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Round 1 vs. Round 2 vs. Round 3

Fantasy Football has made America a nation of general managers. We love spouting opinions about the NFL Draft, despite having only a fraction of the information actual GMs have. (Then again, knowing less might be a good thing — if, as they say, overanalysis leads to paralysis.)

Anyway, I decided to crunch a bunch of numbers and see where it led, just to get a sense of how much of a crapshoot the draft really is. What I looked at were the first three rounds — or rather, three blocks of picks: 1 through 32, 33 through 64 and 65 through 96 (since rounds weren’t always as long as they are now). This, I figured, would enable me to compare across eras . . . and possibly to come to some conclusions about whether scouting departments have gotten any better at this Inexact Science.

What I zeroed in on were Hall of Famers and Pro Bowlers, the guys who — hypothetically, at least — are the biggest difference makers for their teams. Granted, there are more Pro Bowl berths these days (and more alternates who end up playing) so the definition of a “Pro Bowler” has changed over the decades. But it’s still worth looking at this stuff — especially in the offseason, when you’ve got the time to do it.

Let me throw a few numbers at you to get us started:

● There’s a 4.8 percent chance a first-round pick will make it to Canton (122 Hall of Famers in 2,528 first-round — or First 32 — selections). The percentage drops to 1.2 percent for second-rounders (31 of 2,528) and 0.8 percent for third-rounders (21 of 2,528). So you’re four times less likely to find a Hall of Famer in Round 2 and about six times less likely to find one in Round 3.

● There’s a 35.7 percent chance a first-round pick will play (or be voted to) the Pro Bowl (743 Pro Bowlers in 2,080 first-round — or First 32 — selections since 1950, when the first modern Pro Bowl was held.) The percentage drops to 16.8 percent for second-rounders (350 of 2,080) and 11 percent for third-rounders (228 of 2,080). So you’re about two times less likely to find a Pro Bowler in Round 2 and about three times less likely to find one in Round 3.

What does this tell us — or confirm for us? Answer: That for all the mistakes in the first round, those picks are much more likely to yield a difference-maker (and possibly a Hall of Famer) than picks in the next two rounds. And for the same reason, second-round selections are much more valuable than third-rounders.

Blaine Gabbert went one pick ahead of J.J. Watt in 2011.

Blaine Gabbert went one pick ahead of J.J. Watt in 2011.

In other words, clubs — with their various rating systems — are doing a good job of identifying generally which players are going to be NFL stars. (“Everybody above this cutoff point on our scale is a potential Pro Bowler.”) But they continue to have problems identifying specifically which players are going to be stars. That’s why you have J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the ages, being drafted 11th in 2011, behind quarterback busts Jake Locker (eighth) and Blaine Gabbert (10th). It’s also why you had three consecutive running backs fly off the board in the first round in 2008 . . . in the exact opposite order from how they should have been selected. Based on their career rushing totals, the order should have been: Chris Johnson (8,628 yards), Rashard Mendenhall (4,236) and Felix Jones (2,912). Instead, Jones went 22nd, Mendenhall 23rd and Johnson 24th.

Here’s the decade-by-decade breakdown:

(Note: HOFers = Hall of Famers, PBers = Pro Bowlers.)

WHAT THE TOP 3 ROUNDS OF THE DRAFT HAVE YIELDED

Years Picks 1 through 32 Picks 33 through 64 Picks 65 through 96
1936-49 19 HOFers, PBers DNA 3 HOFers, PBers DNA 3 HOFers, PBers DNA
1950-59 20 HOFers, 118 PBers 7 HOFers, 57 PBers 5 HOFers, 35 PBers
1960-69 32 HOFers, 119 PBers 4 HOFers, 58 PBers 6 HOFers, 46 PBers
1970-79 18 HOFers, 101 PBers 7 HOFers, 42 PBers 3 HOFers, 38 PBers
1980-89 23 HOFers, 121 PBers 7 HOFers, 63 PBers 3 HOFers, 37 PBers
1990-99 10 HOFers, 107 PBers 3 HOFers, 53 PBers 1 HOFer, 42 PBers
2000-09 0 HOFers, 132 PBers 0 HOFers, 64 PBers 0 HOFers, 22 PBers
2010-14 0 HOFers, 45 PBers 0 HOFers, 13 PBers 0 HOFers, 8 PBers

Obviously, the jury is out on the last two groups. Many of the players, after all, are still active. As for the earlier decades, those Hall of Fame totals aren’t final, remember; they’ll undoubtedly grow over time, helped by Veterans Committee selections. Still, the data gives us a snapshot — something to go on. And one thing that jumps out at you is that teams aren’t necessarily drafting any better now than they were in the ’50s and ’60s, when the process wasn’t nearly as thorough.

