Research: Vikings, Rams, Cowboys Part III: 1976-1980

Jewerl Thomas in 1980.

For the Minnesota Vikings, the 1976 season fits better with Part II of this series. In hindsight, their final failed Super Bowl run signaled the end, or the beginning of the end, of an era. Fran Tarkenton would struggle through his final two seasons in purple (1977-78) and the defense fell into mediocrity that would last until the late 1980s. Still, thanks to the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, perhaps the worst era in Green Bay’s history, and middling Chicago and Detroit teams, the Vikings stayed in the NFC playoff picture and had the third best record in the NFC during this period. After meeting in the 1975 NFC Championship, Dallas and Los Angeles won a combined 21 games in 1976, then dominated the NFC, with just a little resistance from Minnesota, for the rest of the decade. Roger Staubach, already 27 when he joined Dallas in 1969, would enjoy the best years of his career in his late 30s alongside a new generation of Cowboys stars (center Tom Rafferty, running back Tony Dorsett and wide receiver Tony Hill, to name a few). The Rams continued to try new coaches and quarterbacks, finally breaking through to the Super Bowl following the 1979 season. Continue reading

Research: Vikings, Rams, Cowboys Part II: 1970-75

Preston Pearson wrapped up by a wall of Vikings defenders. Photo by Walter Iooss Jr via Sports Illustrated.

By the end of the 1960s the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, and Los Angeles Rams were already seizing control of the NFL from the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts. When the league merged with the American Football League in 1970, some structural changes aided in the three teams’ hold. Baltimore, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh were all sent to the new American Football Conference (AFC) while the rest of the teams in the old NFL became the National Football Conference (NFC). Dallas, Minnesota, and Los Angeles would never again play in the same division and for the next decade they dominated the East, Central, and West divisions, respectively.

Each team had its own arc from 1970 to 1975 but the common thread is that they all won a lot of games and, as the 1970s wore on, matchups between the three teams came to dominate the NFC playoffs.

[Go back for Part I: Pre-Merger for more background]

1970

Week 5: DAL 14 @ MIN 54
Week 6: RAM 3 @ MIN 13

As the 1960s came to a close, momentum was on Minnesota’s side despite a poor showing in the 1969 Super Bowl against Kansas City. The Vikings let quarterback Joe Kapp go in 1970, opting to hand the team over to eight year veteran Gary Cuozzo. Cuozzo, acquired in a trade in 1968, had spent one dismal season as the Saints starter but otherwise was a career backup. Despite the change behind center the Vikings pummeled the Chiefs in Week 1 on their way to a second straight 12-2 season. (Minnesota also crushed the Joe Kapp-led Boston Patriots in Week 13.)
Continue reading

All-Time Running Backs: NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

Emmitt Smith is to this running back debate what Jerry Rice was to the wide receiver version—his stats tower over every other player to the point that it’s not really worth going over everything. Aside from the fact that he is the league’s all time leading rusher, Smith had 7 100-yard playoff games (and two games with 99) and Dallas was 7-0 in those games, including two Super Bowl wins over Buffalo. He scored 21 touchdowns in 17 playoff games—Jerry Rice had 22 in 28 games and Thurman Thomas had 21 in 21 games. Smith led the NFL in touchdowns three times (with Rice, Thomas, and Barry Sanders as pretty stiff competition). He fumbled 55 times as a Cowboy (includes lost and recovered by own team).

Smith at the Metrodome. (via StarTribune)

Tony Dorsett never led the league in rushing yards or touchdowns, but he did have eight 1,000 yard seasons. It would have been nine straight 1,000 yard seasons but for the 1982 strike. Dorsett averaged 82 yards (that would be over 1,300 in a full season) over nine games that year and scored on a record 99-yard run against the Vikings. Maybe Roger Staubach would have been the 1978 Super Bowl MVP if Jackie Smith had caught that fateful third-quarter pass, but Dorsett had a solid game. He picked up 140 yards from scrimmage that day, though he and Drew Pearson bungled a reverse that turned into a lost fumble. His biggest knock is probably that he fumbled 84 times as a Cowboy.

