NFL Blacksmithing: How Super Bowl Winners Craft Their Receiving Weapons

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 29, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

Between free agency and the 2013 draft, we are footballs deep into that time of year when NFL teams look to build a winner or improve one for a shot at championship success.

Acquiring highly-paid skill players now can be dangerous, though it can also be the start of a new era for your team. But is that big-name wide receiver or first-round tight end ever really the final piece to a Super Bowl championship?

After recently looking at the best wide receiver debuts on new teams, a common thread became a startling conclusion.

Not a single one of these 47 seasons produced a championship. Five of the players eventually won a ring with that team, but never in that initial year of strong play.

It is consistent with the concept that individual receiver greatness is often a deterrent to team success. That player can be dominant because no one else is able to get open enough to run a balanced offense, resulting in an overload of targets going to one player.

(Cold, Hard Football Facts long ago dubbed this phenomenon the "Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law." It states, in essence, that big-name wide receivers are largely overvalued by teams and fans.)

Calvin Johnson, the best wide receiver in the league today, just broke the NFL record with 1,964 yards, but the Lions also had the most pass attempts (740) in NFL history. Johnson had 204 targets. The end result was a 4-12 season that no one will remember outside of the record (well, maybe the Thanksgiving game challenge).

There’s more.

  • Steve Smith (2005 Panthers) is the only receiver since 1995 to win a receiving title and playoff game in the same season.
  • Michael Irvin (1995 Cowboys) and Victor Cruz (2011 Giants) are the only players to ever have 1,500 receiving yards and win a Super Bowl that season.
  • Drew Pearson (1977 Cowboys) and Jerry Rice (1989 and 1994 9ers) are the only players to win a receiving title and Super Bowl in the same season.

This type of receiver dominance rarely ever leads to a title, so that got us thinking. What kind of receiving corps does win the Super Bowl? Do you need youth, veterans, a mixture, free agents, high draft picks or is homegrown the way to go?

You know 47 years of facts are about to be dumped on your head, but just remember this: adding that sexy receiver may lead to a title, but you probably are going to have to wait a few years for it to come to fruition.

 

The Summarized Data for Super Bowl Receiving Corps

We wanted to look beyond just wide receivers, especially since past teams were not as likely to use multiple-receiver sets like today’s teams. Though, even playoff hero Jacoby Jones was still only the fifth-leading receiver on the 2012 Ravens.

The methodology was to take all 47 Super Bowl champions and look at the top four receivers, which was determined based on regular-season receiving yards. This could be wide receivers, tight ends, running backs and even fullbacks (thanks, Bill Walsh).

Then we took note of how they entered the league, how the team acquired them, how old they were and how much experience they had both in the league and with the title-winning team.

There may be a few cases where a player was not really indicative of the team’s “true” x-option whether via injury or a big difference in receptions, but this does give a very good idea of who the team was primarily relying on to move the ball down the field via the passing game in a Super Bowl season.

The average top four receivers on a Super Bowl winner

This first table shows the averages for each receiver (one thru four). The yards are regular season only, the “XP” is the average years of NFL experience and the “TeamXP” is the average number of seasons spent with the Super Bowl-winning team. Also included is a breakdown of how many of the 47 players were wide receivers, tight ends or a running back.

Averages for Top 4 Receivers

Receiver

Rec. Yards

XP

TeamXP

Age

WR

TE

Back

No. 1

1024.1

5.89

4.85

27.7

44

3

0

No. 2

724.1

6.09

4.13

27.6

38

4

5

No. 3

485.2

4.85

4.34

26.6

18

17

12

No. 4

363.1

5.00

4.06

26.8

17

16

14

You can see how No. 1 receivers have a large amount of yards relative to the rest, but the average age and NFL experience is very similar to a No. 2 receiver. They are close to 28 years old and in their sixth season. They are almost always wide receivers.

Meanwhile the No. 3 and No. 4 receivers also share very similar numbers, having about one fewer year of experience and being almost evenly distributed among the three different positions for eligible receivers.

But all four groups of receivers fall in a 4-5 year range of being with the team they won the Super Bowl with.

