By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts glutton for punishment
The say that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. It’s true in our own lives and its true during the wild wide receiver feeding-frenzy we witnessed here in week one of free agency.
Believe you us, we know a thing or two about gluttony. The Cold, Hard Football Facts crew, for example, hosts a huge bash every Thanksgiving morning before the big high school football games that are such a great 100-year-old tradition in our little corner of Football Nation.
We call it the Pigskin Gala. We tap the keg at 6 a.m., amid Great Pomp and Circumstance, and drink to excess. We gorge ourselves on piles of homemade bacons and sausage. We fry our own donuts. We eat smoked venison sausage that we make by hand with natural hog casings and love. And only then do we go to the game and follow up the breakfast feast with a massive turkey dinner.
It’s a vile, offensive feeding frenzy with no higher purpose but to satiate our base human needs.
It kind of reminds us of the first week of free agency, as NFL executives engaged in a vile, offensive wide receiver feeding frenzy with no higher purpose but to satiate their base needs. Ten wide receivers were signed within hours of the opening of free agency (two by their existings teams), and in many cases to huge, big-money contracts.
Like the CHFF crew mesmerized by sausage and turkey on Thanksgiving Day, NFL executives cannot help themselves in the face of so many wide receivers. They are helplessly hypnotized by flashy, high-profile and high-priced wide receivers and can’t help but throw buckets of money at them under the delusion that WRs win games.
Teams believe that if they gorge themselves at the wide receiver banquet today that they'll win games in January. These teams are wrong. They may feel smug and fulfilled right now. But by the end of the 2012 season these executives will wake up the same way we do the day after Thanksgiving: broke, hungover and filled with shame, regret and heartburn.
If you don't have time to read the whole piece, the best way we can sum it up is like this: if Tampa Bay expects new $56-million man Vincent Jackson to turn Josh Freeman into Tom Brady and then still win games with a defense that surrendered 494 points in 2011, they're in for a very long, frustrating year.
HISTORY SAYS DON’T OVERVALUE WRs
You know our take on wide receivers. Even the best are little more than Shiny Hood Ornaments on the engine of NFL offenses: all bright, eye-catching and sexy, but not really essential to the inner workings of the machine.
A guy who touches the ball four or five times per game can only have so much impact, no matter how good he is at “stretching the field.” Quite frankly, a wide receiver who "stretches the field" is no substitute for a Hall of Fame quarterback who "makes good decisions" or, you know, "throws accurate passes."
Year after year, time and again, teams wildly overvalue wide receivers, only to get burned badly in the process. Last year, predictably, it was the Atlanta Falcons who got burned worse than anybody by their infatuation with a Shiny Hood Ornament.
This year, most of those teams that gorged themselves during the feeding frenzy will get burned badly by those wide receivers, too, kind of like a New England Patriots cornerback in a Super Bowl.
We’ve been doing a lot of historic research this week, looking at Super Bowl champs and the their wide receiving corps to look for any consistencies between prolific wide receivers and championship success. It's a mixed bag at best. Sure, it's better to have great wide receivers than to have lousy wide receivers. But at the end of the day, there are a lot of keys to Super Bowl success more important than high-priced, big-named or highly prolific wide receivers.
ONE – Drew Pearson of the Cowboys was the first of just two pass catchers to lead the NFL in receiving yards and win a Super Bowl (1977). Remember, though, he enjoyed the luxury of joining a dynastic team at the height of its powers and already in possession of a Hall of Fame quarterback.
Tom Landry did not over-value the receiver, either. Pearson was an undrafted free agent when the Cowboys signed him in 1973.
By the way, that’s another reason teams should not over-value wide receivers: great contributors are often found for very little value, like Pearson back in the 1970s or Victor Cruz with the Giants today.
Pearson went on to become one of Dallas’s all-time great receivers. But Dallas did not win NFC championships in 1975 and 1978 and a Super Bowl in 1977 because they fell in love with Pearson. Hell, when Pearson led the NFL in receiving yards (870) for the Super Bowl champs in 1977, he scored just 2 TDs.
By the way, "Bullet" Bob Hayes led the Cowboys with 35 catches for 840 yards (and 8 TD) during the team's first Super Bowl-winning season of 1971.
TWO – Jerry Rice of the 49ers is the only other receiver to lead the NFL in receiving yards and win a Super Bowl (something he did twice). And, hell, Rice was only the greatest pass catcher of all time.
And even then, Rice joined a VERY enviable situation. He was paired with not just one but two Hall of Fame QBs, leading the NFL in yards when catching passes from Joe Montana in San Francisco’s Super Bowl-winning season of 1989 and pulling off the same feat five years later when catching passes from Steve Young.
Rice, like Pearson, also had the luxury of joining a great organization at the height of its powers. He was drafted in 1985 by the defending Super Bowl champ 18-1 49ers, arguably the best team in franchise history and one of the best of all time. By the way, like most champs, those incredible 1984 49ers were not overly dependent upon their Shiny Hood Ornaments. Dwight Clark led the team with 52 catches for 880 yards and 6 TD.
