Should Lynn Swann be in the Hall of Fame? What do the numbers say?

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.

The rise of the passing game is not a linear story in pro football history. Passing in the ’50s and the ’60s was more productive (and not just in the American Football League) than it was in the ’70s. Receivers from the 1970s tend to be under appreciated by today’s fans; Harold Jackson, Cliff Branch, Gene Washington, Harold Carmichael and Drew Pearson were fantastic players stuck playing during the post-World War II nadir of aerial attacks. With the possible (and similarly misunderstood) exception of Joe Namath, no Hall of Famer’s bust bothers modern fans by its very existence than Lynn Swann’s.

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.

1977

2010

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 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.

  • Anonymous

    Great article as always. Swann being in the Hall of Fame bothers me because Cliff Branch isn’t. More receptions, more yards, more td’s, more pro bowls, 4 time all 1st team all pro, unlike Swann’s lone 1978 appearance. For the life of me I cannot fathom why the voters exclude Branch and Jerry Kramer. I know Chris Carter had issues but he rebounded from those and should also be included. Once those 3 are in, I will then complain about Randy Gradishar, Ken Anderson and Charlie Conerly being excluded.

  • eddie

    the fact that peter king is struggling with his decision based just on # of receptions further defines the lunacy of that “writer”.  i believe this is proof positive that peter king should have his hall of fame voting status revoked on grounds of banality and ignorance.

  • Jeff

    Good article, but it doesn’t really answer the question
    posed. He had a good season in ’77, but over the course of his career did he
    have enough of those seasons?

  • Michael

    If Lynn Swann is in the HOF, then John Taylor from the 49ers belongs in the HOF as well.

  • Paul Meisel

    Swann was a 4 catch a game, 15 yards a touch, receiver in an era where that was pretty rare.  In the view of today’s statistics no WR looks all that great… but at that time he and Stallworth were a big deal (I remember, I was there)….  

  • PWS

    To what extent should quality and talent weigh in?  I understand Swann didn’t play long enough to compile HOF *stats*; but isn’t Chase implying that he was a HOF-quality receiver who due to a shorter career and the circumstances of his era, didn’t get the stats?

  • Jodybritt

    Swann should be in the Hall of Fame because when we were kids and (we) the same adult kids today still do this……..when we played back yard football, when we played out in the fields and we lined up as a wide receiver……..EVERY KID wanted to be who?     LYNN SWANN!!!  I live in Tennessee, always have, but even today at 42 when I play with my children and play receiver, not doubt about it…..I want to be LYNN SWANN!!

  • Anonymous

    “With the possible (and similarly misunderstood) exception of Joe Namath, no Hall of Famer’s bust bothers modern fans by its very existence than Lynn Swann’s”~~~~~~
    The game has changed dramatically since the rule changes of 1978. Not just by “inflation” in things like passing stats, but *what wins games* has changed.  For instance, today Average Yards/Attempt is the key passing stat (in all its many variations), but before the rule changes the “killer stat” was Average Yards/Completion — it had a much higher correlation with winning.

    This explains the long-throwers of those days like Namath and Unitas, and why they are so under-appreciated today. Back then completing *fewer* passes to hit longer ones won games. To today’s fans in our 65% completion era that is unthinkable — as is the notion that a QB would be MVP and 1st team All-Pro with with career- and league-*low* completion percentages, as Unitas was multiple times.  (And this is only made worse by that horrible thing called “passer rating” — so biased in favor of high completion pct and aganst yards gained that completed passes that *lose yards* can boost a QB’s rating!)

    People who denigrate Namath’s passing numbers should actually look at them in light of what won games at the time …

    http://community.advancednflstats.com/2011/10/appreciating-how-old-ones-played-or-joe_06.html

    … they are pretty damn impressive, match up very well against all the supposedly better QBs of the last 20 years, head-to-head. Well ahead of Brady, for instance.

    As it was with the QBs back then so it was with the receivers. All of Swann’s 780 to 880 yard seasons were equivalent to about 1150 to 1350 yard today — with high yards/catch when yards/catch *won games*.

    The passing game today just isn’t anything like it used to be.  And vice versa.  As a result, many of the old-timers are sorely under-appreciated.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, here’s the direct link to Namath’s numbers adjusted to 2000s terms, for any who may be interested.  (The other link compares the 1970s to 2000s and gets to them indirectly.)

    http://community.advancednflstats.com/2011/10/joes-numbers-and-moral-of-story.html

    Consider it a supplement to the PFR.com post on Namath mentioned above.   Many people today do not appreciate how severely the passing numbers of yore are deflated when judged in today’s terms.

  • Chase Stuart

    Thanks, RLBruce.  I hear you on Branch.  He has a lot of the same issues as Stabler, not surprisingly.  The duo had elite, HOF seasons in ’74 and ’76, but the rest of Stabler’s career was not as strong (’73 was a very good year, too).  Branch led the league in receiving yards in ’74, had more yards in ’76, and led the league in receiving TDs in both years. His ’75 was very good (Stabler still had a great Y/A in ’75, it’s just that his TD/INT ratio went from 26/12 to 16/24 before rebounding to 27/17) but he didn’t have the longevity to make people remember him as much.  In the link I posted above, I did select Branch to my mythical All-Decade team of the ’70s.

  • Chase Stuart

    Thanks, Jeff.  Swann’s HOF case is a tough one because he’s got some of the same issues as a Gale Sayers or Priest Holmes or Terrell Davis; he only started 96 games in his career.  For someone like Dick Butkus, that would have been okay.  There’s no doubt that Swann is on the outer tier of the HOF, and there’s a reason people like him and Eller took 14+ years to get inducted. 