Not a single receiver was in more than their 12th season, nor was anyone older than 35 (Cliff Branch in 1983 and Donald Driver in 2010).

Origin story: homegrown vs. adopted

While the total is 188 receivers, obviously many players have won multiple Super Bowls. There were a total of 38 from this sample alone, while Shannon Sharpe and Jeremy Shockey are the only players on these lists to win Super Bowls for two different teams. So the total number of individuals studied was 140. Here is a breakdown of how they entered the league.

Player’s NFL Origin

Draft Round

Total

Pct.

1st

42

30.0%

2nd

26

18.6%

3rd

11

7.9%

4th

11

7.9%

5th

5

3.6%

6th

5

3.6%

7th

9

6.4%

8th

4

2.9%

9th

2

1.4%

10th

3

2.1%

11th

1

0.7%

12th

4

2.9%

13th

1

0.7%

14th

1

0.7%

20th

1

0.7%

Undrafted

12

8.6%

1984 Supplemental-1st

1

0.7%

1984 Supplemental-2nd

1

0.7%

Note: The 1984 Supplemental Draft was for players from the USFL and CFL. Washington ended up with two receivers from that (Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders), but more on them later.

Nearly half of these players (48.6 percent) were drafted in the first two rounds compared to 8.6 percent being undrafted. Drew Pearson, Rod Smith and Victor Cruz are the only undrafted players to lead their Super Bowl-winning team in receiving. Smith did it twice. Those are three great examples of homegrown talent.

Here is a look at how the Super Bowl-winning team was able to acquire these players in regards to being homegrown or “adopted.”

Basically, a player is “homegrown” if he never officially played for another team. That means he was a draft pick, an undrafted free agent, or he never made the initial team that brought him into the league. An “adopted” player was picked up from a trade or as a free agent and has already played for another team.

The table on the left side is for the entire 188-player sample, which means players will be repeated. Lynn Swann won four Super Bowls for the Steelers as a first-round pick in 1974, but the Steelers only had to draft him one time. So we included data for just the 142 unique acquisitions, which means everyone once plus a second team for Sharpe (Ravens) and Shockey (Saints).

Homegrown vs. Adopted Receivers

Full 188 Player Sample

142 Unique Acquisitions

Acquired

Total

Pct.

Acquired

Total

Pct.

Draft

129

68.6%

Draft

94

66.2%

Undrafted free agent

11

5.9%

Undrafted

10

7.0%

Trade

22

11.7%

Trade

18

12.7%

Free agency

26

13.8%

Free agency

20

14.1%

Homegrown

148

78.7%

Homegrown

110

77.5%

Adopted

40

21.3%

Adopted

32

22.5%

Looks like homegrown is the way to go with nearly 80 percent of the receivers starting out with that championship team.

This does include a player like Brent Jones, who was drafted in the fifth round by Pittsburgh in 1986, but a car accident five days after the draft eventually led to his release from the team. San Francisco picked him up for 1987 and the rest is history.

The Giants’ Phil McConkey, a wide receiver and return specialist, is a story all to himself. Undrafted out of Navy, he joined the Giants in 1984 at 27 years of age before being cut prior to the 1986 season. After four games with the Packers, Bill Parcells traded a 12th-round pick in the 1987 draft to get McConkey back after the team had issues with handling punts. In the Super Bowl, New York’s homegrown McConkey had a 44-yard reception on a flea-flicker play and was the recipient of a deflected touchdown.

Out of all the receivers analyzed, McConkey is the only one to be traded back to his original team in a Super Bowl-winning season.

The only two receivers to go to a new team and become the No. 1 receiver in the first year are Roy Jefferson (1970 Colts) and Shannon Sharpe (2000 Ravens). That’s it. Charlie Brown, a 1981 8th-round draft pick, led the 1982 Redskins in receiving, but it was technically his first year playing in the NFL as well.

What about those rookies?

You can’t expect much from a rookie. Besides Brown, the only other rookies to have a top-four impact were Heath Miller, Torry Holt, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Jamal Lewis, Travis Taylor and Tony Dorsett.

They were all No. 3 or No. 4 options. Only Miller (459) and Holt (788) were able to exceed 300 receiving yards.