Rice did NOT make the 49ers a great team. A great team, great system and great QBs helped make this incredible, hard-working talent the best of all time.
THREE – 21 of 46 Super Bowl champions (46%) did not possess a single 1,000-yard pass catcher, including 11 teams here in the Live Ball Era (since 1978). In two instances, teams boasted a 1,000-yard tight end (Todd Christensen with the 1983 Raiders, Mark Bavaro with the 1986 Giants) but no 1,000-yard Shiny Hood Ornaments.
In other words, exactly half of all champs, including 13 in the Live Ball Era, did not possess a single 1,000-yard wide receiver. You can win with a lot of guys plugging away at wideout, and probably do it for short money.
FOUR – The last six Super Bowl champs did have 1,000-yard receivers, however. Even then, few of these last half-dozen champs won because they threw big bucks at Shiny Hood Ornaments. Marques Colston of the 2009 Saints was a seventh-round draft pick out of a small school (Hofstra); Victor Cruz of the 2011 Giants was an undrafted free agent, also out of a small-time football school (UMass).
By the way, the last two teams to win consecutive Super Bowls were the 1997-98 Broncos and 2003-04 Patriots.
The Broncos were led in receiving both seasons by Rod Smith, an undrafted free agent who had the fortune of being paired with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway.
The 2003 Patriots were led in receiving by Deion Branch (57 catches, 803 yards, 3 TD); the 2004 Patriots were led by seventh-round draft pick David Givens (56, 874 yards, 3 TD). Both had the fortune of being paired with Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.
Bottom line: the Broncos and Patriots did not win consecutive Super Bowls because they threw crazy money at big-name wide receivers.
FIVE -- Only two Hall of Fame wide receivers won Super Bowls without Hall of Fame quarterbacks. We've seen plenty of great receivers win plenty of Super Bowls, from Hall of Famer Paul Warfield with the 1972-73 Dolphins to future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison with the 2006 Colts. Warfield, for his part, caught a total of 58 passes in those twoo championships seasons, and 14 more (with 1 TD) in those two postseasons. Harrison caught 15 passes (and 0 TDs) during Indy's four-game 2006 Super Bowl run.
Meanwhile, only two Hall of Fame receivers won Super Bowls without the luxury of a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing them the ball.
Fred Biletnikoff won a Super Bowl with the 1976 Raiders. In fact, he was the MVP of Super Bowl XI (4 catches, 79 yards, 0 TD ... different era, huh?). Even then, he was only third on the team in receiving that year (43 catches, 551 yards, 7 TD), behind Cliff Branch and Dave Casper, while Ken Stabler had a career season (103.4 rating, incredible for the time).
The other Hall of Fame wide receiver to win Super Bowls without a Hall of Fame QB was three-time champion Art Monk (1982, 1987, 1991). He was certainly a great player, but Monk made the Hall of Fame largely on the strength of longevity more than anything else. He never led the NFL in yards or touchdowns, and topped the league in catches only once (a landmark 106 catches in 1984). Monk wasn't even the team's top receiver for any of those Super Bowl champs. Those honors went to Charlie Brown (1982) and Gary Clark (1987, 1991).
SIX - Twenty-one of 46 NFL champs did not have a Top-10 receiver. Great quarterbacks are typically those that are best at spreading the ball around to a variety of weapons. It was a skill a player like Tom Brady mastered, perhaps out of necessity, when he was winning Super Bowls with the likes of Branch and Givens. He's had plenty of go-to targets since then, most notably Randy Moss and Wes Welker, each of whom have been record-setting pass catchers when paired with the future Hall of Fame QB. But those tandems have not won a single Super Bowl, either.
Brady is only one recent example. Nearly half of all Super Bowl champs did not have one single receiver who ranked in the top 10 in receiving yards. The first was the 1967 Packers, who won Super Bowl II during a season in which Boyd Dowler led the team with 54 catches for 836 yards and 4 TDs. But the passing game, behind big-game assassin Bart Starr, was good enough to dominate all three postseason opponents.
The last to win a Super Bowl without a top-10 receiver was the 2009 Saints. Seventh-round find Marques Colston led the team with 70 catches for 1,074 yards and 9 TD. Seventeen different receivers produced more yards that season than Colston. But the passing game, behind prolific passer Drew Brees and a galaxy of weapons, was good enough to dominate its postseason opponents.
By the way, only15 Super Bowl champs boasted a wide receiver that ranked in the league's top five in receiving yards.
Listen , you want the best players at all positions. Having better receivers is better than having lousy receivers. We understand. But the fact of the matter is that you can win Suepr Bowls without a guy dominating at the position. You can win Super Bowls without throwing crazy money at big names in the off-season. You can win Super Bowls by harvesting value from seemingly unwanted players.
Great quarterbacks and great teams make wide receivers champions; wide receivers do not make lousy quarterbacks and lousy teams champions.
It’s one of the foundations of the Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law and the No. 1 reason you should not gorge yourself on wideouts in free agency, the draft or at anytime, really, unless all the other pieces of success are already in place.