By Mark "The King" Wald
Cold, Hard Football Facts guy who makes his bed with spreadsheets
The controversial theory is this: great wide receivers generate plenty of attention, but they're little more than role players on NFL offenses. A lot of things need to go right before they can get the ball and make an impact. You can win with them, sure. But you can certainly win without them, too.
The Chief also contends
, in the case of Randy Moss, or others such as Marvin Harrison, that great receivers are consistent playoff no-shows who can't be counted on in the biggest games of the year.
So, is the theory correct; is it a Cold, Hard Football Fact? The Chief drunk-texted late last night after his fifth boilermaker and asked me to run the numbers another way, to attack the issue from another point of view.
My findings? At the very least, it's a mixed bag. A lot of great receivers have stepped it up in the playoffs, Moss among them. So the Chubby One is wrong there. But the overall theory, that even the greatest receivers are role players without whom you can still succeed? There's quite a bit of validity in that case.
Here's how it went down:
We put the theory to the test by sizing up the 20 most prolific wide receivers in history (based upon career receiving yards) and then seeing what kind of impact they had in the postseason.
Only eight of the 20 won championships, with 13 different Super Bowl titles between them.
On the other hand, about half of the group ramped up production in the playoffs over their regular season numbers in the important categories of yards per game, yards per catch, and touchdowns per game.
Looking over the list, most of the receivers fall into three categories. The most notable are as follows.
Receivers who stepped up production in the playoffs and won titles
Art Monk: Won three titles with the Redskins, averaged 14 more yards per game in the postseason, and almost 2 more yards per catch. His rate of touchdowns per game was higher in the playoffs, also.
Jerry Rice: Won three titles with the 49ers, and averaged almost 5 more yards per game in the playoffs vs. the regular season. He scored 22 touchdowns in 28 playoff games.
Michael Irvin: Like Monk and Rice, won three titles while averaging 7 more yards per game. Scored eight touchdowns in 15 playoff games.
Isaac Bruce: Averaged 84.3 yards per game in nine playoff contest, the most productive receiver of anyone in the top 20 and more than 16 yards better than his regular-season average. He also averaged two more yards per catch. Bruce boasts one Super Bowl win.
Receivers who stepped up production but wear no rings
Charlie Joiner: Averaged an incredible 19 yards more per game in nine playoff games than he did in the regular season, almost 2 more yards per catch, and doubled his rate of touchdowns per game.
Andre Reed: Averaged 8 more yards a game and scored 9 touchdowns in 19 playoff games.
Muhsin Muhammad: Most people, like us, are probably surprised Muhammad's among the top 20 for yardage. More impressive, Muhammad averaged a stunning 5.3 yards more per catch in the playoffs than in the regular season, easily the biggest increase of anyone in the top 20.
The obvious underachievers
Marvin Harrison: Harrison won a title, but was a virtual non-factor with the Colts that postseason (2006). He averaged almost 22 yards per game less in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, and he scored only 2 touchdowns in 16 playoff games. He didn't lack for opportunities; only two receivers in the top 20 appeared in more playoff games.
Henry Ellard: Averaged almost 19 yards less per game in the playoffs, and with only one touchdown in 10 playoff games. Ellard has the lowest rate of touchdowns per playoff game of anyone in the top 20.
Irving Fryar: Averaged 14 less yards per game and 3 less yards per catch. Only Harrison and Ellard have a lower rate of touchdowns per playoff game.
Tony Gonzalez: Gonzalez averaged almost 22 yards per game less, and 2 yards per catch less in three playoff losses. He did score two touchdowns in the three games, though.
And then there's Randy Moss
In 12 playoff games, Moss averages 5 yards less per game than he did in the regular season. But he caught longer balls: almost 3 yards more per catch.
Moss's rate of touchdowns per playoff games played is .83, the best of anyone in the top 20, edging out Jerry Rice's .79. So Moss certainly found his way into the end zone better than anybody in the playoffs (10 TD in 12 games).
But it was true, as noted in the yesterday's piece
, that something just didn't click in New England between Moss and Brady in the playoffs. They were a deadly combo in the regular season. But they were a dud in the postseason. Moss averaged 3 catches per game, 11.9 yards per catch, and 0.25 TD per game in four postseason contests with the Patriots – all well below his regular-season productivity.
But the "wide receiver as hood ornament" theory has a great deal of merit in one respect, that has nothing to do with whether a receiver performs well in the playoffs or doesn't. And that merit is this: receivers, even the greatest, simply do not touch the ball that often.
Consider the case of Rice. He is easily the most prolific postseason pass catcher in NFL history. Few would argue that he's anything but the greatest postseason receiver ever.
Those of us old enough have vivid memories of this dashing performer carving up defenses as a virtually unstoppable force of nature in one playoff game after another.
But as is so often the case in pigskin analysis, in which anecdotes and hazy nostalgia are often confused with Cold, Hard Football Facts, our memories are somewhat misleading.
The brilliant Rice caught just 5.4 passes per game in his postseason career; it took him three games to score two touchdowns. And he's the best ever.
Sure, to use a football cliche, maybe the great receivers "open up things underneath" for the ground game or short passing game. But guys like Joe Montana and Tom Brady never seemed to have trouble finding soft spots in the coverage, even before Rice and Moss were added to their respective arsenals.
So there you have the hood ornament of football in a nutshell: Wide receivers are fast, vivid, sexy and highly memorable. But hey're not the engine that powers a successful football machine, even if it sure is fun to watch them flash down a football field.
Top 20 receivers of all time, regular-season receiving yards
(regular-season production vs. postseason production)