Category Archives: Stats/Charts

Anybody want a 500-catch receiver?

It’s been an interesting offseason so far for name-brand NFL wide receivers. Seven of the Top 14 in career receptions — among active wideouts, that is —  have either been released (3), traded (1) or had their contracts run out without being re-signed (3). Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? (And an eighth, let’s not forget, Larry Fitzgerald, reworked his deal to save the Cardinals nearly $13 million on their 2015 cap.)

Reggie Wayne will have to make catches like this for another team now.

Reggie Wayne: 1 of 2 1,000-catch receivers sent packing this month.

The disposability of running backs has been a major topic of conversation the past few years, but any player in his 30s — as all of these receivers can attest — lives a fragile existence, too. If you’re still drawing a hefty salary at the age, you’d better be putting up the numbers to justify it. Otherwise your team might decide you’re in a Death Spiral and put you in the recycle bin. With a younger player, there’s more patience with ups and downs, but with a guy in his 30s it’s different. One off year, after all, could easily foreshadow a second . . . and a third.

Dwayne Bowe is the youngest of the aforementioned wideouts (31 in September), Reggie Wayne the oldest (37 in November, if there is another November for him). You could argue that the bell has tolled for some of them — Wayne and Santana Moss, say, and (maybe) the oft-concussed Wes Welker. But Bowe and Greg Jennings had three years remaining on their contracts, and Brandon Marshall and Andre Johnson had two. So there’s a significant Bail-Out Factor here as well.

Nobody can tell me that some of them don’t have some good seasons left – in the right offense with the right quarterback. But it’s the way of the NFL world now. A well-paid wideout in his 30s has a less-than-stellar year and, regardless of the circumstances (instability at QB, injuries, etc.), isn’t brought back.

Marshall’s trade to the Jets was a virtual giveaway. (“Take his contract (and personality) — please!” ) All the Bears got in return was a fifth-round pick. They even had to throw in a seventh-rounder themselves. Here’s the rundown on the Not-So-Magnificent (Anymore) Seven:

THE COMINGS AND GOINGS OF SOME TOP-RANKED WIDEOUTS

Rank Wide Receiver, Last Team Catches Status
1 Reggie Wayne,Colts 1,070 Unsigned FA
2 Andre Johnson, Texans 1,012 Cut, signed with Colts
6 Wes Welker, Broncos    890 Unsigned FA
8 Brandon Marshall, Bears    773 Traded to Jets
10 Santana Moss, Redskins    732 Unsigned FA
13 Greg Jennings, Vikings    552 Cut
14 Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs    532 Cut

And here are their individual situations:

● Wayne (37 in November): 3-year, $17.5M deal expired.

● Johnson (34 when season starts): Had 2 years left on a 5-year, $67.8M deal ($15.6M cap number for 2015). Signed with the Colts for 3 years, $21M ($10M guaranteed).

● Welker (34 when season starts): 2-year, $12M deal expired.

● Marshall (31 when season starts): Traded to the Jets with 2 years left on a 3-year, $30M deal ($22.3M guaranteed). The Bears received a 2015 No. 5 pick for him but also sent the Jets a No. 7.

● Moss (36 when season starts): 1-year, $1.02M deal expired.

● Jennings (32 in September): Had 3 years left on a 5-year, $45M deal ($11M cap number for 2015). The Vikings replaced him with Mike Wallace in a trade similar to the Marshall swap.

● Bowe (31 in September): Had 3 years left on 5-year, $56M deal ($14M cap number for 2015).

Sources: pro-football-reference.com, spotrac.com

Andre Johnson is one of two 1,000-catch wideouts cast off by his longtime team this month.

Andre Johnson, meanwhile, will try to pick up in Indianapolis where Reggie Wayne left off.

Ndamukong Suh’s next 5 years

The Dolphins just handed Ndamukong Suh the key to their safe-deposit box: a 6-year, $114 million deal ($60 million guaranteed) that dwarfs his original 5-year, $60 million contract ($40 million guaranteed) with the Lions. (And let’s not forget: His rookie contract, under the old CBA, enabled him to earn a lot more than the second pick in the draft can now.)

In situations like this, the Albert Haynesworth Effect — a player getting buried in free-agent dollars and suddenly losing his enthusiasm for his job — is always a concern. There probably isn’t a team in the NFL that doesn’t have a horror story like that.

But an equally pertinent question is: What’s the likelihood Suh’s next five years will be as good as his first five? Because by paying Suh franchise-quarterback money, the Dolphins are saying, unequivocally: We think this player is still ascending. We think he’ll be worth more — substantially more — from 2015 to 2019 (and even 2020, if it comes to that) than he was from 2010 to 2014.