The number of Hall of Famers, of course, may say more about the depth of the talent pool than the competence of the drafters. (All decades are not created equal.) It’s fascinating, though, that clubs in the ’60s drafted 32 Hall of Famers in the First 32 but found only 18 in the ’70s and 23 in the ’80s.

The number of Pro Bowlers, though, is fairly consistent from decade to decade – until the 2000s, when all kinds of changes were made that basically opened the floodgates. With the game scheduled before the Super Bowl nowadays, more and more players get to call themselves “Pro Bowlers.”

It’s something to think about as we get ready for draft — which, now that the NFL has its own network, seems to get more self-congratulatory with each passing year. There’s nothing in this data to suggest the GM-geniuses of 2015 (and their support staffs) are any more clairvoyant than the GMs of 50 years ago. If someone wants to go further and look at other ways of evaluating Draft Day performance — such as the number of starters drafted in each round or the number of games those guys played — by all means have at it. Just wanted to get the ball rolling.

More on this subject tomorrow.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Woulda, coulda, shoulda (NFL Draft edition)

Some of the NFL Draft’s best moments don’t become Best Moments until much later, after it’s established how good/bad the players are and how well/poorly teams evaluated them. That’s what this post is about: those instances when two guys at the same position are picked back to back, and it turns out there’s a gigantic gap between them. Basically, the first guy has a forgettable career (if he has one at all), and the second goes on to the Hall of Fame (or close to it).

Here are a dozen examples I dug up, just for the sake of conversation. Call them . . .

THE ALL-TIME WOULDA, COULDA, SHOULDA TEAM

*Hall of Fame

(Note: Shaw signed with the Bills of the rival AFL.)

The Vikes drafted Buster Rhymes over Andre Reed in '85

The Vikes drafted this guy a spot ahead of Andre Reed.

Talk about screwing the pooch. After deciding to draft a particular player at a particular position, the teams on the left took The Wrong Guy — a mistake which became infinitely worse when the next club on the clock took The Right Guy. You can click on the names to look at their stats . . . and see how huge a gap there was in each case. It ain’t pretty. Cheshire, Jones and Pfeifer never played in the league, and Rogers, for one, was a drug-plagued disaster (36 catches and 4 touchdowns, compared to Reed’s 1,012 and 64 — and counting).

Would the first decade of the expansion Browns have been a little less miserable if they’d opted for McNabb over Couch? You’d think so. You’ve also gotta believe the ’70s (pre-Coryell) Chargers would have won a lot more games if they’d had Stallworth catching passes and Page chasing down quarterbacks — or am I underestimating how lousy the Bolts were in those days?

This kind of puts it all in perspective, though: Spurrier wound up quarterbacking the only 0-14 team in NFL history (the ’76 Bucs), and Griese wound up quarterbacking the only 17-0 team (the ’72 Dolphins).

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The draft and the Canton Factor

It’s great to have the first pick in the NFL draft — as the Bucs have on five occasions, including this year. But it’s almost as great to have the sixth pick, believe it or not. And you’d be amazed at how much mileage teams have gotten out of the 34th pick.

Walter Jones, the last of the 11 No. 6 picks voted to the Hall.

Walter Jones, the last of the 11 No. 6 picks voted to the Hall.

Let me explain myself. I’m talking about the number of Hall of Famers each pick has yielded — its Canton Factor, if you will. That’s what everybody is trying to do at the top of the draft, right? Hit a home run. Find a player for the ages. And there’s no pick like the first pick for that. An even dozen players taken No. 1 are in the Hall, 12 in 79 drafts (with more, such as Peyton Manning, to come).

