TRUE LIES THE 1,000-YARD RUSHING YEAR, THE 300-YARD PASSING GAME, THE 100-CATCH SEASON DON'T MEAN WHAT THEY USED TO

September 01, 1996

The number once stood as a milestone, as a four-digit testament
to unconditional excellence. Now, rushing for 1,000 yards in a
season can be summed up in two words: Garrison Hearst.

Like many of pro football's statistical benchmarks, running for
1,000 yards has become as meaningless as the four-minute mile.
Take Hearst. Last season, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals,
he was one of a record-tying 16 NFL backs to rush for at least
1,000 yards. He gained 1,070 on 284 carries, a 3.8-yard average,
and scored only one touchdown. He also fumbled 12 times, the
most in the league by a nonquarterback. The Cardinals went 4-12,
drafted a running back in the second round and last week placed
Hearst on waivers. Having been claimed by the Cincinnati
Bengals, Hearst is a former can't-miss prospect who still may
end up having a successful pro career. To call him an elite
runner based on his 1995 statistics is absurd.

"The 1,000-yard rushing season is a facade," says Pittsburgh
Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, who cleared that barrier in
1993 and '94. "It's ridiculously easy to reach in some systems,
and in others it's a struggle, but it doesn't tell you anything
about what kind of player someone is. I've been on both sides of
it, and I can tell you it doesn't have much meaning."

Once one of pro football's most reliable lines of
demarcation--from 1966 through '71, when there was a 14-game
schedule, the milestone was reached just 18 times)--the
1,000-yard season is now just one of those stats muddled by
changes in rules, game strategy and the length of the season.
With today's 16-game schedule a runner need average only 62.5
yards a game to reach 1,000. Meanwhile quarterbacks are
completing more passes for more yardage than ever, rendering
insignificant the 300-yard passing game--there were only 15 such
performances in 1978, a record 80 last season--and skewing the
complicated QB rating system. Receivers are catching passes in
such record numbers that in 1995 four of the nine players who
had more than 100 receptions, once an all-but-unattainable
total, didn't even make it to the Pro Bowl.

Even if the benchmark for rushing greatness were raised to a
more formidable figure--say, 1,500 yards, which only two
ballcarriers reached last year--there are still better ways to
measure a runner's effectiveness. One good indicator is average
yards per carry (chart, opposite). During a nine-year career
with the Cleveland Browns (1957 through '65), Jim Brown averaged
5.2 yards per carry. And Gale Sayers averaged 5.0 yards while
playing for the Chicago Bears from '65 through '71. While
improved defenses have made it more difficult to run, consider
that nine of the 16 backs who went over 1,000 last season failed
to average four yards a carry. One of those plodders was the
Green Bay Packers' Edgar Bennett, who went for 3.4 yards per
carry en route to a 1,067-yard season for a playoff team. He's
not to be confused with exceptional backs like Chris Warren, who
over the last two seasons has averaged 1,445.5 yards, 12
touchdowns and 4.5 yards per carry for the struggling Seattle
Seahawks.

Another of the most misleading stats in football is a team's
record when its primary running back carries the ball a
significant number of times. The Dallas Cowboys are 62-8 in
games in which Emmitt Smith rushed at least 20 times. But a far
better indication of the impact of a team's running attack is a
stat favored by Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck:
percentage of successful runs. Houck deems a running play
successful if it gains at least four yards or if it is a shorter
run that results in a first down or a touchdown. The Cowboys
strive for a success rate in the 53% range. This is an even
better gauge of rushing prowess than average yards per carry
because the latter figure can be boosted by long gains. For
example, a team that had nine one-yard rushes and one 41-yard
gain would have a tidy 5.0 average, but its percentage of
successful runs could be as low as 10%.

Football has increasingly become a finesse-filled chess match of
specialists, on offense and defense, and of sophisticated
passing attacks, a change spurred by a gradual liberalization of
rules favoring receivers and aerial advancement. Third-and-two
is now a passing down, for heaven's sake. "Athletes on defense
are so good and so strong now that you can't beat them 11 on
11," says San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young. "You have
to pass."

