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The Greatest WR Seasons Ever

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 10, 2009

Yesterday, we looked at how to create a WR rating system that was easy to apply for modern players. But what about older players? Two Colts stars provide a good example.

Marvin Harrison vs. Raymond Berry: In 1960, Raymond Berry, the Colts star WR, teamed up with one of the greatest passers ever and had one of the greatest seasons any WR has ever had. Forty-two years later, Marvin Harrison, the Colts star WR, teamed up with one of the greatest passers ever and had one of the greatest seasons any WR has ever had. But which one was better?

Berry had 74 receptions for 1,298 yards and 10 touchdowns in a 12-game season. That's 1868 adjusted catch yards. Harrison put up an incredible 143-1722-11 season, amassing 2,657 yards in a 16 game season. Even on a per game basis, Harrison would hold the edge with 166 ACY/G to 156 adjusted catch yards per game. But obviously we need to consider other things.

For example, in 2002, all WRs averaged 2.21 adjusted catch yards per team attempt; all WRs averaged 1.67 ACY/A in 1960. Further, the '02 Colts passed 591 times while the '60 version had only 392 attempts. In that context, Berry's achievements look very impressive.

We know how to calculate Harrison's value for that season -- he averaged 4.50 ACY/A and therefore 2.29 ACY/A above the baseline. Over 591 attempts, he brought 1349 adjusted yards of Value that season. What about Berry? He averaged 4.77 ACY/A, or 3.10 ACY/A over the baseline. Over 391 attempts, that's 1212 adjusted yards of Value. But in the NFL in 1960, a season was 12 games. If the season was 16 games, we can be sure that Berry would have had even more value; some adjustment must be made. On the other hand, it's easier to put up historically great numbers in 12 games than 16 games, so simple pro-rating Berry's numbers seems unfair. Like I did with the QBs, I'm going to split the baby here. The Value for all 12 game seasons will be pro-rated as if it was a 14 game season; the value for a 9 game season will be pro-rated as if it was a 12.5 game season. So we'll multiply Berry's 1212 by 14/12, to give him a final grade of 1414 yards over average. And that's how Berry's 1960 season ranks slightly ahead of Harrison, 1414 to 1349.

One other adjustment must be made, and this one is arbitrary but necessary. By the end of the '60s, the AFL was roughly the equal of the NFL (and can't be much worse than say, the NFC was in '04 or '06 compared to the AFC). But in the early '60s, that wasn't the case. Without any adjustment, Art Powell, who is not in the HOF, would come out as a top ten WR of all time. Maybe that's appropriate, but Maynard and Lance Alworth come out slightly higher than I think is reasonable, too. I'm an AFL fan, but I don't think Powell's 1300 yards in '63 and '64 deserve a full weight. So after finding the Value (era adjusted) for all AFL WRs, I multiplied that number by the following factor:

1960	0.50
1961	0.56
1962	0.62
1963	0.68
1964	0.74
1965	0.80
1966	0.86
1967	0.92
1968	0.98
1969	1.00
1970	1.00

This brings Powell to a more reasonable level, and Bambi and Maynard still come out high on the lists. I think we're good there.

The table below shows the top 50 WR seasons of all time. As you can tell, Hutson and Hirsch are tied with the greatest WR season of all time. What do all these columns mean? Let me use Hutson as an example.

In 1942, playing for the Packers, Hutson played in 11 games out of a possible 11 games (that's how many were on the Packers' schedule). He had 74 catches for 1,211 yards and 17 TDs, for a total of 1,921 adjusted catch yards. The '42 Packers had 330 pass attempts, which means Hutson had 5.82 ACY/A that season. The NFL baseline for that season (one/third of all WR ACY/A) was 1.80, which means Hutson was 4.02 ACY/A (not listed) over the baseline. On 330 team attempts, that means he had 1326 value over replacement. To account for his era (11 games played), we have to multiply that by the average of 11 and 16 (13.5) over 11 -- 1.23. After accounting for his era, he has a EraValue of 1628, tied for the best ever.