This, of course, is hardly surprising. Drafting may be an inexact science, but general managers and scouts aren’t complete dullards. Give them first crack at the available college talent, and they can usually find a guy who can walk and chew gum, sometimes all the way to Canton.

What is surprising is some of the other stuff my research turned up. For instance, the second-best pick for Hall of Famers is the sixth (11). The 34th pick (4), meanwhile, has produced more HOFers than the seventh (1!) and ninth (3)* picks and as many as the 10th. Here are the selections with the highest Canton Factor:

PICKS THAT HAVE YIELDED THE MOST HALL OF FAMERS

● 1st (12) — QB Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1989), DE Bruce Smith (Bills, ’85), QB John Elway (Broncos, ’83), RB Earl Campbell (Houston Oilers, ’78), DE Lee Roy Selmon (Bucs, ’76), QB Terry Bradshaw (Steelers, ’70), RB O.J. Simpson (Bills, ’69), OT Ron Yary (Vikings, ’68), RB Paul Hornung (Packers, ’57), C-LB Chuck Bednarik (Eagles, ’49), RB Charley Trippi (Cardinals, ’45), RB Bill Dudley (Steelers, ’42).

● 6th (11) — OT Walter Jones (Seahawks, ’97), WR Tim Brown (Raiders, ’88), WR James Lofton (Packers, ’78), RB John Riggins (Jets, ’71), DE Carl Eller (Vikings, ’64), CB Jimmy Johnson (49ers, ’61), RB Jim Brown (Browns, ’57), QB Y.A. Tittle (Lions, ’48), C-LB Alex Wojciechowicz (Lions, ’38), QB Sammy Baugh (Redskins, ’37), T Joe Stydahar (Bears, ’36).

● 2nd (10) — RB Marshall Faulk (Colts, ’94), RB Eric Dickerson (Rams, ’83), LB Lawrence Taylor (Giants, ’81), RB Tony Dorsett (Cowboys, ’77), DT Randy White (Cowboys, ’75), OG Tom Mack (Rams, ’66), OT Bob Brown (Eagles, ’64), LB Les Richter (Dallas Texans, ’52), RB George McAfee (Eagles, ’40), QB Sid Luckman (Bears, ’39).

● 3rd (10) — DT Cortez Kennedy (Seahawks, ’90), RB Barry Sanders (Lions, ’89), OT Anthony Munoz (Bengals, ’80), LB Dick Butkus (Bears, ’65), WR Charley Taylor (Redskins, ’64), DT Merlin Olsen (Rams, ’62), RB Ollie Matson (Cardinals, ’52), RB Doak Walker (N.Y. Bulldogs, ’49), QB Bobby Layne (Bears, ’48), DE Claude Humphrey (Falcons, ’68).

● 4th (9) — OT Jonathan Ogden (Ravens, ’96), LB Derrick Thomas (Chiefs, ’89), DE Chris Doleman (Vikings, ’85), DE Dan Hampton (Bears, ’79), RB Walter Payton (Bears, ’75), OG John Hannah (Patriots ’73), DT Joe Greene (Steelers, ’69), RB Gale Sayers (Bears, ’65), QB Otto Graham (Lions, ’44).

● 5th (8) — LB Junior Seau (Chargers, ’90), CB Deion Sanders (Falcons, ’89), CB Mike Haynes (Patriots, ’76), TE Mike Ditka (Bears, ’61), QB Len Dawson (Steelers, ’57), T George Connor (Giants, ’46), WR Elroy Hirsch (Rams, ’45), RB Steve Van Buren (Eagles, ’44).

● 8th (6) — OT Willie Roaf (Saints, ’93), OG Mike Munchak (Oilers, ’82), DB Ronnie Lott (49ers, ’81), RB Larry Csonka (Dolphins, ’68), WR Lance Alworth (49ers, ’62), OL Jim Parker (Colts, ’57).

● 11th (5) — WR Michael Irvin (Cowboys, ’88), WR Paul Warfield (Browns, ’64), DE Doug Atkins (Browns, ’53), RB Frank Gifford (Giants, ’52), DT Leo Nomellini (49ers, ’50).

