After watching the Denver Broncos prevail over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday afternoon, with Peyton Manning throwing TDs #37-41 on the season (4 of them to Eric Decker), I thought back to Manning’s record breaking 2004 season with the Colts. A question came to my mind: as a QB, who would you rather have: Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark OR Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas?
With four games left in the 2013 season, it’s hard to know how the 10-2 Broncos will end up. The 2004 Colts went 12-4 and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Patriots. Still, I think the question is worth exploring, if only to dive into some fun stats via Pro-Football-Reference and practice making tables in html.
Which team has the better receiving corps in their particular season, the 2004 Colts or the 2013 Broncos? It might be a moot point, or an apples/oranges situation considering the 9-year gap, plus the (projected) difference in pass attempts of 143 (in the Broncos’ favor). As usual, there are several other things that could factor in as well. Still, this is just for fun (and far from expert), so let’s dive in and see who has the edge. (Don’t forget to vote at the end).
WR1 – Marvin Harrison vs. Demaryius Thomas
|Demaryius Thomas (proj)||89||1415||15.8||88.4||13|
Harrison and Thomas are the #1 receivers on the depth chart for their respective teams. Thomas is in his 4th year, Harrison was in his 9th. Arguably, 2004 wasn’t even Harrison’s best season, as he did better in every category but TDs in each of the previous 5 seasons (save Y/R in 2002). In 2004 he led all Colts receivers in targets and TDs. On the flip side, his reception percentage and Y/R were the lowest of the 5 Colts players analyzed here. Obviously, those numbers aren’t all on him, but everyone else was doing “better” in those areas. Thomas is on pace for a season that is just as good, if not better than his 2012 season. He’s the Broncos’ best deep threat, with 3 receptions over 70 yards. He’s a young guy who is just beginning his prime stretch, meaning he might improve, which is great for the Broncos considering his numbers. He might not wind up with as many TDs as Harrison did, but Manning is also spreading the TDs to more targets in 2013 than he did in 2004.
WR2 – Reggie Wayne vs. Eric Decker
|Eric Decker (proj)||84||1295||15.4||80.9||9|
2004 was Wayne’s 4th year and 2013 is Decker’s. They actually match up pretty well. 2004 wasn’t quite Wayne’s best season either (I’d propose 2006 or 2007). Still, he had career highs in TDs and Y/R. Decker had 13 TDs in 2012, but a Y/R of 12.5. He’s making up the yardage this year, and if his most recent game (4 TDs against KC) is any indication, he just might wind up with more than the 9 TDs projected. Wayne has comparable yardage, a slightly better average and more TDs. He also caught 67% of passes thrown his way, while Decker is just slightly behind with 65%.
Slot WR – Brandon Stokley vs. Wes Welker
|Wes Welker (proj)||91||956||10.5||59.8||12|
This is the battle of the slot receivers. Welker is in his 10th year and it hasn’t quite measured up to his last two seasons with New England. He has been #1 or #2 in the league in receptions 5 out of his 10 seasons, though not this year. However, he’s on pace to have a career high in TDs. He’s a dangerous weapon, and that’s a factor in his relatively low numbers. He’s drawing more defensive coverage, making room for the Thomas, Decker and TE Julius Thomas to catch more balls.
That said, 2004 was the year of Brandon Stokley’s career (his 6th). Yes, he’s still active, but he’s never had a season come close to what he had in 2004. The best he’s managed is 49 rec, 635 yds, 48.8 Y/G and 5 TDs (the latter 3 of those stats coming in 2007, his first year in Denver). In game 15 of the 2004 season (the last he’d play that season, as he sat out the finale), he caught 7 passes for 123 yards and record-breaking touchdown #49 for Peyton Manning. That effort (along with Harrison’s 111 yards in the same game) gave Manning 1000+ yards and 10+ TDs to three different wide receivers (Wayne is the third), the only time in history this has happened.
I should note, for stat/history nerds, that only one other QB has achieved 1000+ yards to three different wide receivers in the same season. That would be Mark Rypien who did it with the Washington Redskins in 1989, and in only 14 games! Dan Fouts did it in 1980 for the Chargers, but one of the receivers was Kellen Winslow, who is technically a TE (I’d still count it). The 1995 Falcons and the 2008 Cardinals had three 1000+ yard receivers, but needed two QBs to throw the passes (George/Hebert and Warner/Leinart). The 1981 Chargers had three 1000+ yard receivers as well (counting Winslow again), but Wes Chandler actually picked up his first 285 yards with New Orleans before being traded to SD and picking up 857 more. I can’t find any other instances of a QB throwing 10+ TDs to three different players. If Julius Thomas gets healthy, and blows up the yardage column, Manning could potentially have 4 pass-catchers with 1000 yards and 10 TDs apiece!
TE – Dallas Clark/Marcus Pollard vs. Julius Thomas
|Dallas Clark/Marcus Pollard||54||732||13.6||52.3||11|
|Julius Thomas (proj)||63||826||13.1||59||14|
This is kind of a cheat because Manning had a 2-TE tandem in Marcus Pollard (who was in his last of 10 seasons as a Colt) and Dallas Clark (who was in his 2nd of 9). Neither had their best year in 2004, but once Pollard left, Clark would become a sure-handed target for Manning, eventually notching 100 receptions (75.2% catch rate) for 1106 yds and 10 TDs in 2009, his best season. Notably, stats for both Pollard/Clark and Thomas are averaged over 14 games because injury kept each man out of some contests. Thomas, drafted in 2011, only had one reception for 5 yards in his first two seasons. He’s having a breakout year in 2013, averaging a TD per game and catching 72.6% of passes thrown his way. Should he return to the lineup, he’ll be one more dangerous weapon for the Broncos’ offense.
So Who Wins?
With a 2-2 tie, who do you pick for your WR corps? As a long-time Colts fan who loved every second of the amazing 2004 season (well, maybe not the two losses to the Patriots), I might be inclined to side with them. However, Manning doing the same thing all over again, and 9 years later, is something to behold. Based on these single seasons alone, I’ll (just barely) side with the Broncos’ receiving corps, BUT ONLY if they keep close to their projections (or surpass them). Nothing is over until it’s over, and I’ve watched Manning long enough to know he can have some rough stretches. If he manages to break the passing TD record, that will probably put the Broncos over the top, and just might win him a 5th MVP.
Tentative Edge: 2013 Broncos
One last thing to think about, though it doesn’t figure much into the WR corps showdown, is the dominance of the Broncos offense. They haven’t broken these records yet, but they’re on pace to pass single season marks for most points, most passing first downs, most passing touchdowns and most passing yards, as well as some others, I’m sure. Along with Manning’s projected 54 passing TDs, they’re in line for 18 rushing TDs and 5 defense/special teams TDs. While they also turn the ball over a lot, it hasn’t kept them from posting big scores. The Broncos’ defense, on the other hand, is currently ranked 27th overall. This, more than anything (even the threat of Manning playing poorly in cold weather) could end whatever playoff run the 2013 Broncos might begin in January. Still, it would take a pretty big meltdown over the next 4 weeks for the 2013 Broncos not to wind up ranked among the best offenses in NFL history.