(EDITOR'S NOTE: During the offseason we frequently ask guest columnists to contribute. Today NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal explains why ranking players on a per-game statistical basis makes more sense now that the NFL is increasing the regular season to 17 games.)
NFL owners this week voted to increase the NFL schedule from 16 to 17 games, the first increase of contests since 1978 when the league went from 14 to 16. A big deal? I think so.
Since the NFL record book uses season totals as benchmarks instead of per-game averages it could have … and probably will if the regular-season schedule expands to 18 games … a significant impact on its records. That’s why we think the league long ago should have gone to a per-game basis for superlatives.
Take a look, for example, at the league’s greatest and most productive wide receivers. What is interesting is that when the yards-per-game receiving record is considered for one season it shows a bit of diversity in the years represented.
What is just as intriguing is that NFL season record-holder Calvin “Megatron” Johnson ranks fourth when his 1,964 yards are dissected according to yards per game.
But don’t listen to me. Look at the following chart. It shows all the players who averaged 110 or more receiving yards per game and played 75 percent of games that season (we didn’t include someone who played, for example, three or five):
We live in a pass-happy era, but what can be seen is that only four of the 13 entries are from this century, with none since 2015. The 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1990s, 1990s, 2010s are all represented, and only the 1920s, 1930s, 1970s and 2000s are missing.
The top entry is the Chargers’ Wes Chandler in 1982, but that was a strike year that included only nine games (Chandler missed one). So we don’t know if he would have continued his pace for the entire season. Former Houston Oilers’ star Charley Hennigan has two of the top 13 seasons and was one of the top, if not the top, AFL receiver in that league’s early years.
But special attention needs to be paid to Elroy Hirsch’s 1951 season. It’s still third all-time in yards per game but remember: He led the NFL in receptions, yards, yards per catch, touchdown receptions, and had the longest reception—the five categories the NFL keeps track of. Hirsch is the league’s only quintuple crown winner for a receiver.
We then get into some of the modern guys—Megatron, Josh Gordon, Julio Jones, Jerry Rice and Antonio Brown, with Jim Benton of the 1945 Cleveland Browns wedged in there. It closes out with Hall-of-Famer Ike Bruce and, finally, Don Hutson in 1942, who also had 17 receiving touchdowns.
Yes, in 1942.
So, even if Chandler’s record is surpassed someday (and it likely will), this per-game way of compiling yards-receiving records accomplishes two things: 1) It shows who were the most productive players, and 2) it preserves history. Because there WAS passing in past decades; receivers just didn’t amass career totals with seasons that were shorter and careers that generally were, too.
The playing field, then, is made more level by using per-game stats rather than simple season totals. We think the NFL should commit to doing this before the 2021 season starts.