The NFL was once a league where teams went as far as their running backs could carry them. Over the last few years, quarterbacks have dominated the game. But with offense exploding like never before, it's becoming apparent that we're entering a new era of NFL football: the "Golden Age of Wide Receivers."
It's not just that there seems to be a whole batch of once-in-a-generation combinations of size, speed, talent and dedication like Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and A.J. Green. The fundamental nature of offense has changed, and defenses are responding in kind.
A bumper crop of superstars have proven capable of dominating modern zone and off-man coverage, but beyond that, the proliferation of multiple-receiver sets has also made it easier than ever for "lesser" receivers to find a niche in the NFL.
Instead of the old rule of thumb that wide receivers need three seasons or so to learn all of the craft and technique needed to become a complete every-down NFL receiver, offensive coordinators are increasingly just asking receivers to do what they're good at.
As a result of all this, there are more great receivers than ever before, many more good receivers than ever before and an ocean of decent receivers. As defenses do their best to cover the entire field, wideouts of all skill levels are making more of an impact.
Raw rookie receivers can step in and make plays, and savvy older receivers can keep playing a role later into their careers. With record numbers of passes being thrown, single-season and career records will be threatened left and right over the next decade.
If Hall of Fame voters like Sports Illustrated's Peter King think there's a receiver logjam now, in 10 years it's going to be completely gridlocked.
I've written several times recently about the explosion of offense and how the unprecedented trend toward pass-first offenses is changing everything we know about the game. Lots has been written about how this affects quarterbacks, but the impact of these trends on wide receivers is even more noticeable.
Let's look at Sports-Reference.com's Approximate Value, which is a great one-number stat that captures total statistical performance in the context of that player's team. Like its name implies, AV approximates "value," the kind sports fans argue about during Most Valuable Player debates.
In 2012, 158 NFL receivers had an AV of at least one, according to Pro Football Reference.
Their average AV of the qualifying receivers was 4.68; 69 receivers recorded an AV of five or more. Thirty receivers had AVs of eight or more or at least one standard deviation above the mean (8.17). Ten receivers were two standard deviations above the mean or better (11.66), and Wes Welker's AV of 15 was nearly three standard deviations above the mean (15.15).
Going backward in 10-year chunks, let's see how many historical receivers fit into 2012's distribution bins:
Of course, the number of teams in the NFL hasn't been static throughout that time, so I've included the number of teams on the graph as a black bar.
What data stands out?
The red bar, which represents the number of receivers who've made any impact at all. Despite the number of teams (and therefore, roster spots available for receivers) slowly rising from 26 to 32 over the last 50 years, the number of receivers with any kind of value has skyrocketed from 77 to 158.
It's the contribution on the bottom of the roster that's the main difference between 2012 and 2002, along with a thinning of the one-standard-deviation-above group from 38 to 30.
There's a big drop-off from 2012 to 1992, though, with about half as many in the one- and two-standard-deviations-above groups. These across-the-board trends continue through 1972 and 1962, with no receivers meeting the three-standard-deviations-above group.
Check out 1952: 11 receivers in a 12-team league had an AV above 15. What's going on? I bet you can guess: Teams tended to run their entire passing offense through one receiver. Detroit Lions left end Cloyce Box's 42-catch, 924-yard, 15-touchdown performance gave him an AV of 28; the rest of the Lions combined for 129 catches, 1,571 yards and nine scores, per Pro Football Reference.
The highest single-season AV, also per Pro Football Reference, by a modern-day receiver in a non-strike year was Jerry Rice's incredible 1994 season: 112 catches, a league-leading 1,499 yards and 13 touchdowns. Though Rice's numbers were much, much higher than Box's, Rice was playing a much different game.
With more teams, a longer season and modern-day pass-first offenses with receivers, tight ends and running backs all heavily involved, the days of the elite wideout getting all of the targets are over.
Here's another look at the standard distribution of receiver talent, only this time, we used each season's own mean and standard distributions to bin the players. Then, we divided the results by the number of teams to get an average number of receivers per bin in each:
We clearly see the evolution of the game in this chart. In 1952, the average team had 2.75 receivers who made any contribution at all. That number jumped to 4.07 in 1962 but fell all the way back to 2.96 during the so-called "Dead Ball Era" in 1972. In 1982, it was 3.79, and right around 4.3 in both 1992 and 2002.
In 2012, if we do a little bit of rounding, each NFL team had an average of five (4.94) receivers with at least a little statistical value. Of those five, two (2.16) produced at or above the statistical average and one (0.94) was one standard deviation above average.
The average 2012 NFL team had one-third of one receiver on its roster producing at two standard deviations above the mean—or really, one-third of NFL teams had one of these 10 star wideouts. The average NFL team also had one-32nd of Wes Welker.
The red bar and blue bar show the biggest changes in NFL receiver corps over the decades: Teams now roll five receivers deep—not three or four, as they always have—and there are twice as many star receivers as there were a decade ago.
Finally, let's look at the kind of numbers these receivers put up. For receivers in our sample years whose Approximate Value put them two standard deviations above the mean (we'll call them 2σ, or "two sigma" receivers), here's how they produced in terms of yards and receptions per game, as well as the percent of receivers from that year who made the cut:
It's clear that in the early days of the modern NFL, there were a lot of top receivers. In 1952, 1962 and 1972, 6.1 percent, 8.8 percent and 6.5 percent of receivers who made any impact at all were part of this star 2σ class.
Further, the effect of the so-called "Mel Blount Rule" is obvious: Before it, even these elite receivers averaged between three and four catches per game and 70 yards per game or fewer.
On the other side of the 1978 rules changes, our star receivers are averaging five, six and nearly seven catches per game and pushing 90 yards per game. The trade-off here is that fewer receivers broke into this elite class.
In normally distributed data, we'd expect the 2σ group to comprise about 2.5 percent of the data. Given how No. 1 receivers were fed in the early days of football, it's no wonder the ranks of the star wideouts swelled. As offenses modernized, they threw the ball more than ever—but they spread it out among three receivers and incorporated running backs and tight ends into the passing game.
With the ball being spread around much more, there were fewer star receivers, but those who produced were putting up killer numbers. Receivers like Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison were smashing records left and right, but overall there were fewer top receivers and many more also-rans.
While extreme multi-receiver offenses (like the "Airraid" popularized by Mike Leach at Texas Tech) were designed to build elite offenses without elite talent, in the NFL it's having the other effect: Teams pushing the envelope of passing offense are making stars out of quality receivers, and turning stars into superstars.
Head coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have aired it out with legions of unremarkable receivers over the past few years. However, the addition of an elite receiving talent, Jimmy Graham, to that offense has been the catalyst for the Saints' return to title contention.
In the midst of this era of incredibly explosive offense, receivers who have truly elite talent—like Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green and Julio Jones—will make runs at Rice and Harrison's records.
We're entering the golden era of NFL receivers; let's not wait until they're all cast in bronze to appreciate them.