Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The HoG25: The 25 Best Receivers of the Past 25 Years (Part One)

The Iron Triangle of the House of Georges likes to argue. A lot. We bicker over whether that last call was home cookin' or a feat of unbiased umpiring. We quarrel about whose turn it is to buy the next round of drinks. But most of all, we match wits on the topic of greatness: Tony Gwynn or Rickey Henderson? A lifetime supply of disease-free, Playmate-administered meast arousal or a collection of Rickey baseball cards? Average player jersey tuck or HoFer jersey tuck?

The list goes on, and so we three set off on an epic journey, a quest to rank the Top 25 of the past quarter-century in a variety of our favorite sports and cultural topics. Today's lucky target: NFL route runners. If you like what you read, click the HoG25 link at the bottom of the post. Enjoy!

25: Keyshawn Johnson

Old No. 7:
It's possible that I've ranked Key a bit too high, we'll see where my colleagues place him. My recollection of him was as a winner, a reliable possession receiver and a big-game stud. But a further examination of his career reveals that he may be wildly overrated (at least by me).

Almost everything Keyshawn did was a major event -- he placed himself as firmly in the public consciousness as one could. He helped bring USC back from mediocrity to relevance, before Pete Carroll finished the job. He was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, something that very few receivers have ever done. He made a huge splash with the Jets when, following a solid-but-hardly-spectacular rookie season, he penned an autobiography titled "Just Give Me The Damn Ball." He was traded to Tampa for a pair of first-round picks, and again to Dallas for Joey Galloway.

These days, with the antics that star receivers employ, this all seems pretty tame. But back in the mid- to late-90s, Keyshawn was a massively magnetic and polarizing force (those two adjectives may not be compatible by the laws of physics). It's quite possible that Key is better in my mind than he was on the field, and that instead of great he was merely very good.

24: Chad Ochocinco

Old No. 7:
The name, for the record, is patently ridiculous. I don't even speak Hispanish, but even I know that it oughtta be Ochenta y Cinco. This whole thing is completely out of control, and the fact that he legally changed his name and Ochocinco actually appears on the back of his jersey is one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. He's a buffoon, and an attention whore, but within the current paradigm of annoying receivers he's not so bad.

And, more crucial to why we're here today, he's a damn good receiver. His 9257 yards rank him 38th all-time, and his 56 TDs put him at 71st. He's got a few good years left, and there's a giant jumble of similarly accomplished players right around those figures. Barring major injury, he'll reach the top 20 in yardage and the top 30 in touchdowns, and he'll have a borderline case for the Hall of Fame.

But one of the things you'll see when we compare current NFL receivers to the ones of just one generation ago -- the Fryars and Loftons and Monks and Largents -- is just how much better their numbers are. Because these things are very incremental and kind of sneak up on us, it doesn't seem as though passing statistics are that much different than when we were all kids, but they are. It's staggering. So we have to find a way to subjectively place guys like, I can't even say his name any more it's so moronic, in historical context with players whose numbers are dwarfed by modern stats. Luckily, the House of Georges is stocked with writers who are capable of handling such a weighty responsibility. Or, we just make shit up out of whole cloth. Either way, you're still reading it.

23: Steve Smith

Steve Smith seems like a total dick. He's somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 feet tall and clearly has the small man complex, which results in lots of entertainingly self-absorbed sideline ranting and teammate sucker-punching. He also went to the University of Utah. So fuck that guy.

Alas, if only it were that easy -- because Steve Smith can play some footbaw, as Ed Orgeron might say in between swigs of Red Bull.

How is it that such a tiny dude, a receiver built like a 3d down back, can have carved out a position as one of the best deep threats in the game? His body control, for one thing. He adjusts to off-target passes as well as anyone -- and needs to, with Jake "Even I Don't Know What It Was I Just Said" Delhomme throwing him the ball. He's also preternaturally strong and can muscle the ball away from most corners if it's contested. More impressively, though, is that he's been largely the only option for Carolina's passing game his entire career, and still manages to put up the numbers despite near-constant doubling.

So fuck you, Steve Smith, pint-sized egotist. I despise your attitude, your alma mater and your stupid Down's Syndrome-y face, but am forced to recognize your game. Bah.

22: Andre Johnson

I love me some Andre Johnson. Let’s back up. I hate football players who matriculated at colleges and universities in the state of Florida. Florida football can hurl itself onto rotating chopper props. But how can you not love Andre Johnson? I didn’t really know what to expect when the Houston Texans were begotten. It had been most of a decade since the last expansion and Dom Capers and Tom Coughlin had some surprisingly early success with the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively. Hell, both of them made conference championships in their second year in existence, but then the Panthers turned into murderers and drunken racists and Capers had to take the fall.