Different combinations

Finally, here is a look at the different combinations, 1-thru-4, used by Super Bowl winners in regards to position.

Super Bowl Winning Combinations of Top 4 Receivers

Combination (1-4)

Occurrences

Teams

WR-WR-TE-RB

5

73 MIA, 79 PIT, 93 DAL, 98 DEN, 12 BAL

WR-WR-TE-TE

5

70 CLT, 78 PIT, 80 RAI, 96 GB, 06 CLT

WR-WR-TE-WR

5

68 NYJ, 82 WAS, 05 PIT, 07 NYG, 11 NYG

WR-WR-WR-TE

4

75 PIT, 04 NE, 08 PIT, 09 NO

WR-TE-WR-RB

3

76 RAI, 95 DAL, 97 DEN

WR-WR-FB-TE

3

71 DAL, 81 SF, 89 SF

WR-WR-RB-TE

3

84 SF, 85 CHI, 90 NYG

WR-WR-RB-WR

3

69 KC, 87 WAS, 02 TB

WR-WR-WR-RB

3

91 WAS, 01 NE, 03 NE

WR-WR-WR-WR

3

72 MIA, 74 PIT, 10 GB

TE-WR-RB-WR

2

83 RAI, 00 BAL

TE-WR-WR-WR

1

86 NYG

WR-RB-TE-RB

1

77 DAL

WR-RB-TE-WR

1

94 SF

WR-RB-WR-FB

1

88 SF

WR-RB-WR-TE

1

66 GB

WR-RB-WR-WR

1

99 RAM

WR-TE-WR-WR

1

92 DAL

WR-WR-RB-RB

1

67 GB

What stands out is the modern usage. Every team since the 2001 Patriots has featured two wide receivers as its top two leaders in receiving yards. With so much “11” personnel and the increased use of the tight end, combinations such as WR-WR-TE-WR and WR-WR-WR-TE should be more common. Both of the Eli Manning-led offenses had the former.

The only team not to feature two wide receivers in any capacity was the 1977 Cowboys (WR-RB-TE-RB). That was of course the last season before the Mel Blount rule went into effect to open up the passing game.

Bet no one would have ever guessed the 1972 Dolphins and 1974 Steelers, two teams known to possess minimal passing games, would join the 2010 Packers as the only three teams to be led in receiving by four wide receivers. But that lack of passing may have actually helped those teams achieve those numbers.

Both Colts teams (1970 and 2006) went WR-WR-TE-TE. The New England dynasty was all about WR-WR-WR, but switched out a running back (2001 and 2003) for a tight end (Daniel Graham) in 2004.

Few teams made use of the fullback the way Bill Walsh’s 49ers did with Earl Cooper (later moved to tight end) and Tom Rathman. But leave it up to the Vince Lombardi Packers to have their own combinations with the two running backs picking up the slack in 1967.

 

Super Bowl Receiving Corps

We will conclude with presenting the data and more analysis for teams over a series of the different NFL eras since the Super Bowl started in 1966.

The “Draft” column indicates the round the player was drafted in. If acquired through a trade or free agency (FA), then the player will have his drafted round number (UD if undrafted) in parenthesis. Players listed in italics were acquired via trade or free agency.

 

1966-69: Pre-merger

Year

Team

Receiver

Pos.

Yards

XP

TeamXP

Age

Draft

1966

Green Bay Packers

Carroll Dale

WR

876

7

2

28

Trade (8)

Elijah Pitts

RB

460

6

6

28

13

Boyd Dowler

WR

392

8

8

29

3

Marv Fleming

TE

361

4

4

24

11

1967

Green Bay Packers

Boyd Dowler

WR

836

9

9

30

3

Carroll Dale

WR

738

8

3

29

Trade (8)

Donny Anderson

RB

331

2

2

24

1

Elijah Pitts

RB

210

7

7

29

13

1968

New York Jets

Don Maynard

WR

1297

10

9

33

FA (9)

George Sauer

WR

1141

4

4

25

UD

Pete Lammons

TE

400

3

3

25

8

Bake Turner

WR

241

7

6

28

FA (12)

1969

Kansas City Chiefs

Otis Taylor

WR

696

5

5

27

4

Frank Pitts

WR

470

5

5

26

4

Mike Garrett

RB

432

4

4

25

20

Gloster Richardson

WR

381

3

3

27

7

Guess there are already too many Packers in the Hall of Fame for Carroll Dale or Boyd Dowler to get any serious consideration. Both were pretty solid on run-heavy offenses.

