put up nearly 100 catches by sheer accident. It happens, but it's pretty rare.

1,400 yards is our metric for a receiver who had a #1 caliber season

The best way is to start by setting the threshold for a dominant receiver in a single season then. After all, we're not worried about the years where great receivers had down years with 800 yards -- we want to know whether a guy leading the NFL in yards correlates to his team having great success in the win column. Proving causation would always be a tall order but correlation is a lot easier to determine.

I settled on 1,400 yards because it struck the best balance of having enough data points without being too broad. 1,500 was too strict. 1,300 numbered in the hundreds of data points.

We start the study in 1990 to give us enough data while maintaining proximity to the modern era of passing. No ridiculous outliers like 1960s Charley Hennigan (sorry Charley).

Once we do this, we find that 65 receivers have had 1,400 yards or more in a season since 1990. That's a healthy sample of data and includes many of the best to ever lace them up.

Teams that did not make the playoffs

Now, the task is to cull the data and start figuring out how well their teams did and what the context surrounding them was.

Therefore, the first thing we do is find out the bad teams. The ones where dominant receivers couldn't put their team over the top or otherwise be a real difference maker. The ones who didn't make the playoffs, despite their best efforts.

In this sample, we have 26 such receivers -- 40% of our sample.

Rk

PLAYER

Year

Tm

Yds

Record

1

Calvin Johnson

2012

DET

1964

4-12

3

Isaac Bruce

1995

STL

1781

7-9

10

Josh Gordon

2013

CLE

1646

4-12

13

Randy Moss

2003

MIN

1632

9-7

17

David Boston

2001

ARI

1598

7-9

19

Julio Jones

2014

ATL

1593

6-10

20

Rob Moore

1997

ARI

1584

4-12

21

Andre Johnson

2008

HOU

1575

8-8

22

Andre Johnson

2009

HOU

1569

9-7

26

Marvin Harrison

2001

IND

1524

6-10

30

Brandon Marshall

2012

CHI

1508

10-6

33

Antonio Brown

2013

PIT

1499

8-8

37

Calvin Johnson

2013

DET

1492

7-9

41

Sterling Sharpe

1992

GNB

1461

9-7

42

Terrell Owens

2000

SFO

1451

6-10

43

Brandon Lloyd

2010

DEN

1448

4-12

44

Chad Johnson

2007

CIN

1440

7-9

52

Alshon Jeffery

2013

CHI

1421

8-8

57

Larry Fitzgerald

2011

ARI

1411

8-8

59

Larry Fitzgerald

2007

ARI

1409

8-8

58

Larry Fitzgerald

2005

ARI

1409

5-11

60

Tim Brown

1997

OAK

1408

4-12

61

Andre Johnson

2013

HOU

1407

2-14

62

Muhsin Muhammad

2004

CAR

1405

7-9

64

Anquan Boldin

2005

ARI

1402

5-11

65

Marcus Robinson

1999

CHI

1400

6-10

Before we even get off the ground, 40% of the 1,400 yard receivers since 1990 played for non playoff teams. 22 of those 26 were on teams that failed to do better than 0.500 on the season. So our sample is nearly cut in half already. Not looking good for the "True #1 Receiver = Critical Ravens Need" argument.

Notable teams on this list:

  • 2012 DET: The best receiver season by pure yardage in NFL history was Calvin Johnson's 2012. Maybe no receiver has dominated his opponent so completely as Megatron did that year. Of course, he had the most targets in NFL history too at 204 but I digress... Those Lions won a whole four games. In fact, they are still winless in the playoffs since Megatron was drafted. The closest they came strangely was this past year when they were carried by the league's #1 defense all year.
  • 2013 CLE: Josh Gordon's 2013 was a masterpiece of playing the wide receiver position, while navigating numerous drug test and legal land mines with equal skill. A shame Cleveland didn't make it matter by winning more than four games.
  • 2005 ARI: Two Cardinal receivers posted 1,400 yard seasons in 2005. And then somehow, some way, that team still only won 5 games. Let me know when you figure that one out because I can't.
  • It's actually painful how many times Larry Fitzgerald is in this category.