● 18th (5) — WR Art Monk (Redskins, ’80), FS Paul Krause (Redskins, ’64), RB John Henry Johnson (Steelers, ’53), T Bruiser Kinard (Brooklyn Dodgers, ’38), RB Tuffy Leemans (Giants, ’36).

● 10th (4) — DB Rod Woodson (Steelers, ’87), RB Marcus Allen (Raiders, ’82), OT Ron Mix (Colts, ’60), RB Jerome Bettis (Rams, ’93).

Jack Ham: One of four 34th picks who are in Canton.

Jack Ham: One of four 34th picks who are in Canton.

● 34th (4) — LB Jack Ham (Steelers, ’71), CB Lem Barney (Lions, ’67), DB Yale Lary (Lions, ’52), OT Mike McCormack (New York Yanks, ’51).

*The only Hall of Famer drafted seventh is C Bulldog Turner (Bears, ’40). The only HOFers who went ninth are OG Bruce Matthews (Oilers, ’83), RB Lenny Moore (Colts, ’56) and RB Hugh McElhenny (49ers, ’52).

Some other discoveries:

● The 24th and 25th picks haven’t given us any Canton-quality players — yet. In the case of the 24th, that figures to change whenever Ed Reed (Ravens, 2002) and Aaron Rodgers (Packers, 2005) come up for consideration, but nobody taken at 25 seems very Hall-worthy . . . or is even likely to get endorsed by the Veterans Committee. In fact, 25 has been a virtual black hole. The best selections at that spot: NT Ted Washington (49ers, ’91) and WRs Stanley Morgan (Patriots, ’76) and Boyd Dowler (Packers, ’59).

● Second-round picks might be good values salary-cap-wise, but they don’t produce nearly as many Hall of Famers as first-round picks. The breakdown:

HOFers drafted from 1 through 32: 121

HOFers drafted from 33 through 64: 32

● That said, the 48th pick yielded a Hall of Famer two years in a row in the 1980s: C Dwight Stephenson (Dolphins, ’80) and DE Howie Long (Raiders, ’81). The second round of that ’81 draft, by the way, had three players who wound up in Canton: LB Mike Singletary (38th, Bears), Long and LB Rickey Jackson (51st, Saints). By that measure, it’s the best second round ever.

● I love this: The third pick in the ’48 draft was QB Bobby Layne (by the Bears). The third pick in ’49 was RB Doak Walker (by the New York Bulldogs, though he ended up with the Lions). Both are in Canton, but even better, they were high school teammates at Highland Park in Dallas. (Another high selection who played at Highland Park: Lions QB Matt Stafford, who went No. 1 in 2009.)

FYI: The Jets are sitting with the sixth pick (good karma), the Bears with the seventh (bad karma, though they did get Turner there), the Panthers with the 25th (really bad karma) and the Bucs with the 34th (really good karma, especially since it’s a second-rounder).

Yup, Tampa Bay has the first selection and the 34th. Pretty sweet.

Now we just have to wait for Roger Goodell to say, “Gentlemen, start your draft boards.”

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.

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).

2014 running backs: plus/minus

In case you were wondering, the NFL’s plus/minus leaders this season — running backs division — were the Ravens’ Justin Forsett (1,235-yard increase over his 2013 rushing total) and the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson (1,191-yard decrease, thanks to the “off-field trouble” that limited him to one game).

You don’t necessarily have to read a lot into this. Maybe a player just got an opportunity (and his yards shot up), or maybe he just got hurt (and they went down). In other words, it’s less a measure of how well a back played and more a matter of his production compared to the year before. (Just one of the ways I keep myself entertained in the offseason: by looking at numbers from all sorts of angles.)

BIGGEST GAINERS

Running back, Team 2013 2014 Gain
Justin Forsett, Ravens     31 1266 +1235
C.J. Anderson, Broncos     38   849   +811
DeMarco Murray, Cowboys 1121 1845   +724
Arian Foster, Texans   542 1246   +704
Jonathan Stewart, Panthers   180   809   +629
Mark Ingram, Saints   386   964   +578
Denard Robinson, Jaguars     66   582   +516
Le’Veon Bell, Steelers   860 1361   +501
Matt Asiata, Vikings   166   570   +404
Lamar Miller, Dolphins   709 1099   +390

Note: The first five backs all made the playoffs (and three played for teams that didn’t make it the season before).

