As one of members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee, I appreciate Peter King’s candor when it comes to the struggles the voters face when discussing wide receivers. King has written about the wide receiver conundrum frequently, including this note a couple of weeks ago:
Hall of Fame Headache Dept.: Art Monk retired after the 1995 season with 940 catches, most in NFL history. On Sunday, Derrick Mason of Houston became the 11th player in 16 years to pass Monk. Mason had one catch in the 41-7 rout of Tennessee, giving him 941.
Larry Fitzgerald, 27, is 296 catches behind Monk. Andre Johnson, 29, is 242 behind him. We haven’t even begun with the children of the aerial generation, the receivers just starting their careers in a time of unprecedented passing.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The 44 electors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame will have to define what a Hall of Fame receiver is over the next few years, because they’ll be facing an onslaught of receivers way beyond Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed. Isaac Bruce (1,024 receptions) or Torry Holt (920)? Or both? Hines Ward (980) or Mason (941)? And the tight end position could get similarly silly, numbers-wise. Tony Gonzalez has 289 more catches than any tight end in history.
There has to be something to separate these guys, and each voter has to search his/her conscience to judge them on more than numbers. I am one of the voters. It’ll be interesting, and perhaps maddening, to see how it unfolds.
I have several suggestions on how voters should tackle this admittedly tricky problem (here’s my article addressing the Carter/Brown/Reed conundrum), but I’ll leave further discussion of that for another day. For now, I want to examine exactly how much differently wide receivers are used today than they were 40 years ago. It’s easy to say things like “the passing game has exploded” but there’s nothing preventing us from being much more precise than that.
Swann bashers are infuriated that he made the Hall of Fame simply because he won four Super Bowls, thanks in large part to playing with eight Hall of Fame teammates and under a Hall of Fame head coach. Swann’s career numbers are incredibly underwhelming, on the surface: 336 catches, 5,462 yards and 51 touchdowns. It’s easy to see why people question his legacy, and there’s no doubt that he’s one of the weaker selections in recent history. But as with every player, his place in history must be put in proper context.
Swann’s career was short: he only started 96 games, which equates to six full seasons under today’s schedule. He retired at the age of 30 to broadcast games for the upstart United States Football League; that alone prevented his numbers from stacking up to a Charlie Joiner, who entered the league five years earlier and exited four seasons later. Comparing his stats to a player like Wes Welker from today’s era would be a bigger injustice.
So how does one compare Swann to Welker?
It’s help to compare apples to apples, so let’s just pick one of Swann’s seasons. 1977 was perhaps the lowest point in passing over the last 60 years; it was also the last season played with a 14-game schedule and prior to two key rules changes. That year, teams averaged just 12.8 completions per game against 37.4 runs; last year, those averages were 20.5 and 27.2, respectively. In the ’70s, a much higher percentage of offensive plays ended with the offense unequivocally failing, as sacks and incompletions (and interceptions) were much more common. Last year, wide receivers were catching passes on 24% of all plays that were either rushing plays or passes that were completed (i.e., plays that might gain yards for the offense); in 1977, that number was only 11%. (Ideally, of course, we would exclude rushes and completed passes that went for nonpositive yards, but such historically data is not easily attainable.)
That is no small footnote: the higher pass-to-run ratios, the rules that led to higher completion percentages, and the increased emphasis on the wide receiver position in general have, in the aggregate, increased the level of impact in the offense by wide receivers from 11 to 24%. Of course modern receivers will have numbers that dwarf what was produced in the ’70s. And that’s without considering that the raw numbers hide the fact that players like Swann and Carmichael and Jackson played most of their careers in 14-game seasons.
Some advanced analysis beyond merely looking at receptions and receiving yards is required to compare players across eras. For example, in 2010, Roddy White led the league in percentage of team receptions, catching 31.9% of all Falcons’ completions. Larry Fitzgerald (31.6) and Steve Johnson (27.7%) rounded out the top three. In 1977, New York Jet Clark Gaines (32.4%) led all players in that metric, with Baltimore’s Lydell Mitchell (31.7%) and Bears’ receiver James Scott (31.1%) as the only other players ahead of Swann in percentage of team receptions (Swann was fourth at 28.9%). I’m not sure if there’s a starker example of how different 1977 was from 2010 than that: a fullback on a 3-11 team had a higher percentage of his team’s catches in ’77 than Roddy White did for the Falcons last season. Gaines was a good receiver — in 1980 he caught 17 passes in a game — but was a product of a much different offensive environment.
To get a sense of the times, check out this box score from November 1977. Bert Jones completed 27 of 46 passes with twenty of his completions going to running backs Don McCauley and Lydell Mitchell. The Baltimore Colts were 10-4, ranked 6th in points scored and 3rd in passing yards. Mitchell led the team with 71 catches, McCauley was second with 51 receptions and tight end Raymond Chester – at the time between stints with the Raiders – was third with 31 grabs. One of the best, most pass-heavy teams in the league, with one of the decade’s best quarterbacks, had exactly zero of its top three receptions leaders play wide receiver.
