Tag Archives: receivers

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 Super Bowl-winning offense

Before the season I posted a chart that looked at the 21 Super Bowl-winning offenses in the Free-Agent Era (1993-present). Almost all had a Top 10 quarterback (rating-wise), which shouldn’t surprise anybody. But it was striking how many didn’t didn’t have a running back and/or receiver who ranked that high (in terms of yards).

I bring the subject up again because the 2014 Patriots fit this same model. Tom Brady ranked fifth in the NFL in passer rating, but the Pats’ leading rusher, Jonas Gray (48th!), and leading receiver, Rob Gronkowski (15th), finished quite a bit farther down the list at their positions. This made New England the eighth NFL champion in the last 13 that didn’t have a Top 10 running back or Top 10 receiver. The details:

RECENT SUPER BOWL CHAMPS WITHOUT A TOP 10 RUSHER OR TOP 10 RECEIVER

Year Champion QB, Rating (Rank) Top Rusher, Yds (Rank) Top Receiver, Yds (Rank)
2014 Patriots Tom Brady, 97.4 (5) Jonas Gray, 412 (48) Rob Gronkowski, 1,124 (15)
2012 Ravens Joe Flacco, 87.7 (14) Ray Rice, 1,143 (11) Anquan Boldin, 921 (27)
2009 Saints Drew Brees, 109.6 (1) Pierre Thomas, 793 (T24) Marques Colston, 1,074 (18)
2008 Steelers B.Roethlisberger, 80.1 (24) Willie Parker, 791 (26) Hines Ward, 1,043 (15)
2007 Giants Eli Manning, 73.9 (25) B. Jacobs, 1,009 (T15) Plaxico Burress, 1,025 (21)
2005 Steelers B.Roethlisberger, 98.6 (3) Willie Parker, 1,202 (12) Hines Ward, 975 (22)
2003 Patriots Tom Brady, 85.9 (10) Antowain Smith, 642 (30) Deion Branch, 803 (32)
2002 Bucs Brad Johnson, 92.9 (3) Michael Pittman, 718 (32) K. Johnson, 1,088 (16)

As you can see — and as I noted in August — it’s more about Spreading the Ball Around these days. Not that it isn’t nice to have a DeMarco Murray or an Antonio Brown on your team; it just isn’t necessary. Far from it, in fact.

You can win the Super Bowl without a 500-yard rusher or a 1,000-yard wide receiver, as the Patriots just demonstrated. (Julian Edelman led their wideouts with 972.) You just need contributions from a lot of people — along, of course, with quality quarterbacking, It’s something to think about as the free-agency period approaches and owners get ready to whip out their checkbooks. More doesn’t necessarily mean more.

Statistical curiosities of 2014 (Part 2)

The Broncos might have bombed out in the first round of the playoffs again, but — sorry if this sounds like a Holiday Inn Express commercial — they did have two 1,400-yard receivers. Demaryius Thomas finished with 1,619 and free-agent addition Emmanuel Sanders with 1,404, making them the fourth such tandem in NFL history. Here’s what the group looks like:

TEAMS WITH TWO 1,400-YARD RECEIVERS IN THE SAME SEASON

Year  Team (W-L) Receivers, Yards Result
1995  Lions (10-6) Herman Moore 1,686, Brett Perriman 1,488 Wild card
2000  Rams (10-6) Torry Holt 1,635, Isaac Bruce 1,471 Wild card
2005  Cardinals (5-11) Larry Fitzgerald 1,409, Anquan Boldin 1,402 Missed playoffs
2014  Broncos (12-4) Demaryius Thomas 1,619, Emmanuel Sanders 1,404 Won division

Also, for the first time this year, the NFL had three 1,000-yard rookie receivers. That makes eight rookie receivers with 1,000-plus yards since 2003. Why is this notable? Because there were only 12 in all the seasons before that (AFL included).

            1,000-YARD ROOKIE RECEIVERS SINCE 2003

Year   Receiver, Team Rec Yds Avg TD
2014  Odell Beckham, Giants 91 1,305 14.3 12
2014  Mike Evans, Bucs 68 1,051 15.5 12
2014  Kelvin Benjamin, Panthers 73 1,008 13.8 9
2013  Keenan Allen, Chargers 71 1,046 14.7 8
2011  A.J. Green, Bengals 65 1,057 16.3 7
2006  Marques Colston, Saints 70 1,038 14.8 8
2004  Michael Clayton, Bucs 80 1,193 14.9 7
2003  Anquan Boldin, Cardinals 101 1,377 13.7 8

What this suggests is that quarterbacks aren’t the only players coming out of college these days who are more advanced in the passing game. Their receivers are, too — and like the QBs, are capable of making a more immediate impact in the pros.

Consider: Since 2003, there have been eight 1,000-yard rookie receivers and 15 1,000-yard rookie rushers. From 1932 to 2002 — which is as far back as statistics go — there were 12 1,000-yard rookie receivers and 46 1,000-yard rookie rushers.