Along comes the Houston franchise, Capers gets plugged in, and the recipe for instant success is set to percolate, right? Wrong. The expansion draft of the Texans was a botched abortion at best, and their drafts since then have only mildly improved, thus their current six-years-sans-winning-season status. They’ve shown some hype, some dazzle, some hope, but it always implodes, and the one consistent has been Andre Johnson. David Carr sack after David Carr sack, coupled with nary a whiff of a running game, Andre Johnson has still managed to make plays and be a pretty awesome number one for this team in six of its seven years in town.

In that span, he’s averaged over 13 yards per catch, 80-plus catches per season, and 1060 yards a year. He hasn’t scored a ton of touchdowns, but he’s put up those numbers with minimal ground games and offensive lines that have, on average, given up just over 41 sacks a season. That’s a lot of bad football right there. Through six weeks of this season, Houston is playing .500 football. They’ve made improvements to this football team all around, and, as it stands now, Johnson is on pace to break all of his single-season highs. Playing tough, high-quality football for a bad team won’t get you into the playoffs, but there’s a consolation prize for ya’, ‘Dre: It’ll get you on our list.

21: Andre Rison

Old No. 7:
Many recievers on this list have nicknames. TO. The Playmaker. Murderous Marvin. The San Francisco Treat. It's pretty rare for a well-known guy to have three handles, two of which he gave himself.

Most know him as "Bad Moon" Rison, form the good old days of Bermanisms that were actually pretty tight. Apparently, when he came to Kansas City in 1997, Rison tried to get the locals to call him "Spiderman." Now I don't know about you, but I think guys who give themselves nicknames are pretty lame.

I'm willing to make exceptions, however, because one time Spider-Moon got himself mixed up in a training camp fracas at a Wisconsin watering hole. When the fuzz asked him for his ID, he told them his name was Brock Middlebrook, and Brock Middlebrook is quite possibly the greatest fake name anyone has ever come up with. It's even better than Art Vandelay.

On the field, Brock Spider-Moondelay had serious game, having thrust past the magic 10,000-yard mark over 11 seasons. He just might be the best wide receiver the Chiefs have had since the merger, which tells you more about the Kansas City franchise than Rison's talent. He's one of a long line of stud pass-catchers to matriculate at Michigan State, along with Plaxico Burress, Muhsin Muhammad, Derrick Mason, Mark Ingram, Charles Rogers and Herb Haygood (part of the immortal Doobie Brothers battery with Jeff Smoker). Sure, most of those guys have spent some time in an orange jumpsuit, but I dare you to give me a school with a better record of manufacturing NFL receivers.

20: Larry Fitzgerald

Larry Fitzgerald is the best wide out playing professional football today. If you play fantasy football – and I know you do, you little fucker – and your league has guys in it that are still taking Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Reggie Wayne ahead of Fitz, then this is me giving you permission to call them stupid, blue-footed boobs. Much has changed in the NFL passing game since the early ‘80s where strong, accurate passing simply had to be coupled with nothing-shy-of-perfect route running. Good receivers are more abundant, top receivers are even topperer than they were 15 years ago, and every club, be they wise, does their best job to get legitimate ones, twos, and threes on their receiving depth chart. There are exceptions of course. Take my Kansas City Chiefs for example. With their druthers, they’d, at least in the Peterson era, rather wait around for someone else’s two or three to get old or hurt, toss them way too much money, and treat ‘em like a number one. Always great fun.

Then there are the Arizona Cardinals who have Fitz, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston on their roster, which – and I can say this as a Chiefs fan – should kind of be illegal. Trust me: That’s not because of Boldin and Breaston. They’re fine athletes, and Boldin is a machine, but the way that Fitzgerald plays the game has altered the approach of many a secondary, many a coordinator. Fitzgerald has been in the league for five seasons. If you take his averages over that time span, and project him over a 20-year career, he will break Jerry Rice’s records for total catches and receiving yards, and come within 17 scores of hitting his touchdown mark, landing him in second. And those are just averages. Of course, there’s no telling if he’ll stay healthy. We have no idea what kind of team he’ll play for, or what kind of offensive system he’ll be in. And he certainly isn’t going to have Kurt Warner chucking him the rock much longer.

