Early in the second quarter of the Detroit Lions’ 31-30 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, wide receiver Calvin Johnson dropped a pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford that eventually ended up getting intercepted.
The play didn’t directly affect the outcome of the game, but it did affect NFL history; had Megatron hauled in the pass, he would have broken wide receiver Flipper Anderson’s 24-year record for single-game receiving yards. Johnson ended up with 329 yards—seven short of the record—but there was still no doubt that he was simply too much for anyone on the Dallas defense to handle.
But is Johnson too much for anyone to handle? Is the game’s top wide receiver truly unstoppable?
Jerry Jones doesn’t think so. Per ESPN, Jones said he believes former Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders would have been up for the task. When asked by KRLD-FM if he thinks “Prime Time” could shut down Megatron, Jones replied:
Yes, I do. That's just it. Deion has such catch-up speed and he had real good center-field ability. He could really play the ball, and he had such ability to get into position to play the ball.
Now, you're talking about the greatest cover guy maybe that's played this game. . .I do think he could do a real good job on Johnson. Johnson's going to get some probably, but I think he could do a great job. Deion's a great player.
Surprisingly, Sanders wasn’t so quick to jump into the mix on this unique hypothetical.
Fans it's not fair to compare Then to Now! I realize it's fun and these kids can play but This Ain't THAT. Truth— DeionSanders (@DeionSanders) October 29, 2013
Sanders might not think it’s fair to compare the players in his day to current NFL players, but so many fans and media types are speculating about it anyway. So let’s throw a little objectivity into the debate.
Whenever possible, it’s helpful to let the numbers tell the story. In the case of Megatron vs. Prime Time, though, the on-field stats aren’t going to mean much. Football is already a chaotic game that’s anything but standardized in the same manner as a sport like baseball. It’s challenging to compare the stats for players who are on the field together, much less those who suited up years apart from one another.
There are some numbers that can be of use to us, though: those taken at the NFL Scouting Combine. Traits like height, weight and speed are highly predictive of NFL success. They’re why those who argue a wide receiver like Don Hutson could excel in today’s NFL are absolutely out of their minds.
The game has changed so much over the years—even a lot since Sanders’ prime—that it’s unlikely many of the athletes from even a couple decades ago would be able to hang with the big boys in the NFL in 2013.
Sanders was a unique specimen, however—a player most seem to agree was the best to ever play his position.
But he wouldn’t have been able to shut down Johnson on a consistent basis. Here’s why.
Coming out of Florida State in 1989, Sanders checked in at 6’1”, 195 pounds. That’s on the light side for a cornerback, even in Sanders’ days, but Prime Time’s game was of course built upon his jaw-dropping speed.
Sanders ran his 40-yard dash before the NFL instituted electronic timing, so we don’t know exactly how fast he covered the distance. Most reports have him in the range of 4.21, which is blazing.
But playing cornerback in today’s NFL isn’t all about speed. Actually, many teams prefer tall, heavy cornerbacks who can play press man and win in jump-ball situations.
Why the change? Take a look at the height for the top 10 wide receivers in yards in 2012.
The black line is the average of every wide receiver who attended the 2013 scouting combine—a number that’s representative of the NFL as a whole.
You can see that only two wide receivers who finished in the top 10 in the NFL in yards last season check in below the average height for players at their position. That average of 72.9 inches is well below the mean of 74.4 inches for the top 10 receivers.
Looking at weight, we see the same phenomenon.
Three of the top 10 receivers checked in below the league average in weight (202.9 pounds), but most were well above. The average for the top 10 receivers was an incredible 218.2 pounds.
And that’s just for the top receivers in terms of yards. Looking at touchdowns, the results are the same; the average height and weight for the top 10 wide receivers in 2012 touchdowns was 74.4 inches and 217.2 pounds.
At 6’5”, 239 pounds, Johnson is a freak—a man among boys. His scorching 4.35 speed doesn’t hurt, but it’s really that size and his uncanny ball skills that have allowed him to thrive in the NFL—and the reason Sanders wouldn’t be able to come close to shutting him down.
Unfortunately, NFL Game Rewind wasn’t available when Sanders was in the NFL, so just enjoy some of his greatness via YouTube highlights instead.
There’s plenty of film on Johnson, however. When reviewing it, you can see how the majority of his success comes from his huge frame—success that would be difficult for any 6’1”, 195-pound cornerback to stop, regardless of his speed.
Megatron used his size and strength all day against Dallas in Week 8, but it was most apparent on his long 87-yard catch and run near the end of the first quarter. On 2nd-and-10, the Lions lined up in a “Shotgun Tight End Trips” formation with Johnson isolated to the boundary.
At the snap of the ball, Johnson immediately attacked cornerback Brandon Carr and legally pushed him backwards. For the record, Carr is 6’0”, 206 pounds—11 pounds heavier than Sanders.
Carr flew back a few yards so that, by the time quarterback Matthew Stafford released the ball, Johnson had plenty of separation.
Johnson maintained that space as he caught the ball, with Carr trailing him and no defender immediately in sight.
To cap it off, Megatron threw Carr a vicious stiff arm that sent the cornerback to the ground. The receiver took off and, if it weren’t for the speed of cornerback Orlando Scandrick, would have scored on the play.
Tell me, how would Sanders, even in his prime, stop a play like that above? It’s not as if Sanders wasn’t an elite cornerback—he’s probably the best to ever play the game—and he used his body well. Although he didn’t necessarily have a fondness for tackling, Sanders was quietly a really physical player.
But it seems unlikely that Sanders, despite his physicality, would be able to make up for the four inches and 44 pounds that Johnson has on him. What in the world would Sanders do against Johnson in the red zone, for example?
The NFL has changed drastically since Sanders was in his prime, and the stature of today’s wide receivers is one of the most notable differences. Winning their one-on-one battles primarily with size over speed, a lot of today’s wide receivers could give Sanders problems at times.
It would be an intriguing battle to watch, for sure, but the idea that Sanders would shut down Johnson—or even win the majority of the battles—is incorrect.