For an undrafted player, George Sauer had quite the three-year run (1966-68) in New York with Joe Namath at quarterback.

Some great drafting by Kansas City put them in position for a Super Bowl IV win. Mike Garrett was the lowest drafted player in the study, but consider the 20th round of the 1966 AFL Draft was the 178th overall pick. The 1969 Chiefs are the first team to have only homegrown players in their top four receivers.

 

1970-77: Dynasty and Dead-Ball Era

Year

Team

Receiver

Pos.

Yards

XP

TeamXP

Age

Draft

1970

Baltimore Colts

Roy Jefferson

WR

749

6

1

27

Trade (2)

Eddie Hinton

WR

733

2

2

23

1

John Mackey

TE

435

8

8

29

2

Tom Mitchell

TE

261

4

3

26

FA (3)

1971

Dallas Cowboys

Bob Hayes

WR

840

7

7

29

7

Lance Alworth

WR

487

10

1

31

Trade (1)

Walt Garrison

FB

396

6

6

27

5

Mike Ditka

TE

360

11

3

32

Trade (1)

1972

Miami Dolphins

Paul Warfield

WR

606

9

3

30

Trade (1)

Howard Twilley

WR

364

7

7

29

12

Marlin Briscoe

WR

279

5

1

27

Trade (14)

Otto Stowe

WR

276

2

2

23

2

1973

Miami Dolphins

Paul Warfield

WR

514

10

4

31

Trade (1)

Marlin Briscoe

WR

447

6

2

28

Trade (14)

Jim Mandich

TE

302

4

4

25

2

Jim Kiick

RB

208

6

6

27

5

1974

Pittsburgh Steelers

Frank Lewis

WR

365

4

4

27

1

Ron Shanklin

WR

324

5

5

26

2

John Stallworth

WR

269

1

1

22

4

Lynn Swann

WR

208

1

1

22

1

1975

Pittsburgh Steelers

Lynn Swann

WR

781

2

2

23

1

John Stallworth

WR

423

2

2

23

4

Frank Lewis

WR

308

5

5

28

1

Larry Brown

TE

244

5

5

26

5

1976

Oakland Raiders

Cliff Branch

WR

1111

5

5

28

4

Dave Casper

TE

691

3

3

25

2

Fred Biletnikoff

WR

551

12

12

33

2

Clarence Davis

RB

191

6

6

27

4

1977

Dallas Cowboys

Drew Pearson

WR

870

5

5

26

UD

Preston Pearson

RB

535

11

3

32

Trade (12)

Billy Joe DuPree

TE

347

5

5

27

1

Tony Dorsett

RB

273

1

1

23

1

He may have only done it by 16 yards, but Roy Jefferson remains the only wide receiver to lead his new team in receiving and to a Super Bowl win. Jefferson was a 1,000-yard receiver in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers traded him. He was no Raymond Berry, but he did his part for Johnny Unitas.

They may have been past their prime, but the 1971 Cowboys featured three Hall of Fame receivers in Bob Hayes, Lance Alworth and Mike Ditka (TE). That is quite the trio.

This was the dead era for passing, but still make note of the paltry totals for the four wide receivers for the 1972 Dolphins and 1974 Steelers. Frank Lewis’ 365 yards to lead the 1974 Steelers are the fewest for any Super Bowl winner.

The Steelers sure did an excellent job of drafting this decade. A total of eight players made up their top four receivers on the four Super Bowl teams. All eight were Pittsburgh draft picks.

 

1978-84: From the Steelers to the 49ers

Year

Team

Receiver

Pos.

