Brian Burke had a post commemorating Calvin Johnson’s record by taking the opportunity to poo-poo the word ‘statistics’ as being similar to trivia. I understand where he’s coming from if that’s what he usually hears from people; Brian does much more in terms of work and analysis than just figuring out who leads the league in punt returns or whatever. But at the same time, everyone in the analysis area should take it as at least a bit of their job to help inform the public about what we do. The truth of the matter is that ‘statistics’ covers a lot of ground, ranging from most receiving yards in a season up to when you should go for it on fourth down or how many points a 10 yard catch on 3rd and 5 from the 45 is worth.
I talked about statistics a bit in the second half of this post. The main issue is that in sports, virtually everyone uses statistics to make an argument. Bill Simmons uses statistics throughout his Book on Basketball to order players in his pyramid. But he also spends parts of the book complaining about how statistics can’t tell you who’s good in the NBA. How is that possible? It’s because he uses things like number of MVP awards, points per game, and number of championships while arguing against things like PER, Win Shares, or plus/minus. In other words, he uses simple counting statistics (while ignoring the fact that they are indeed statistics) instead of so-called ‘advanced statistics’. The problem isn’t with using statistics, but instead deciding what statistics to use. Usually, even if we aren’t sure that they’re “right”, advanced statistics will be better than ‘basic statistics’. But just to show that it can be done, I’ll use some basic stats here to talk about how impressive Calvin’s record is.
While I was listening to the Detroit-Atlanta game, the guys on the radio were talking about which record would be more impressive: Adrian Peterson getting the rushing record or Calvin getting the receiving record. The commentator went with AP because of his injury and because it’s much more of a passing league now. I certainly don’t want to argue against how impressive Peterson has been this year; coming back from an ACL tear and having a 2000+ yard season is amazing. But we can look at some very simple statistics to see that Calvin’s record is just as impressive if not more so.
Step one is to see if the league has really shifted to being more about passing. If you look at the year-by-year QB yard leaders, it’s fairly apparent that there’s more passing (note that none of the stats here will include week 17’s numbers, as I’m writing it Sunday evening). Dan Marino’s 5000+ in 1984 was an outlier as no one else would get there until Brees in 2008, but the number broadly go up over the past 40 years. Looking at entire teams since 1970 (post-merger), there are 117 team-seasons in which a team got over 5,000 passing yards; none happened before 1980 but 70 have happened since 2000; 47 have happened in the past five years including 6 already this year with a game left to play. Rushing has been much more even. A cut-off of 2400 yards gives 109 team-seasons, roughly comparable to the passing number, and only 30 have happened since 2000 with 15 coming in the past five years. Passing is on the rise while rushing is taking a back seat.
However, that doesn’t mean that individual receivers are necessarily getting more yards. Tight ends are much more of a receiving threat than they used to be, and four and five receiver sets are more common than they used to be. Running backs are probably more involved in the pass game than they used to be, if I had to guess. So passing yards at the team/QB level could be up without any particular receiver getting more receptions. To look at that, we can look at the top seasons for individual receivers. Here’s the year-by-year list for receiving yards. In the 80’s, 1400 yards was a decent bet to lead the league; in the 90’s you needed more like 1500, although Jerry Rice had his record in 1995; in the 2000’s 1500 was still pretty good but 1600 would be better. The same numbers for rushing are something like 1800, 1500, and then 1800 again. League-leading runners seem to be limited by health and opportunity; a running back can’t expect to get more than about 6 yards per carry and 300 carries for a season at best, and so you’re stuck around 1800 yards with some wiggle (320 carries at 6 a pop puts you at 1920; 320 at 6.2 a pop puts you at 1984). Receivers, on the other hand, can obviously catch more passes because more passes are being thrown in general. So that would be a strike against Calvin; maybe his record is somewhat due to the league context while AP is being held back (or at least not helped) by the league.
How about those opportunities though? If Calvin is taking advantage of a passing league while AP is doing his work while lots of other running backs are ‘taking it easy’, then Calvin should have more competition in the yards/receptions department while AP should be blowing everyone away. Also, a number of the all-time receiving yard leaders should come from recent seasons. Starting with the rushing leader list, we can see that with one game to go AP is already 8th. Marshawn Lynch is second this season with 1490, good for 84th on the list. No one else from this year is in the top 100. In terms of receiving, Calvin is (of course) number 1; Brandon Marshall is second with 1466 yards but 41st on the all-time list; Andre Johnson is just behind at 43 but then you fall out of the top 100. So Calvin is ahead of his competition by about as much as AP and the number of top receivers is about the same as the number of top runners this year. That’s a plus for Calvin.
Speaking of the context, let’s look at what was happening when the other records were set. Eric Dickerson ran for 2105 yards in 1984; second place was Walter Payton with 1684. In other words, it was a fairly typical running year. This year will look pretty similar at the top; the top 10 guys will end up with 1200 yards or better and three other guys besides AP will probably break 1500; in 1984 the top 10 were 1150 or better and no one else broke 1500. So if anything, the top guys this year ran for more yards than when Dickerson set the record. In terms of receiving, the top 10 guys will all be at 1300 or better and two other guys will be around 1500; in 1995, Rice also led 10 guys at 1300 or better but five other guys were at or over 1500. Herman Moore also had 1686 yards and Isaac Bruce had 1781; those numbers are good for 3 and 7 on the all-time list. So Rice set his record in an up year for passing while Calvin is setting his in a fairly standard time. That’s a plus for Calvin.
We can also look at number of receptions. Calvin finished week 16 with 117 catches, which does lead the league. But Marshall is right behind at 113 and there are a few other guys over 100. Also, Calvin is only the 10th receiver to catch 117 or more passes in a season. Rice caught 122 when he set his record, and Marvin Harrison has the record with a ridiculous 143. So those guys all have decent shots at the record, yet none of them have it. That’s a plus for Calvin; it shows that while he’s caught a lot of passes to get his yards, it isn’t an especially absurd number. AP is at 315 for the season, and only three guys have over 300. But plenty of guys have run it that many times, so AP doesn’t stand out there at all. He stands out due to his yards per carry. Calvin is pretty good on the rate measure as well though; his 126.1 yards per game is the best for anyone who had at least 50 catches in a year, and his 16.2 yards per reception is 26th amongst guys who caught at least 80 balls in a season (i.e., a top-option receiver). AP is making his run as this year’s exemplar of an all-time back, but Calvin is doing a pretty good impression for a receiver.
So overall we have built out the context for Calvin and AP’s seasons using nothing but basic stats; just counts and averages. They’re still somewhat trivia; we don’t know anything about how much their yards were worth or anything like that. Of course, a number of ‘advanced stats’ are really just averages, but even with these ‘basic stats’ we compared them to other players in other seasons, compared them to each other, and did a bit more than just say “hey, who had the most X?” In my opinion, the stats say that Calvin’s season is just as impressive as AP’s, and perhaps more so since we now know that Peterson fell just short of the record. Of course, if passing numbers continue to inflate and someone else breaks the receiving yard record soon and then guys are commonly beating 1800 yards within the next few years, it won’t seem very impressive. But for now Calvin is not only in the trivia books but the stats books as well.