Sports Stuff Hub
Is Antonio Brown as good as the stats show?
A lot of discussion has taken place over the past few weeks regarding just how good Antonio Brown really is. Adam Rank of NFL.com believes that AB is “the best WR of the last 20 years.”
This Tweet alone created quite a bit of discussion over the past 2 weeks. Just check out the comments on it. It definitely is interesting to see people’s opinions, whether its researched info or just personal passion. On Mr. Rank’s tweet, I happened to add some statistical info to somewhat reinforce his claim which drew the ire of quite a few NFL fans.
Adam has since taken the proverbial ball and ran with it by expanding on my legwork with some help from NFL Research…
-- Randy Moss: 2000-03 (64 games), 376 receptions, 5,649 yards, 49 touchdowns.
-- Terrell Owens: 2000-03 (59 games), 370 receptions, 5,265 yards, 51 touchdowns.
-- Marvin Harrison: 1999-2002 (64 games), 469 receptions, 6,322 yards, 52 touchdowns.
-- Larry Fitzgerald: 2005-08 (60 games), 368 receptions, 5,195 yards, 38 touchdowns.
-- Calvin Johnson: 2010-13 (61 games), 379 receptions, 6,257 yards, 45 touchdowns.
To give a little bit of clarity to all of this:
When I first ran these stats, I was in NO WAY trying to demean the greats that came before AB. I also was NOT claiming that AB was going to have a better career than any of them. The intent of that comparison was taking some of the greatest names of the last 30 years and showing some top-notch 4 year stretches. Why 4 years? Well it’s pretty simple. Antonio Brown has only been the primary receiver for the Steelers since 2013 so it was only fitting to compare him during his primary role years where the other names on the list were also primary WR for the team they played for. The comparison I ran in the tweet was actually done a couple months earlier (yes you can actually find that on my twitter as well) and when I was pulling the top 4 years for the players, I was also putting it together on stretches with topping 100+ receptions, which is why Calvin Johnson T.O. and Fitz were not on my original list. Jerry Rice was but for the sake of the Adam Rank tweet referencing previous 20 years, he would have to be excluded from that (but I kept him in this one cuz this article gets pretty sweet…sshhh…don’t tell Adam!).
Now that we have that out of the way, lets touch base on quite a few things that people have attempted to argue. Since statistics are kept for the purpose of comparing players, it’s the most accurate metric for this. If you don’t agree with comparing stats of players in this recent of a group, then I can’t help you and hopefully you just watch football for the bright colors.
Argument #1: AB has played with a Hall of Fame caliber QB his entire career.
Rebuttal: Yes AB has played with Ben Roethlisberger since AB was drafted in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft. This would have to be a pretty weak argument seeing as how Ben has rarely been mentioned as even a top 5 QB throughout his career. His “Future Hall of Famer” title really isn’t anything to do with personal statistics so much as the teams wins during his playing time as well as being a 2-time Super Bowl Champ (with a third appearance). During Ben’s 13 completed years in the NFL, he has only eclipsed 4,000 yards on 4 occasions and only surpassed 30 TDs twice. But before focusing too much on Ben, let’s point out the QBs of the other WRs listed.
- Randy Moss (2000-03) had Daunte Culpepper. WHO?!? How about a QB that was sidelined by a knee injury in 2005 that derailed a potential HOF career? During this 4 year stint with Moss, Culpepper put up 13,881 yards on 1,843 attempts in 57 games to go with 90 TDs (and followed up with a 2004 season having 4717 yds on 548 attempts with 39 TDs). By the way, in 2004 when Culpepper put up “Maddenesque” numbers, Moss only accounted for 767 yards of it, albeit with 13 of the TDs.
- Terrell Owens (2000-03) had Jeff Garcia. You’re kidding, right? No seriously. Garcia didn’t have a spectacular career overall but he was considered a hot commodity as the top “1 year rental QB” later in his career (well, later is relative considering his first NFL start came when he was 29). Garcia was a Pro-Bowl QB from 2000-2002 with the 49ers. In the 4 year window with T.O., Garcia amassed 13,864 yards on 1,985 attempts with 102 TDs in 61 games that he played.