Here’s the thing, though: If you look at the top defensive tackles in recent years, you’ll see that’s rarely the case — in terms of sacks, at least. Granted, there are many ways to evaluate a player at Suh’s position, but certainly pass pressure is a big part of it. In today’s game, especially, a DT had darn well better get to the quarterback (if he wants to have much value of the free-agent market, that is).

Anyway, check out these well-known defensive tackles — and the sack totals they posted in their First 5 Years vs. their Second 5:

SACKS IN THEIR FIRST 5 YEARS VS. THEIR SECOND 5 YEARS (DT DIVISION)

Years Defensive tackle Teams(s) 1st 5 2nd 5 Diff.
1985-93 Keith Millard Vikings/3 others 51.0   7.0  -44.0
1990-99 John Randle Vikings 48.0 58.0 +10.0
1983-92 Bill Pickel Raiders/Jets 43.5 12.5  -31.0
1997-06 Trevor Price Broncos/Ravens 42.5 34.5    -8.0
1995-04 Warren Sapp Bucs/Raiders 42.0 37.5    -4.5
1996-05 La’Roi Glover Saints/2 others 42.0 29.5  -12.5
1988-97 Michael Dean Perry Browns/Broncos 41.5 19.5  -22.0
1992-03 Dana Stubblefield 49ers/Redskins 39.5 14.0  -25.5
1993-04 Bryant Young 49ers 37.0 29.5    -7.5
1992-01 Chester McGlockton Raiders/2 others 35.0 12.5  -22.5
2003-12 Kevin Williams Vikings 34.0 22.5  -11.5
1987-96 Henry Thomas Vikings/Lions 34.0 38.5   +4.5
1994-03 Dan Wilkinson 49ers/2 others 32.5 17.5  -15.0
1990-99 Cortez Kennedy Seahawks 32.0 25.0    -7.0

Suh has 36 sacks through his fifth season, so I limited the list to guys who were in that neighborhood at that point in their career. I also didn’t include erstwhile Eagle Andy Harmon (38.5 sacks) — because he didn’t last much more than 5 years. At any rate, we’ve got two gainers (Randle, Thomas) and 12 decliners (ranging from -4.5 to -44) — not the most encouraging odds for the Dolphins.

Of course, every player is different, particularly in the Internal Wiring Department. Maybe Suh will prove to be one of the exceptions. But chances are better Miami will be glad that “only” $60 million is guaranteed.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Dolphins are betting $114 million that  Ndamukong Suh will keep doing this to quarterbacks.

The Dolphins are betting $114 million that Ndamukong Suh will keep doing this to quarterbacks.

Second acts by 10,000-yard backs

Frank Gore, who rushed for 11,073 in his decade with the 49ers, will join the Eagles tomorrow when the 2015 business year opens. Which made me wonder: How much gas do guys like Gore usually have left in the tank?

Gore is the 10th back who has racked up 10,000 rushing yards with a team — his original team, that is — and then switched jerseys. As you can see in the following chart, the other nine haven’t exactly run wild in their new surroundings. So if Frank has a productive couple of years in Philadelphia, he’ll shoot to the top of this list:

Years Rnning back 1st Team Yards 2nd Team Yards
2004-14 Steven Jackson Rams 10,138 Falcons 1,250
2001-11 LaDainian Tomlinson Chargers 12,490 Jets 1,194
1990-04 Emmitt Smith Cowboys 17,162 Cardinals 1,193
1969-79 O.J. Simpson Bills 10,183 49ers 1,053
1977-88 Tony Dorsett Cowboys 12,036 Broncos    703
1996-04 Eddie George Titans 10,009 Cowboys    432
1998-10 Fred Taylor Jaguars 11,271 Patriots    424
1972-84 Franco Harris Steelers 11,950 Seahawks    170
1988-00 Thurman Thomas Bills 11,938 Dolphins    136
2005-14 Frank Gore 49ers 11,073 Eagles   TBD

Jackson, of course, was cut last month by the Falcons. If he can find another job though, he could push his total higher. He’ll be 32 next season — the same age as Gore.

At any rate, no club should have very high expectations when it acquires a back like this. The best rushing season any of them has had with in his Second Life is 937 yards (Smith, Cardinals, 2004).

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Frank Gore hitting the hole hard, as he usually does.

Frank Gore hitting the hole hard, as he usually does.