In other words, where before it was much more common for a rookie to rush for 1,000 yards (an almost 4-to-1 ratio), now it’s only somewhat more common (slightly less than 2-to-1). And as time goes on, given the devaluation of the running game, the gap may continue to shrink.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

How long before the 1,000-yard rookie receiver is more common than the 1,000-yard rookie rusher?

How long before the 1,000-yard rookie receiver is more common than the 1,000-yard rookie rusher?

2014 receivers: plus/minus

Same drill as yesterday. This time, though, I wanted to look at receivers — tight ends and wideouts only — and determine whose production had vacillated the most from 2013 to 2014. The leader in the plus column was the Falcons’ Julio Jones (an increase of 1,013 receiving yards over last season). The leader in the minus column was the Browns’ Josh Gordon (a decrease of 1,343), who was suspended for 10 games because of a DUI conviction.

Again, this isn’t necessarily a measure of whether a player was better or worse. Injuries, naturally, can cause big swings one way or the other. The question is more: What did his team get out of him?

BIGGEST GAINERS

Receiver, Team 2013 2014 Gain
Julio Jones, Falcons 580 1593 +1013
Travis Kelce, Chiefs     0*   862   +862
Randall Cobb, Packers 433 1287   +854
Malcolm Floyd, Chargers 149   856   +707
Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos 740 1404   +664
Kenny Britt, Rams   96   748   +652
Andrew Hawkins, Browns 199   824   +625
Larry Donnell, Giants   31   623   +592
Marcus Wheaton, Steelers   64   644   +580
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots 592 1124   +532

*Played in one game.

And just think: Jones missed a game. Otherwise, his total would have been even higher. As for Sanders, he certainly made a great free-agent decision to pair up with Peyton Manning. His yards nearly doubled.

BIGGEST DECLINERS

Receiver, Team 2013 2014 Drop
Josh Gordon, Browns 1646 303 -1343
Rod Streater, Raiders   888   84   -804
Victor Cruz, Giants   998 337   -661
Jarrett Boykin, Packers   681   23   -658
Vernon Davis, 49ers   850 245   -605
Pierre Garcon, Redskins 1346 752   -594
Denarius Moore, Raiders   695 115   -580
Brandon Marshall, Bears 1295 721   -574
Brian Hartline, Dolphins 1016 474   -542
Harry Douglas, Falcons 1067 556   -511

On this side of the street, you have Boykin, whose yardage totals in his first three seasons have bounced from 27 to 681 (when Cobb was hurt) to 23 (when Cobb was healthy again), and Garcon, whose stats took a big hit after the Redskins signed DeSean Jackson (and the quarterback situation turned into a three-headed mess).

OK, I’ve got that out of my system. Make of the data what you will. Just wanted to throw it out there.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Healthy again, Julio Jones' receiving yards for the Falcons increased more than 1,000 yards this season.

Healthy again, Julio Jones saw his receiving yards for the Falcons increase by more than 1,000 this season.

Statistical curiosities of 2014 (Part 1)

Every NFL season has its statistical curiosities. In fact, if I can find a publisher, my next book might be Statistical Curiosities and the Fans Who Love Them (like me). Anyway, I just noticed one while scanning the final receiving stats. Ready? Here goes:

In 2014 Broncos tight end Julius Thomas became the first player in NFL history to catch 12 or more touchdown passes while gaining less than 500 receiving yards. (Quite a mouthful, huh?)

Thomas’ final numbers in 13 games — he missed three with an ankle injury — were 43 catches, 489 yards, 12 TDs. Others have had 12 or more TDs on fewer than 43 receptions. In 1985, for instance, the Seahawks’ Darryl Turner had 13 on 34 grabs. But nobody, not even in the early days, gained as few as 489 yards. That’s mind-boggling.

Of course, if Thomas had played all 16 games, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. But since he didn’t, we have a terrific Statistical Curiosity for an Offseason Day. The details:

     12 OR MORE TD CATCHES, 800 OR LESS RECEIVING YARDS

Year Receiver, Team Rec Yds Avg TD
2014 Julius Thomas, Broncos 43 489 11.4 12
1951 Leon Hart, Lions 35 544 15.5 12
1962 Chris Burford, Texans (AFL) 45 645 14.3 12
1985 Daryl Turner, Seahawks 34 670 19.7 13
1963 Gary Collins, Browns 43 674 15.7 13
1977 Nat Moore, Dolphins 52 765 14.7 12
2004 Randy Moss, Vikings 49 767 15.7 13
2012 James Jones, Packers 64 784 12.3 14
2013 Julius Thomas, Broncos 65 788 12.1 12
1965 Art Powell, Raiders (AFL) 52 800 15.4 12

As you can see, Thomas made the list twice. Last season he had 12 touchdowns on just 788 yards. I have no idea what his career holds for him, but I do know this: The man scores a lot of TDs and — just as important in this Recycling Era — he doesn’t waste yards.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

I could have run yet another photo of Julius Thomas here, but how often does Daryl Turner's name come up?

I could have run yet another photo of Julius Thomas here, but how often does Daryl Turner’s name come up?