                  year   tm    gm      rec    yd    td   ACY   tatt   ACY/A  NFL   Value   EraValue
Elroy Hirsch      1951   ram   12/12    66   1495   17   2165   373   5.80   2.06   1396   1628
Don Hutson        1942   gnb   11/11    74   1211   17   1921   330   5.82   1.80   1326   1628
Raymond Berry     1960   clt   12/12    74   1298   10   1868   392   4.77   1.67   1212   1414
Randy Moss        2003   min   16/16   111   1632   17   2527   520   4.86   2.16   1403   1403
Jim Benton        1945   ram    9/10    45   1067    8   1452   199   8.11   2.24   1051   1366
Marvin Harrison   2002   clt   16/16   143   1722   11   2657   591   4.50   2.21   1349   1349
Jerry Rice        1995   sfo   16/16   122   1848   15   2758   644   4.28   2.22   1329   1329
Lance Alworth     1965   sdg   14/14    69   1602   14   2227   401   5.55   1.73   1534   1315
Steve Smith       2005   car   16/16   103   1563   12   2318   449   5.16   2.24   1313   1313
Dave Parks        1965   sfo   14/14    80   1344   12   1984   454   4.37   1.73   1199   1285
Bobby Mitchell    1962   was   14/14    72   1384   11   1964   428   4.59   1.79   1196   1281
Marvin Harrison   1999   clt   16/16   115   1663   12   2478   546   4.54   2.23   1262   1262
Michael Irvin     1995   dal   16/16   111   1603   10   2358   494   4.77   2.22   1262   1262
Herman Moore      1995   det   16/16   123   1686   14   2581   605   4.27   2.22   1238   1238
Isaac Bruce       1995   ram   16/16   119   1781   13   2636   632   4.17   2.22   1233   1233
Lance Alworth     1966   sdg   13/14    73   1383   13   2008   434   4.98   1.68   1331   1226
Torry Holt        2003   ram   16/16   117   1696   12   2521   600   4.20   2.16   1224   1224
Wes Chandler      1982   sdg    8/ 9    49   1032    9   1457   338   4.85   1.94    876   1216
Jerry Rice        1994   sfo   16/16   112   1499   13   2319   511   4.54   2.18   1207   1207
Billy Howton      1952   gnb   12/12    53   1231   13   1756   337   5.21   2.14   1034   1206
Bob Hayes         1966   dal   14/14    64   1232   13   1812   413   4.39   1.68   1118   1198
Sonny Randle      1960   crd   12/12    62    893   15   1503   285   5.27   1.67   1026   1197
Bobby Mitchell    1963   was   14/14    69   1436    7   1921   430   4.47   1.90   1105   1183
Jerry Rice        1993   sfo   16/16    98   1503   15   2293   524   4.38   2.13   1179   1179
Harlon Hill       1956   chi   12/12    47   1128   11   1583   250   6.33   2.30   1008   1176
Buddy Dial        1963   pit   14/14    60   1295    9   1775   368   4.82   1.90   1076   1153
Cliff Branch      1974   rai   14/14    60   1092   13   1652   335   4.93   1.74   1069   1146
Jimmy Smith       1999   jax   16/16   116   1636    6   2336   535   4.37   2.23   1144   1144
Jerry Rice        1986   sfo   16/16    86   1570   15   2300   582   3.95   2.00   1134   1134
Steve Smith       2008   car   14/16    78   1421    6   1931   414   5.33   2.21   1132   1132
Randy Moss        2007   nwe   16/16    98   1493   23   2443   586   4.17   2.24   1130   1130
Jerry Rice        1989   sfo   16/16    82   1483   17   2233   483   4.62   2.31   1118   1118
Marvin Harrison   2001   clt   16/16   109   1524   15   2369   557   4.25   2.25   1118   1118
John Stallworth   1984   pit   16/16    80   1395   11   2015   443   4.55   2.04   1113   1113
Don Maynard       1968   nyj   13/14    57   1297   10   1782   436   4.40   1.87   1023   1096
Terrell Owens     2000   sfo   14/16    97   1451   13   2196   583   4.30   2.16   1092   1092
Andre Johnson     2008   htx   16/16   115   1575    8   2310   554   4.17   2.21   1088   1088
Sterling Sharpe   1992   gnb   16/16   108   1461   13   2261   527   4.29   2.25   1074   1074
David Boston      2001   crd   16/16    98   1598    8   2248   526   4.27   2.25   1066   1066
Johnny Morris     1964   chi   14/14    93   1200   10   1865   494   3.78   1.77    993   1063
Homer Jones       1967   nyg   14/14    49   1209   13   1714   406   4.22   1.78    992   1062
Terrell Owens     2001   sfo   16/16    93   1412   16   2197   506   4.34   2.25   1060   1060
Don Maynard       1967   nyj   14/14    71   1434   10   1989   515   3.86   1.78   1073   1057
Art Monk          1984   was   16/16   106   1372    7   2042   485   4.21   2.04   1054   1054
Rod Smith         2001   den   15/16   113   1343   11   2128   511   4.44   2.25   1052   1052
Randy Moss        2000   min   16/16    77   1437   15   2122   495   4.29   2.16   1051   1051
Don Hutson        1944   gnb   10/10    58    866    9   1336   253   5.28   2.10    806   1048
Charley Taylor    1966   was   14/14    72   1119   12   1719   443   3.88   1.68    975   1044
Frank Clarke      1962   dal   12/14    47   1043   14   1558   380   4.78   1.79    974   1043
Billy Howton      1956   gnb   12/12    55   1188   12   1703   353   4.82   2.30    891   1040