Marshawn Lynch gets an extension

Given the ever-shrinking value of NFL running backs, Marshawn Lynch’s two-year extension with the Seahawks is a semi-big deal. After all, he’ll soon be 29, which is practically the witching

Who could deny this man an extension?

Who could deny this man a contract extension?

hour for a back, and in recent days we’ve seen the Eagles unload LeSean McCoy, who’s two years younger than Beast Mode, and the Vikings wrestle with the “What do do about Adrian Peterson?” question.

No running back is very safe anymore. Almost all are viewed, by their fourth or fifth season, as expendable — utterly replaceable. Lynch’s case is a little different, though. Not only is he a big-time producer, he’s a big-time producer in the playoffs. He’s a huge reason Seattle has played in the last two Super Bowls (and as long as he stays healthy, he’ll be a huge reason the Seahawks play in any others in the next few years).

Lynch’s 2014 postseason was one of the best in recent memory for a back. Here’s where it ranks in the 2000s, based on rushing yards per game (minimum: three games):

TOP 5 POSTSEASONS BY A RUNNING BACK IN THE 2000S

Year Running Back, Team G Att Yds Avg TD PG
2012 Frank Gore, 49ers 3 63 319 5.1 4 106.3
2014 Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks 3 63 318 5.1 2 106.0
2001 Marshall Faulk, Rams 3 64 317 5.0 3 105.7
2009 Shonn Green, Jets 3 54 304 5.6 2 101.3
2006 Thomas Jones, Bears 3 55 301 5.5 4 100.3

Amazing, isn’t it? Gore, Lynch and Faulk put up almost exactly the same numbers.

But beyond that, only two backs in NFL history have had more 100-yard rushing games in the playoffs than Lynch. And before he’s done, he might be No. 1.

MOST 100-YARD RUSHING GAMES IN THE PLAYOFFS

Years Running Back, Team No.
1997-98 Terrell Davis, Broncos    7
1991-96 Emmitt Smith, Cowboys    7
2010-14 Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks    6
1990-95 Thurman Thomas, Bills    6
1982-83 John Riggins, Redskins    6

Paying any 29-year-old running back top dollar is a risky business, and rarely justified in these pass-crazy times. But if any back is worth it, Lynch is — to this particular team, at least. The Seahawks lean heavily on him, not just to reach the postseason but to win once they get there. It’s one of the things that makes Pete Carroll’s club so refreshingly unconventional. The franchise running back, an endangered species in pro football, is alive and well in Seattle.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

A closer look at Reggie Bush, the receiver

As soon as the Lions released Reggie Bush, I wondered whether he might be headed to the Patriots – that is, if they can’t re-sign Shane Vereen. I wasn’t the only one who had such thoughts. Bush is the type of back who would fit well in New England’s system, a guy who can catch the ball out of the backfield and run it out of the spread formation.

The question with Bush — or one of them, anyway — is: Exactly how good is he as a receiver? Because that’s mostly what the Patriots would want him for. Others, like LeGarrette Blount, can do the heavy lifting in the run game.

What’s always surprised me about Bush is that he hasn’t been more exceptional as a pass catcher, given his speed and elusiveness. Granted, his 466 receptions in the 2000s are second among backs behind LaDainian Tomlinson’s 624. But in the yards-per-catch department he ranks 55th at 7.49 (minimum: 150 rushes, 150 receptions).

Of the 31 backs since the 1970 merger who have caught 400 or more passes, only Curtis Martin (6.88) and Emmitt Smith (6.26) have lower per-catch averages than Bush. And Martin (3,518 rushing attempts) and Smith (4,409) expended much more energy carrying the ball from scrimmage than Reggie (1,266) has.

Here’s another way of looking at it: When Bush was in New Orleans with Sean Payton and Drew Brees, he averaged fewer yards per reception than Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas did in the same offense. The comparison:

RUNNING BACKS AS RECEIVERS IN THE SAINTS OFFENSE

Years Running Back Rec Yds Avg TD
2011-13 Darren Sproles 232 1,981 8.5 16
2007-14 Pierre Thomas 327 2,608 8.0 12
2006-10 Reggie Bush 294 2,142 7.3 12

In other words, Sproles got more out of each catch than Bush in terms of both yards and touchdowns, and Thomas squeezed out more yards and scored a tick less often (3.7 percent of the time vs. Reggie’s 4.1).

That, to me, is why Bush has had such an underwhelming career. Forget the injuries that have caused him to miss 28 games in nine seasons. He just hasn’t done all that much to separate himself from the pack. (Which is why he’s never been to the Pro Bowl — almost an accomplishment itself in these watered-down days).