But how can one readily and accurately assess passers when the
league's quarterback rating system is as indecipherable as the
Unabomber's manifesto? The system is based on a formula
involving average yards per pass attempt, completion percentage,
and touchdown and interception percentages per attempt. It
favors quarterbacks who dump the ball to outlet receivers--or
who play in systems that encourage them to do so--at the expense
of downfield throwers. Take the case of two former New York
Jets: If a system assigns a higher career rating to Ken O'Brien
(80.4) than to Joe Namath (65.5), it's far from perfect (chart,
page 98).

"I ignore passer ratings," says New York Giants general manager
George Young. "That's just something that was created to fit the
quarterbacks today. Most of the quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame
have low quarterback ratings."

Using average yards per completion as a component of the rating,
instead of average yards per attempt, is one way of crediting a
quarterback for his moxie and strong arm. Similarly, a
quarterback's completion percentage inside the red zone, where
nothing comes cheaply, is a truer measure than overall
completion percentage and should be factored into the formula.

This rating isn't the only misleading quarterback statistic.
Look at the 300-yard passing day. Since 1980 quarterbacks who
passed for at least 300 yards in a game have a combined winning
percentage of .495; that's because passers on teams that are
losing badly often pile up yardage against prevent defenses. By
comparison, quarterbacks who have averaged at least 10 yards per
pass attempt in a game have won at an .815 rate, and last season
their record was a remarkable 23-1.

The same distortions result when receivers are judged by number
of receptions rather than by receiving yards. Until 1990 only
Art Monk (106) of the Washington Redskins and former AFL stars
Charley Hennigan (101) of the Houston Oilers and Lionel Taylor
(100) of the Denver Broncos had reached the century mark in a
season. However, in the past six years the magic number has been
reached on 16 occasions. Last year Herman Moore of the Detroit
Lions had an NFL-record 123 catches, one more than the 49ers'
Jerry Rice. Does that mean Moore has overtaken Rice as the
league's premier receiver? Of course not. Total receiving yards
is a truer measure of a pass catcher's worth, and in 1995, while
Moore had 1,686 receiving yards, Rice had an NFL-record 1,848
yards, a 15.1-yard average (chart, page 96).

Cardinals fullback Larry Centers pulled down 101 passes, an NFL
record for a running back (never mind that he averaged a paltry
9.5 yards per catch). That accomplishment showed that Centers is
a fine receiver--certainly a better receiver last season than
his teammate Hearst was a running back--and that Arizona's wide
receivers were slow, that the offensive line was weak and that
quarterback Dave Krieg couldn't throw downfield.

Despite a season in which he threw an NFL-high 21 interceptions,
Krieg, who owns the alltime NFL record for fumbles and has three
playoff victories to show for his 16-year career, is the
league's 11th-highest rated quarterback ever according to the
rating system. That places him only 60 spots ahead of Terry
Bradshaw, who guided the Steelers to four Super Bowls during his
14-year career.

You figure it out.

RUSH TO JUDGMENT

The NFL benchmark for a superb rushing season used to be 1,000
yards. Not anymore. A record-tying 16 players surpassed the
barrier last year. What makes for an excellent season running
the football nowadays? How about a player who rushes for 1,000
yards or more and averages five yards per carry. Jim Brown did
it five times; O.J. Simpson, three. Since 1985 it has been
accomplished only 10 times--and by only six players.

Player, Team Year Att. Yds. Avg.TDs

Stump Mitchell, Cardinals 1985 183 1,006 5.5 7
James Brooks, Bengals 1986 205 1,087 5.3 5
Ickey Woods, Bengals* 1988 203 1,066 5.3 15
Brooks, Bengals 1989 221 1,239 5.6 7
Barry Sanders, Lions* 1989 280 1,470 5.3 14
Brooks, Bengals 1990 195 1,004 5.1 5
Sanders, Lions 1990 255 1,304 5.1 13
Gary Brown, Oilers 1993 195 1,002 5.1 6
Emmitt Smith, Cowboys 1993 283 1,486 5.3 9
Sanders, Lions 1994 331 1,883 5.7 7
*Rookie

CATCH-22

Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers is widely considered the
best receiver in NFL history. The statistics he has piled up
over the years are a good indicator of how teams have gone to a
shorter passing game. While his number of receptions has, for
the most part, increased from season to season, Rice's average
yards per catch is down from his early years.