Don Perkins played in the 14-game era and never led the league in rushing yards or even hit 1,000 yards. He made six Pro Bowls, so he must have been doing something right. He was also solid in four playoff games, though he retired before the Cowboys came into dominance and started going to Super Bowls every year. Continue reading

All-Time Running Backs: AFC East

Now that I’ve spent countless hours trying to determine which NFL team has the best all time wide receivers, it seems to make sense to spend countless hours deciding which NFL team has the best all-time group of running backs. Instead of developing a Power Rankings-type list of the best running back teams, let’s do it the way the NFL determines each season’s champion: there are division champs, playoff teams, and a tournament. Each division will get its own post including a run down of the top four running backs from each team. In addition, each team will have what I’m calling “support.” These are guys/moments that might serve as tiebreakers in determining ranks within divisions and who wins in the playoffs—note one change from the wide receivers competition: this time, instead of writing a paragraph about the support guys, I’ll just list anybody who had at least 3,000 yards rushing for that team or had some other notable statistic/distinction (this won’t be scientific). Once I’ve gone through all eight divisions, using votes (I hope) I’ll seed each team and move on to the playoffs and eventually crown one team as the ‘all-time greatest running back team.’

This doesn’t have to be completely stat-based. I think stats are really hard to compare, but for this position I plan to include rushing and receiving stats, Super Bowl stats, Pro Bowl appearances, and other awards. Click on each team name to see their list of all time leading rushers on ProFootballReference. I’ll list the teams in alphabetical order. Keep in mind that any current player’s stats will be out of date within days; I’m not going to try to go back and update them.

Buffalo Bills (1960)

Thurman. (via ESPN.com)

Thurman. (via ESPN.com)

Buffalo gets us off to a solid start with Hall of Famers from two different eras. O.J. Simpson was the first player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards, and he did it in a 14-game season. His 2,003 yard 1973 season (143 yards per game!) has been topped by five players since, but all after the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule. The flip side of Simpson’s individual greatness is that Buffalo was horrendous for almost the entire time (12 wins in his first four seasons), making the playoffs just once and losing right away. But when Simpson was at his peak, he carried the team—from 1973 to 1975 the Bills had three straight winning seasons and Simpson led the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns twice. He was first-team All Pro five consecutive seasons. Simpson fumbled 54 times as a Bill (includes lost and recovered by own team). Continue reading

All-Time Wide Receivers: Conference Championships

Here’s the semi-finals of the longest, most drawn-out blog vote in history. Stats for “support” guys are now updated and included, in order of strength rather than alphabetical. VOTE BELOW—If you want to go ahead and vote for the Super Bowl winner here we can end it now. Or I can do a post comparing the conference champs.

(2) Oakland vs (1) Indianapolis

Here come the really tough decisions. We’re down to the AFC’s two best wide receiver teams and both have plenty of great players. Indianapolis already earned the top seed in the conference, but that was without a real head-to-head analysis. We’ve got a number of current and future Hall of Famers here and a number of Super Bowl, NFL Championship, and AFL Championship victories.

The Colts jump out at you with Berry, Harrison, and Wayne, guys who put up great numbers in their eras and who are/were considered the elite wide receivers of their time. We’ve had some conversation about “inflated stat guys” throughout this process and I’m sure an argument could be made that Harrison and Wayne are in the same boat as guys like Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt (those two were rudely ejected from competition last round). Still, these numbers are a nice starting point. The Raiders bring big stats in the form of Tim Brown, plus “best in their era”-types in Brown, Branch, and Biletnikoff. The Colts’ Jimmy Orr and Oakland’s Art Powell may not have caught a ton of passes for a ton of yards, but their averages are great and they each scored 50 touchdowns for their respective teams.

Will Bill Brooks tip the scales for Indianapolis? (photo via colts.com)

Going beyond the Top 4, Bill Brooks has very solid numbers for a late-80s guy. The rest are solid tier-two type guys, including Mutscheller, whose 40 touchdowns are impressive for his era. The Raiders extras are a little more consistent even if none stand out quite like Brooks. Overall, I would argue that Oakland’s extra guys win their part of the battle—lots of touchdowns down there.

