Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cris Carter and the Hall of Fame

Cris Carter isn't in the Hall of Fame yet, and that doesn't sit well with some people. And by some people, I mean "most Vikings fans," as can be evidenced by the outpouring of confused indifference to seething rage by bloggers:

Daily Norseman

Purple Jesus Diaries

I'm sure there are more out there. Even last year, I expressed my own "meh" at Carter's lack of enshrinement. Then, something interesting happened. I changed my mind. Sort of.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in Pro-Football-Reference's HOF roundtable discussion. I and the other panelists were asked a series of questions about this year's nominees, including who we thought should be enshrined. The two obvious answers were Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice, and then we had three other choices to make.

First of all, I don't believe in the "only one player per position" HOF "rule." If you're good enough to be in the HOF, you deserve to go in, regardless of who else is going in. With that in mind, my other three choices were Dermontti Dawson, arguably one of the top five centers of all time; Shannon Sharpe, who revolutionized the tight end position; and then, I decided to choose one of the wide receivers who were eligible: Carter, Tim Brown, or Andre Reed.

As much as I was a Cris Carter fan (when he wasn't being a sanctamonius whiner), I decided to approach this problem as objectively as I could, and the yardstick I tried to use to measure the three wideouts was yards per team pass play. I used YPTPP last year to determine the WR who had the best yardage totals given what he had to work with in his team's playcalling. To wit, a WR who accumulates 1,200 yards on a team that throws the ball 400 times (YPTPP = 3.0) performed much better, in my opinion, than one who got 1,200 yards on a team that threw 600 times (YPTPP = 2.0).

That's a little tougher to measure over a full season than it is over a single season, though, and there are (obviously) more ways that an already imprecise measurement like this could go wrong. Still, I thought I could at least take a shot at it and see if, as I expected, Carter and Brown measured out about the same while Reed would be left in the dust.

I looked over the careers of each man (Carter, Brown, Reed), trying to focus only on the seasons during which they were starters for most or all of their games; in this way, I could be assured that they were on the field for virtually all of their teams' passing plays. In the case of years where a player was a starter but didn't play every game, I would multiply his team's passing plays in that season by a fraction equal to that player's starts/16 in that season. For instance, I only count 12/16, or 3/4 of the Vikings' pass plays in 1992 (when Carter missed four games) against Carter's total.

The "active years" for each player:

Carter: 1988-1989, 1991-2001
Brown: 1992-2003
Reed: 1985-1989

(I skipped Carter's 1990, where he only started five of 16 games. Since he only racked up 416 yards that season, it probably isn't going to hurt his chances any.)

Over those time spans, I came up with the following yardage totals and the number of passing plays that player's team had during those spans (with adjustments for missed time, as noted above):

Carter: 13,336 yards; 6,995 team pass plays (1.91 YPTPP)
Brown: 13,182 yards; 6,237 team pass plays (2.11 YPTPP)
Reed: 13,095 yards; 6,957 team pass plays (1.88 YPTPP)

Wow. That's not what I was expecting.

"But what about the touchdowns?" you might ask. "That's all Cris Carter did, at least according to Buddy Ryan!" Carter has 130 career touchdowns, to Tim Brown's 100. Not a huge margin, but what if we add in 20 yards per TD (the accepted conversion rate, according to PFR) over the same time spans noted above? That's 124 TDs/2,480 yards for Carter, 86 TDs/1,720 yards for Brown and Reed both.

Carter: 15,816 yards; 6,995 team pass plays (2.26 YPTPP)
Brown: 14,902 yards; 6,237 team pass plays (2.39 YPTPP)
Reed: 14,185 yards; 6,957 team pass plays (2.13 YPTPP)

That gets Carter closer, but still no HOF cigar. And none of this takes into account Brown's relatively productive first four years and final year in the league (122 catches, 1,752 yards, 14 TDs) or his time spent as a punt returner (326 returns for 3,320 yards and 3 TDs). It's tough for Viking fans to admit, but Cris Carter was simply the third-best wide receiver in this potential HOF class. Granted, the inane voters didn't even vote in the second-best WR, but that's another story.

BTW, here's how Jerry Rice stacks up in YPTPP, using his numbers from 1986-1996 and 1998-2003:

Rice: 21,461 yards; 9,164 team pass plays (2.34 YPTPP) (without TDs)
Rice: 25,261 yards; 9,164 team pass plays (2.76 YPTPP) (with TDs)

Yeah, he was pretty good.

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