Maybe, if you analyzed it play by play, you could come up with other explanations. Maybe Bush draws more attention from defenses. Or maybe more of his receptions are in the red zone, where the yards come harder. It’s just always struck me as odd that his yards-per-catch wasn’t higher.

If Vereen (9.6-yard average on 107 receptions) leaves New England, I’m sure Bill Belichick and rest of the Patriots brain trust will take all this into account when considering possible replacements. It’s not that Bush is a bad option necessarily; it’s just that, the closer you look at him, the more he seems like an ordinary one.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

You'd think, as a receiver in the open field, Reggie Bush would make people miss more.

You’d think Reggie Bush, as a receiver in the open field, would make people miss more.

Dez Bryant, historically speaking

There’s been such an explosion in receiving statistics in recent years — Calvin Johnson’s near 2,000-yard season in 2012, Randy Moss’ 23 touchdown catches in ’07, etc. — that it can be hard to keep track of them all. Take the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant, for instance. His last three seasons have been three of the best ever strung together by an NFL wideout. And yet, nobody’s called much attention to it (except maybe his agent, who’s trying to negotiate a new contract for him).

Consider: In each of those seasons, Bryant had 1,200-plus receiving yards and 12 or more touchdown grabs. You know how many other guys in pro football history have had a stretch like that? Four. And none of them, I’ll just point out, have done it four seasons in a row. So if Dez puts up similar numbers next year, he’ll be in a class by himself. Here’s the group he belongs to:

1,200 YARDS RECEIVING AND 12 TD CATCHES IN 3 CONSECUTIVE SEASONS

Years Receiver, Team 1st Year 2nd Year 3rd Year
2012-14 Dez Bryant, Cowboys 1,382/12 1,233/13 1,320/16
2000-02 Terrell Owens, 49ers 1,451/13 1,412/16 1,300/13
1999-01 Marvin Harrison, Colts 1,663/12 1,413/14 1,524/15
1993-95 Jerry Rice, 49ers 1,503/15 1,499/13 1,848/15
1989-91 Jerry Rice, 49ers 1,483/17 1,502/13 1,206/14
1964-66 Lance Alworth, Chargers (AFL) 1,235/13 1,602/14 1,383/13

Recognize anybody? Rice and Alworth, of course, are in the Hall of Fame, and Harrison and T.O. almost certainly will join them.

Rice nearly pulled it off seven years in a row (1989-91, 1,201 yards/10 touchdowns in ’92, 1993-95). He missed by just two TDs. And Alworth, let’s not forget, played when seasons were only 14 games long. (Granted, two of the seasons in question — 1964 and ’65 — were in the pre-Super Bowl AFL, which wasn’t quite up to NFL standards. But the shorter schedule balances it out, I think. He definitely belongs on the list.)

At any rate, we’re talking about a high level of production here. It’s rare enough for a wideout to have 12 TD catches three years in a row, never mind 1,200 yards. The only ones to accomplish that feat are the aforementioned five plus the Vikings’ Cris Carter (1997-99), another Canton resident. And again, nobody has done it four straight seasons, so Bryant has a shot at another first.

It’s something for the Cowboys to think about as they try to squeeze Bryant and DeMarco Murray under the salary cap. Murray is coming off a terrific season, sure, but Dez is coming off three terrific seasons — and is a year younger than DeMarco.

No one’s saying he doesn’t have some baggage. You can see his Warning Label from here. But the man delivers on the playing field — at historic levels. There’s no denying that.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Lance Alworth was the first wideout with 1,200 receiving yards and 12 TD catches three straight seasons.

Lance Alworth was the first wideout to rack up 1,200 receiving yards and 12 TD catches three straight seasons.

The passing record Lou Groza once held

When you think of Lou Groza, you think of this big guy — 6-3, 240, with a bit of a belly — booting field goals forever for the Browns. Groza happened to be a fine offensive tackle, too, protecting the blind side of Cleveland quarterbacks for more than a decade, but it’s his 264 field goals and 1,608 points that are more remembered. When he retired after the 1967 season, he held the career record in both categories. By a mile.

Lou Groza, doing what he did best.

Browns Hall of Famer Lou Groza, doing what he did best.

Anyway, you might be amused to learn that “The Toe,” as he was called, once held an NFL passing record. What record could that possibly be, you ask? Answer: For almost five years, he was the oldest player ever to throw a pass in the league.