    As for the question at hand, I hope to provide a meaningful answer to you down the road.  This is really just Part I of a series, but glad to hear you enjoyed.

  • Chase Stuart

    Once the bar is lowered, this is the sort of reaction that will follow.  To me, the most undeserving HOFer is Paul Hornung (this does not make Packers fans happy), and you can find as many RBs as you can count with a more deserving case.  The standard should never be being better than the worst HOFer.

    Taylor was a short-peak player.  It would be unfair to call him a rich man’s Alvin Harper, but he wasn’t Swann.  He only had two really noteworthy seasons, and made just one Pro Bowl as a receiver.

  • Chase Stuart

    Hines Ward is a very polarizing player, mostly because Steelers fans can be intolerable (despite my post, I’m certainly not a Steelers homer) at times.  But one of the — and surely the only — reasons Ward is underrated was because he played for such a run-first team. I’m sympathetic to receivers on run-first offenses and I think they tend to be underrated.  Ward is overrated for all of the reasons we know, but that’s one reason he’s not.

    I picked ’77 as a season to isolate, but consider 1976. As many are aware, that was perhaps Pittsburgh’s greatest team, and almost certainly it’s greatest defense.  Pittsburgh allowed 9.8 points per game; only five teams since WWII have allowed fewer than 10 points per game.  Some of that was era, but those Steelers were famous for shutting out five opponents that season (the only team in the post-war era to do so: http://pfref.com/tiny/9rizy)

    Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh ranked 1st in rushing attempts and last in passing attempts. The Steelers ran on 68% of offensive plays.  Swann had “only” 516 receiving yards that season, but Pittsburgh only passed 277 times. That’s about half of what the league average was in 2010.  Considering Swann played in only 12 of 14 games that season, his 516 yards was pretty solid, despite what we might think of it today.

  • Chase Stuart

    Dick Butkus is an interesting case. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Sean Lahman’s work, but he argued that Butkus’ on-field production was pretty mediocre.  He was a HOF talent, but as far as actual performance, he may not have delivered HOF work.

    It’s a slippery slope once you start talking about talent, though.  I think what you need to do is frame the statistics in the context of his era and his situation.  But I’m leery to just use talent alone.

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  • LEPackers

    I know this article is about WRs…..but could someone please explain how Randall McDaniel gets in the HOF over Jerry Kramer from the Packers?  McDaniel=7 Time First Team All Pro, zero championships, no All-NFL Team.  Kramer= 5 Time First Team All Pro, 5 World Championships (2 Super Bowls), All 50 Year Team and key cog of one of the most signature plays in the history of the NFL.  I just don’t get it.

  • Paul Meisel

    Never have understood why Kramer didn’t get in other than maybe the voters didn’t like his book, or thought they had enough Packers in already.  

  • Mr.Murder

    Branch was still going strong in the 80′s on two Super Bowl winners. Branch was also a returner in his young days?

    If Lynn Sann goes before him, so does Alvin Harper. Speed guys who showed up on occasion and won Super Bowls. 

  • Peter Damilatis

    That is an excellent point Chase, and one I always make when arguing Hall of Famers.  I hate when someone says “if Player A is in, then so should Player Y.” With that line of thinking, over time, everyone deserves to be a Hall of Famer.

  • Peter Damilatis

    That is an excellent point Chase, and one I always make when arguing Hall of Famers.  I hate when someone says “if Player A is in, then so should Player Y.” With that line of thinking, over time, everyone deserves to be a Hall of Famer.

  • Michael

    Quite frankly, the bar was raised so high by the Rice/Brown/Carter trio, that John Taylor and Lynn Swann both wouldn’t make the HOF by those standards. The raw numbers for Taylor: 347/5,598/16.1/43 are comparable to Swann’s 336/5,462/16.3/51. If you moved Taylor to any other NFL team in that period, he puts up numbers that would far exceed Swann. The 49ers offenses of that era were designed to distribute the ball to everyone, and often did. He is a talent that will be far overshadowed by the Rice/Craig/Montana trio that drove the team.

  • Michael

    I have another “if Player A is in, then so should Player Y.” If Lynn Swann is in, then so should Cliff Branch.

  • rageraider

    Carter and Brown are not all that dissimilar, outside of Carter’s TD numbers.  Brown played on some really bad offensive units, but still led the league a number of times in receptions/yards and was top ten otherwise for the duration of his career.  He deserves in.

  • Mark

    The “tiebreaker” that gets Swann in is a Super Bowl MVP…

  • http://www.stopsnoringconsumerreports.com Jeff
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  • Tyler Taylor

    GOOD POINTS MADE ABOUT THE ERA OF PASSING WAS LESS THAN TODAY. I ACTUALLY GET IT AND HAVE NO WAY I CAN GO AGAINST THAT INFO, GREAT WAY TO EXPLAIN WHY PEOPLE THAT WOULD DISAGREE, IF HUMAN WILL ACTUALLY SEE, THE FACTS MATTER. WHEN WE LOOK BACK AT TODAY, LIKE WITH ART MONK BEING IN NOW WITH 941 CATCHES WHICH USE TO BE #1 ALL TIME, WE WILL SEE TODAYS WR’S AS NOT BEING AS PROLIFIC POSSIBLY AS WELL IF GAMES INCREASE PER SEASON AND HEALTH OF PLAYERS AND RULES THAT FAVOR OFFENSE MORE DOWN THE RAOD. GREAT EXAMPLES AND FACTS. SWANN BELONGS IN!!! LGNM