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League Leaders

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 28, 2007

Anytime I hear a stat like "Eli Manning was 5th in the NFL in passing yards in 2005", the first question that comes to my mind is "Well, where did he rank in pass attempts?" If you rank higher in pass attempts than passing yards, it's going to be difficult to impress me by throwing for lots of yards; it means at least one person threw for more yards on fewer passes.

I was wondering what percentage of league leaders in a particular statistic (say, passing yards) also ranked first in opportunities (in this case, pass attempts). I was also curious which players had led the league while ranking the lowest in opportunities.

Here's the full list of the 37 QBs to lead the post-merger NFL in passing yards in a single season. The first column shows where each QB ranked in pass attempts that season.


7 2001 Kurt Warner
7 1983 Lynn Dickey
7 1974 Ken Anderson
7 1972 Joe Namath
6 1976 Bert Jones
5 2006 Drew Brees
4 2005 Tom Brady
4 1997 Jeff George
4 1995 Brett Favre
4 1979 Dan Fouts
4 1970 John Brodie
3 2000 Peyton Manning
2 2004 Daunte Culpepper
2 2003 Peyton Manning
2 1999 Steve Beuerlein
2 1998 Brett Favre
2 1996 Mark Brunell
2 1985 Dan Marino
2 1982 Dan Fouts
2 1975 Ken Anderson
1 2002 Rich Gannon
1 1994 Drew Bledsoe
1 1993 John Elway
1 1992 Dan Marino
1 1991 Warren Moon
1 1990 Warren Moon
1 1989 Don Majkowski
1 1988 Dan Marino
1 1987 Neil Lomax
1 1986 Dan Marino
1 1984 Dan Marino
1 1981 Dan Fouts
1 1980 Dan Fouts
1 1978 Fran Tarkenton
1 1977 Joe Ferguson
1 1973 Roman Gabriel
1 1971 John Hadl

To me, the accomplishments of Warner, Dickey, Anderson and Namath did is much more impressive than when Fouts or Moon led the league in passing attempts. I'm not saying you should throw for the most yards in the NFL when you pass more often than anyone else, just that it's less impressive when you do. Slightly fewer than half (17 of 37) of the league leaders in passing yards also led the league in atempts that season.

We can look at the same numbers for running backs, just using rushing yards and rush attempts.


9 1982 Freeman McNeil
8t 1996 Barry Sanders
6 1993 Emmitt Smith
6 1990 Barry Sanders
5 2001 Priest Holmes
4 1997 Barry Sanders
4 1994 Barry Sanders
3 1984 Eric Dickerson
3 1978 Earl Campbell
3 1976 O.J. Simpson
3 1974 Otis Armstrong
2 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson
2 2003 Jamal Lewis
2 2000 Edgerrin James
2 1998 Terrell Davis
2 1992 Emmitt Smith
2 1985 Marcus Allen
2 1979 Earl Campbell
2 1972 O.J. Simpson
2 1970 Larry Brown
1 2005 Shaun Alexander
1 2004 Curtis Martin
1 2002 Ricky Williams
1 1999 Edgerrin James
1 1995 Emmitt Smith
1 1991 Emmitt Smith
1 1989 Christian Okoye
1 1988 Eric Dickerson
1 1987 Charles White
1 1986 Eric Dickerson
1 1983 Eric Dickerson
1 1981 George Rogers
1 1980 Earl Campbell
1 1977 Walter Payton
1 1975 O.J. Simpson
1 1973 O.J. Simpson
1 1971 Floyd Little

Once again, the league leader in yards was the league leader in attempts 17 of 37 times. I think it's a little more difficult to draw conclusions from this list than the QB list, because a high number of rush attempts is probably a good sign that the RB is pretty darn good. Freeman McNeil led the league in rushing in 1982 despite eight other players rushing more often than he did, because he averaged 5.2 YPC. But that's not more impressive than when Barry Sanders in 1997 averaged 6.1 YPC, even if "only" three other RBs had more carries than Sanders that year. Presumably, if McNeil was a better RB, he would have ranked higher than 9th in carries that year. (Not that I think McNeil's 1982 performance was a fluke; in the playoffs, McNeil rushed for 362 yards on 62 carries, averaging 5.83 YPC.)

While comparing RBs to QBs might be just a small difference in degree, using the same tools to compare WRs is a difference in kind. The analog to pass attempts and rush attempts would be targets, but we don't have target data stretching back many years. So we'll have to use receptions, which may be a little misleading. Here's the list, anyway:


13t 1976 Roger Carr
13 2000 Torry Holt
11t 1996 Isaac Bruce
11t 1978 Wesley Walker
8 2006 Chad Johnson
8 1983 Mike Quick
7 2001 David Boston
6t 1977 Drew Pearson
5 2004 Muhsin Muhammad
5 1989 Jerry Rice
5 1979 Steve Largent
4 1998 Antonio Freeman
4 1981 Alfred Jenkins
4 1975 Ken Burrough
4 1970 Gene Washington
3 1997 Rob Moore
3 1984 Roy Green
2t 1988 Henry Ellard
2t 1995 Jerry Rice
2 1999 Marvin Harrison
2 1994 Jerry Rice
2 1993 Jerry Rice
2 1991 Michael Irvin
2 1985 Steve Largent
2 1982 Wes Chandler
2 1974 Cliff Branch
2 1971 Otis Taylor
1t 2005 Steve Smith
1t 1980 John Jefferson
1 2003 Torry Holt
1 2002 Marvin Harrison
1 1992 Sterling Sharpe
1 1990 Jerry Rice
1 1987 JT Smith
1 1986 Jerry Rice
1 1973 Harold Carmichael
1 1972 Harold Jackson

ADDENDUM by Doug:

Here is the flip side: the league leaders in attempts who ranked lowest in yards.

Passing


Att. Leader YR Yd rank
=========================================
Jon Kitna 2001 16
Drew Bledsoe 1995 11
Jim Hart 1974 7
Jim Zorn 1976 7
Vinny Testaverde 2000 6
Brett Favre 2006 6
Brad Johnson 2003 5
Steve Deberg 1979 5
Brett Favre 1999 4
Roman Gabriel 1970 4
Brett Favre 2005 3
Peyton Manning 1998 3
Dan Marino 1997 3
Drew Bledsoe 1996 3
Joe Montana 1982 2
Archie Manning 1972 2
John Elway 1985 2
Bill Kenney 1983 2
Fran Tarkenton 1975 2
Trent Green 2004 2

Rushing


Att. Leader YR Yd rank
=========================================
Ricky Williams 2003 10
Earnest Byner 1990 4
Ricky Watters 1996 4
Stephen Davis 2001 3
O.J. Simpson 1974 3
Emmitt Smith 1994 3
James Wilder 1984 3
Eddie George 2000 3
Jerome Bettis 1997 3
Thurman Thomas 1993 3
Ron Johnson 1972 3
Ron Johnson 1970 2
Jamal Anderson 1998 2
Walter Payton 1979 2
Barry Foster 1992 2
Tony Dorsett 1982 2
Walter Payton 1976 2
Larry Johnson 2006 2
Walter Payton 1978 2
Gerald Riggs 1985 2

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