Yards

XP

TeamXP

Age

Draft

1978

Pittsburgh Steelers

Lynn Swann

WR

880

5

5

26

1

John Stallworth

WR

798

5

5

26

4

Randy Grossman

TE

448

5

5

26

UD

Bennie Cunningham

TE

321

3

3

24

1

1979

Pittsburgh Steelers

John Stallworth

WR

1183

6

6

27

4

Lynn Swann

WR

808

6

6

27

1

Bennie Cunningham

TE

512

4

4

25

1

Franco Harris

RB

291

8

8

29

1

1980

Oakland Raiders

Cliff Branch

WR

858

9

9

32

4

Bob Chandler

WR

786

10

1

31

Trade (7)

Raymond Chester

TE

366

11

11

32

1

Dave Casper

TE

270

7

7

29

2

1981

San Francisco 49ers

Dwight Clark

WR

1105

3

3

24

10

Freddie Solomon

WR

969

7

4

28

Trade (2)

Earl Cooper

FB

477

2

2

24

1

Charle Young

TE

400

9

2

30

Trade (1)

1982

Washington Redskins

Charlie Brown

WR

690

1

1

24

8

Art Monk

WR

447

3

3

25

1

Don Warren

TE

310

4

4

26

4

Virgil Seay

WR

154

2

2

24

FA (10)

1983

Los Angeles Raiders

Todd Christensen

TE

1247

5

5

27

FA (2)

Cliff Branch

WR

696

12

12

35

4

Marcus Allen

RB

590

2

2

23

1

Malcolm Barnwell

WR

513

3

3

25

7

1984

San Francisco 49ers

Dwight Clark

WR

880

6

6

27

10

Freddie Solomon

WR

737

10

7

31

Trade (2)

Roger Craig

RB

675

2

2

24

2

Earl Cooper

TE

459

5

5

27

1

Want to sustain a long run of winning? Hit your early draft picks. The only teams of the 47 to have at least three first-round picks make up their top four receivers are the 1979 Steelers, 1993 Cowboys and 2006 Colts.

The 1980 Raiders have the oldest top four receivers for any Super Bowl winner. Their average age was 31.0, though you can argue Dave Casper should not count since he was traded to Houston during the season. Still, in six games he had 270 yards. The next man up was starting back Mark van Eeghen (259 yards). The Raiders drafted him in the third round in 1974; one round after getting Casper.

Also with the 1980 Raiders, Bob Chandler was a receiver I snubbed in the look at best debuts on a new team. He only had 49 receptions for 786 yards, but scored 10 touchdowns on a team that did not pass much. His season actually resulted in a ring unlike the other 47 I listed.

Given it was a nine-game strike season, Charlie Brown’s 1982 campaign remains the gold standard for a rookie wide receiver in a Super Bowl year. Sure, Torry Holt had more yards in 1999, but that was 16 games and the Rams were incredible at passing. Az-Zahir Hakim’s 677 yards that season are the most by any No. 4 receiver in this study.

 

1985-91: Deep in NFC Domination

Year

Team

Receiver

Pos.

Yards

XP

TeamXP

Age

Draft

1985

Chicago Bears

Willie Gault

WR

704

3

3

25

1

Dennis McKinnon

WR

555

3

3

24

UD

Walter Payton

RB

483

11

11

31

1

Emery Moorehead

TE

481

9

5

31

FA (6)

1986

New York Giants

Mark Bavaro

TE

1001

2

2

23

4

Bobby L. Johnson

WR

534

3

3

25

UD

Stacy Robinson

WR

494

2

2

24

2

Phil McConkey

WR

279

3

3

29

Trade (UD)

1987

Washington Redskins

Gary Clark

WR

1066

3

3

25

SUP (2)

Ricky Sanders

WR

630

2

2

25

Trade (SUP 1)

Kelvin Bryant

RB

490

2

2

27

7

Art Monk

WR

483

8

8

30

1

1988

San Francisco 49ers

Jerry Rice

WR

1306

4

4

26

1

Roger Craig

RB

534

6

6

28

2

Mike Wilson

WR

405

8

8

30

FA (9)

Tom Rathman

FB

382

3

3

26

3

1989

San Francisco 49ers

Jerry Rice

WR

1483

5

5

27

1

John Taylor

WR

1077

3

3

27

3

Tom Rathman

FB

616

4

4

27

3

Brent Jones

TE

500

3

3

26

FA (5)