Payback for all those 1-yard TD passes

There were 66 1-yard touchdown passes in the NFL this season. I know this because I just researched it at pro-football-reference.com. Sixty-six 1-yard TD passes is enough of an abomination in this he-man sport, but this next statistic is even worse: Until Malcolm Butler saved the Super Bowl for the Patriots by picking off Russell Wilson’s throw in the final minute, the defense hadn’t intercepted a single pass in that situation.

As we all know, pro football is out of whack. The offense-defense balance has been lost, probably forever, thanks to a succession of quarterback-friendly rule changes. And few things represent this out-of-whackness better than the 66 1-yard touchdown passes QBs tossed this season. Heck, it’s practically taunting when a team dials up a 1-yard TD pass, especially when the receiver is somebody like J.J. Watt (two caught two of them this year).

Think about it: Against a spread offense, with pick plays and push-offs virtually legal now, how exactly are you supposed to defend a pass from the 1-yard line? Somehow, though, Butler did. If that isn’t reason to celebrate — the defense won for a change! — I don’t know what is.

Once upon a time, the NFL scoffed at throwing such an itty-bitty pass. In 1942, when the Packers’ Cecil Isbell lobbed a 4-incher to Hall of Famer Don Hutson for a touchdown, the league thought it was so hilarious that it added it to the record book. Now, keep in mind: Nowhere in the book could you find the shortest TD run or shortest field goal or shortest anything else. But the shortest TD pass — I’m surprised it wasn’t labeled Biggest Wimpout — was right there on Page 21:

1943 Rule Book shortest TD pass

Here’s how Stoney McGlynn of the Milwaukee Sentinel described this not-so-great moment in NFL history:

10-19-42 Sentinel description

Even better, the Milwaukee Journal ran a photo of the play — a terrific one. What are the odds of that? Check it out:

Journal photo of TD catch

As you can see, Isbell, after taking the shotgun snap in the Packers’ single wing, released the ball from the Cleveland 9. (I’m guessing he faked a handoff before throwing.) I particularly like the X-marks-the-spot in the left corner of the end zone, which is where Hutson made the grab.

{Miscellaneous note: Dante Magnani, the Rams defensive back who “let Hutson get a step behind him,” had had a whale of a game, scoring on a 52-yard run and a 67-yard reception. But in those days, of course, you had to play defense, too.)

Anyway, Hutson’s “mark” stood for 18 years. Then Cowboys tight end Dick Bielski broke it by hauling in a 2-inch touchdown heave from Eddie LeBaron in a 1960 game against the Redskins.

The Associated Press’ account read thusly:

AP on Bielski TD

(Miscellaneous note No. 2: This happened in the third game in Cowboys history. They went 0-11-1 that first season, so Bielski’s TD must have been one of the high points of the year.)

Naturally, Dick’s feat was included in the record book, too, and the revised entry looked like this:

1970 Record Book including Bielski

It wasn’t until 1971 that the NFL stopped listing the “Shortest Pass Reception for Touchdown” among its records. (Bielski and Hutson were still 1-2.) Maybe the league was just starting to lose its sense of humor. Then, too, by the early ’70s the short TD pass was no longer such a novelty. You have to remember: Until the ’30s, an incompletion in the end zone was ruled a touchback. The offense actually lost possession of the ball. That, as much as raging testosterone, is why teams didn’t throw much when they were close to the goal line. They didn’t want to risk a turnover. As it became more of a passing game, though, and as the rules loosened up, most of the risk went out of such a play.

But in Super Bowl 49, glorious Super Bowl 49, we had the proverbial Once in a Blue Moon. On second and goal from the New England 1, Wilson fired to Ricardo Lockette on a quick slant and, lo and behold, Butler broke for the ball and all but plucked it out of Lockette’s hands. Game over (except for some pushing, shoving and punching). Patriots 28, Seahawks 24.

Come to think of it, that would make a great title for the Super Bowl highlight film: Blue Moon Over Arizona.

I’ll close with this from the Aug. 13, 1962, Milwaukee Journal:Kuechle letter from reader 8-13-62 Journal

Oh-Oh-Odell Beckham

Here’s what’s really amazing about Odell Beckham, the Giants’ fantabulous rookie receiver: He became a phenomenon even though his team lost seven of his first eight NFL games. Now that’s hard to do — though it’s probably a little less hard if you happen to play in the media capital of the world.

With his one-handed grabs, big-play ability and week-in, week-out productivity, Beckham takes your breath away. His numbers don’t just speak for themselves, their shout: 79 catches for 1,120 yards and 11 touchdowns in just 11 games. If he hadn’t missed the first month with a hamstring injury, we’d be talking about one of the greatest receiving seasons in history, not just one of the greatest by a first-year guy.

But let’s discuss that for a moment – the best seasons, that is, by rookie receivers. Earlier this week in the New York Post, Brian Lewis wrote:

No rookie receiver has ever had the kind of a start to an NFL career that Odell Beckham Jr., has, no first-year wideout has dominated defenses and back pages and highlight shows like this since Randy Moss.