Groza made this little piece of history in a 27-17 loss to the Vikings in 1965 – at the age of 41 years, 279 days. Patricia Heaton’s dad, Chuck, who covered the Browns for The Plain Dealer, described it this way:

The large and somewhat stunned gathering also saw Lou Groza throw a forward pass. The Toe, who on very few occasions in the past has had to resort to such desperation maneuvers, was trying to kick a 50-yard field goal.

The pass from center bounced away from Bobby Franklin, the holder. Lou recovered and, being confronted with nothing but purple [Vikings] jerseys, tried a pass. It was intended for John Brewer but wasn’t completed. So Minnesota took over.

The next season, in a similar situation, Groza threw another pass. This one was actually completed . . . for a 7-yard loss to one of his blockers, linebacker Vince Costello. Lou was now 42 years, 256 days old. This would stand as the record until 1975, when the George Blanda – a spry 43 years, 38 days – came off the bench to quarterback the Raiders to a 31-14 win over the Steelers. (He even tossed three touchdown passes, all of them longer than minus-7 yards.)

Blanda was still chucking in 1975, his final year in the NFL. In fact, in his last regular-season game, he went 1 for 3 for 11 yards (with one interception) as Oakland beat the Chiefs, 28-20. He’s still the Oldest Guy To Throw A Pass by more than three years.

In the decades since, only four other players older than Groza have cocked their arm and let one fly. Here’s that list:

THE SIX OLDEST PLAYERS TO THROW A PASS IN THE NFL

Year  Player, Team Vs Att Comp Yds TD Int Rate Age
1975  George Blanda, Raiders Chiefs   3   1   11 0 1     5.6 48-095
1998  Steve DeBerg, Falcons Dolphins 10   5   85 1 0 112.5 44-342
2007  Vinny Testaverde, Panthers Jaguars 28 13   84 0 1   38.4 44-026
2000  Warren Moon, Chiefs Chargers 31 12 130 0 1   38.4 44-008
2005  Doug Flutie, Patriots Jets   1   1     2 0 0   79.2 43-064
1966  Lou Groza, Browns Steelers   1   1    -7 0 0   79.2 42-256

The record Groza broke, by the way, was held by the Giants’ Charlie Conerly, who was 89 days past his 40th birthday when he relieved Y.A. Tittle in the 1961 title game against the Packers and hit 4 of 8 passes for 54 yards. (Not that “The Toe” wasn’t capable of a performance like that, had the center and holder just botched the snap a half-dozen more times.)

Postscript: When Bob O’Donnell and I were writing The Pro Football Chronicle in the ’80s, we came across an old story about Groza in one of the Cleveland newspapers. Instead of a head shot of him, though, the paper ran a photo of his right big toe.

Bob and I thought it would be hilarious if we could include The Toe’s toe in our book, so we tried to track the photo down. Alas, it had been lost to the ages. So Bob, not easily discouraged, phoned Groza and asked if his toe would be willing to pose for us. “We’ll send a photographer to your house,” he said.

At first, Lou was up for it. “No need to go to all that trouble,” he said. “I drive right by this photography studio every day. I’ll have the picture taken there and send it to you.” But soon he began to have second thoughts, began to think it might be “undignified” for a Hall of Fame player to have his 65-year-old toe appear in a book.

If I ever run into him in the hereafter, I’m going to make another pitch to him. I still think the world would love to see Lou Groza’s big right toe, gnarly or not.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The eternal life of a quarterback

At any other position — except maybe punter and kicker — when an NFL player hits 30, you start wondering how much longer he’s got left (or how many Pro Bowl seasons he might still have in him). But quarterbacks seem to have found the Fountain of Youth, what with all the passer-friendly rule changes and the league’s continuing effort to keep them safe.

When a QB reaches 30 these days, he’s often still on the rise — his play becoming more refined, his health no worse for the wear. Tom Brady just rallied the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory at the age of 37. The year before, Peyton Manning took the Broncos to the title game — and had one of the greatest seasons in pro football history — at the same age. And we may not have heard the last from either of them. The Patriots, remember, are still young, even if Brady isn’t (chronologically, at least).

You can’t ask for a better situation than that, not in a league that considers quarterbacks its first, second and third most important commodities. If QBs can play at a championship level well into their 30s — while everybody around them is aging more quickly — the NFL will never have a worry in the world, entertainment-wise. It might even be able to handle another round or two of expansion, which you know the owners want.