- Marvin Harrison (1999-2002) had Peyton Manning. I don’t need to get into details on Manning so I will just point out some stats (which will come in to play later). 16,879 yards on 2,242 attempts with 72 TDs in 64 games during that span.
- Larry Fitzgerald (2005-08) had Kurt Warner. No, not the former Seahawks running back (spelled Curt). The OTHER Kurt Warner. While it wasn’t JUST Warner throwing Fitz the ball during this span, we can stick to just his stats since AB has had small stretches as well without Ben. So here are the HOF QB’s stats during these 4 years. 12,090 yards on 1,592 attempts for 74 TDs in 46 games. Not monstrous (partly due to 2006 was a QB by committee approach with Leinart that seemed to be working well) numbers but his 2008 season was by far his best with the team (and only season he played all 16 games with them which he took them to the Super Bowl).
- Calvin Johnson (2010-13) had Matthew Stafford. Stafford has been a statistical monster when healthy which is what earned him a top dollar contract before the start of the 2017 season. He is the ONLY QB on this list who topped 600 pass attempts in a season more than once (which he did 3 of the 4 years mentioned). Also make a note that in 2010, Stafford suffered a season ending injury just 3 games into the season and was replaced by Shaun Hill and a brief Drew Stanton attempt. For Stafford’s stats, he logged 15,190 yards on 2,120 attempts with 96 TDs in 51 games. The Lions offense is by FAR the most pass centered offense of this entire list.
- Jerry Rice (1993-96) had Steve Young. Like Peyton Manning, I really don’t need to cover who Young is or what he accomplished so let’s just hit the stat sheet. 13,602 yards on 1,686 attempts with 98 TDs in 55 games. Another QB on this list that missed significant time (missed 9 games between 1995-96).
Now that you have their stats in front of you, here is Big Ben…16,970 yards on 2,170 attempts with 110 TDs in 58 games.
There are the QBs listed out for what most people consider to be the top 6 WRs of the past 30 years (actually only 20 years plus Jerry Rice). Seeing the list and the stats over the period of time listed, there is no argument to be made about who had who throwing them the ball. Each of the WRs listed was playing with a QB that played at an elite level for at least 1 of the 4 years (every QB listed appeared in at least 1 Pro-Bowl) and 2 of the QBs listed are already in the NFL HOF (Warner & Young) with Manning headed that way as soon as he’s eligible.
Argument #1, rejected.
Argument #2: AB has had better #2 WRs playing with him during his career.
Rebuttal: That’s just a pure lie. If this is your argument, then what you are about to read will make you feel very foolish for that idea. Take a look at who has played alongside AB from 2013 until now.
2013 – Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery & Markus Wheaton
2014 – Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Lance Moore, Justin Brown & Darrius Heyward-Bey
2015 – Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, DHB & Sammie Coates
2016 – Sammie Coates, Demarcus Ayers, Eli Rogers, DHB, Cobi Hamilton & Markus Wheaton
No, I did NOT leave out Mike Wallace as Wallace left the team following the 2012 season which is part of what opened the door for AB to shine as the true #1 WR on the team. The only WR to leave the Steelers and have any sort of success is Sanders and his lone season in Pittsburgh was 67 rec, 740 yards and 6 TD. He followed that up with 3 straight 1,000 yard seasons in Denver as a #2 WR to Dem Thomas.
All in all, the supporting cast for AB isn’t filled with names such as Anquon Boldin, Cris Carter, Reggie Wayne, John Taylor, J.J. Stokes, Nate Burleson, Terrell Owens & Jerry Rice (yes Rice and Owens played together for one season). Nate Burleson played with BOTH Moss & Calvin Johnson. Not a coincidence that both WR had some of their best seasons with him across the field from them.
Argument #2, rejected.
Argument #3: The NFL is WAY more pass oriented today.