I agree with the second half of that statement, but I take issue with the absolute certainty of the first half. After all, this is the league’s 95th season. Almost everything has happened before, including a rookie receiver exploding the way Beckham has

Before I go any further, check out this chart. It’ll give you an idea of where Odell’s performance falls — with a game, of course, still to play.

MOST RECEIVING YARDS PER GAME BY A ROOKIE IN NFL/AFL HISTORY

Year Receiver, Team G Yards Avg TD
1960 Bill Groman, Oilers (AFL) 14 1,473 105.2 12
1952 Billy Howton, Packers 12 1,231 102.6 13
2014 Odell Beckham, Giants 11 1,120 101.8 11
1954 Harlon Hill, Bears 12 1,124 93.7 12
2003 Anquan Boldin, Cardinals 16 1,377 86.1 8
1998 Randy Moss, Vikings 16 1,313 82.1 17
1965 Bob Hayes, Cowboys 13 1,003 77.2 12
1961 Mike Ditka (TE), Bears 14 1,056 76.9 12
1982 Charlie Brown, Redskins 9* 690 76.7 8
1958 Jimmy Orr, Steelers 12 910 75.8 7
1996 Terry Glenn, Patriots 15 1,132 75.5 6

*9-game strike season

(I tacked on the touchdowns at the end in case you were curious.)

One of the things I love about this chart is that just about every decade is represented. There are three receivers from the ’50s, three from the ’60s, two from the ’90s and one each from the ’80s, ’00s and ’10s. Only the ’70s, when defense had the upper hand, are missing.

Another thing I love about this chart is that it’s fair. It looks at per-game average rather than gross yardage, which would skew things toward receivers who had the benefit of longer seasons. Beckham will play in “only” 12 games this year, which is how many Billy Howton, Harlon Hill and Jimmy Orr played in in the ’50s. So you can put his stats next to theirs and decide for yourself who was better. (I’m excluding Bill Groman from this discussion because the AFL in 1960 wasn’t close to being on the NFL’s level.)

Howton had six 100-yard games that season and Hill seven. Let’s compare them to Beckham’s six (so far):

        Howton 1952                          Hill 1954                         Beckham 2014

Opponent Rec-Yds-TD Opponent Rec-Yds-TD Opponent Rec-Yds-TD
Redskins 3-128-1 Lions 4-140-1 Colts 8-156-0
Rams 5-156-1 Colts 3-144-1 Seahawks 7-108-0
Lions 7-151-1 49ers 4-116-1 Cowboys 10-146-2
Lions 7-123-2 49ers 7-224-4 Titans 11-130-1
Rams 6-200-0 Browns 3-117-1 Redskins 12-143-3
49ers 8-162-2 Rams 6-109-1 Rams 8-148-2
Totals 36-920-8 Cardinals 6-117-1 Totals 56-831-8
Totals 33-967-10

You can debate until you’re blue in the face the differences between eras and what all this means. But as you can see, what Beckham is doing as a rookie isn’t exactly unprecedented. Howton cardOther receivers have “had the kind of a start to an NFL career that Odell Beckham Jr., has.” They just played so long ago that hardly anybody remembers.

Howton and Hill, too, were phenomenons. Billy, for instance, had six touchdown catches of 50 yards or longer (90, 89, 78, 69, 54, 50) plus a non-scoring grab of 76. Harlon had TDs of 76, 66, 65 and 64. They were downfield threats, just like Beckham is. The NFL just didn’t get the attention then that it does now. (Never mind an NFL Channel; there was barely an NBC.)

When Howton retired after the 1963 season, he was the all-time leader in receptions (503) and receiving yards (8,459) and ranked third receiving touchdowns (61). He simply had the misfortune of playing in Green Bay when it truly was pro football’s Siberia. (Read: Before Vince Lombardi arrived and thawed things out.)

I kid you not: The day Howton broke Don Hutson’s career receptions record (488), The Dallas Morning News mentioned it in the last paragraph of its game story. (Howton spent his last four seasons with the expansion Cowboys.) And the day the Colts’ Ray Berry broke Billy’s receptions mark, The Associated Press reported: “Berry caught five passes . . . to raise his career total [to] 506,” which was three more than “the career record held by Jim Howton.”

Harlon Hill cardJim Howton?

As for Hill, he could have wound up in Canton — why Howton isn’t there, I’ll never understand — if injuries hadn’t robbed him of his specialness. Consider: He scored 32 touchdowns in his first three seasons, a total of 36 games. Only four receivers have scored more in their first 36 games: Randy Moss (43), Jerry Rice (40), Rob Gronkowski (38) and John Jefferson (36). How’s that for company?

None of this is meant to knock Beckham down a few pegs. The kid has been an absolute revelation. It’s just meant to remind everybody that he’s not alone on that peg. As I said, the NFL has been around for a long time.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Versatility revisited

Yes, the NFL has become more specialized over the decades, but I’m not sure I expected this: No player in the first 14 weeks of the season has had a game in which he scored a touchdown both rushing and receiving and returned a punt or kickoff. (A year ago, three did: Darren Sproles, then with the Saints, three times and the Vikings’ Cordarrelle Patterson and the Chargers’ Danny Woodhead once each.)