Thing is, though, that that’s precisely all you need from a quarterback: for him to chuck it your direction and high above a corner or a safety. Larry Fitzgerald will come down with it. He is an amazing specimen of a football player. Perhaps my colleague put it best: “Larry Fitzgerald is not a real person, just a video game illusion.”

19: Sterling Sharpe

Sterling Sharpe was something of a prototype receiver for the New Wondrous Era of Passing Glories and Exultations that Bill Walsh, Ernie Zampese and their ideological descendants brought forth upon the NFL: big and surehanded rather than little and shifty, adept at catching those five-yard outs and turning them into big gainers but also a legitimate deep threat. The template was built by Rice and Taylor, but Sharpe was well on his way to stamping the NFL record book with his personal sigil five years into his career.

Of course, his career didn't last much past that. Injuries robbed him of the physical abilities that had flustered his NFC North opponents and he retired after the '94 season...a year that saw him grab 18 touchdowns. It's not a stretch to say that, if he had remained healthy, he'd warrant a much, much higher place on this list. In his second season in the league, he caught 90 passes for more than 1,400 yards -- and that was with Don Majkowski throwing him the ball. Three years later, with a young Brett Favre chucking it, he'd perform even more impressively, snagging 108 balls for 1,461 yards, 13 scores and nearly 100 receiving yards per game. In seven full NFL seasons he reached the end zone 65 times. My goodness.

So while he may not be very high on this list, we can thank the capriciousness of the football gods rather than any drop-off on his part. If Sterling had stayed sterling, he'd be in the top five. At least.

18: Jimmy Smith

This is how stacked those early '90s Cowboys teams were: a borderline Hall of Fame candidate-in-waiting like Jimmy Smith didn't even see the field.

Now, admittedly, that had something to do with his liking the cocaines. I'm not going to pass judgment on that; I've indulged on occasion (read: the years 1993-2005), although I never got the shit that he was likely sampling with Erik Williams and Michael Irvin -- hoo Nellie, I bet that stuff could have numbed you out for dental surgery. Whatever the behind-the-scenes truth was, kid had to have some kind of problem if Jerrah Jones made him available in the expansion draft after spending a 2nd rounder on him a year earlier. The Cowboys impatience, unfortunately, turned out to be the Jacksonville Jaguars' gain.

I say "unfortunately" because Jimmy fucking Smith was one of the biggest reasons they beat the Broncos in that '96 playoff game. I'll never forgive that team. It was the coming-out party for that franchise, and you could argue that there wasn't another player - -not Mark Brunell, not Tony Boselli -- who meant more to its long-term successes. He was the glue that held their explosive passing game together, even when Brunell got hurt and stiffs like Rob Johnson stepped in. He consistently produced big yardage, totalling 12,287 for his career, and remained a deep threat late into his career. He never scored a lot of touchdowns, no, but consistently logged about eight yearly, and his presence helped Keenan McCardell carve out a much better career than he would have otherwise.

Is he a Hall of Famer? That's debatable -- plenty of people would put him in over Rod Smith, say, but I'd argue against that point, and not just because I sport a huge fan boner for #80. One thing is certain: Jimmy Smith's career will likely serve as a benchmark to determine whether or not the gates open for more of the modern guys with comparatively inflated numbers. Even out of the league, he'll be creating opportunities for others.

17: Art Monk

I didn’t want to write about Art Monk. I don’t want to write about Art Monk. I couldn’t give two shits about the Redskins. But the boy could catch, lemme tell ya’. That ain’t why we’re honoring him today, though. Yes, professional football players, especially wide receivers, can all catch footballs. Even idiot kickers. Hell, I can catch nine out of every 10 balls you throw me. Just don’t throw it too hard. That hurts.

The thing about Art Monk that not so much demands, but recommends that you recognize about him was the consistency of his production. In Monk’s day, the game was a touch more about grinding it out, the old establish-the-run-game-so-you-can-open-up-the-pass-game adage. Now, I don’t want to take anything away from Old No. 7’s uncle Theismann, but he, Mark Rypien and Doug Williams didn’t make our QB list for a reason. More importantly, the passing game wasn’t a huge factor in the Washington game as it was for say Denver or San Francisco or Miami. Whether it was John Riggins or George Rogers in the ‘80s or Earnest Byner and the RBBC that followed him in the ‘90s, Washington always had the ability to pass the ball, but you usually gather substantial yardage via the ground game first.