Let me show you what I mean about quarterbacks performing better as they get older. Note I didn’t say, “getting better as they get older.” It’s harder to measure that. After all, what a QB might gain over the years in terms of judgment and understanding, he might lose in arm strength and mobility. Does that make him a better player, necessarily, or just one who wins in a different way? But performance is measurable — through statistics. (And obviously, some of the improvement can be attributed to the aforementioned rule changes, which pushed the league-wide passer rating this past season to 87.1, an all-time high.)

Anyway, after crunching some numbers, I learned that not only does a quarterback’s rating tend to improve in his 30s, sometimes dramatically, he often throws more passes in his 30s than does in his 20s. The second discovery was a bit of a shock. Imagine if this was true of the average running back, receiver or pass rusher. Imagine if the NFL had across-the-board longevity like that. (Not that some the rules favoring passers don’t also help the guys doing the catching.)

Brady is a classic example. In his 20s he had a rating of 88.4 (on 3,064 pass attempts); in the 30s he has a rating of 101.5 (on 4,104 attempts) — an increase of 13.1 points. That’s tops among active quarterbacks who have thrown 1,000 or more passes on both sides of the 30 divide.

A QUARTERBACK’S 20S VS. HIS 30S (ACTIVE QBS ONLY) 

Quarterback Team(s) 20s Rate (Att) 30s Rate (Att) +/- Pts
Tom Brady Patriots 88.4 (3,064) 101.5 (4,104) +13.1
Drew Brees Chargers/Saints 89.4 (3,650) 101.2 (3,808) +11.8
Peyton Manning Colts/Broncos 93.5 (4,333) 101.2 (4,716)   +7.7
Tony Romo Cowboys 95.6 (1,857) 99.2 (2,353)   +3.6
Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 92.1 (3,313) 97.5 (1,641)   +5.4
Philip Rivers Chargers 95.3 (2,902) 96.4 (1,776)   +1.1
Matt Schaub Raiders/2 others 91.5 (1,987) 86.0 (1,204)    -5.5
Michael Vick Falcons/2 others 75.9 (1,743) 86.0 (1,204) +10.1
Eli Manning Giants 80.2 (3,332) 85.7 (2,277)   +5.5
Carson Palmer Bengals/2 others 88.4 (2,595) 84.0 (2,311)    -4.4
Matt Hasselbeck Seahawks/3 others 84.0 (1,823) 81.4 (3,251)    -2.6

So you’ve got 11 active quarterbacks who have thrown 1000+ passes in their 30s. Eight have posted a higher rating than in their 20s, three have gone the other way. And naturally, the lower your rating in the 20s, the more room there is for improvement in later years.

It’s amazing how close Brady, Brees and Manning are in their 30s, as far as their passing efficiency goes. Just three-tenths of a point separates them. And all of their ratings, of course, are over 100. That’s mind-boggling, especially when you consider how rare a 100 rating used to be (in a single season or even a game). But that’s the direction the game is going — to take nothing way from today’s quarterbacks. QBs can play forever — and play well. They might not always be worth franchise money, but they can be far more than just functional.

Compare the above list with the one below of selected Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Some saw their rating go up in their 30s, some saw it go down. It was a very mixed bag. And again, these men are in Canton (or, in the case of Brett Favre, headed there).

HALL OF FAME QBS: THEIR 20S VS. THEIR 30S

Quarterback Team(s) 20s Rate (Att) 30s Rate (Att) +/- Pts
Steve Young Bucs/49ers 81.3 (976) 101.6 (3,173) +20.3
Joe Montana 49ers/Chiefs 92.4 (2,571) 92.1 (2,820)    -0.3
Bart Starr Packers 74.6 (1,546) 86.2 (1,603) +11.6
Jim Kelly Bills 82.7 (1,742) 85.3 (3,037)   +2.6
John Elway Broncos 73.6 (3,070) 84.5 (4,180) +10.9
Dan Fouts Chargers 75.5 (2,594) 84.3 (3\010)   +8.8
Dan Marino Dolphins 88.6 (4,234) 84.1 (4,124)    -4.5
Warren Moon Oilers/Vikings 69.6 (1,191) 83.8 (4,809) +14.2
Brett Favre Packers/2 others 88.8 (3,883) 83.5 (5,522)    -5.3
Sonny Jurgensen Eagles/Redskins 79.1 (1,107) 83.3 (2,988)   +4.2
Bob Griese Dolphins 74.0 (2,014) 81.7 (1,415)   +7.7
Len Dawson Chiefs/2 others 85.6 (1,061) 80.9 (2,540)    -4.7
Terry Bradshaw Steelers 62.1 (2,019) 80.4 (1,882) +18.3
Fran Tarkenton Vikings/Giants 81.0 (3,022) 79.8 (3,455)    -1.2
Johnny Unitas Colts 79.4 (2,316) 78.2 (2,794)    -1.2
Troy Aikman Cowboys 83.6 (3,068) 77.9 (1,647)    -5.7
Joe Namath Jets/Rams 69.3 (2,605) 56.9 (1,157)  -12.6

In this group we have nine gainers and eight decliners — a totally different story. Part of the reason is that some of them played before 1978, when the NFL started outlawing defense. As a result, rule changes didn’t help them much later in their careers. The game was essentially the same (in terms of its policing, that is).