I bring this up because, well, who doesn’t enjoy seeing a player have one of those magical days in which he scores every which way — or, at least, more than two ways. Multitaskers such as the Eagles’ Sproles and the Lions’ Reggie Bush are capable of having a game like that, but they haven’t. In fact, the only player in the last 38 years to score three different ways in a game is the Jaguars’ Jimmy Smith in 1995, and that was kind of fluky. Smith’s 14-yard touchdown reception was conventional enough, but his other TDs came on blocked punt that he recovered in the end zone and a trick play that saw him take a lateral on a kickoff return and run 89 yards.

Solomon football cardThe last player before Smith to do it was the Dolphins’ Freddie Solomon in 1976 (run, catch, punt). Now that’s more like it.

Maybe I’m the only one who cares about this stuff, but the definition of an athlete used to be: a guy who can do pretty much anything. And it just seems that, over time, NFL teams have asked their best athletes to do less and less. There are reasons for this; I talked about them in Tuesday’s post (larger roster sizes, protectiveness of their assets, etc.). But that doesn’t mean the game is better because of it.

In 1941, the single-platoon era, Bears Hall of Famer George McAfee scored a touchdown five different ways (run, catch, punt, kickoff, interception). He also threw for a score. A bit more recently — 1959 — the Cardinals’ Bobby Joe Conrad completed another kind of pentathlon, scoring two TDs rushing, three receiving, one punt returning, and booting six field goals and 30 extra points. (Too bad they didn’t have the two-point conversion back then.) He, too, threw for a score.

Raise your hand if you’d like to see somebody do either of those things again.

It won’t happen, of course. With rare exceptions, players no longer play on both sides of the ball, and nobody moonlights as a kicker anymore. That said, coaches could stand to be less conservative in their use of star talent. Would it have killed, say, Wayne Fontes to have Barry Sanders run back a few more kicks for the Lions? Sanders could have been one of the greatest returners of all time. The same goes for Darrell Green during his lengthy career in Washington. Think about it: Green covered kicks, but he only returned one in his 20 seasons (though he did return 51 punts — a whopping 2.6 a year).

This “What if he gets hurt?” paranoia didn’t keep the Giants from having Emlen Tunnell run back more than 300 punts and kickoffs. The same goes for plenty of other Hall Tunnell football cardof Famers in pre-merger period. Granted, there was more of a necessity because of the smaller rosters, but coaches didn’t get nearly as caught up in the what-if as they do now. They were trying to win the game, and that, to them, meant putting their best players on the field.

It isn’t just the coaches. Many players, after they become established starters, seem to lose their appetite for returning. Can’t blame them. Pro football, with its partially guaranteed contracts, offers less security than other sports. Why take on additional risk when a less-burdened backup can handle the job (though not as well, perhaps)?

And so it’s left to the situation backs and by-committee types (e.g. Sproles and the Bills’ C.J. Spiller) to do what Gale Sayers, Hugh McElhenny, Steve Van Buren and other Hall of Fame runners routinely did. More’s the pity.

PLAYERS WHO HAVE SCORED A TD 3 DIFFERENT WAYS IN THE SAME GAME (SINCE 1960)

(And if anybody starts humming “The Way We Were,” I’m gonna slug him.)

● Bobby Mitchell, Browns, Oct. 16, 1960 vs. Cowboys — 46 pass from Milt Plum, 30 run, 90 kickoff return. Total touches (from scrimmage and on returns): 12.

● Bobby Mitchell, Browns, Oct. 8, 1961 vs. Redskins — 52 pass from Plum, 64 punt return, 31 run. Touches: 10.

● Abner Haynes, Dallas Texans (AFL), Oct. 15, 1961 vs. Bills — 69 pass from Cotton Davidson, 3 run, 87 kickoff return. All three scores came in the fourth quarter and almost brought Dallas back from a 20-3 deficit. Touches: 21.

● Timmy Brown, Eagles, Dec. 2, 1962 vs. Redskins — 99 kickoff return, 3 run, 10 pass from Tommy McDonald (the only one the Hall of Fame wideout threw in his career). Touches: 19.

● Gale Sayers, Bears, Oct. 17, 1965 vs. Vikings – 18 pass from Rudy Bukich, 25 pass from Bukich, 96 kickoff return, 10 run. The last three came in the final quarter, with the kick return putting

Gale Sayers on the loose.

Gale Sayers on the loose.

Chicago ahead to stay. Just a classic game. The lead changed hands six times in the second half before the Bears pulled away to a 45-37 win. Touches: 22 (counting the 27-yard completion he threw).

● Sayers, Dec. 12, 1965 vs. 49ers — 80 pass from Bukich, 21 run, 7 run, 50 run, 1 run, 85 punt return. Touches: 16. This was Gale’s Game for the Ages. On a muddy field in San Francisco, he tied the single-game record by scoring six touchdowns. Note it was the second time that season — his rookie season — he scored a TD three different ways in a game. (One of his teammates had a funny comment afterward. The best thing about Sayers’ feat, he said, is that “We won’t have to listen to George [Halas, the Bears’ coach] talk about Ernie Nevers anymore.” Nevers was the first player to score six TDs in a game — for the Cardinals against the Bears in 1929. The other was the Browns’ Dub Jones, also against the Bears, in ’51.)

