Troll Report: big-game wideouts

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 17, 2010



We know football season is rapidly approaching by the sudden increase in the charts and spreadsheets full of nifty data that Trolls are sending from around the country. We're always amazed that so many of you spend so much time awash in all kinds of football stats.
 
We're sure the bosses are happy to know you spend your work day thinking about stats for us. On the bright side, makes us realize that we're not alone here in our desire to shun responsibility.
 
This latest nifty bit of research comes from Troll Neil Wicker of Columbia, South Carolina, who looked at a select collection of 16 great recent-vintage receivers to see how they performed in the clutch. So it's not a comprehensive study of receivers. But it does include most of the big names of recent years and Wicker's findings do confirm a number of Cold, Hard Football Facts.
 
Namely, he finds that Marvin Harrison is probably one of the worst big-game players in history – a fact we've discussed a number of times in recent years. Harrison's no-show efforts are perhaps responsible in some way for the fact that Peyton Manning always reserved his worst games for the playoffs.
 
All you really need to know about Harrison has already been reported here: he scored a pathetic two TDs in 16 playoff games, both in the same game. He was blanked in his 15 other postseason games.
 
Wicker also finds that Hines Ward is one of the great big-game receivers of our time – a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why he's so beloved in Pittsburgh, despite relatively humble regular-season numbers compared to some of the other great modern receivers.
 
But big-game wideouts are a tradition in Steel Town. Remember Lynn Swann? His regular-season numbers are not good at all. In fact, he caught more than 50 passes just once in his nine-year career and never topped 880 receiving yards. But he's in the Hall of Fame because nobody shined brighter in the biggest game of the year.
 
Swann's teammate John Stallworth is another Hall of Fame receiver who typically put up humble numbers in the regular season (three 1,000-yard campaigns in 14 years) but who sparkled in the playoffs.
 
Perhaps it's in the Pittsburgh postseason DNA: just six wide receivers have earned Super Bowl MVP honors. Three of them were Steelers: Swann (X), Ward (XL) and Santonio Holmes (XLIII).
 
OK, enough from us. Here's Neil:
 
The recent HOF induction and your SI piece about Jerry Rice vs. Don Hutson got me thinking about how to judge receivers of the modern era. I came up with a method that confirmed a few of my thoughts and popped up a few surprises.
 
I took 16 of the better receivers of the past 25 years, took their playoff averages and regular season averages of catches, yards, TDs, and yards per catch and compared them. 
 
I came up with a point system to rate the results. This system:
  • Took the differences in receptions per game and TDs per game and multiplied each by 50
  • Took the difference in yards per catch and multiplied it by 10
  • and took the straight up difference in yards per game.  
My assumption is that most receivers can be removed from a game by a good defense and game planning, so the ones that excel in the post season against better defenses, better talent, and better coaching would be considered the true elite.
 
 
Bottom of the list: Marvin Harrison
The first confirmation was regarding Marvin Harrison. He is easily one of the more overrated receivers in NFL history and a beneficiary of Peyton Manning's ability to put up huge numbers.
 
His average number of receptions went down 1.7 per game from the regular season to the postseason. His yards dropped 21.5 per game. And his touchdowns dropped 0.5 per game. However, his average per catch actually did go up by 0.4 YPC.  
 
By my ratings system, he scored -132.3 points, easily the worst on this list. Tim Brown came in at -51.7 and Torry Holt came in at -58. Both results were surprising me. 
 
Top of the list: Larry Fitzgerald
Larry Fitzgerald dominated the list by posting a 182.1 rating with increases in receptions (1.3), yards per game (40.7), yards per catch (3.3), and TDs per game (0.9).  
 
However, he's only played six postseason games and these are sure to drop as time goes by. But his 2008 post-season is by far the most impressive ever by a wide-out.
 
The two big surprises at the top were Steve Smith and Hines Ward. Both posted significant gains in all categories (Smith was the only player other than Fitzgerald to top the 100 point mark) and Ward produced his results over a span of 14 games, the point where most players seemed to run back to the pack (three of the top five played in fewer than 10 playoff games, so that might be a good place if a cut-off was desired).  
 
Art Monk was a surprise as well, posting nice gains during the playoffs, including big gains in yards per catch and per game.  
 
Much like quarterbacks are judged by playoff performance, I think judging the greatest in history at receiver has to account for performance in big games.  

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