Did you happen to check out the ACY/A by Jim Benton in what stands out as the most unbelievable yet forgotten season of all time? The war seasons ('43-'45) may deserve an asterisk, but Benton had 1,067 receiving yards on a team that threw 199 passes! As for the repeat offenders, surprise, surprise -- Jerry Rice leads all with five of the top 50 seasons in WR history. Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison each have three seasons on the list. Billy Howton, Bobby Mitchell, Don Hutson, Don Maynard, Lance Alworth, Steve Smith and Terrell Owens all come up with two seasons in the top 50.

How about the top seasons each year?

                   year   tm     g/tg   rec   recyd  td   ACY    tatt  acy/a  nfl    Value  EraVal
Steve Smith        2008   car   14/16    78   1421    6   1931   414   5.33   2.21   1132   1132
Randy Moss         2007   nwe   16/16    98   1493   23   2443   586   4.17   2.24   1130   1130
Lee Evans          2006   buf   16/16    82   1292    8   1862   431   4.32   2.21    911    911
Steve Smith        2005   car   16/16   103   1563   12   2318   449   5.16   2.24   1313   1313
Muhsin Muhammad    2004   car   16/16    93   1405   16   2190   536   4.09   2.30    956    956
Randy Moss         2003   min   16/16   111   1632   17   2527   520   4.86   2.16   1403   1403
Marvin Harrison    2002   clt   16/16   143   1722   11   2657   591   4.50   2.21   1349   1349
Marvin Harrison    2001   clt   16/16   109   1524   15   2369   557   4.25   2.25   1118   1118
Terrell Owens      2000   sfo   14/16    97   1451   13   2196   583   4.30   2.16   1092   1092
Marvin Harrison    1999   clt   16/16   115   1663   12   2478   546   4.54   2.23   1262   1262
Antonio Freeman    1998   gnb   15/16    84   1424   14   2124   575   3.94   2.27    901    901
Rob Moore          1997   crd   16/16    97   1584    8   2229   602   3.70   2.14    941    941
Isaac Bruce        1996   ram   16/16    84   1338    7   1898   481   3.95   2.21    835    835
Jerry Rice         1995   sfo   16/16   122   1848   15   2758   644   4.28   2.22   1329   1329
Jerry Rice         1994   sfo   16/16   112   1499   13   2319   511   4.54   2.18   1207   1207
Jerry Rice         1993   sfo   16/16    98   1503   15   2293   524   4.38   2.13   1179   1179
Sterling Sharpe    1992   gnb   16/16   108   1461   13   2261   527   4.29   2.25   1074   1074
Michael Irvin      1991   dal   16/16    93   1523    8   2148   500   4.30   2.35    972    972
Jerry Rice         1990   sfo   16/16   100   1502   13   2262   583   3.88   2.33    901    901
Jerry Rice         1989   sfo   16/16    82   1483   17   2233   483   4.62   2.31   1118   1118
Henry Ellard       1988   ram   16/16    86   1414   10   2044   522   3.92   2.15    922    922
Jerry Rice         1987   sfo   12/15    65   1078   22   1843   501   4.60   2.14    984   1017
Jerry Rice         1986   sfo   16/16    86   1570   15   2300   582   3.95   2.00   1134   1134
Art Monk           1985   was   15/16    91   1226    2   1721   512   3.59   1.97    776    776
John Stallworth    1984   pit   16/16    80   1395   11   2015   443   4.55   2.04   1113   1113
Mike Quick         1983   phi   16/16    69   1409   13   2014   486   4.14   2.04   1024   1024
Wes Chandler       1982   sdg    8/ 9    49   1032    9   1457   338   4.85   1.94    876   1216
Alfred Jenkins     1981   atl   16/16    70   1358   13   1968   563   3.50   1.92    890    890
John Jefferson     1980   sdg   16/16    82   1340   13   2010   594   3.38   1.87    901    901
Steve Largent      1979   sea   15/16    66   1237    9   1747   523   3.56   1.84    847    847
Wesley Walker      1978   nyj   16/16    48   1169    8   1569   388   4.04   1.83    861    861
Nat Moore          1977   mia   14/14    52    765   12   1265   311   4.07   1.76    718    769
Cliff Branch       1976   rai   14/14    46   1111   12   1581   361   4.38   1.76    944   1012