Rebuttal: Oh man I really hope you aren’t trying to tell me that it’s THAT much different playing in 2017 for a WR than it was in 2010 or even back to 2000. By that type of logic, when Le’Veon Bell rushed for 1,361 yards on 290 carries in 2014, he should have been ranked as one of the best RB of all time because it’s now a passing league. No, what you meant to say is that more and more shots are being taken down field and the game speed is a lot faster as there are generally more snaps happening in a game today plus more offenses run a no-huddle at least once or twice in a game. But in reality, it’s not as big of a gap over the last 20 years as you may think.
Breaking the numbers down from the list earlier (of the 4 year period ONLY):
Culpepper – 32.33 attempts per game
Garcia – 32.54 attempts per game
Manning – 35.03 attempts per game
Warner – 34.61 attempts per game
Stafford – 41.57 attempts per game
Young – 30.65 attempts per game
Ben – 37.41 attempts per game
What this breakdown really translates out to is more clock stoppage from incomplete passes and sideline routes where the player gets out of bounds. We aren’t talking about a massive increase in passes attempted when you look at Culpepper in 2000 to a Big Ben in 2017 (roughly 80 more over 16 games). 5 more attempts per game is easy to squeeze in when 2 or 3 of those are incomplete and stop the clock. We could also dive into the team records for Stafford or even discuss how many games where the Steelers either played from behind or were in a tight contest late in the 4th. Go to the Vikings in 2000 and see how many leads they had in the 4th quarter. When you have at least a 7 point lead in the 4th quarter of a game, the offense tends to run the ball more to grind down the clock thus reducing the amount of pass attempts the quarterback would have. That doesn’t always apply as some teams are scripted to play 12 of 16 games at 75% pass (New England Patriots in the 2004-2017 Tom Brady era for example). Drew Brees and Tom Brady are two quarterbacks that tend to still throw the ball with 4 mins left in a game and up by 14+ points. Is that to drive up the score or inflate a stat sheet? No, not at all. It’s because their offense is centered around the quarterback making throws. If they change their game plan, the offense could stall and allow the opponent a chance to win.
Being a pass-first offense isn’t even a new theme for an NFL team. The “West Coast Offense” was a pass-centric offense designed by Bill Walsh long before Joe Montana was winning Super Bowls in the 1980’s. The game has evolved into different types of passes and more specialized plays yes but overall most teams today still run a fairly balanced offense (within 20%) when you don’t take into consideration playing significantly behind in the 4th quarter. Situational football will always affect a stat line so I always try to look deeper into a subject instead of just reading at face value.
Argument #3, situational rejection.
Argument #4: Wideouts have it so much easier today than 20 years ago.
Rebuttal: I will refer back to the start of my answer to the previous argument. The game hasn’t changed so much over the past 20 years to affect as much as you think. There are also offsetting rules changes that affect a WR negatively as well. Ball-control is a big one as well as making “a football move” being another. Randy Moss played in the same NFL that Calvin Johnson, Marvin Harrison and AB play(ed) in. Some minor rule changes about how the defense can hit a receiver have been added since 2000 yes but the majority of these game changing rules took effect in the 1990’s and was partly safety driven. As for the rules of how to defend a WR, the penalties don’t help the stats of the receiver and by arguing that the rules are different doesn’t help your case. A defender is flagged for PI (Pass Interference). Spot Foul, First Down Offense. Did that yardage just go to the WR stats? No. That actually just detracted from potential stats for the offense as defensive penalty yards don’t get awarded to the offensive player that was fouled. Also, if these rules made it so much easier for wide receivers to rack up catches and yardage, why aren’t more receivers putting up Antonio Brown-like numbers?
Based on the logic of the last 2 arguments named, EVERY team should have a receiver hitting 100+ catches and 1600+ yards every season, or have 4 receivers each getting 60 catches and 900 yards. Why is that not happening? It is because the game has only changed by a small increment over the last 20 years and there were changes made on both sides of the ball that have kept things balanced.