BIGGEST DECLINERS

Running back, Team 2013 2014 Drop
Adrian Peterson, Vikings 1266   75 -1191
Ryan Mathews, Chargers 1255 330   -925
Knowshon Moreno, Broncos 1038 148   -890
Reggie Bush, Lions 1006 297   -709
Maurice Jones-Drew, Raiders   803   96   -707
Zac Stacy, Rams   973 293   -680
C.J. Spiller, Bills   933 300   -633
DeAngelo Williams, Panthers   843 219   -624
Bilal Powell, Jets   697 141   -556
Stevan Ridley, Patriots   773 340   -433

Obviously, most of these backs were injured, forcing their teams to scramble a bit at the running back position. Some of the clubs (Broncos, Lions, Panthers, Patriots) dealt with the situation better than others. But then, Denver, Detroit and New England weren’t that dependent on the running game to begin with.

Next: receivers.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Ravens' Justin Forsett rushed for an NFL-high 1,235 more yards than in 2013.

The Ravens’ Justin Forsett rushed for an NFL-high 1,235 more yards than in 2013.

Unanimous AP all-pro

The words wash by you as you wade into the story about this year’s selections: “Watt, Gronk unanimous AP all-pros.” What exactly does it mean, this Unanimous Thing? How often has it been achieved — and by whom?

Answer: For starters, it’s pretty rare, which makes sense when you stop and think about it. After all, how often can you get 50 media folk to agree on anything? In 2007, for instance, the Patriots’ Tom Brady had one of the greatest quarterbacking seasons ever: 50 touchdown passes, 8 interceptions, a 117.2 passer rating and, oh yeah, a 16-0 record. But some yo-yo still felt obliged to split his vote between Brady and the Packers’ Brett Favre, who threw about half as many TD passes (28), about twice as many picks (15) and had a 95.7 rating. (He/she must have had Favre on his/her fantasy team or something.)

By my count, 15 players have been unanimous AP all-pros in the 2000s, three of them twice (Watt, Peyton Manning and LaDainian Tomlinson). So it’s happened 18 times in 15 years — roughly once a year. As you scan down the list, you’ll realize that just about every one of these guys is either in the Hall of Fame, a lock for the Hall of Fame or beginning to move strongly in that direction.

UNANIMOUS AP ALL-PROS IN THE 2000S

● 2014 (2) — Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, Texans DE/DT J.J. Watt. Gronkowski, now fully recovered from a blown-out knee, had a typical Gronk year: 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 TDs in 15 games. (Bill Belichick held him out of the last one.) Watt had an even better season: 20.5 sacks, two defensive TDs, a safety and three TD catches on offense.

● 2013 (1) — Broncos QB Peyton Manning. At 37, Manning had a career year, breaking NFL season passing records with 55 TDs and 5,477 yards as Denver went 13-3, best in the AFC.

J.J. Watt makes another impression on a QB.

J.J. Watt makes another impression on a quarterback.

● 2012 (2) — Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, Watt. Peterson: 2,097 rushing yards (8 off Eric Dickerson’s mark of 2,105, which has stood since 1984). Watt: 20.5 sacks, 16 passes defended (more than many starting DBs).

● 2011 — Nobody.

● 2010 (1) — Patriots QB Tom Brady. There are all kinds of numbers I could throw at you, but the best one is: Brady didn’t throw an interception in the Patriots’ last 11 games (a record streak of 319 attempts that was stretched to 335 the next season).

● 2009 (1) — Titans RB Chris Johnson. Rushed for 2,006 yards, topped 100 rushing yards in the final 11 games and set a mark – which may not be broken anytime soon – with 2,509 yards from scrimmage.

● 2008 (1) — Ravens FS Ed Reed. League-leading nine interceptions and three defensive TDs, including a 107-yard INT return, the longest in NFL history.