● Sayers, Dec. 3, 1967 vs. 49ers (again) — 97 kickoff return, 15 run, 58 punt return. (Too bad he didn’t catch any passes that day. He might have scored four different ways.) Touches: 15.

● Walter “The Flea” Roberts, Saints, Nov. 5, 1967 vs. Eagles — 91 kickoff, 27 fumble recovery, 49 pass from Gary Cuozzo. Touches: 5 (if you want to count a fumble recovery as a touch). Roberts’ performance came in the first victory in Saints history. How do you like them heroics?

● Travis Williams, Packers, Nov. 2, 1969 vs. Steelers — 83 punt return, 96 kickoff return, 1 run. Touches: 11.

● Freddie Solomon, Dolphins, Dec. 5, 1976 vs. Bills — 79 punt return, 53 pass from Don Strock, 59 run. Touches: 7.

● Jimmy Smith, Jaguars, Dec. 3, 1995 vs. Broncos — Blocked-punt recovery in end zone, 89 kickoff return (after receiving a lateral from Desmond Howard), 14 pass from Steve Beuerlein. Touches: 4 (if you want to count a blocked-punt recovery as a touch).

As the number of touches (average: 12.9) indicates, none of these players were being worn out by their coaches. They were just being put to a greater variety of uses. Why not give a dangerous back more chances in the open field (and a couple fewer chances, maybe, from scrimmage, where the traffic is heavier)? It all comes down to how you allocate your resources. Something to think about.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Just how sizzling is Julio Jones?

We had one of those classic TV moments Monday night in the fourth quarter of the Packers-Falcons game. Julio Jones was tearing up the Green Bay secondary, had just gone over 200 yards, and Jon Gruden said something like, “I don’t know what the record is for receiving yards in a game, but . . . .”

I’ll stop there so you can fully appreciate the willing ignorance of those words. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t expect football analysts to be walking encyclopedias, especially former coaches. Flipper Anderson cardCoaches live such a hermetic existence that I’d surprised if many of them know the price of milk. For a guy like Gruden, it’s his grasp of X’s and O’s that matters most.

Still, this isn’t exactly a $1,000 Jeopardy! question. You’d think Jon or his partner, Mike Tirico, would at least be aware that the record was somewhere in the 300s, and that Jones was well short of it. Typically, though, they had to wait for someone on their support staff to prompt them: Flipper Anderson holds the mark with 336 for the Rams against the Saints in 1989.

To me, it’s yet another example of how little respect is paid to pro football’s past. Here you have two well-known sportscasters, both earning millions a year, and they can’t even be bothered to familiarize themselves with a few numbers — I’m sure 336 isn’t the only one — that might come in handy during the course of the evening, that might help them provide some Instant Context.

I mean, you’re covering a game. Why wouldn’t you know, off the top of your head, what the record is for receiving yards in a game? Is it really too much to ask? (Or is such “minutiae” the province of unpaid interns?)

OK, I’ve had my say. Let’s get back to Jones and the real subject of this post: hot receivers. In back-to-back games, the Falcons’ go-to guy has had 189 receiving yards against the Cardinals and 259 against the Packers – 448 total. How many receivers in NFL history have had a better two-week stretch than that?

Well, it depends on how you define “better.” In terms of yards, I’ve found five, all in the 2000s:

MOST RECEIVING YARDS IN BACK-TO-BACK GAMES (SINGLE SEASON)

Year Receiver, Team First Game Second Game Yards
2013 Josh Gordon, Browns 237 vs. Steelers 261 vs. Jaguars 498
2013 Calvin Johnson, Lions 155 vs. Bengals 329 vs. Cowboys 484
2012 Andre Johnson, Texans 273 vs. Jaguars 188 vs. Lions 461
2011 Calvin Johnson, Lions 244 vs. Packers 211 vs. Saints* 455
2006 Chad Johnson, Bengals 260 vs. Chargers 190 vs. Saints 450
1989 John Taylor, 49ers 162 vs. Falcons 286 vs. Rams 448
2014 Julio Jones, Falcons 189 vs. Cardinals 259 vs. Packers 448
1995 Jerry Rice, 49ers 289 vs. Vikings 153 vs. Falcons 442
1945 Jim Benton, Rams 128 vs. Cardinals 303 vs. Lions 431
1950 Cloyce Box, Lions 123 vs. Yanks 302 vs. Colts 425

*playoffs

I turned it into a Top 10 so I could include the two golden oldies, Benton and Box. Can you imagine having consecutive games like that in the ’40s and ’50s? Good lord.

Benton is a borderline Hall of Famer in my book. When he retired after the 1947 season, his 288 catches for 4,801 yards and 45 touchdowns were second only to Packers great Don Hutson.

