Best Single Season Since The Merger (WR)

As some of you may recall, I started this project last summer, when I attempted to uncover the single greatest season for a running back. This time around I’m going to tackle the wide receivers (figuratively, of course, as I doubt I’m physically capable of actually tackling any of the individuals that will be mentioned in this post). I haven’t ran the numbers yet, but my money is on one of Jerry Rice’s seasons, because he’s Jerry Rice, and I don’t really need a reason other than that. Who knows though, maybe I’ll be surprised.

The first thing I did was set some minimum standards:

  • I only looked at 1970 or later, because the NFL/AFL merger happened that year and it served as a nice cut-off.
  • The receiver had to play in at least 10 games, with a couple of exceptions made for Dwight Clark and Wes Chandler in the 1982 season, because of the lockout that year.
  • The receiver had to have a minimum of 2.75 receptions per game. This sounds like a really low number, but if I had put it higher, 1982 would have been representing the seasons from the longest ago. That’s 12 years of football that would have been excluded. I think this number actually just illustrates how much the game has evolved since the 1970’s, so I’m okay with it being that low.
  • For those that are curious, I will include a list of the excluded receivers at the end of this post, that would have otherwise been considered.
With those minimum standards in mind I grabbed every player with a season where they hauled in over 115 total receptions. Then I added every player that had over 1,600 receiving yards. After that each receiver with more than 15 receiving touchdowns was added. Finally I included each player that averaged over 100 yards per game in a season. And for the sprinkles on top, I grabbed a couple of the top all-time seasons in terms of yards per reception, though the large majority of those were before 1970 and/or were players with less than 2.75 receptions per game.
With all of those players already apart of the group, I went ahead and grabbed the best receivers from the 1982 lockout year, Dwight Clark and Wes Chandler, as I mentioned above.
Below is the final group I ended up with. I’m including each player with the number of games they played in that year, their total receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, receptions per game, yards per game, touchdowns per game, yards per reception and touchdowns per reception. I have the final five stats listed out to three decimal places. A lot of people like to stop at two decimals but I feel that a lot can be learned from that third decimal, like when people say “hey, gas is $3.26” I always think, no it’s not, don’t you see the little nine up there? That means it’s $3.269, which would round up to $3.27. Either way, I digress; the players are listed below in chronological order:

(Click the chart to make it bigger)

I thought I’d point out that only 18 of the 32 teams in the NFL were represented. The 49ers lead the way with an astonishing six seasons on the list. The Vikings and Patriots came next with five apiece. The Rams had four and everyone else either had zero, one or two. Another interesting point is that there were only two receivers to make the list three times: Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.

It’s also worth mentioning that six of the players came from the 1995 season. I was only seven years old then, so I can’t be entirely sure, but I think somebody must have kidnapped the entirety of the leagues defensive backs and replaced them with scarecrows. The team that I feel bad for is the Packers from that year. They had to play all six of those teams, and they faced the Cowboys, Vikings and Lions twice. Ouch. Hats off to them for still managing to get to the NFC Championship.

Also, as you may have noticed, at the bottom of the chart, I included the average and standard deviation for each of the statistical categories. The averages are nice to have because they provide a bit of a baseline for what a receiver needs to do to be considered as having one of the best seasons since the merger.

The standard deviations are important because that’s how we’re going to determine which one of these seasons was actually the best. For those of you that don’t know what standard deviations are, how they work, and couldn’t care less; I’m going to make this really simple for you: when we look at the players’ standard deviation for each statistic just remember that positive numbers are good and negative numbers are bad. Positive is good, negative is bad. Got it? Cool.

I went through and calculated the standard deviations for each player in the following five stats: receptions per game, yards per game, touchdowns per game, yards per receptions, and touchdowns per reception. I’m only using those five stats because those numbers capture what a player did when he was on the field, rather than the overall totals, which would put players like Dwight Clark and Wes Chandler at an extreme disadvantage because they didn’t get to play in as many games.

With that in mind here are those standard deviations:

(Click the chart to make it bigger)

There are two things I would like to draw everyone’s attention to.

  1. Wes Chandler’s 1982 season and Calvin Johnson’s 2011 season are the only two out of this entire group to have positive z-scores (standard deviations) in all five categories. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best seasons, but it does mean they were extremely well rounded.
  2. Jerry Rice’s 1987 season. His z-score for touchdowns per game is an astounding 3.144, which is insane. Converting that into a percentile gives you a 99.917. To help put this in perspective, if he’d been able to play a full 16 game season,  he would have ended up with 29 or 30 touchdowns that year. That’s a lot of touchdowns for a quarterback to throw to ALL of his receivers in a season, nonetheless to just one. The only time Jerry Rice wasn’t catching touchdowns was when it wasn’t Sunday… and actually that’s not even true, because he caught three touchdowns in one Monday night game against the Bears.

To bring all this together into one nice neat number, I took the average of each player’s standard deviations for the five categories, then I added 0.962 and multiplied the resulting number by 50. This ensured that the top scoring number topped out right at 100.

Here are the final rankings:

(Click the chart to make it bigger)

No surprise here, Jerry Rice takes the cake. What’s really impressive is that he has three of the top eight seasons. It’s also worth noting that Randy Moss has three of the top eleven. It kills me to have a former Florida Gator and an at-the-time New England Patriot at #2 and #3, respectively, on my list, but that just proves that this list was created with as little bias as possible.

If we were going to use this to create an all-time-team-since-the-merger and have a depth chart (foreshadowing) it would look like this:

  1. 1987 Jerry Rice 
  2. 1982 Wes Chandler 
  3. 2007 Randy Moss 
  4. 1984 Mark Clayton 
  5. 2011 Calvin Johnson 

I skipped the second Jerry Rice, because actually having five different receivers is more interesting.

Let me know what you think in the comments, and as promised, here is the list of excluded players:

(Click the chart to make it bigger)


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