Teams that went one and done in the playoffs

Now for the playoff teams with great receivers who teased us all season only to bow out early:

Rk

PLAYER

Year

Tm

Yds

Wins

Playoffs

Record

4

Marvin Harrison

2002

IND

1722

10

Lost WC

10-6

5

Antonio Brown

2014

PIT

1698

11

Lost WC

11-5

7

Herman Moore

1995

DET

1686

10

Lost WC

10-6

8

Calvin Johnson

2011

DET

1681

10

Lost WC

10-6

12

Torry Holt

2000

STL

1635

10

Lost WC

10-6

16

Rod Smith

2000

DEN

1602

11

Lost WC

11-5

38

Brett Perriman

1995

DET

1488

10

Lost WC

10-6

40

Isaac Bruce

2000

STL

1471

10

Lost WC

10-6

47

Chad Johnson

2005

CIN

1432

11

Lost WC

11-5

50

A.J. Green

2013

CIN

1426

11

Lost WC

11-5

51

Antonio Freeman

1998

GNB

1424

11

Lost WC

11-5

54

Marvin Harrison

2000

IND

1413

10

Lost WC

10-6

56

Terrell Owens

2001

SFO

1412

12

Lost WC

12-4

2

Jerry Rice*

1995

SFO

1848

11

Lost Div

11-5

6

Torry Holt

2003

STL

1696

12

Lost Div

12-4

9

Marvin Harrison

1999

IND

1663

13

Lost Div

13-3

14

Demaryius Thomas

2014

DEN

1619

12

Lost Div

12-4

29

Reggie Wayne

2007

IND

1510

13

Lost Div

13-3

46

Demaryius Thomas

2012

DEN

1434

13

Lost Div

13-3

53

Steve Smith

2008

CAR

1421

12

Lost Div

12-4

63

Emmanuel Sanders

2014

DEN

1404

12

Lost Div

12-4

It feels like half the receivers on this list played for Peyton Manning...

Anyway, that's another 21 teams off the list. These receivers had some of the best seasons by a receiver in NFL history, on some of their best offenses in history, and their team still promptly went one and done when their team needed them most. Weird. Counting the first group, 72% of our 65 receivers to post 1,400 yards or better enjoyed exactly zero playoff wins...

Notable teams on this list:

  • 2014 PIT: 2nd best offense in NFL sputtered at home to the tune of 15 offensive points after struggling to run the ball, protect their QB, or make big downfield plays against a team starting street players in the secondary. Maybe having no viable backup Running Back, no Right Tackle, and a 31st ranked defense was also a problem? Anyone?
  • 2000 STL: The Greatest Show on Turf had no receivers on this list in 1999. They won the Super Bowl. In 2000, they had TWO receivers break 1,400 yards. They won zero games in January. This is really getting weird...
  • 2014 DEN: The Broncos had FOUR receivers with 10 touchdowns or better in 2013. They didn't just have a #1 receiver, they had MULTIPLE #1 receivers in 2013 and 2014 on one of the best offenses we've ever seen by nearly every metric. They were arguably more talented in 2014 with Sanders replacing Decker. A lot of good those receivers did them in 2014 in scoring 13 against an inferior Colts team that would lose by 38 the next week to a team with no #1 wide receivers.

Playoff-game winning Teams -- finally!

Is our long nightmare over? Have we finally found a dominant receiver to post a #1 caliber season and win a playoff game, too?

Rk

PLAYER

Year

Tm

Yds

Playoffs

Record

55

Randy Moss

1999

MIN

1413

Lost Div

10-6

39

Santana Moss

2005

WAS

1483

Lost Div

10-6

27

Michael Irvin*

1991

DAL

1523

Lost Div

11-5

18

Andre Johnson

2012

HOU

1598

Lost Div

12-4

23

Wes Welker

2011

NWE

1569

Lost SB

13-3

36

Randy Moss

2007

NWE

1493

Lost SB

16-0

48

Larry Fitzgerald

2008

ARI

1431

Lost SB

9-7

49

Demaryius Thomas

2013

DEN

1430

Lost SB

13-3

11

Jimmy Smith

1999

JAX

1636

Lost Conf

14-2

24

Steve Smith

2005

CAR

1563

Lost Conf

11-5

28

Jordy Nelson

2014

GNB

1519

Lost Conf

12-4

31

Jerry Rice*

1993

SFO

1503

Lost Conf

10-6

32

Jerry Rice*

1990

SFO

1502

Lost Conf

14-2

35

Robert Brooks

1995

GNB

1497

Lost Conf

11-5

45

Randy Moss

2000

MIN

1437

Lost Conf

11-5

Finally, we're getting somewhere. These 15 receivers posted 1,400 yard seasons or better and saw their teams actually win playoff games (but not the Super Bowl). There's just one problem. These are also some of the best receivers to EVER play the game of football. Randy Moss? Jerry Rice? Michael Irvin? Yeah, these are Hall of Famers or will be soon. Oh, and Jimmy Smith is there, too. Jacksonville, you may have missed horribly on Robinson and Lewis but by god, you were good in 1999 with Jimmy Smith.