Box football cardAs for Box, he played just six seasons of pro ball because of two stints in the military — the first during World War II, the second in Korea — but he did some serious damage in those six seasons. He had two hot streaks, in particular, that were extraordinary.

Hot streak No. 1: In the two games listed in the chart, Box had seven touchdown catches (3 vs. the New York Yanks and 4 vs. the Baltimore Colts). No other NFL receiver, not even Jerry Rice, has had more than six in two games.

Hot streak No. 2: In 1952 Box had three straight three-TD games (vs. the PackersBears and Dallas Texans). Nobody else has ever done that, either. In fact, the only other receiver to catch nine scoring passes in a three-game span, near as I can tell, is Art Powell of the AFL’s Raiders in 1963.

So if you’re talking “hot,” who has ever been hotter over a two-game stretch than Box, who caught 16 passes for 425 yards and 7 touchdowns (lengths: 17, 65, 21, 82, 67, 32 and 22 yards).

For that matter, who has ever been hotter over a three-game stretch than Box? His totals for his ’52 streak were 21 receptions, 490 yards and 9 TDs — giving him an average game of 7-163-3. Amazing.

Why don’t we rework the chart to account for touchdowns? After all, the scoreboard keeps track of points, not yards. Here’s how it would look:

MOST RECEIVING YARDS IN BACK-TO-BACK GAMES (TDS INCLUDED)

Year Receiver, Team Yards TD
2013 Josh Gordon, Browns 498 3
2013 Calvin Johnson, Lions 484 3
2012 Andre Johnson, Texans 461 1
2011 Calvin Johnson, Lions* 455 3
2006 Chad Johnson, Bengals 450 5
1989 John Taylor, 49ers 448 3
2014 Julio Jones, Falcons 448 2
1995 Jerry Rice, 49ers 442 3
1945 Jim Benton, Rams 431 3
1950 Cloyce Box, Lions 425 7

*includes playoff game

How do you like Box now? His seven touchdowns are more than double the total of every other receiver except Chad Johnson, who scored five.

Not that Gruden and Tirico should know any of this. They’re busy men with a lot on their plates. But it would be nice if they had a rough idea of what the record was for receiving yards in a game.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

From the Lions' 1953 media guide.

From the Lions’ 1953 media guide.

Edelmania

My weakness for multi-purpose players is well documented. To me, they’re a throwback to those glorious days when rosters were smaller and everybody had to do more, even if you were one of the stars who turned the turnstiles.

Today’s fixation is with Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ receiver-returner. Edelman had a big night Sunday against the Chargers, catching eight passes for a career-high 141 yards, including a game-icing 69-yard touchdown, in a 23-14 win. This give him 884 receiving yards for the season with three games left, well within reach of 1,000.

If Edelman can average 38.7 yards a game the rest of the way, he’ll become just the 14th player since 1960 to total 1,000 receiving yards and return a punt for a touchdown in the same season. He accomplished the latter, an 84-yard back-breaker against the Broncos, in Week 9.

Here are the others who’ve done it. In some cases, they did it multiple times. Only the most recent one is listed.

1,000 RECEIVING YARDS AND PUNT-RETURN TD IN SAME SEASON SINCE 1960

Year  Receiver, Team Rec Yds TD PR TD (Yds/Opponent)
2013  Antonio Brown, Steelers 110 1,499 8 67 vs. Bengals
2010  DeSean Jackson, Eagles 47 1,056 6 65 vs. Giants
2008  Santana Moss, Redskins 79 1,044 6 80 vs. Lions
2004  Nate Burleson, Vikings 68 1,006 9 91 vs. Colts
2003  Steve Smith, Panthers 88 1,110 7 53 vs. Giants
2001  Tim Brown, Raiders 91 1,165 9 88 vs. Chiefs
2001  Troy Brown, Patriots 101 1,199 5 85 vs. Browns, 68 vs. Panthers
1999  Randy Moss, Vikings 80 1,413 11 64 vs. Chiefs
1998  Joey Galloway, Seahawks 65 1,047 10 74 vs. Chargers, 56 vs. Raiders
1995  Eric Metcalf, Falcons 104 1,189 8 66 vs. Rams
1985  Louis Lipps, Steelers 59 1,134 12 62 vs. Bengals, 71 vs. Chiefs
1979  Stanley Morgan, Patriots 44 1,002 12 80 vs. Colts
1968  Roy Jefferson, Steelers 58 1,074 11 80 vs. Cardinals

The Packers’ Randall Cobb is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. In 2012, his second season, he led the team in receiving (80 for 954 yards) and also returned virtually all of the Randall Cobb statuettepunts (31 of 36) and kickoffs (38 of 43). But now that he’s established his value as a wideout, his returning has been scaled back dramatically. This year, for instance, he’s run back just 11 punts and no kickoffs. Those chores are now handled by (or shared with) running back DuJuan Harris and cornerback Micah Hyde.

