I have been looking at Pro-Football-Reference again this week, and my mind kept going towards the passing stats. Mostly because it seems like there are more great receivers playing the game today than there have ever been at one time. The debate for title of "best receiver in the game" is a bloody battle royale to the death (this was an alternate name for "National Football League") between at least six or seven guys.
Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald (suddenly popping his head back into the arena) for starters. I mean that doesn't even include Dez Bryant, out with injury, or Amari Cooper, who finds himself eighth in receiving yards while playing for the Oakland Raiders.
But are the receivers getting better or has the game just flowed so in favor of passing that they are allowed to succeed in a way that their ancestors of football were not?
The receivers are getting better because probably more talent has shifted to that side of the ball over the last 15-20 years. Catching touchdowns is more glorious than stopping them, and much like big guys choosing to play defensive line more often than they care to play offensive line, you do see talent shift to one side of the ball. A good example of why this is true: Pete Carroll finding that one of the best corners in the game was a college receiver for a couple years, and trying to make similar transitions with players like Doug McNeil. (Also why he is looking for his offensive lineman on defense.)
But it's also the rules, of course. You can't touch receivers. You can't touch quarterbacks. I mean, you can but you can't. Passing yards are cool, points are cool, incomplete passes stop the action. All of that has led to some pretty unbelievable numbers through the first three weeks of 2015. Here's a list of some of the facts I found to be more interesting.
- Aaron Rodgers has the third-best QB rating through three weeks in NFL history.
Rodgers has a passer rating of 135.4. Only Tom Brady in 2007 (141.8) and Randall Cunningham in 1992 (141.2) have had better such starts. With Andy Dalton (121), it's only the third time in history that two QBs have a rating of 120 in the same year and just the 18th total time in history. It also happened in 2004 (Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb) and 1992 (Cunningham, Steve Young.)
- Rodgers and Brady both have as least nine touchdowns with zero interceptions this season. It's only the third and fourth time in NFL history that a QB has done that in the first three weeks.
The other times were Peyton Manning in 2010 and Peyton Manning in 2013.
- Six QBs have a passer rating of at least 110 through three weeks. There were zero such QBs last season. Six is twice as many such QBs as any other season in history.
Those QBs are Andy Dalton, Rodgers, Tyrod Taylor, Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger.
- Five QBs have thrown for 300 yards twice in the first three weeks. That happened three times in the 1970s.
It's not as many as 2013 though, when four QBs had two 300-yard games and three had three 300-yard games to start the season.
- 10 QBs have thrown for at least 800 yards so far, but that's not even close to the most ever in a season. Surprisingly, this number is down from 2013 (13), 2012 (13), but especially down from 2011, when there were 18 QBs in this club.
19 QBs accomplished this feat from 2000-2003.
- There are three QBs with at least 900 passing yards and 13 over the last three seasons. Between 1995 and 1998, there were zero QBs who passed for 900 yards over the first three weeks.
I think what's most interesting than just volume passing numbers though and yards -- which can be deceiving and actually mean that a QB is doing poorly -- is that quarterbacks seem to be getting more efficient and dangerous. There aren't just more passes, there are more successful passes. Since 2011, there have been 11 QBs to have at least 900 passing yards, a rating of 100 or better, and at least 8 Y/A in the first three games. This list includes Rodgers twice (he only has 771 yards this season), and Tom Brady twice. It also includes Matthew Stafford and Matt Hasselbeck.
So that's 11 in the last five seasons compared to 22 in NFL history previous to that.
- Amari Cooper has 20 receptions through three games. That is the third-most in history for a rookie through Week 3 behind only Anquan Boldin (23 in 2003) and Earl Cooper (21 in 1980), who also happens to be Amari's father just kidding don't go around telling anybody that it's only a coincidence.
But E. Cooper was a fullback, so it doesn't really count in the same way.
Cooper has 290 yards, compared to Boldin's 378. He has 31 targets to Boldin's 35. Does this mean Cooper is going to be one of the best receivers of all-time? Well, we have no way of knowing that. I think it's fair to say that coming into the draft, he's certainly got the pedigree to do that, but what's more interesting is that right now he's got an opportunity to put up numbers unlike most of the receivers that preceded him.
And let me remind you that we're talking about the Oakland Raiders here. Cooper is currently averaging 96.7 yards per game. The last time a Raider averaged even 80 yards per game receiving was Tim Brown in 1999. Only one player in Oakland history has averaged more than 96 yards per game, and that's Art Powell in 1967, when he averaged 97.2.
Cooper's production is a combination of a few things, including the Raiders actually having a competent quarterback, Cooper's talent, and the competition they've faced, but another big part of it is that the league is passing so much that if you've got a good QB and a good WR, there's almost no excuse to not put up good numbers these days.
- Nine players have at least 35 targets so far this season. Last season, Jordy Nelson was the only player in the NFL to have 35 targets through three games.
The players with 35 or more targets this year:
- Julio Jones, 46 (tied as NFL record with TJ Houshmandzadeh)
- Julian Edelman, 42
- Steve Smith, 40
- Keenan Allen, 39
- DeAndre Hopkins, 38
- Demaryius Thomas, 38
- Jarvis Landry, 35
- Emmanual Sanders, 35
- Antonio Brown, 35
ProFootballReference only measures targets dating back to 1998, but still there were only 41 players from 1998-2014 that had this many targets in three games, compared to nine in 2015. That's a significant jump.
Suddenly it's not even shocking to be like, "Yeah, Jarvis Landry is getting 12 targets per game" and the reply being "Oh, is that all?"
- Julio Jones has 440 yards, fourth-most through Week 3 in NFL history. Antonio Brown has 436 yards, fifth-most.
Right now there are two players on pace for top-five all-time seasons in receiving yards. The record happened just four years ago, when Wes Welker had 458 yards in three games. Jones is on pace for 2,347 yards, while Brown obviously isn't far behind that. However, it might be a little bit more difficult to break the all-time single-season receiving record with Michael Vick throwing the passes.
- Jones is the second player to have at least 130 receiving yards in each of the first three weeks of the season. The only other player to do this is Harold Jackson for the Eagles in 1972. Three other players this season have had two such games: Allen, Brown, and Smith.
- Jones is averaging 91.7 yards per game, the second-most ever for a player in his first five seasons. A.J. Green is averaging 82.7 Y/G (seventh-most ever) over that same period of time.
Of course, you can't give to QBs and WRs without taking from RBs.
- No running back has rushed for 300 yards yet. That's the first time that's happened after three weeks since 1987.
The NFL's leading rusher right now is Adrian Peterson with 291 yards. He's averaging 4.9 yards per carry, and only three running backs right now are averaging at least five yards per carry: Karlos Williams, Gio Bernard, and Matt Jones.
The Denver Broncos have only rushed for 171 yards and one touchdown but are 3-0. It's only the third time in NFL history that a team is 3-0 while rushing for less than 300 yards in the first three games. The other times are the 2007 Green Bay Packers and the 1998 Packers.
Of course, not all teams stopped running it. It's just that with teams like the Seahawks and 49ers, they're still running it, but they're doing the same thing that Green Bay or New England are doing: Favoring the quarterback.