1990

New York Giants

Stephen Baker

WR

541

4

4

26

3

Mark Ingram

WR

499

4

4

25

1

Dave Meggett

RB

410

3

3

24

5

Mark Bavaro

TE

393

6

6

27

4

1991

Washington Redskins

Gary Clark

WR

1340

7

7

29

SUP (2)

Art Monk

WR

1049

12

12

34

1

Ricky Sanders

WR

580

6

6

29

Trade (SUP 1)

Earnest Byner

RB

308

8

3

29

Trade (10)

Outside of Mark Bavaro, how many NFL fans would be able to name the leading receivers for the 1986 and 1990 Giants? Those are tough ones with Bavaro being the only holdover.

The Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick model could definitely be seen later in New England, such as these low-level guys being hand-picked by the Giants. The Giants were the only team in this decade (and the next) to have all of their receivers homegrown.

Stephen Baker’s 541 yards to lead the 1990 Giants are the fewest for any Super Bowl winner in a 16-game season.

As for Joe Gibbs’ Redskins, Gary Clark was a great pickup in the second round of the 1984 Supplemental Draft. Ricky Sanders was also chosen in that in the first round by New England, but he never played for them, joining Washington for the 1986 season (via a trade of a third-round pick) to make a nice trio with Clark and Art Monk, who was not the leading receiver on any of Washington’s three Super Bowl winners.

 

1992-98: Before the Super Bowl Was Gold

Year

Team

Receiver

Pos.

Yards

XP

TeamXP

Age

Draft

1992

Dallas Cowboys

Michael Irvin

WR

1396

5

5

26

1

Jay Novacek

TE

630

8

3

30

FA (6)

Alvin Harper

WR

562

2

2

24

1

Kelvin Martin

WR

359

6

6

27

4

1993

Dallas Cowboys

Michael Irvin

WR

1330

6

6

27

1

Alvin Harper

WR

777

3

3

25

1

Jay Novacek

TE

445

9

4

31

FA (6)

Emmitt Smith

RB

414

4

4

24

1

1994

San Francisco 49ers

Jerry Rice

WR

1499

10

10

32

1

Ricky Watters

RB

719

4

4

25

2

Brent Jones

TE

670

8

8

31

FA (5)

John Taylor

WR

531

8

8

32

3

1995

Dallas Cowboys

Michael Irvin

WR

1603

8

8

29

1

Jay Novacek

TE

705

11

6

33

FA (6)

Kevin Williams

WR

613

3

3

24

2

Emmitt Smith

RB

375

6

6

26

1

1996

Green Bay Packers

Antonio Freeman

WR

933

2

2

24

3

Don Beebe

WR

699

8

1

32

FA (3)

Keith Jackson

TE

505

9

2

31

Trade (1)

Mark Chmura

TE

370

5

5

27

6

1997

Denver Broncos

Rod Smith

WR

1180

3

3

27

UD

Shannon Sharpe

TE

1107

8

8

29

7

Ed McCaffrey

WR

590

7

3

29

FA (3)

Terrell Davis

RB

287

3

3

25

6

1998

Denver Broncos

Rod Smith

WR

1222

4

4

28

UD

Ed McCaffrey

WR

1053

8

4

30

FA (3)

Shannon Sharpe

TE

768

9

9

30

7

Terrell Davis

RB

217

4

4

26

6

Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice dominated in this era. With the last ring for either team in 1995, that type of overbearing No. 1 receiver performance just does not cut it anymore. A team like Houston has tried it with Andre Johnson, but it does not work. You need more weapons.

Brett Favre’s MVP award in 1996 looks as good as ever with the barrage of injuries at receiver. Antonio Freeman was a second-year player, a third-round pick and he broke out. Robert Brooks was a starter, but was injured. That leaves Don Beebe, the former Bill, one of the most random No. 2 receivers ever on a Super Bowl winner.

Denver’s great offense was driven by those four key players; none of which was drafted higher than the third round. But Denver trusted them.

 

1999-02: The NFL’s Twilight Zone

Year

Team

Receiver

Pos.