So let’s take a closer look at Swann’s 1977 season. On the surface, his 50 catches, 789 yards and 7 touchdowns do not stand out as particularly impressive. But that year, Pittsburgh led the league in yards per pass attempt, with an offense that relied heavily on the wide receivers. The St. Louis Cardinals — coached by Don Coryell — led the league in net yards per pass attempt, which deducts sack yardage from the numerator and includes sacks in the denominator. And while Mel Gray and Ike Harris led the team in receptions, running backs Terry Metcalf, Wayne Morris, Steve Jones and Jerry Latin caught 41% of the team’s completions. Dallas, which won the Super Bowl and led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt (which includes a bonus for touchdown passes and a penalty for interceptions), also featured the running backs heavily in the passing game. Drew Pearson led the team with 48 receptions, but running back Preston Pearson was hot on his heels with 46 catches. Tony Dorsett was third with 29 grabs.
Putting aside the increase in both volume (teams averaged 142 passing yards per game in ’77 compared to 222 last season) and efficiency (the league average ANY/A was 3.5 in ’77 but has steadily risen to 5.9 last year), passing was still very different in 1977 compared to 2010. Take a look at the two pie graphs below, which breaks down team receptions — on average — by each player on the field: the WR1, WR2, RB1, TE1, and all of the other wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. In both 1977 and 2010, the average number one wide receiver was getting just over 20% of his team’s catches while the number two receiver was responsible for just under 15% of team receptions. That much hasn’t changed.
But the presence of three wide receiver sets — and the concomitant number of times a wide receiver will line up in the slot — has dramatically risen over the last 35 years. Even excluding the top two wide receivers, the rest of a team’s receiving corp can still be expected to account for nearly 20% of the team’s receptions, unheard of production for most of football history. In 1977, the rest of the wide receivers were responsible for only 7% of catches. Just as striking is where those receptions are coming from: In 1977, running backs accounted for 41% of team catches, compared to just 24% in modern times. The typical pro-set, with two receivers, a tight end, fullback and halfback, has been replaced by the three receiver set. The slot wide receiver has replaced the fullback, and the pie charts above depict this well. The idea of a player like Gaines being responsible for nearly one-third of his team’s receptions is modern times seems ridiculous. It’s easy to focus on the increase in attempts and efficiency in the passing game, but the change in distribution of personnel and philosophy is just as responsible for the monster numbers wide receivers today are producing.
How does this apply to Swann, specifically? In many ways, the ’77 Steelers were more like a modern team than any other in the league. In 2010, wide receivers caught 55% of the average team’s completions; the Steelers were the only team in 1977 to have their receivers account for such a percentage, as the Pittsburgh receiving corp caught 64% of the team’s receptions that season. Having two Hall of Fame receivers will make you shift your strategy, and that’s exactly what happened in Pittsburgh. Third receiver Frank Lewis was a true deep threat but (in Pittsburgh’s offense, at least) nothing more; three of his 11 receptions went for over 40 yards.
The Steelers were the only team whose top two wideouts caught over 50% of the team’s receptions. Only two other teams were within striking distance of Pittsburgh, as both Philadelphia and Miami saw their top two receivers catch 47% of their passes. For the Eagles, it helped that the head coach was Dick Vermeil and the criminally underrated Harold Carmichael (along with Charlie Smith) was on the team. The extenuating circumstances for the Dolphins were Nat Moore, Duriel Harris, Don Shula and Howard Schnellenberger as offensive coordinator.
So Swann’s Steelers favored the receiver much more than most teams, and Swann was the preferred receiver. As noted above, he finished second in the league among wide receivers in percentage of team catches, behind Chicago’s James Scott. If you recall the 1977 Bears at all, it is likely for one reason: Walter Payton had one of the greatest seasons in football history, rushing for over 1,800 yards while leading the league in every major running back category (rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards per carry, yards from scrimmage, and total touchdowns). The Bears finished fourth in rush attempts and fourth to last in pass attempts, which helps to put Scott’s production in context.
So how do we evaluate players from the ’70s to today’s receivers? For a player like Swann, we should recognize that, at least in 1977:
- His team had one of the three or four most productive passing offenses in the league
- His team utilized the wide receiver position far more frequently than any other team of the day
- He ranked 4th in the league in receptions as a percentage of team completions, trailing only two running backs and a receiver on one of the league’s most rush-heavy team
His team passed better than most. His team passed to wide receivers far more frequently than most. And he was his team’s top wide receiver. That sounds a lot better than saying he gained 789 receiving yards.