Indianapolis Colts
Raymond Berry (1955-1967): 631 receptions, 9,275 yards, 14.7 per catch, 68 touchdowns
Marvin Harrison (1996-2008): 1,102-14,580-13.2-128
Reggie Wayne (2001-present): 938-12,711-13.6-76  *updated 11/20/12
Jimmy Orr (1961-1970): 303-5,859-19.3-50
———-
Bill Brooks (1986-1992): 411-5,818-14.2-28
Roger Carr (1974-1981): 254-4,770-18.8-29
Jim Mutscheller (1954-1961): 220-3,684-16.7-40
Sean Dawkins (1993-1997): 251-3,511-14.0-12
Jessie Hester (1990-1993): 230-3,304-14.4-13

Oakland Raiders
Fred Biletnikoff (1965-1978): 589 receptions, 8,974 yards, 15.2 per catch, 76 touchdowns
Cliff Branch (1972-1984): 501-8,685-17.3-67
Tim Brown (1988-2003): 1,070-14,734-13.8-99
Art Powell (1963-1966): 254-4,491-17.7-50
———-
James Jett (1993-2001): 256-4,417-17.3-30
Jerry Porter (2000-2007): 284-3,939-13.9-30
Warren Wells (1967-1970): 156-3,634-23.3-42
Mervyn Fernandez (1987-1992): 209-3,764-18.0-19
Jerry Rice (2001-2004): 243-3,286-13.5-18

(2) Washington vs (1) San Francisco

This is the most scientific way to judge things, but: as I was adding the second-tier guys for Washington, I was sort of surprised by how much better their numbers are than Indianapolis and Oakland up there. Then I got to San Francisco. Four guys with over 300 receptions and gobs of touchdowns. For the record, Rod Gardner could have topped Henry Ellard for Washington—Gardner had more catches and touchdowns, but 1,000 fewer yards. The 49ers also had a few others worth mentioned, chief among them Alyn Beals. He was a two-way player from 1946 through 1951 and even though he only caught 210 passes, he had 49 receiving touchdowns (San Francisco was in the AAFC until 1950).

Billy Wilson watching Jerry Rice destroy Washington. (image via Out of Bounds)

My attitude this whole time has been that we can’t crown the 49ers on Jerry Rice alone. Well, he’s got plenty of support. Rice clearly trumps Monk. Mitchell, Taylor, and Clark at least tie Clark, Owens, and Washington. But Moss and Sanders are not enough to keep the Redskins afloat with Freddie Solomon, John Taylor, and Billy Wilson tugging on their ankles. Even J.J. Stokes had solid stats for a guy with a relatively short career playing behind the likes of Rice and Owens.

Washington Redskins
Gary Clark (1985-1992): 549 receptions, 8,742 yards, 15.9 per catch, 58 touchdowns
Bobby Mitchell (1962-1968): 393-6,492-16.5-49
Art Monk (1980-1993): 888-12,026-13.5-65
Charley Taylor (1964-1977): 649-9,110-14.0-79
———-
Santana Moss (2005-present): 513-7,100-13.8-43 updated 11/20/12
Ricky Sanders (1986-1993): 414-5,854-14.1-36
Hugh Taylor (1947-1954): 272-5,233-19.2-58
Michael Westbrook (1995-2001): 277-4,280-15.5-24
Henry Ellard (1994-1998): 216-3,930-18.2-17

San Francisco 49ers
Dwight Clark (1979-1987): 506 receptions, 6,750 yards, 13.3 per catch, 48 touchdowns
Terrell Owens (1996-2003): 592-8,572-14.5-81
Jerry Rice (1985-2000): 1,281-19,247-15.0-176
Gene A. Washington (1969-1977): 371-6,664-18.0-59
———-
Billy Wilson (1951-1960): 407-5,902-14.5-49
John Taylor (1987-1995): 347-5,598-16.1-43
Freddie Solomon (1978-1985): 310-4,873-15.7-43
J.J. Stokes (1995-2002): 327-4,139-12.7-30
Gordie Soltau (1950-1958): 249-3,487-14.0-25

All-Time Wide Receivers: Second Round

The likelihood of second round upsets is relatively slim, but the #2 seeds could be knocked off. Let’s get to the games:

AFC Second Round:

(5) San Diego vs (1) Indianapolis

Harrison. (via Providence Journal)

Indianapolis was the unanimous top seed in the AFC and dominated the AFC South, while San Diego came in second in the AFC West to the #2 seed Raiders. The argument that the Chargers’ great receivers had some stats taken from them by tight ends and running backs won’t fly here; the Colts’ stats are just too good. Plus, the Colts had the same situation—Lenny Moore, John Mackey, and Dallas Clark put up great numbers as contemporaries of the Colts’ Top 4.