Ken Burrough       1975   oti   14/14    53   1063    8   1488   347   4.29   1.80    865    927
Cliff Branch       1974   rai   14/14    60   1092   13   1652   335   4.93   1.74   1069   1146
Harold Jackson     1973   ram   14/14    40    874   13   1334   271   4.92   1.73    866    928
Harold Jackson     1972   phi   14/14    62   1048    4   1438   375   3.83   1.76    780    835
Otis Taylor        1971   kan   14/14    57   1110    7   1535   337   4.55   1.77    938   1005
Gene A. Washington 1970   sfo   13/14    53   1100   12   1605   383   4.51   1.79    967   1036
Warren Wells       1969   rai   14/14    47   1260   14   1775   439   4.04   1.93    926    992
Don Maynard        1968   nyj   13/14    57   1297   10   1782   436   4.40   1.87   1023   1096
Homer Jones        1967   nyg   14/14    49   1209   13   1714   406   4.22   1.78    992   1062
Lance Alworth      1966   sdg   13/14    73   1383   13   2008   434   4.98   1.68   1331   1226
Lance Alworth      1965   sdg   14/14    69   1602   14   2227   401   5.55   1.73   1534   1315
Johnny Morris      1964   chi   14/14    93   1200   10   1865   494   3.78   1.77    993   1063
Bobby Mitchell     1963   was   14/14    69   1436    7   1921   430   4.47   1.90   1105   1183
Bobby Mitchell     1962   was   14/14    72   1384   11   1964   428   4.59   1.79   1196   1281
Tommy McDonald     1961   phi   14/14    64   1144   13   1724   429   4.02   1.77    963   1032
Raymond Berry      1960   clt   12/12    74   1298   10   1868   392   4.77   1.67   1212   1414
Raymond Berry      1959   clt   12/12    66    959   14   1569   375   4.18   2.29    709    827
Del Shofner        1958   ram   12/12    51   1097    8   1512   358   4.22   2.12    755    881
Billy Wilson       1957   sfo   11/12    52    757    6   1137   305   4.07   2.17    531    620
Harlon Hill        1956   chi   12/12    47   1128   11   1583   250   6.33   2.30   1008   1176
Billy Wilson       1955   sfo   12/12    53    831    7   1236   303   4.08   1.99    632    738
Bob Boyd           1954   ram   12/12    53   1212    6   1597   321   4.98   2.21    887   1034
Pete Pihos         1953   phi   12/12    63   1049   10   1564   438   3.57   1.92    724    845
Billy Howton       1952   gnb   12/12    53   1231   13   1756   337   5.21   2.14   1034   1206
Elroy Hirsch       1951   ram   12/12    66   1495   17   2165   373   5.80   2.06   1396   1628
Tom Fears          1950   ram   12/12    84   1116    7   1676   453   3.70   1.97    784    915
Mac Speedie        1949   cle   12/12    62   1028    7   1478   296   4.99   2.17    835    975
Mal Kutner         1948   crd   12/12    41    943   14   1428   285   5.01   2.20    800    933
Mac Speedie        1947   cle   14/14    67   1146    6   1601   296   5.41   2.28    926    992
Jim Benton         1946   ram   11/11    63    981    6   1416   326   4.34   2.07    740    908
Jim Benton         1945   ram    9/10    45   1067    8   1452   199   8.11   2.24   1051   1366
Don Hutson         1944   gnb   10/10    58    866    9   1336   253   5.28   2.10    806   1048
Don Hutson         1943   gnb   10/10    47    776   11   1231   253   4.87   1.80    775   1008
Don Hutson         1942   gnb   11/11    74   1211   17   1921   330   5.82   1.80   1326   1628
Don Hutson         1941   gnb   11/11    58    738   10   1228   253   4.85   1.83    764    938
Don Hutson         1940   gnb   11/11    45    664    7   1029   283   3.64   2.03    456    559
Don Hutson         1939   gnb   11/11    34    846    6   1136   248   4.58   2.10    616    756
Don Hutson         1938   gnb   10/11    32    548    9    888   210   4.65   2.06    494    607
Gaynell Tinsley    1937   crd   11/11    36    675    5    955   189   5.05   1.75    624    766
Don Hutson         1936   gnb   12/12    34    536    8    866   255   3.40   1.73    425    496
Tod Goodwin        1935   nyg   12/12    26    432    4    642   154   4.17   1.68    384    448