Notable teams on this list:

  • 2000 MIN: Randy Moss and the Vikings had a great 2000, advancing to the NFC Championship. Then they lost 41-0 to the New York Giants. 41-0. Yes, you read that right. Those same Kerry Collins-led Giants got massacred the next week by the 2000 Ravens, failing to score a single offensive point. Thus was born the phrase "Defense Wins Championships" to go along with "Sexy Offenses Often Fail Spectacularly".
  • 2014 GB: Jordy Nelson had a great 2014 campaign but...he was also playing with the league MVP who also made Randall Cobb a top 5 receiver in 2014. So GB actually had two dominant receivers. Two good receivers beats one monster receiver all...day...long. GB has also kept the receiver roster loaded with multiple talents after doing just as well with Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley before these guys came along.
  • 2007 NE: Randy Moss turned in arguably the greatest season ever by a Wide Receiver on one of the best teams ever. That team would score 14 points in the Super Bowl and lose to a team playing some dudes named David Tyree and Amani Toomer.
  • 2013 DEN: I feel bad picking on the Broncos but...their 2013 Super Bowl against the Seahawks speaks for itself.

Super Bowl winning receivers with 1,400 yards or better

PLAYER

Year

Tm

Yds

Playoffs

Record

Michael Irvin*

1995

DAL

1603

Won SB

12-4

Victor Cruz

2011

NYG

1536

Won SB

9-7

Jerry Rice*

1994

SFO

1499

Won SB

13-3

At last, the three names. Just three men have posted #1 caliber seasons and also won a Super Bowl in the same year.

And yet even that has to be given some context. Two of those names are Hall of Famers on two of the best dynasties in NFL history.

Michael Irvin had the best season of any receiver to win the Super Bowl. He also played with a running back who rushed for 1,733 yards and led the NFL in production by a freaking mile. Yeah, Emmitt Smith was kind of good. And so was Deion Sanders and Charles Haley (both Hall of Famers as well) for that matter but Emmit was twice as good as the #2 running back in 1995. This team was stacked.

Jerry Rice meanwhile needs no context. He's the best PLAYER ever to play the game of football as voted on by a large panel of voters in 2010 for NFL Films. Not the best receiver, the best player. He also played with the best quarterback to ever lace them up on the preeminent dynasty in NFL history.

You know what else 1994 San Francisco had? League MVP Steve Young and Defensive Player of the Year Deion Sanders. Yeah, the 49ers were pretty fucking good all around, too. No wonder the real Super Bowl was played each year between Dallas and San Francisco back then.

The third, Victor Cruz, played for a 9-7 team. That receiver's counterpart, Hakeem Nicks, himself posted 1,192 yards during Eli Manning's best season as a pro. Nicks carried the Giants against Green Bay with a 7-146-2 statline. Cruz produced 5-74-0. Without Nicks opposite Cruz, the Giants don't beat 15-1 Green Bay. And yet, despite their outstanding play all season, it was the Giants' third unheralded and forgotten receiver, Mario Manningham, who delivered the decisive plays in their final two playoff games against San Francisco and New England to deliver the crown to New York.

Verdict: Judge for yourself

Would I like to have a receiver like one of those guys mentioned above? Sure I would. You want the best players at every position if you can get them somehow. We did try to draft Dez Bryant once upon a time. BPA applies to all positions (mostly).

However, philosophically, there just isn't much correlation between the mystical idea of the true #1 Receiver and sustained team greatness. Time and again, it's just not the teams with the true #1 who go anywhere. The ones who do are also great in many other places. And those teams would go far with or without an elite #1.

So if you want to talk to me about why Ozzie needs to get Joe Flacco a "true #1 Receiver" because he deserves one, I will agree with you as long as you can promise me he'll be a Hall of Famer, too.

Until then, give me a stud quarterback (Flacco: check), a fine defense (check), and multiple good-enough weapons to carry a game if called upon (check), and I'll show you a team that has that championship substance.

By the way, anyone know who the best receiver on the field in Super Bowl XLIX was between the NFL's two best teams? Some street free agent named Chris Matthews who had never caught a pass all season until that day.

Yep, I think we'll be OK if we don't get that "True #1 Receiver" and have to ride with two #2's.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far.

Follow me on Twitter: @jerreegarcia. I may one day actually start tweeting about these stats...maybe...

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