Posted by Chase Stuart on December 28, 2009
Over the past few decades, no position has evolved more than that of the wide receiver. It wasn't until 1986 that the NFL had its first ever 750-catch receiver (Charlie Joiner). Today, 28 players have hit that benchmark, with over half of them having begun their careers in the '90s or '00s. Wes Welker is now the fifth player with 330 receptions over a three-year span (joining Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and Herman Moore), and he's not even the best receiver on his own team. The average first-team All-Pro WR, as selected by the Associated Press, averaged 53 receptions, 961 yards and 9.5 touchdowns in the '70s; this decade, those averages are up to 97 receptions, 1439 yards and 12.5 scores. Wide receiver records are constantly being broken, and numbers that looked terrific in the '70s looked mediocre in the '90s and are underwhelming today.
With that backdrop, it makes sense to analyze Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed together. Each player's HOF case largely depends on how he compared to his peers during his playing days and how he now stacks up against others already in Canton. Brown's and Carter's career perfectly overlapped; both were drafted in the late '80s, were elite for most of the '90s, and were still productive at the beginning of this decade. Reed was a couple of years older, but was still a contemporary of Brown and Carter, and peaked during roughly the same time. All three made the Pro Bowl in 1993 and 1994. All had long careers and then chose to play one final season in a new uniform over retiring. Reed played for 15 seasons with the Bills and then one with the Redskins; Carter played 12 years with the Eagles and Vikings, before finishing up with the Dolphins; Brown played for Al Davis Raiders for 16 seasons before reuniting with Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. Ultimately, at least one but not all of them will make the Hall of Fame. So who gets inducted?
Analyzing each player's Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections gets us nowhere; all have equally strong performances in those categories.
About a year ago, I came up with a formula to grade all WRs independent of era. I plan on tweaking that formula in the off-season, but it serves as a good starting point for discussion. I ranked Brown at #11, Carter at #17 and Reed at #35. That formula excluded post-season data, which we'll revisit in a few paragraphs. The table below shows how many times each receiver ranked among the top X receivers in the league, according to the metric used from the Greatest WRs ever formula referenced above.
|Top 3||Top 5||Top 8||Top 12||Top 20|
Carter had a bunch of very good seasons but no top-three ones; Reed had a few elite seasons but had a big drop-off after that; Brown had the best combination of quantity and quality, and that's why he ranked first among these receivers when I ranked them last February. Reed and Brown both played in offenses that passed a bit less frequently than the average team; Carter played on offenses that passed a bit more frequently than the average team. We'll keep that in mind as we move on to the analysis.
The problem for Reed is the lack of dominant seasons. In two years where he ranked in the top five in my WR-grading metric, they were just down years for the league where Reed wasn't great. Reed only had one excellent season, one very good one and a bunch of solid years. His best statistical year was '89, where he ranked second in receptions, fifth in receiving yards and tied with six others for sixth in receiving touchdowns. In '94 he again ranked 5th in receiving yards, and in the top ten in both receptions and receiving touchdowns. But as far as standout seasons, that was it. Only five times did Reed rank in the top five in any category whatsoever. The most damning statistic: 1989 and 1994 were the only two years where Reed topped 70 receiving yards per game. Over 120 players in NFL history have as many or more seasons like that.
Reed has great career numbers because he entered the league at age 21, left at age 36, and was at least solid for most of those years. In nine different seasons, Reed finished with between 33 and 63 receiving yards per game (I'm using yards per game so we can compare Reed to players from pre-1978). That's second in NFL history, behind Muhsin Muhammad. Art Monk also has nine such seasons and he's in Canton, but I think he had a stronger case: he was a superior blocker, he has multiple rings, and he put up his numbers with inferior QB play to Reed. You could argue that Reed was unfairly penalized by playing in Buffalo, where it was harder to catch passes than in a dome (Carter) or in California (Brown). On the other hand, Reed played with a HOF QB for most of his career. Reed caught 75% of his touchdowns from Kelly, and surely benefited from playing in the Buffalo K-Gun offense.
Reed was a solid playoff performer, but not a great one. While he had an amazing 8/136/3 against the Oilers in that famous comeback in 1993, Reed also had some playoff duds. In eight of his 19 playoff games -- all during the prime seasons of his career -- he had fewer than 50 yards and no TDs. The Bills already have six Hall of Famers from their famous teams of the '90s; Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly, James Lofton, Thurman Thomas, Marv Levy and Ralph Wilson, Jr., have been memorialized in Canton. And while I like Reed's case a lot better than Steve Tasker's, I see no overwhelming need to induct a player like Reed who did not dominate the game at a position where that should be the requirement.
Let's get to the juicier question -- Brown or Carter? I think the average fan remembers Carter as the better receiver than Brown. Is that correct? Let's start by looking at who was throwing these guys the ball. The tables below show how many receiving yards each player caught in games started by all of the below QBs. I've also listed the average age for the WR and QB in those starts.
|recyd||perc||qb||qb age||wr age|
|375||2.5||Billy Joe Hobert||25.4||29.9|
Brown's quarterback-career breakdown is very interesting. He caught over 30% of his career receiving yards during the twilight of his career, playing with a QB older than he was. The other QB he caught a large chunk of passes from was Jeff Hostetler, who was also playing during the end of his career with the Raiders. Brown did most of his damage playing with Rich Gannon, Jeff Hostetler and Jeff George. How about Carter?
|recyd||perc||qb||qb age||wr age|
He changed quarterbacks frequently, with an elderly Warren Moon being the guy most responsible for Carter's career receiving yards. The Cunningham number is misleading, as they played together in both the beginnings and ends of their careers. Like Brown, he also teams with Gannon and Jeff George, although with a younger (but less successful) Gannon and an older (but more successful) George.