Only three other receivers in the 2000s have matched Cobb’s trifecta — that is, have led their team in receiving yards, punt returns and kickoff returns. The rundown:

● Derrick Mason, Titans, 2000-2001 — Mason actually did it in consecutive years. His stats in the first: 895 yards receiving, 51 punt returns for 662 yards and a touchdown, 42 kickoff returns for 1,132 yards and no TD. In the second: 1,128 receiving, 20-128-0 on punts and 34-748-1 on kickoffs.

● Steve Smith, Panthers, 2002 — Receiving: 872. PR: 55-470-2. KOR: 26-571-0.

● Danny Amendola, Rams, 2010 — Receiving: 689. PR: 40-452-0. KOR: 50-1,142-0.

● Randall Cobb, Packers, 2012 — Receiving: 954. PR: 31-292-1. KOR: 38-964-0.

(A kid to keep an eye on: rookie Jarvis Landry, who’s second on the Dolphins in receiving yards with 573 and returns practically all kicks.)

It’s even more unusual for a club’s No. 1 running back to multitask like this. Once a guy becomes the primary ball carrier, his returning responsibilities tend to be reduced if not eliminated — for Sproles statuetteself-preservation’s sake, presumably. (With wideouts, it seems, the attitude is a little different, perhaps because they take less of a pounding running pass routes than backs do running between the tackles.)

Only one back in the 2000s has been his team’s leading rusher and its primary punt and kickoff returner — the Saints’ Darren Sproles in 2011. And just twice in league history has a 1,000-yard rusher pulled it off. (Bet you can’t guess who.) Call it: The Curse of the 53-Man Roster. With so many bodies to work with now, clubs no longer have to exploit their players’ versatility to the fullest. They can spread the load among various specialists and keep their lead backs fresher (and protect their often-hefty financial investment in them, too).

Make no mistake, though: This type of all-around performance has never really been that common, even in the days of two-way players. Here, in case you’re curious, are some of the more prominent members of this exclusive club, listed according to their rushing yardage:

● Greg Pruitt, Browns, 1975 — 1,067 yards rushing, 13 punt returns for 130 yards and no touchdowns, 14 kickoff returns for 302 yards and 0 TD.

● Chris Warren, Seahawks, 1992 — Rushing: 1,017. PR: 34-252-0. KOR: 28-524-0.

● Abner Haynes, Texans, 1960 (AFL) — Rushing: 875 (led league). PR: 14-215-0. KOR: 19-434-0.

● Gale Sayers, Bears, 1965 — Rushing: 867. PR: 16-238-1. KOR: 21-660-1.

● Timmy Brown, Eagles, 1963 — Rushing: 841. PR: 16-152-0. KOR: 33-945-1.

● Steve Van Buren, Eagles, 1945 — Rushing: 832 (led league). PR: 14-154-0. KOR: 13-373-1.

● Mack Herron, Patriots, 1974 — Rushing: 824. PR: 35-517-0. KOR: 28-629-0.

● Terry Metcalf, Cardinals, 1977 — Rushing: 739. PR: 14-108-0. KOR: 32-772-0.

● Terry Metcalf, Cardinals, 1974 — Rushing: 718. PR: 26-340-0. KOR: 20-623-1.

● Bill Dudley, Steelers, 1946 — Rushing: 604 (led league). PR: 27-385-0. KOR: 14-280-0

● Darren Sproles, Saints, 2011 — Rushing: 603. PR: 29-294-1. KOR: 40-1,089-0.

● Jon Arnett, Rams, 1961 — Rushing: 609. PR: 18-223-0. KOR: 16-331-0.

● Floyd Little, Broncos, 1968 (AFL) — Rushing: 584. PR: 24-261-1. KOR: 26-649-0.

Four of these backs, I’ll just point out, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Sayers, Van Buren, Dudley and Little — which adds some gravitas to the feat. Another Hall of Famer who just missed was Leroy Kelly, who rushed for 1,141 yards with the Browns in 1966 (second in the NFL) and had the most combined punt-and-kickoff returns on the team (32), but had one less kickoff return than Walter Roberts (19 to The Flea’s 20).

This isn’t to suggest that versatility is dead in pro football. In 2009, let’s not forget, the Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles (1,120) and the Bills’ Fred Jackson (1,062) both went over 1,000 rushing yards and also handled most of their teams’ kickoff returning. (Charles even ran one back for a touchdown.) And Tiki Barber, before he veered off into television, did double duty for the Giants as their main back and punt returner. In one of those seasons (2000) he rushed 1,006 yards.

The way the game has evolved, though, today’s players have less opportunity to show off all of their abilities. More on this subject later in the week.

Notes: Pruitt ran back the most kickoffs, but Billy Lefear had the most kickoff return yards (412 to Greg’s 302). . . . Haynes tied with Johnny Robinson for most kickoff returns with 14. . . . In ’77, Metcalf had the most punt returns, but Pat Tilley had the most punt return yards (111 to Terry’s 108). . . . Arnett ran back the most punts and kickoffs, but Dick Bass topped him in punt and kickoff return yards (109-75 and 698-653). So if you want to nitpick . . . .

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Patriots' Julian Edelman taking a punt the distance vs. the Broncos this season.

The Patriots’ Julian Edelman taking a punt the distance vs. the Broncos this season.