That’s where a guy like Monk came in beyond handy. He wasn’t always healthy, and he wasn’t always dazzling, but for 16 straight seasons, he was out their catching passes and contributing when and where he was asked to. He did make three Pro Bowls, and he played in three Super Bowls, winning two of them. His reception and touchdown career totals – 940, 68 – might seem pedestrian, but he did manage to amass 12,721 receiving yards, making him a hard-workin’ S.O.B. , and worthy of a HoG nod.

16: Irving Fryar

Anybody that tells you that the newer New England uniforms are better than the old red-and-white with the Pat Patriot helmet is a fucktard. I used to be a pretty big Pats fan back in the day. Why? The uniforms. I was rooting for them in ’85 when they got absolutely murdered by the Monsters of the Midway. I thought Tony Eason and Steve Grogan were great quarterbacks (Editor's Note: See: Kansas City Chiefs quarterbacks of the ‘80s for an explanation), and I loved the work ethic of guys like Mosi Tatupu, Craig James, and Irving Fryar. Those teams, and obviously the players on them, had to work their asses of for each and every win.

And it was production out of cats like Fryar that would make a kid want you to chuck him the long ball in the back yard. I don’t want to take away anything from a cat like, say, Art Monk, but Art Monk’s in the Hall of Fame. Irving Fryar made two more Pro Bowls than Monk, and edged him out by an ass hair in career receiving yards. He also caught 14 more scores and had a higher yards-per-reception average, but who’s counting.

Fryar also dropped five 1000-yard-plus receiving seasons in the ‘90s, and, while he averaged a mere three catches a game over 17 seasons, he was typically good for a solid 50 yards a game. None of us know what goes on behind the closed doors of the Hall-of-Fame candidate-voting meetings, but I do know that if I were catering the lunch for that meeting, I’d be saying things like “This sandwich is named after the Padres’ mascot,” and “Just pulled these mozz sticks from the deep…” and coughing things like “Sleepy Hollow.” It probably wouldn’t work, but it’d probably be more successful than a daily-letter-to-the-commissioner project.

15: James Lofton

Old No. 7:
Dignified, professional and soft-spoken, James Lofton has absolutely no business being associated with the me-first ball-hog criminals that pepper this list. Although his peak years occurred before our 1984 cutoff, Lofton played 16 years in The Show and has a bust in Canton due to incredible consistency and production. No one could go deep like James Lofton.

The only knock on Lofton was his relatively low touchdown output -- he scored 75 overall but never more than eight in any season. Part of this stemmed from where he played. After 9 years on the frozen tundra in Green Bay, catching balls thrown by the likes of Lynn Dickey, Randy Wright and David Whitehurst, Lofton spent two seasons as a Raider. The vertical passing game mandated by Skeletor was a perfect fit for Lofton's downfield skills, but as we all (except Al) know, huckin' bombs is a low-percentage strategy. Lofton finally paired up with a great QB and system in Buffalo, but most of the scores went to Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas.

Don't hate him because he didn't live in the end zone like Cris Carter. James Lofton was The Man.

14: Torry Holt

Holt never really got the credit he deserved for being one of the best receivers of his generation -- was it because he played on those ridiculously stacked late '90s Rams teams? Having Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace and a young Kurt Warner stealing ink from you will do that. Was it because his game was never super flashy? He was great at those 25-35 yard timing routes that the Air Coryell/Martz system thrived on, but never had that Randy Moss/T.O. sparkle. Or was it because his name is Torry? Seriously. Torry is one of the worst boy's names of all time, next to Sailor and Gentry.

His numbers rank among the best of his generation: he had six consecutive seasons over 1,300 yards, including two over 1,600. In 2000 he averaged a superb 19.9 yards per catch; that's the kind of number more befitting a deep-ball specialist with no midfield responsibility. He had some of the best hands in the league, was great at high-pointing the ball and produced as well under the decidedly unimpressive Marc Bulger as he did under the potential Hall of Famer Warner. He's got a Super Bowl ring. He can claim 74 touchdowns and has three seasons of double-digit scores. The guy was never the biggest (only 6'0") or fastest receiver on the field, but he was usually the best. Expect him to don the ugly-ass mustard jacket of Greatness in about six or seven years.

13: Andre Reed

Andre Reed had a phenomenal career considering that a lot of the Buffalo Bills teams he played on were the ultimate balance of what a good team should be. They, at times, had stout defenses, they had a great rushing attack, and a passing game with multiple weapons. Not only that but he was pretty healthy and pretty damn productive for most of 16 seasons. He logged 15 of those with the same club, and even stuck around for a few after Jim Kelly signed off. He didn’t really have a top-tier quarterback to throw him the ball once Kelly was gone, but he still went out and put up better-than-decent numbers.