Although their “support” guys (Bill Brooks, Brandon Stokley) weren’t spectacular, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Raymond Berry are all considered among the best wide receivers of their respective generations and Berry and Harrison have to be considered among the all-time greats (Wayne is getting there as he extends his career).

San Diego
Lance Alworth (1962-1970): 493 receptions, 9,584 yards, 19.4 per catch, 81 touchdowns
Wes Chandler (1981-1987): 373-6,132-16.4-41
Gary Garrison (1966-1976): 404-7,533-18.6-58
Charlie Joiner (1976-1986): 586-9,203-15.7-47

Indianapolis Colts
Raymond Berry (1955-1967): 631 receptions, 9,275 yards, 14.7 per catch, 68 touchdowns
Marvin Harrison (1996-2008): 1,102-14,580-13.2-128
Reggie Wayne (2001-present): 931-12,639-13.6-76  *updated 11/16/12
Jimmy Orr (1961-1970): 303-5,859-19.3-50

(3) Pittsburgh vs (2) Oakland

Brown. (via Raidershistory.com

I may have over-valued the Steelers’ playoff history, but there was at least one vote for Pittsburgh to get the #2 seed over Oakland (and one vote for Pittsburgh to go #4 behind New England). The stats are actually pretty close—Biletnikoff and Branch put up better numbers combined than Swann and Stallworth, but Lipps spent more time in Pittsburgh than Art Powell spent in Oakland and accumulated more stats. Like the other top-heavy AFC teams, the Raiders’ “support” drops off considerably from the Top 4. James Jett, Jerry Porter, and Jerry Rice all had over 240 catches as Raiders, but they don’t tip the scales here.

For the record, the Raiders weren’t terrible in Super Bowl appearances (Branch-3, Biletnikoff-2, Brown-1) and Biletnikoff was the game’s MVP in 1977, so that aspect likely won’t determine this matchup (Stallworth-4, Swann-4, Ward-3). This could be a tough one.

Pittsburgh
Lynn Swann (1974-1982): 336 receptions, 5462 yards, 16.3 per catch, 51 touchdowns
John Stallworth (1974-1987): 537-8,723-16.2-63
Hines Ward (1998-2011): 1,000-12,083-12.1-85 *updated 11/1/12
Louis Lipps (1984-1991): 358-6,018-16.8-39

Oakland Raiders
Fred Biletnikoff (1965-1978): 589 receptions, 8,974 yards, 15.2 per catch, 76 touchdowns
Cliff Branch (1972-1984): 501-8,685-17.3-67
Tim Brown (1988-2003): 1,070-14,734-13.8-99
Art Powell (1963-1966): 254-4,491-17.7-50

NFC Second Round:

(6) Minnesota vs (1) San Francisco

John Taylor and Jerry Rice. (via Sports Illustrated)

The 49ers won the NFC West against tough competition (St. Louis and Arizona),  while Minnesota finished second to Green Bay in the NFC North, then somehow upset the Packers in the wildcard round. I guess our voters gained a new perspective over the last few months.

You could argue that Randy Moss the Viking was better than Terrell Owens the 49ers and that Cris Carter was about the only thing close to Jerry Rice in the 1990s. You could also argue that Anthony Carter and Sammy White are comparable to Dwight Clark and Gene A. Washington.