● 2007 (2) — Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson, Patriots WR Randy Moss. LT wasn’t quite as sensational as he’d been the year before, but he still rushed for an NFL-high 1,474 yards, scored 18 TDs and threw for another TD. Moss, in his first season with Brady, caught a record 23 TD passes, one more than Jerry Rice totaled in 1987 (in 12 games).

● 2006 (3) — Tomlinson, Dolphins DE Jason Taylor, Broncos CB Champ Bailey. This was LT’s ridiculous 31-TD year. Enough said. Taylor: 13.5 sacks, two interception returns for scores. Bailey: 10 INTs (nobody has had more since 1981), 21 passes defended.

Antonio Gates in the open field.

Antonio Gates in the open field.

● 2005 (1) — Chargers TE Antonio Gates. The first 1,000-yard season of Gates’ great career (89 catches, 1,101 yards, 10 TDs).

● 2004 (1) — Manning, Colts. Even though he blew off the last game except for a few snaps, Peyton set season passing marks with 49 TDs and a 121.1 rating (both of which have since been broken).

● 2003 — Nobody.

● 2002 (1) — Colts WR Marvin Harrison. His 143 catches (for a league-leading 1,722 yards) is still the NFL record . . . by 14.

● 2001 (2) – Rams RB Marshall Faulk, Giants DE Michael Strahan. Faulk: 1,382 rushing yards, 2,147 yards from scrimmage, 21 TDs. Strahan: A record (with the help of Favre) 22.5 sacks.

● 2000 – Nobody.

To recap, Faulk and Strahan are already in the Hall, and the rest — with the exception, probably, of Johnson — could well be headed there. (Peterson, of course, will be an interesting case, depending on where his career goes from here.)

Conclusion: Being a unanimous AP all-pro says a lot about a player, a lot more than just: he had a really, really good year. We’re talking about the best of the best here.

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.

J.J. Watt, scoring machine

Make that five touchdowns this season for the Texans’ J.J. Watt, the defensive end with a nose for the end zone. His latest — and third TD catch — came Sunday on a 1-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick in Houston’s 45-21 win over the Titans.

How can I put Watt’s feat in perspective? Maybe this way:

RUNNING BACKS WHO HAD 350 TOUCHES IN A SEASON AND FEWER THAN 5 TDS

Year Back, Team Rushing Receiving Touches TD
1998 Barry Sanders, Lions 343-1,491 37-289 380 4
2009 Steven Jackson, Rams 324-1,416 51-322 375 4
2003 Curtis Martin, Jets 323-1,308 42-262 365 2
2005 Reuben Droughns, Browns 309-1,232 39-369 353* 2
1994 Jerome Bettis, Rams 319-1,025 31-293 350 4

*Includes five kickoff returns.

Or maybe this way:

RECEIVERS WHO HAD 85 CATCHES IN A SEASON AND FEWER THAN 3 TDS

Year Receiver, Team Rec Yds TD
2001 Keyshawn Johnson, Bucs 106 1,266 1
2013 Kendall Wright, Titans 94 1,079 2
2009 Jason Witten, Cowboys 94 1,030 2
1985 Art Monk, Redskins 91 1,226 2
2013 Harry Douglas, Falcons 85 1,067 2

OTHER NOTABLES

Year Receiver, Team Rec Yds TD
2007 Donald Driver, Packers 82 1,048 2
1998 Michael Irvin, Cowboys 74 1,057 1
1996 Henry Ellard, Redskins 52 1,014 2

For the record, there have been 43 1,000-yard backs who scored fewer touchdowns than Watt has. (I’m not talking about fewer rushing touchdowns; I’m talking about fewer total touchdowns.) There also have been 13 1,000-yard receivers who had fewer TD catches than he has.

If you weren’t impressed with Watt before, you’d darn well better be now. I mean, if this keeps up, he’ll start drawing double coverage.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt scores his fifth TD of the season -- and third receiving -- Sunday vs. the Browns.

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt scores the fourth of his five TDs this season vs. the Browns in Week 11.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is no “Little General”

Came across an interesting passage in Bill Simmons’ longer-than-your-small-intestine column Friday for Grantland. Wrote Bill:

By the way, I think we should put a bow on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s career as a starting QB.