So which guy had it easier? Brown playing about 60% of his career with Rich Gannon and Jeff Hostetler, and about 20% of his career with Jeff George and Jay Schroeder? Or Carter playing 23% of his career with an aging (but great) Warren Moon, 35% with Cunningham and Daunte Culpepper, and then over 10% of it with Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson? It's tough to say. I think reasonable people can disagree there. What do you guys think?
Putting aside the QB question, the biggest reason I ranked Brown over Carter statistically is due to Brown's edge when it comes to single-season receiving yardage dominance. Four times in Brown's career he ranked in the top five in the NFL in receiving yards. Carter never ranked higher than seventh in the league in that category. Some of that was due to bad luck, as Carter's biggest years often came when several receivers had big seasons. And Carter has the TD edge -- three times he led the league in receiving scores, and four more times he ranked in the top five. Brown only ranked in the top five twice, and never higher than fourth. Each player led the league in receptions once.
Ultimately, I think Carter is remembered as the better receiver because of his scoring prowess. He had more highlights than Brown because almost every touchdown catch by a star receiver is on Sportscenter. Most fans usually overvalue touchdowns, but Brown's edge in receiving yards overcomes his deficit in touchdowns, in my view. Carter played on better offenses, but that's due to generally having a better supporting cast (RB, other WRs, OL) than due to Carter. Great offenses produce a lot of points, and Brown was often stuck on bad ones. From '91 to '00, the Vikings average offensive SRS grade was 3.4, while from '92 to '98 (the pre-Gannon era for Brown), the Raiders' OSRS was -1.0. Carter didn't even lead the Vikes in receiving yards in any season from '96 to '00; it's understandable that Moss did three times, but Jake Reed led the team in '96 and '97.
A 39-year old Jerry Rice was the best WR Brown ever teamed with; during Brown's prime, from '92 to '01, James Jett was the only other receiver (besides Brown and Rice) to top 650 receiving yards for the Raiders. During Carter's prime, '91 to '00, Jake Reed and Randy Moss topped 1,000 receiving yards a whopping seven times. That made the Vikings offense memorable and it helped get Carter into the end zone, but I don't think it made Carter better.
Finally, a look at the playoffs. Neither were very memorable. Carter's Vikings were an ugly 4-10 in the post-season, while he topped 100 yards only once. He did score 8 touchdowns and had had at least 60 receiving yards in nine of twelve playoff games with Minnesota. Brown played with a lot of bad teams: the Raiders never made the playoffs from '94 to '99. During the only post-season appearance during his prime, Brown played well. He had over 100 yards and a score in the Raiders' close loss to the Bills in 1993. Generally, Brown was nondescript in his other playoff performances, with less impressive numbers than Carter.
In the end, I like Brown better, by a hair. He also was a valuable return man, which gives him another leg up on Carter (more on that in the honors and recognition section below). But I think Carter and Brown are both deserving. Reed? A great receiver, but he didn't stand out among his own team or his peers at the position. It won't be an injustice if Reed is inducted, but I would put him squarely behind the other two. Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens should all be in Canton within the next ten or eleven years. Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Jimmy Smith and Rod Smith may get there, too. By that time, players like Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Steve Smith, Hines Ward, Chad Ochocinco, Anquan Boldin and Reggie Wayne may look like HOFers, too. If the star receivers of the '90s don't get in soon, they may never make it.
Chances Cris Carter will make the HOF in 2010? Good.
Chances Carter will ever make the HOF? Excellent.
Honors and recognitions
Pro Bowls: Carter made eight Pro Bowls, Reed made seven and Brown made seven as a receiver (but two more as a returner).
All-Pros: Carter had one year as a unanimous All-Pro ('94), another a first-team All-Pro ('95, AP, Pro Football Writers), another as a second-team All-Pro ('95, AP) and finally one year with a 2nd-team All-Conference from the UPI ('96).
Reed was never a first-team All-Pro, but in three straight seasons he was a first-team All-Conference selection by UPI and Pro Football Weekly from '89 to '91. From '89 to '91, the first-team All-Pros named by the AP were Michael Irvin, Haywood Jeffires, Jerry Rice (2x), Andre Rison and Shannon Sharpe. In '89 and '90, Reed was a second-team All-Pro according to the AP and the NEA; the NEA named him to its second team in '91, as well. In '94, he was first-team all-conference again by the UPI and Pro Football Weekly.
Brown was a unanimous first-team All-NFL kick returner in '88 when he led the league in yards per kick return, kick return yards and all-purpose yards. In '91, he was a first-team All-Conference punt returner according to Pro Football Weekly. As a receiver, he never was a first-team All-Pro according to the Associated Press. From '93 to '95, Pro Football Weekly and the UPI named him first-team All-Conference each season, except the UPI put him on its second team in '94. In '96, the UPI named him second-team All-Conference. In '97, the Sporting News put Brown on its first-team All-Pro squad, with the AP putting him 2nd-team All-NFL.
All three have very similar awards profiles. If we equate a first-team All-Conference award with a second-team All Pro, Carter has the most first-team All-Pros (2) but the fewest total (3); Reed has the fewest first-team All-Pros (0) but ties for the most total (4); Brown has the returner honors along with one first-team All-Pro and four total All-Pros. All have seven or eight Pro Bowls. I'm content to call this whole section a wash.