Rice is probably enough to sway you, but here’s the 49ers support (not that supportive), copied from our NFC West post: Billy Wilson was a Pro Bowler every season from 1954 to 1959, leading the league in catches in 1954, 1956, and 1957. Wilson came to San Francisco in 1951, the last season of Alyn Beals career. Beals caught only 12 passes that season, but he led the AAFC in touchdown receptions four years straight from 1946 to 1949. John Taylor averaged 16.1 yards per catch for his career, largely due to his ability to run once he got the ball in his hands. Taylor managed two 1,000 yard seasons and two Pro Bowl appearances despite (or maybe because of) Rice’s presence. With the Vikings, we talked about Ahmad Rashad, Jake Reed, and a different Gene Washington. The numbers:

Minnesota Vikings
Anthony Carter (1985-1993): 478 receptions, 7,636 yards, 16.0 per catch, 52 touchdowns
Cris Carter (1990-2001): 1,004-12,383-12.3-110
Randy Moss (1998-2004, 2010): 587-9,316-15.9-92
Sammy White (1976-1985): 393-6,400-16.3-50

San Francisco 49ers
Dwight Clark (1979-1987): 506 receptions, 6,750 yards, 13.3 per catch, 48 touchdowns
Terrell Owens (1996-2003): 592-8,572-14.5-81
Jerry Rice (1985-2000): 1,281-19,247-15.0-176
Gene A. Washington (1969-1977): 371-6,664-18.0-59

(5) St. Louis vs (2) Washington

The Posse: Sanders, Clark, and Monk. (via misterirrelevant.com)

Washington won a relatively weak NFC East (the Giants and Eagles were among the worst in the league). Among the eight guys listed, Mitchell, Monk, and Taylor are all Hall of Famers for Washington while Bruce and Holt might join Hirsch (and Tom Fears) as Rams Hall of Fame receivers. I consider Washington one of the deepest teams in the league, bringing Ricky Sanders, Santana Moss, Hugh Taylor, Michael Westbrook, and two-faced Henry Ellard (four pretty solid years in Washington after 11 with the Rams) to the fight.

As we discussed in the last round, St. Louis doesn’t have much after these four, though, again, Fears is in the Hall. If you want pure numbers, the Rams look good next to any team in the league. Both teams have Super Bowl appearances and wins. Very tough call here.

St. Louis
Isaac Bruce (1994-2007): 942 receptions, 14,109 yards, 15.0 per catch, 84 touchdowns
Henry Ellard (1983-1993): 593-9,761-16.5-48
Elroy Hirsch (1949-1957): 343-6,299-18.4-53
Torry Holt (1999-2008): 869-12,660-14.6-74

Washington Redskins
Gary Clark (1985-1992): 549 receptions, 8,742 yards, 15.9 per catch, 58 touchdowns
Bobby Mitchell (1962-1968): 393-6,492-16.5-49
Art Monk (1980-1993): 888-12,026-13.5-65
Charley Taylor (1964-1977): 649-9,110-14.0-79

All-Time Wide Receivers: First Round

AFC First Round:

(5) San Diego vs (4) New England

Welker. (via SICNN)

The 5 vs 4 games are where this will get interesting. It seems unlikely that either #1 seed could be topped (if we seeded them #1 doesn’t that mean we all agreed they are the best in the conference?), but some of the division winners could be upset by wildcard teams. San Diego was pushed to the wildcard by a very strong Oakland lineup otherwise the Chargers would have been close to a bye. It’s been about a year since we summarized the AFC East, and since then Wes Welker has taken over as the Patriots’ all-time leader in receptions. Refresher:

San Diego
Lance Alworth (1962-1970): 493 receptions, 9,584 yards, 19.4 per catch, 81 touchdowns
Wes Chandler (1981-1987): 373-6,132-16.4-41
Gary Garrison (1966-1976): 404-7,533-18.6-58
Charlie Joiner (1976-1986): 586-9,203-15.7-47

New England
Stanley Morgan (1979-89): 534 receptions, 10,352 yards, 19.4 per catch, 67 touchdowns
Troy Brown (1993-2007): 557-6,366-11.4-31
Irving Fryar (1984-1992): 363-5,726-15.8-38
Wes Welker (2007-present): 614-6,841-11.1-33 *updated 11/1/12

Things to remember: San Diego’s wide receivers have shared the ball with some great players (Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow, and LaDainian Tomlinson all had over 500 catches with the Chargers). The Chargers “support” players, the guys on cusp of making the list, were pretty good (John Jefferson, Anthony Miller, Vincent Jackson, Tony Miller). New England destroys San Diego in playoff experience. All four guys listed at least played in one Super Bowl and Troy Brown won three. The Patriots “support” was not quite as good: Deion Branch, Terry Glenn, and Randy Moss (50 TDs with New England).