What if I told you that in 1999, 26 different WR had 1,000+ yards receiving? What if I told you the league leader put up 1,663 yards? Would you instantly try to tell me that in 2016 there were more? You would be wrong if you tried. In fact, 17 years later, 1 less WR attained 1,000 yards receiving. The league leader in 2016 also put up 200 yards less (1,448)! In 1999 the top 2 WRs each passed 1,600 yards while in 2016 no one topped 1,450. So for a league that has changed so vastly to favor the passing game, it seems that the stats don’t quite support that argument. Since 1997, the NFL leader in receiving yards has topped 1,500 all but 5 seasons with 3 of the 5 happening in the last 10 years. Statistically speaking, the NFL was just as pass friendly from 1999-2002 as it was from 2012-2015. Since we are taking a trip down memory lane, some of you might remember the epic 1995 season. 23 Wideouts topped 1,000 yards with a whopping 9 different players recording 100+ receptions! On top of that, 4 different players racked up over 1,600 receiving yards. In case you were wondering, that has NEVER happened since then, even in today’s WR favored NFL. Since that monstrous season there hasn’t been more than 2 receivers to pass 1,600 yards in a single season and only 7 players have reached 100+ catches in the same season 1 time.
Another fun stat to look up is the amount of DPI (Defensive Pass Interference) over the course of the last 20+ years. As I mentioned above, if a defender is penalized for DPI, the ball is placed at the spot of the foul with an automatic first down. No yardage stats go to the offensive players at all. In 2016 there were 280 DPI calls during the regular season for a total of 4596 yards. Compare that to the 1995 season when defenders were able to play more physical without calls. 258 penalties for 3989 yards. So 20 years ago it was more advantageous for the defenders as opposed to today and yet only 22 more penalties with today’s rules in place? Sorry to tell you but those numbers disprove the validity to the argument that defenders have it way worse. If that’s the case, then the defenders must have been trying to take the heads off of every WR on the field every game to rack up 258 penalties.
When the 2 point conversion was adopted in 1994, people screamed that the extra-point was going to become obsolete and everyone would “go for 2” to gain that additional point. It is now 2017 (23 years later) and in 2016 no NFL team attempted to go for the 2 point conversion more than 9 times (Pittsburgh) yet they still kicked the extra point 37 times. As with everything else in sports, there is an underlying change that caused even this slight uptick in attempts at going for 2. The move of the extra point from the 2 yard line back to the 15 yard line has caused many teams to change their strategy a little. Going back to the Steelers for this reference, when the rule was officially changed to open 2015, the Steelers went for two on 11 different occasions against 34 extra points attempted. The Steelers have been, by far, the team to attempt a 2 point conversion the most since the Extra Point rule change. Prior to that, the Steelers only attempted it 2-4 times per season based on the situation if needed.
Why did I reference the 2 Point Conversion? Because it was a rule change that people swore would change the entirety of the game and it was a hot topic by people for several years. It also was a crutch for people to lean on when discussing stats, wins & losses when a team that was beat by 2+ TDs was excused by the fan base because the opponent went for 2 one time during the game. The same can be said today when trying to compare today vs 5, 10 or even 20 years ago. If you don’t see that, well, enjoy the bright colors running back and forth on your TV screen on Sundays.
At the conclusion of this NFL season (2017) AB should top his 2013 stats which will turn his 4 year group into an even more impressive feature. Or, we could take this conversation a step further and make it a 5 year view and see how AB stands up to all of them over 5 years. As of writing this, the Steelers are 9-2 (11 games played) with Brown sitting on 80 receptions, 1195 yards and 8 TD. That puts him on pace for 116 receptions, 1,738 yards & 11 TD which all of those numbers beat his 2013 season. Plus add in that he would be the FIRST player with 5 straight 100+ reception campaigns in NFL history.
- Ryan Samuelson
- Statistics of players and teams are pulled from NFL.com stats page, pro-football-reference.com & sportingcharts.com
- Twitter references courtesy of Sports Stuff Hub & Adam Rank of NFL.com
Antonio Brown is the best WR of the last 20 years.— Adam Rank (@adamrank) November 17, 2017
He's better than Moss, T.O., all of them.