There are some weird ones on here — Lee Evans in 2006 stands out for sure. But the second best WR that year (Chad Johnson) only had 711 in Value; ‘06 was definitely a down year for WR performance, at least on an efficiency basis. Sterling Sharpe, Michael Irvin and Henry Ellard (and maybe Isaac Bruce in ‘96) deserve credit for taking top honors when Jerry Rice was in his prime. From ‘86 to ‘96, Rice finished in the top four every season. Before Rice, Wes Chandler had a huge season in ‘82 when he and Dan Fouts had all time great seasons that are forgotten because it was a strike shortened season.

In the ’70s, Harold Jackson pulled off the rare back to back top seasons on two different teams. In the late ’60s, Homer Jones and Don Maynard had what still stand as some of the best seasons in New York history. Lance Alworth, Bobby Mitchell, Tommy McDonald and Raymond Berry had big years and are all worthy of their HOF status. Del Shofner was the #1 WR with the Rams in ‘58 but his best three years came with the Giants in the early ’60s. Amazingly, the Rams have had eight different WRs that led the league in Value, and none of them are Torry Holt; they had five different WRs lead the league in one thirteen year period. In Hutson’s eleven year career, he ranked 1st eight times and 2nd three times.

Finally, here’s the team by team single season leader:

                year   tm     g/tg   rec   recyd  td   ACY    tatt  acy/a  nfl    Value  EraVal
Roddy White     2008   atl   16/16    88   1382    7   1962   434   4.52   2.21   1004   1004
Lee Evans       2006   buf   16/16    82   1292    8   1862   431   4.32   2.21    911    911
Steve Smith     2005   car   16/16   103   1563   12   2318   449   5.16   2.24   1313   1313
Harlon Hill     1956   chi   12/12    47   1128   11   1583   250   6.33   2.30   1008   1176
Chad Johnson    2005   cin   16/16    97   1432    9   2097   538   3.90   2.24    892    892
Mac Speedie     1947   cle   14/14    67   1146    6   1601   296   5.41   2.28    926    992
Raymond Berry   1960   clt   12/12    74   1298   10   1868   392   4.77   1.67   1212   1414
Sonny Randle    1960   crd   12/12    62    893   15   1503   285   5.27   1.67   1026   1197
Michael Irvin   1995   dal   16/16   111   1603   10   2358   494   4.77   2.22   1262   1262
Rod Smith       2001   den   15/16   113   1343   11   2128   511   4.44   2.25   1052   1052
Herman Moore    1995   det   16/16   123   1686   14   2581   605   4.27   2.22   1238   1238
Don Hutson      1942   gnb   11/11    74   1211   17   1921   330   5.82   1.80   1326   1628
Andre Johnson   2008   htx   16/16   115   1575    8   2310   554   4.17   2.21   1088   1088
Jimmy Smith     1999   jax   16/16   116   1636    6   2336   535   4.37   2.23   1144   1144
Otis Taylor     1966   kan   14/14    58   1297    8   1747   377   4.63   1.68   1114   1026
Mark Clayton    1984   mia   15/16    73   1389   18   2114   572   3.94   2.04   1022   1022