(6) Cincinnati vs (3) Pittsburgh
Technically, the three voters were split on the AFC’s sixth seed. Rather than reopen the ballots, I decided A.J. Green pushed the Bengals over the top here. Either way, nobody was likely to beat Pittsburgh, who secured the three seed over New England. Refresher:

Cincinnati
Chad Johnson (2001-2010): 751 receptions, 10,783 yards, 14.4 per catch, 66 touchdowns
Carl Pickens (1992-1999): 530-6,887-13.0-63
Isaac Curtis (1973-1984): 416-7,101-17.1-53
Cris Collinsworth (1981-1988): 417-6,698-16.1-36

Pittsburgh
Lynn Swann (1974-1982): 336 receptions, 5462 yards, 16.3 per catch, 51 touchdowns
John Stallworth (1974-1987): 537-8,723-16.2-63
Hines Ward (1998-2011): 1,000-12,083-12.1-85 *updated 11/1/12
Louis Lipps (1984-1991): 358-6,018-16.8-39

Things to remember: Swann and Ward were each Super Bowl MVP once and Stallworth probably could have gotten one, too. The Steelers “support” guys were decent (Elbie Nickel, Plaxico Burress, and Santonio Holmes—another Super Bowl MVP).

Like San Diego above, Cincinnati has almost no playoff credentials. Collinsworth and Curtis did at least play in the Super Bowl. Essentially, the Bengals have had a long history of stat-guys; add to the above: Eddie Brown, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Darnay Scott, and Tim McGee.

NFC First Round:

(5) St. Louis vs (4) Atlanta
I expect this to be the easiest vote of the first round. Roddy White has added to his numbers but the Rams are just too powerful, and, as Jacob noted in the last post, Atlanta probably only makes it because they won a division.

St. Louis
Isaac Bruce (1994-2007): 942 receptions, 14,109 yards, 15.0 per catch, 84 touchdowns
Henry Ellard (1983-1993): 593-9,761-16.5-48
Elroy Hirsch (1949-1957): 343-6,299-18.4-53
Torry Holt (1999-2008): 869-12,660-14.6-74

Atlanta
Alfred Jenkins (1975-1983): 360 receptions, 6,267 yards, 17.4 per catch, 40 touchdowns
Terance Mathis (1994-2001): 573-7,349-12.8-57
Andre Rison (1990-1994): 423-5,633-13.3-56
Roddy White (2005-present): 570-7,965-14.0-49 *updated 11/1/12

White and Hugh Douglass. (via cleveland.com)

Things to remember: All of these Rams guys were on winning teams (even Henry Ellard, who went to two NFC Championships in the 1980s). The guys below the top four for the Rams were not as impressive (just Tom Fears).

Atlanta’s best receivers haven’t stuck around long enough. Five more years of White and Julio Jones could change this matchup though. Like the Rams, the Falcons “support” wasn’t very supportive (Michael Jenkins and Michael Haynes?).

(6) Minnesota vs (3) Green Bay
Is it possible for Minnesota to beat the team that won their division? I’m thinking no. But the Vikings were the clear sixth seed, so here we go:

Minnesota:
Anthony Carter (1985-1993): 478 receptions, 7,636 yards, 16.0 per catch, 52 touchdowns
Cris Carter (1990-2001): 1,004-12,383-12.3-110
Randy Moss (1998-2004, 2010): 587-9,316-15.9-92
Sammy White (1976-1985): 393-6,400-16.3-50

Green Bay:
Donald Driver (1999-present): 741 receptions, 10,115 yards, 13.7 per catch, 61  touchdowns *updated 11/1/12
Don Hutson (1935-1945): 488-7,991-16.4-99
James Lofton (1978-1986): 530-9,656-18.2-49
Sterling Sharpe (1988-1994): 595-8,134-13.7-65

Things to remember: One could talk about Percy Harvin here, but Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings have been equally impressive over the past year. The Packers’ “support” is probably unrivaled: Antonio Freeman, Boyd Dowler, Max McGee, Robert Brooks, Jennings, Carroll Dale, Billy Howton…. Enough said.

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