Crafting installments for a feature like this can be tedious, because, more or less, the criteria for selecting each of these guys is the same, which is why we’ll take a brief peek at Reed’s numbers: seven straight Pro Bowls, 951 catches for 13,198 yards, and 87 touchdowns. And of course you have to mention that unprecedented, never-to-happen-again (I posit) string of four Super Bowl losses.

I don’t wanna get all weepy for the Bills, but aside from the idea that that just freaking blows, you gotta hand it to a guy like Reed for his SB numbers. We know it wasn’t in the cards for Buffalo to hoist a Lombardi, and it wasn’t in the cards for Reed to catch a touchdown pass in either of those contests, either. He did, however, haul in 27 balls for 323 yards in those games. Andre Reed was gravy when it came to catching passes, especially those of considerable length, i.e. his 11-year stretch (1988-98) of catching at least one 50-yard pass a season, save ’95 when he missed 10 games and could only put up a 41-yarder.

12: Shannon Sharpe:

Shannon Sharpe didn't just pile up stats, although those he did accumulate represented the all-time industry leader until they were bested by a certain metrosexual vegan. He didn't just talk wicked shit and back it up, although he did once taunt Derrick Thomas to the point of complete meltdown. He didn't just make the clutchiest of clutch plays for three Super Bowl champions, although he really did. No, Shannon Sharpe owned it all. He represents a kind of character that's largely mythic in modern sport, more the province of literature than of the actual locker room: the brash, larger-than-life showman who wins on the field and poses for muscle mags off it, who parachutes into the stadium to accept awards, who attracts every camera yet somehow manages to avoid seeming insincere. If anything, Shannon Sharpe was never insincere. He thought he was great and he said so. My personal favorite Sharpe moment happened off the gridiron, when he wore a "Fuck Favre" t-shirt during the '97 Super Bowl parade. It was, as it should have been, camouflage and ridiculously tight.

His ego collapes gravity, he's occasionally incoherent on the television, his visage has inspired a ton of totally original jokes and he did skip town to play in, fah, Baltimore. I can't stand that team. Plus I hear the city is a toilet. My wife travels there for business, says it's awful and she can't even find an actual goddamn crab cake. Ray Lewis covered for a murdered and Joe Flacco wears a caterpillar on his face. So there's that.

But then, he also came back, so we forgave him his momentary sojourn to the eastern seaboard. Big Play Shay will always be the Best Tight End in NFL History...at least west of Goodland.

11: Tony Gonzalez

Old No. 7:
Let me say it, loudly and clearly and on the record: TONY GONZALEZ IS THE GREATEST TIGHT END IN THE HISTORY OF FOOTBALL. Case closed, end of story. He's great.

I personally lobbied to have this category include all pass-catchers, not just wideouts, specifically so Gonzalez (and Shannon Sharpe) could be included. He's been that impactful on football over the last 25 years, and he's a no-doubt sure-thing slam-dunk Hall of Fame inductee five years after he hangs up the cleats.

That being said, I've often criticized Gonzalez over the years for his lack of success in the playoffs, and I think that criticism is absolutely valid. Because we're not talking about some random player, some mere multiple Pro Bowler, we're talking about THE GREATEST TIGHT END IN THE HISTORY OF FOOTBALL. Barry Sanders is the best running back I've ever seen, and he's in the conversation for the title of top running back in history. But Barry Sanders has a similar track record of January misery, and that is absolutely applicable when sizing him up against Walter Payton and Jim Brown for the top spot. It wasn't Barry's fault that he played for the woeful Lions and their inept coaches, clumsy quarterbacks, ineffective O-lines and porous defenses, but the fact is that Barry made the playoffs five times in his career. Only once, in 1991, did his team win a single postseason game. This is Barry's cross to bear, as the Chiefs' 0-fer in the playoffs is Tony's.

When Gonzalez and Sharpe were closer in overall numbers and achievements, I always gave the edge to Shannon because he had proven himself over and over again on the postseason stage. But once Sharpe retired and Gonzalez kept creating brilliant seasons, I couldn't hold out any longer. You win. You're the best. Almost as impressive, I just finished four whole paragraphs on Tony Gonzalez without once speculating that he prefers the company of males.

Wow. There you have it, pass-catching fans. Swing back by tomorrow for a gander at the remaining 10.


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