Yards

XP

TeamXP

Age

Draft

1999

St. Louis Rams

Isaac Bruce

WR

1165

6

6

27

2

Marshall Faulk

RB

1048

6

1

26

Trade (1)

Torry Holt

WR

788

1

1

23

1

Az-Zahir Hakim

WR

677

2

2

22

4

2000

Baltimore Ravens

Shannon Sharpe

TE

810

11

1

32

FA (7)

Qadry Ismail

WR

655

8

2

30

FA (2)

Jamal Lewis

RB

296

1

1

21

1

Travis Taylor

WR

276

1

1

22

1

2001

New England Patriots

Troy Brown

WR

1199

9

9

30

8

David Patten

WR

749

5

1

27

FA (UD)

Terry Glenn

WR

204

6

6

27

1

Antowain Smith

RB

192

5

1

29

FA (1)

2002

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Keyshawn Johnson

WR

1088

7

3

30

Trade (1)

Keenan McCardell

WR

670

12

1

32

FA (12)

Michael Pittman

RB

477

5

1

27

FA (4)

Joe Jurevicius

WR

423

5

1

28

FA (2)

You can really extend this to 2003, but this was a period in the NFL that was most bizarre. Defense ruled the day. Quarterbacks were either coming out of grocery stores or rising from the ashes to lead teams to Super Bowls in their first season as the team’s starter. No-name or retread receiving corps were all the rage. It tainted perceptions.

Just odd stuff, like Kurt Warner leading one of the greatest seasons in NFL history with the 1999 Rams. Isaac Bruce was already there, but Warner emerged, Holt was a good draft pick and Hakim was a second-year player. It just clicked right away.

Shannon Sharpe went to Baltimore as a free agent, becoming the first (and still only) tight end to lead his new team in receiving and to a title. Jamal Lewis and Travis Taylor were both rookies drafted in the first 10 picks in that 2000 season.

Then you have the 2001 Patriots. Troy Brown was a longtime Patriot, but David Patten was an undrafted free agent making his New England debut. Terry Glenn actually only played four games that season. The Patriots had six players with between 100-200 receiving yards.

But if there is a team that is as much of an outlier as any of the 47, it would be the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They are the only Super Bowl winner to have all four leading receivers come from a trade or free-agent signing. None of the other 46 teams had more than two such players.

Jon Gruden, in his first year in Tampa Bay, took this cast of rejects and retreads to respectable heights to match the legendary defense that was already in place.

Amazingly, Keenan McCardell, Michael Pittman and Joe Jurevicius were all in their first season with the team. Even Ken Dilger, the fifth-leading receiver, was coming off a Pro Bowl season…with the Colts in 2001.

This team was basically homegrown fullback Mike Alstott and a bunch of adopted players, including quarterback Brad Johnson and the whole left side (and center) of the offensive line.

Only 21 of the 140 receivers (15.0 percent) were in their first season with the team when they won the Super Bowl. Tampa Bay had three of them. The 1999-02 period alone accounted for 10 of the 21.

It was just a strange time, like the NFL’s version of a freak circus.

 

2003-12: Modern Times

Year

Team

Receiver

Pos.

Yards

XP

TeamXP

Age

Draft

2003

New England Patriots

Deion Branch

WR

803

2

2

24

2

David Givens

WR

510

2

2

23

7

Troy Brown

WR

472

11

11

32

8

Kevin Faulk

RB

440

5

5

27

2

2004

New England Patriots

David Givens

WR

874

3

3

24

7

David Patten

WR

800

8

4

30

FA (UD)

Deion Branch

WR

454

3

3

25

2

Daniel Graham

TE

364

3

3

26

1

2005

Pittsburgh Steelers

Hines Ward

WR

975

8

8

29

3

Antwaan Randle El

WR

558

4

4

26

2

Heath Miller

TE

459

1

1

23

1

Cedrick Wilson

WR

451

5

1

27

FA (6)

2006

Indianapolis Colts

Marvin Harrison

WR

1366

11

11

34

1

Reggie Wayne

WR

1310

6

6

28

1

Ben Utecht

TE

377

3

3

25

UD

Dallas Clark

TE

367

4

4

27

1

2007

New York Giants

Plaxico Burress

WR

1025

8

3

30

FA (1)