No one’s saying other factors might not have affected these quarterbacks — their supporting cast (coaches included), for instance. But it’s clear there’s never been a better time to be a QB than right now. Your star can keep shining, brightly, deep into your 30s. The Million-Dollar Question is: Who’s going to be the first QB to win a Super Bowl in his 40s? It’s bound to happen one of these days. You just know it is. (Look at how close Brett Favre came with the Vikings in 2009.)

Source: pro-football-reference.com

This is no longer the image of the NFL QB in his late 30s (the Giants' Y.A. Tittle in 1964).

This is no longer the image of the NFL quarterback in his late 30s (the Giants’ Y.A. Tittle in 1964).

DeMarco Murray’s odometer

Football folks have begun to worry about rushing attempts the way baseball people fret about pitch counts. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying these things aren’t important. It’s more a question of: How much weight do you give them?

The Cowboys' DeMarco Murray, stiff-arming all doubters.

The Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray, stiff-arming all doubters.

When evaluating the free-agent value of the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray, for instance, observers are likely to mention his 392 carries in the 2014 regular season. For one thing, it’s tied for the seventh-highest total in NFL history. For another, it isn’t particularly conducive to a back’s long-term health and productivity — especially if he’s piling postseason carries on top of it, as Murray did (44 more).

In a piece for ESPN.com, Kevin Seifert pointed to the 392 figure and added: “All six of the most recent [backs with that many attempts] fell short of 1,000 yards in the following season.” This isn’t entirely accurate. One of the six, Eric Dickerson, did rush for 1,000 yards the next season (1,288 in 12 games). And another of the six, Ricky Williams, retired after the season and didn’t return to the NFL until two years later (and only after serving a drug suspension). I’m not sure Ricky should even be part of the conversation.

Then there are Eddie George (403 carries in 2000) and Terrell Davis (392 in 1998). To me, their drop-offs weren’t the result of one workhorse season, they were the cumulative effect of years of overuse. George had 1,898 rushing attempts in his first five seasons (playoffs included) — tops in the league in that period by 147. As for Davis, he had 481 carries in 1997 and another 470 in ’98 (again, playoffs included). Those are first- and third-highest totals of all time.

My point is simply this: There are other things that should be factored into the Murray Equation. Yes, he was a busy back last season, but that hardly means his decline in imminent — or even near. With him, it’s more a matter of “How good is he?” than “How much tread does he have left on his tires?”

Consider: 70 running backs since 1960 have had more rushing attempts before their 27th birthday than Murray (928) did. For a back at this stage of his career, he’s fairly low-mileage.

Just for fun, let’s look at the backs who’ve had the most carries before turning 27 (one final time: playoffs included) — and see how many attempts they still had in them:

MOST RUSHING ATTEMPTS BEFORE 27TH BIRTHDAY

Seasons Running back Team(s) Pre-27 High Post-27
1990-04 Emmitt Smith Cowboys/Cardinals 2,286 451 2,472
1999-09 Edgerrin James Colts/Cardinals 1,972 408 1,274
1993-05 Jerome Bettis Rams/Steelers 1,893 423 1,785
1989-98 Barry Sanders Lions 1,826 365 1,327
1995-05 Curtis Martin Patriots/Jets 1,792 418 1,908

(Note: “High” = most carries in a season before turning 27.)

Interesting, no? Smith and Martin actually had more rushing attempts after their 27th birthday. Bettis, meanwhile, had almost as many and it might have been the same for Sanders if he hadn’t retired at 30 (after a 1,491-yard season). At any rate, next to these guys, Murray’s workload seems pretty modest.

Note, too, that four of them had 400-carry seasons before turning 27 — but still had plenty of gas left in the tank.