Randy Moss      2003   min   16/16   111   1632   17   2527   520   4.86   2.16   1403   1403
Joe Horn        2000   nor   16/16    94   1340    8   1970   497   3.96   2.16    895    895
Randy Moss      2007   nwe   16/16    98   1493   23   2443   586   4.17   2.24   1130   1130
Homer Jones     1967   nyg   14/14    49   1209   13   1714   406   4.22   1.78    992   1062
Don Maynard     1968   nyj   13/14    57   1297   10   1782   436   4.40   1.87   1023   1096
Ken Burrough    1975   oti   14/14    53   1063    8   1488   347   4.29   1.80    865    927
Ben Hawkins     1967   phi   14/14    59   1265   10   1760   445   3.96   1.78    968   1037
Buddy Dial      1963   pit   14/14    60   1295    9   1775   368   4.82   1.90   1076   1153
Cliff Branch    1974   rai   14/14    60   1092   13   1652   335   4.93   1.74   1069   1146
Elroy Hirsch    1951   ram   12/12    66   1495   17   2165   373   5.80   2.06   1396   1628
Michael Jackson 1996   rav   16/16    76   1201   14   1861   570   3.26   2.21    602    602
Lance Alworth   1965   sdg   14/14    69   1602   14   2227   401   5.55   1.73   1534   1315
Steve Largent   1979   sea   15/16    66   1237    9   1747   523   3.56   1.84    847    847
Jerry Rice      1995   sfo   16/16   122   1848   15   2758   644   4.28   2.22   1329   1329
Joey Galloway   2005   tam   16/16    83   1287   10   1902   487   3.91   2.24    812    812
Bobby Mitchell  1962   was   14/14    72   1384   11   1964   428   4.59   1.79   1196   1281

I wanted to address one other point today. I suspect the most controversial aspect of the WR rating system would be the inclusion of team pass attempts. I looked at all WR with over 1,000 yards in value since the NFL switched to a 16 game schedule. The average ratio of those WRs' team's pass attempts to NFL pass attempts was 1.02 -- in other words, passing teams. The top three seasons -- Moss '03, Harrison '02 and Rice '95 -- all came on teams that passed more than the league average. I also checked all WRs that had between 500 and 999 yards in value over that same time span, and those WRs were on teams that averaged 1% more passes than the league average.

There were 255 WRs that had 500 or more yards in value and played in 16 games, and they averaged playing on teams that passed ever so slightly more frequently than the league average. Now that may not be conclusive of anything -- for example, teams with the very best WRs may (and should) throw the ball the most, at least while the game is in doubt. But I don't think WRs on teams that pass a ton are at a huge disadvantage. And certainly, WRs on teams that don't throw often *are* at a big disadvantage if we don't account for attempts. Considering a bunch of the top seasons came from WRs on teams that passed all the time, I think this formula is doing a pretty good job.

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