Record as a starter: 31-54-1
Number of NFL teams that started him: 5
Number of winning seasons: 0
Most wins in one season: 6
Career: 117 touchdown passes, 101 picks, 28 lost fumbles, 185 sacks, 78.4 rating

Here’s why I brought this up. . . . Has anyone started 85 NFL games and won less than Fitzpatrick? We know Joey Harrington finished 26-50 and David Carr finished 23-56 . . . but did anyone win a lower percentage of 85 or more games than Fitzpatrick’s minus-23?

Fortunately, Grantland has one of the best editorial assistants/competitive eaters in the world: the one and only Danny Chau. Here’s what Danny found out: Only one player in football since 1920 has won less than Fitzpatrick after starting at least 85 games, a 5-foot-9 quarterback named Eddie “The Little General” LeBaron, who had a 26-52-3 record from 1952 to 1963.

Actually, if you study the information provided by The Competitive Eater (courtesy of pro-football-reference.com), you’ll see this isn’t true. Two other quarterbacks besides LeBaron started “at least 85 games” and had “a lower winning percentage” than Fitzpatrick — and two more had percentages that were nearly as bad. The list should read like this:

Years Quarterback Teams W L T Pct
1971-84 Archie Manning Saints, Oilers, Vikings 35 101 3 .263
1952-63 Eddie LeBaron Redskins, Cowboys 26 52 3 .340
1961-76 Norm Snead Redskins, Eagles, Vikings, Giants, 49ers 52 99 7 .351
2005-14 Ryan Fitzpatrick Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans 31 54 1 .366
1987-99 Chris Miller Falcons, Rams, Broncos 34 58 0 .370
1990-2001 Jeff George Colts, Falcons, Raiders, Vikings, Redskins 46 78 0 .371

Note: The data lists LeBaron as having 85 starts but credits him with only 81 decisions.

Another way of looking at it, of course, is:

George (1990) was the first pick in the draft.

Manning (1971) and Snead (1961) were the second.

Miller (1987) was the 13th.

And LeBaron (123rd, 1950) and Fitzpatrick (250th, 2005), the two outliers, have the least explaining to do.

And another way of looking at it is to say: For goodness sakes, whatever happened to context? Eddie “The Little General” LeBaron and Ryan Fitzpatrick have almost nothing in common except

Two Redskins lineman hoist Eddie LeBaron.

Two Redskins lineman hoist Eddie LeBaron.

their position. LeBaron was one of the better quarterbacks of his era, a four-time Pro Bowler who was a magician as a ball-faker and even did some punting (averaging 40.9 yards on 171 kicks). He just had the misfortune of spending his first seven seasons with the Redskins (whose bigoted owner, George Preston Marshall, wouldn’t sign black players) and his last four with the expansion Cowboys.

Pro-football-reference.com lists LeBaron at 5-foot-9, but the Cowboys media guide in 1963, his final season, puts him at 5-7. When he retired, he was 13th in NFL/AFL history in both passing yards (13,399) and touchdown passes (104). Those totals may not seem like much today, but the ’50s and early ’60s were a much different time.

Some of LeBaron’s individual seasons were outstanding. In 1957 (86.1) and ’58 (83.3) he finished second to Colts Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas in passer rating. In ’62 he led the league (95.4). That was the year he might have played his most amazing game. In a 42-27 win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh, he threw for five touchdowns in a mere 15 attempts while rotating at QB with Don Meredith. Repeat: He threw for five TDs despite playing only about half the game. Here’s Pat Livingston writing about it in The Pittsburgh Press:

Livingston's Press lead

Can you imagine anybody calling Ryan Fitzpatrick “a brilliant old pro who happens to be one of the most underrated performers in pro football”? So again, a little context, please. Fitzpatrick and LeBaron in the same sentence? They’re not even in the same universe. Going into this season, Fitzpatrick had never had a year when his passer rating was higher than the league average.

Yup, The Little General could play. And Fitzpatrick, the Harvard grad, will appreciate this: While Eddie was with the Redskins, he got his law degree at George Washington and practiced law in Dallas — that is, when he wasn’t busy throwing five touchdown passes in half a game.