There were seven Hall of Fame quarterbacks and six Hall of Fame wide receivers playing in the NFL in 1992. It was a golden era for throwing the football.
Hall of Fame quarterbacks Troy Aikman, John Elway, Brett Favre, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Warren Moon and Steve Young were all taking snaps that season and Hall of Fame wideouts Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, James Lofton, Art Monk, Andre Reed and Jerry Rice were catching passes.
In short, talent abounded in the NFL when the football was in the air. That season there were 102 individual 100-yard receiving games, including a league-high seven by NFL receiving champion Sterling Sharpe, six by Irvin and three by Rice.
Now flash forward to 2017. There were 140 individual 100-yard receiving games. Antonio Brown of the Steelers led the way with eight followed by Keenan Allen of the Chargers with seven and DeAndre Hopkins of the Texans with six. That’s logical. Teams are throwing the ball more than they did in 1992.
But what’s going on in 2018 is illogical. Through 11 weeks of the 2018 season, there have already been more individual 100-yard receiving games than all of last season – 157. That’s a pace that would produce an NFL record 242 100-yard receiving games this season. The current record is 208 in 2013 when Peyton Manning set NFL records with his 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns for the Denver Broncos.
Are the receivers that much more talented in 2018 than they were in 1992? Is Julio Jones better than Jerry Rice? Is Adam Thielen better than Tim Brown? Is Antonio Brown better than Michael Irvin? Is DeAndre Hopkins better than Andre Reed?
That’s what those of us on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee are being asked to embrace – that statistics should dictate where a player belongs in the historic pecking order of pass catchers. Is Larry Fitzgerald better than Raymond Berry because he caught more passes? Is Terrell Owens better than Lance Alworth because he scored more touchdowns?
We are now in an era of inflated statistics as the NFL has tilted the field away from defense. All-decade receivers Drew Pearson and Paul Warfield had to fight for every inch of space in their routes in the 1970s. The game was far more physical on the flank then. But the rules have been changed in today’s NFL benefitting of the offense in general and the skill positions in particular.
Pass rushers can’t hit the quarterback high, they can’t hit him low and must feather him to the ground on a sack. Receivers are subject to one jam at the line and then are protected crossing the middle by the “defenseless” player rule. You can’t hit them. It’s become a game of pitch-and-catch. The quality receivers in today’s NFL should catch 100 passes in a season and should catch 1,000 in their careers.
But 157 100-yard games already this season? The Minnesota Vikings collectively have 12 through 10 games. Thielen opened the season with eight consecutive 100-yard games for the Vikings. That tied the NFL record set by Calvin Johnson in 2012. The record is 11 in one season.
Thielen also leads the NFL with 85 receptions – a pace that would give him his first NFL receiving title with 136 catches. Only one receiver in NFL history caught more passes in a single season – Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison with 143 in 2002.
There were 15 1,000-yard receivers in 2017. There are 22 on pace for 1,000 yards this season. Are the receivers that much better in 2018 than they were in 2017? They are essentially the same cast of characters … except with way better production.
Is it because the NFL made illegal contact an officiating point of emphasis this season? If you can’t touch the receivers down the field, they have a freedom of movement.
Is it because the NFL toughened up its “use of the helmet” rule this season, which goes hand-in-hand with the “defenseless player” protection? That’s eliminated the message hits in the middle of the field, allowing receivers to run crossing routes without fear of bodily harm. Sharpe did not have that luxury when he caught 108 passes in 1992.
Is it because the NFL’s crackdown on the pass rush this season spawned a rash of penalties early on for defenders landing on the quarterbacks as they were being sacked? Flags can slow down pass rushers as effectively as blockers. If you unilaterally give a quarterback that extra split second to find an open receiver, his completions will rise dramatically.
One passer (Drew Brees) completed 70 percent of his passes last season. There are four quarterbacks completing passes at a 70 percent clip this season. The league average a year ago was a 62.1 percent completion percentage. The league average this season is 65 percent. As completions rise for quarterbacks, catches rise for receivers.
Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins targeted Thielen with 19 passes in a game this season. He caught 14 of them. Julio Jones and Pittsburgh’s Juju Smith-Schuster also were targeted 19 times in games this season. Stefon Diggs of the Vikings was targeted 18 times in a game and caught 13 of them. Michael Thomas of the Saints was targeted 17 times in a game and caught 16 of them. Davante Adams of the Packers was targeted 16 times in a game and Jarvis Landry and Golden Tate 15 times apiece.
There were games in 1992 that an Elway, Favre, Kelly, Moon and Young didn’t throw 20 passes, much less 19 to one receiver.
So that’s the challenge facing the Hall of Fame selection committee going forward. Are all these gaudy statistics generated by the skill of the receiver … or the style of play in today’s pitch-and-catch game?
If it’s the skill of the receiver, Canton will have to build an extra wing to house all the pass catchers. If it’s the style of play, receivers are going to need more than 100-catch seasons and 1,000-catch careers for their busts in Canton. For me, it still comes down to the eye test. Having spent the better part of five decades watching the NFL, I think I know a Hall of Fame receiver when I see one.