Year Rec. Yds. Avg. TDs

1985 49 927 18.9 3
1986 86 1,570 18.3 15
1987* 65 1,078 16.6 22
1988 64 1,306 20.4 9
1989 82 1,483 18.1 17
1990 100 1,502 15.0 13
1991 80 1,206 15.1 14
1992 84 1,201 14.3 10
1993 98 1,503 15.3 15
1994 112 1,499 13.4 13
1995 122 1,848 15.1 15
*12 games

PASSING FANCY

The quarterback rating system was implemented in 1973 as a way
of measuring passing effectiveness. The system, however,
overrewards today's QBs, who don't throw downfield as much as
their predecessors did. Here are the top 15 rated signal-callers
of all time and how 10 others in the Hall of Fame stack up.

Player Att. Comp. Comp. % Yds. TDs Int.
Rating

Steve Young 2,876 1,845 64.2 23,069 160 79
96.1

Joe Montana 5,391 3,409 63.2 40,551 273 139
92.3

Dan Marino 6,531 3,913 59.9 48,841 352 200
88.4

Brett Favre 2,150 1,342 62.4 14,825 108 66
86.8

Jim Kelly 4,400 2,652 60.3 32,657 223 156
85.4

Troy Aikman 2,713 1,704 62.8 19,607 98 85
83.5

Roger Staubach* 2,958 1,685 57.0 22,700 153 109
83.4

Neil Lomax 3,153 1,817 57.6 22,771 136 90
82.7

Sonny Jurgensen* 4,262 2,433 57.1 32,224 255 189
82.6

Lenny Dawson* 3,741 2,136 57.1 28,711 239 83
82.6

Dave Krieg 4,911 2,866 58.4 35,668 247 187
81.9

Ken Anderson 4,475 2,654 59.3 32,838 197 160
81.9

Jeff Hostetler 1,792 1,036 57.8 12,983 66 47
81.8

Neil O'Donnell 1,871 1,069 57.1 12,867 68 39
81.8

Danny White 2,950 1,761 59.7 21,959 155 132
81.7

Bart Starr* 3,149 1,808 57.4 24,718 152 138
80.5

Fran Tarkenton* 6,467 3,686 57.0 47,003 342 266
80.4

Johnny Unitas* 5,186 2,830 54.6 40,239 90 253
78.2

Otto Graham* 1,565 872 55.7 13,499 88 94
78.2

Bob Griese* 3,429 1,926 56.2 25,092 192 172
77.1

Norm Van Brocklin* 2,895 1,553 53.6 23,611 173 178
75.1

Y.A. Tittle* 3,817 2,118 55.5 28,339 2 12 221
73.6

Sammy Baugh* 2,995 1,693 56.5 21,886 187 203
72.2

Terry Bradshaw* 3,901 2,025 51.9 27,989 212 210
70.9

Joe Namath* 3,762 1,886 50.1 27,663 173 220
65.5

*Hall of Famer The NFL rounds ratings to the nearest 10th

COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER Brown (right) set a rushing standard that Brooks (left) reached three times and Smith (above) has met once. [Jim Brown in game] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above--James Brooks in game] COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM SNYDER [See caption above--Emmitt Smith in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Sign of the times: Rice's yards per catch have decreased. [Jerry Rice in game] COLOR PHOTO: ANTHONY NESTE Tip-off that quarterback ratings are goofy: O'Brien (7) ranks 20th, Namath 92nd. [Ken O'Brien] COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER [See caption above--Joe Namath]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)