Now let’s look at the backs who had the most carries after their 27th birthday:

MOST RUSHING ATTEMPTS AFTER TURNING 27

Seasons Running back Team(s) Post-27 High Pre-27
1990-04 Emmitt Smith Cowboys/Cardinals 2,472 366 2,286
1975-87 Walter Payton Bears 2,435 427 1,583
1971-85 John Riggins Jets/Redskins 2,239 462    928
2000-11 Thomas Jones Cardinals/4 others 2,064 376    739
1977-88 Tony Dorsett Cowboys/Broncos 2,050 380 1,188
1972-84 Franco Harris Steelers/Seahawks 1,984 374 1,365
1995-05 Curtis Martin Patriots/Jets 1,908 408 1,792
1982-97 Marcus Allen Raiders/Chiefs 1,871 259 1,418
1993-05 Jerome Bettis Rams/Steelers 1,785 355 1,893
1997-08 Warrick Dunn Bucs/Falcons 1,671 297 1,134

(Note: “High” = most carries in a season after turning 27.)

Eight of the 10 in this group had more rushing attempts before they hit 27 than Murray (978) did — in many cases a lot more. So why is everybody so concerned about DeMarco’s longevity? Sure, he had some nicks earlier in his career, but nothing major. He might have some very good years ahead, just as these backs did. Heck, Payton, Riggins and Martin still had a 400-carry season in their future.

It’s something to think about as free agency approaches. There isn’t anything ominous, necessarily, about rushing the ball 392 times in a season (436 counting the playoffs). But you certainly don’t want to do it year in and year out — and it’s doubtful Murray will, no matter what team he winds up with. Coaches these days are much more aware of human limits than they used to be.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Early “analytics”

Pro football has always been a bit behind in the Numbers Racket. No joke: Recordkeeping was so slipshod in the late ’30s that the NFL didn’t even know who its all-time leading rusher was. (It just thought it did.)

But that’s a story for another day. Instead, let’s talk about a couple of early attempts to swim against the tide, to look at statistics — and the game — in a different light. The first is from the Dec. 4, 1927, Syracuse Herald. The day after a neutral-site battle between Red Grange’s New York Yankees (the “home” team) and the Providence Steam Roller, the newspaper ran this graphic:Syracuse Herald headline 12-4-27 Grange game

Syracuse Herald subhead 12-4-2712-4-27 Syracuse Herald YAC graphicHow cool is that? It’s 1927 — 1927! — and you’ve got a paper keeping track of the distance passes traveled in the air and how far receivers ran after the catch. Yards After Catch didn’t really enter the football lexicon until the 2000s, but here’s the Herald charting it in the Red Grange era. It’s a shame we don’t know who dreamed up the idea. The guy was way ahead of his time.

(This, by the way, was the year before the Steam Roller won the NFL title. “Conzelman” is Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman, their player-coach, who later coached the Chicago Cardinals to the 1947 championship.)

We move ahead to 1941 — and a box score that appeared in the Pittsburgh Press after the Giants whacked the Steelers, 37-10. Many papers back then just ran basic information (who started, who substituted, who scored, who officiated, etc.). But the Press went above and beyond. Take a look, and then we’ll discuss it.10-6-41 Steelers box Pitts Press

A couple of things jump out — the “Ball lost on downs” category, for instance. Even today’s box scores don’t include that. So it’s interesting that, in a period when stats were hard to come by, it was part of the Press’ package. But, hey, why shouldn’t it be, then or now? Fourth-down stops can be some of the biggest plays in a game.

Even more intriguing, though, is “Net yards gained, rushing, passing, intercepted passes, kick returns.” Can’t say I’ve seen that anywhere else. What it looks at, essentially, is how far a team advanced the ball — by any and all means (except fumbles, for whatever reason).

As you can see, the Giants came out ahead here, too — 433-323. But it’s debatable how useful or revealing a statistic it is. After all, a club that’s getting smoked can rack up a lot of yards returning kickoffs.

Still, you can appreciate the Press’ willingness to depart from the norm and give readers a little extra. Especially when the esteemed New York Times was casually reporting (in 1936): “[Tuffy] Leemans gained 117 in 20 tries to bring his yardage for the season to 502. At the rate he is going he bids to surpass Beattie Feathers’ league record of slightly more than 1,000.”

Slightly more than 1,000. That’s where the NFL was in those days — and change was slow in coming. But some folks, at least, were trying.

Beattie Feathers, behind the block of Bronko Nagurski (3), rushing for some of his "slightly more than 1,000 yards" in 1934.

Beattie Feathers, with Bronko Nagurski (3) leading the way, rushed for “slightly more than 1,000” yards in 1934.