Amani Toomer

WR

760

12

12

33

2

Jeremy Shockey

TE

619

6

6

27

1

Sinorice Moss

WR

225

2

2

24

2

2008

Pittsburgh Steelers

Hines Ward

WR

1043

11

11

32

3

Santonio Holmes

WR

821

3

3

24

1

Nate Washington

WR

631

4

4

25

UD

Heath Miller

TE

514

4

4

26

1

2009

New Orleans Saints

Marques Colston

WR

1074

4

4

26

7

Devery Henderson

WR

804

6

6

27

2

Robert Meachem

WR

722

3

3

25

1

Jeremy Shockey

TE

569

8

2

29

Trade (1)

2010

Green Bay Packers

Greg Jennings

WR

1265

5

5

27

2

James Jones

WR

679

4

4

26

3

Jordy Nelson

WR

582

3

3

25

2

Donald Driver

WR

565

12

12

35

7

2011

New York Giants

Victor Cruz

WR

1536

2

2

25

UD

Hakeem Nicks

WR

1192

3

3

23

1

Jake Ballard

TE

604

2

2

24

UD

Mario Manningham

WR

523

4

4

25

3

2012

Baltimore Ravens

Anquan Boldin

WR

921

10

3

32

Trade (1)

Torrey Smith

WR

855

2

2

23

2

Dennis Pitta

TE

669

3

3

27

4

Ray Rice

RB

478

5

5

25

2

Since the Buccaneers, things have normalized and a clear trend has been established.

Just five of the 40 receivers since 2003 have been from trade or an unrestricted free agent. That means 87.5 percent homegrown. That is how you get it done in the NFL today. Pick them and grow them yourself, and with a solid franchise quarterback throwing the ball.

The 2003 Patriots are the first team since the 1990 Giants to have four drafted receivers. They leaned heavily on that 2002 draft (Daniel Graham, Deion Branch and David Givens) to lead the way to two more rings.

But 2006 with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in their prime for a full season – the last time that happened – is really when the two wide receiver approach became a necessity to win a Super Bowl.

Harrison, 34 years old in 2006, is the oldest No. 1 receiver on a Super Bowl winner in NFL history. If he had an off game, then Wayne could pick up the slack. Wayne was actually the Colts’ best receiver in the playoffs that year.

That’s the way to do it now. Even the far less prolific 2012 Ravens had that dynamic going with Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. You can also look at Santonio Holmes taking Super Bowl MVP honors for the 2008 Steelers.

The New York Giants in 2007 had veterans Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. You see Shockey (injured) and Sinorice Moss (bust) listed and are probably thinking about Kevin Boss and Steve Smith (oh and David Tyree). Yes, Boss and Smith were big in the playoffs, but rules are rules and they were only the seventh and eighth leading receivers in the regular season.

Four years later the Giants returned with the youngest four leading receivers in Super Bowl history (24.3 years old). That was highlighted by dynamic playmakers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. However, the 2011 Giants are the only team since 2003 not to have multiple players drafted in the second round or higher. But Cruz was an unbelievable find. Without him, the Giants probably are not champions in 2011.

 

Conclusion

Receivers are important, but too many fans get caught up with the big names while ignoring the team aspect. It would likely be a negative for the Colts if Wayne has 100 receptions again in 2013. Why? That means players like T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen or LaVon Brazill are not stepping up in their sophomore season.

Brandon Marshall just had the greatest season by a Chicago Bears receiver ever in his first try in 2012.

So what? The Bears will not get to where they want to go without making sure Alshon Jeffery (2012 second-round pick) develops into a good starter, and that Martellus Bennett continues his improved receiving he showed with the Giants last season.

A team like Arizona might as well have traded Larry Fitzgerald once Kurt Warner retired three years ago. If you don’t have a quarterback, having one dominant receiver is not going to take you anywhere. Now Fitzgerald rots in the desert with no help.

Once you find the quarterback, give him his weapons. Emphasis on the plurality.

If you want to win a Super Bowl in today’s NFL, then premium resources must be spent on multiple receivers. But taking time to develop them in your system is just as important, and no quick fix like a trade or free-agent signing is likely to bring you instant success.

Respect the process.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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