Diehard San Francisco 49ers fan and award-winning Cajun Tomato correspondent Lloyd Nelson asked me today on Facebook whether I thought Randy Moss or Terrell Owens would produce bigger stats this season. He did so hoping to bait me into an argument, knowing how much I loathe the Niners. The Niners’ repeated floggings of my hometown New Orleans Saints in the 1990s blinded me to rational thought about them, but I am not dumb.
Both Moss and Owens have had superlative NFL careers worthy of Hall of Fame consideration when they retire. What’s left in their gas tanks, however, is in question. I am willing to side with Moss (per Lloyd’s question), merely because he seems to have the easier road to becoming a key part of his team’s passing game. Yet, one has to wonder how he will stay motivated in a run-oriented offense. And, there’s the fact he bounced around three teams during the 2010 season while seeming disinterested in, you know, playing football.
If Moss is the Neptune of sure things at this point then Owens is the Pluto. What is assured is Owens, who recently signed with the Seattle Seahawks, needs the spotlight. He also needs money to pay his baby mamas. But at age 38 and a year removed from the NFL, it is uncertain whether he can beat out fellow Seahawk receivers Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice, and Braylon Edwards for substantial playing time. Perhaps more damning: Who will be throwing those guys the ball? The Seahawks have three clipboard holders and no starters at quarterback.
As I have mentioned already, there are a slew of reasons not to bet money on Moss or Owens having successful seasons – recent performance, mediocre to subpar quarterbacks, run-first offensive schemes, etc. The most important factor, though, is history. Even the greatest wide receivers, aside from Jerry Rice, experienced steep declines once they reached age 35.
With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of modern-era Hall of Fame wide receivers who played at age 35 or beyond. Eat your heart out, Lloyd!
First I must mention that 12 of the 21 wide receivers selected to the NFL Hall of Fame in the modern era did not play a single down at age 35. That’s 57 percent.
Four more played at age 35 and then retired. Let’s examine them first by looking at each of their final seasons.
FRED BILETNIKOFF – 20 catches, 285 touchdowns, two touchdowns.
Background: Oakland Raiders, 1978. Biletnikoff was the sixth-leading receiver on a team that went 9-7. Worth noting: Raiders QB Ken Stabler, who played in four Pro Bowls, threw 30 (!) interceptions in 1978, nearly doubling his touchdown passes (16).
STEVE LARGENT – 28 catches, 403 yards, 3 touchdowns.
Background: Seattle Seahawks, 1989. The 7-9 Seahawks had a 1,000-yard receiver that year – Brian Blades. Longtime Seattle QB Dave Krieg had a year to forget – 21 touchdowns, 20 interceptions.
JOHN STALLWORTH – 41 catches, 521 yards, two touchdowns.
Background: Pittsburgh Steelers, 1987. Stallworth led the 8-7 Steelers in receiving, although I doubt he would brag about that fact today. Mark Malone, the Steelers’ starting QB during much of 1987, was abysmal – 46 percent completions and just 6 touchdown passes to 19 interceptions. Makes you wonder, how bad did his backup have to be?
PAUL WARFIELD – 18 catches, 251 yards, two touchdowns.
Background: Cleveland Browns, 1977. Warfield, a feared deep threat in his day, finished sixth in receptions on a 6-8 Browns team that started three different quarterbacks. The “legendary” trio of Brian Sipe, Dave Mays, and Terry Luck combined for 19 touchdowns and 31 interceptions.
Before I move on to the next group, it’s clear that the aforementioned receiving quartet were on their last legs at age 35. However, it did not help that they either played with substandard quarterbacks or quarterbacks having substandard seasons (i.e., Krieg, Stabler).
Now’s let move on to the next group.
The final five receivers I am going to look at played multiple seasons past age 35 with varying degrees of success. One thing that each of them had in common – a star quarterback. Four of the five listed below played with a Hall of Fame quarterback. The fifth (Art Monk) played with a Super Bowl winner (Mark Rypien).
One other item worth noting: Two of the 21 Hall of Fame receivers had 1,000-yard seasons past age 35 – Jerry Rice had three and James Lofton had one. At least two other players who are Hall eligible – Cris Carter (Minnesota Vikings, 2000) and Tim Brown (Oakland Raiders, 2001) – topped 1,000 yards at age 35. At age 37, Terrell Owens narrowly missed joining the exclusive club. He tallied 983 receiving yards with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2010.
NOTE: The stats listed below are totals beyond the age of 35.
CHARLIE JOINER – 260 catches, 3,670 yards, 18 touchdowns.
Background: San Diego Chargers, 1982-86. Perhaps the most unlikely Hall of Fame receiver given his first decade in the league. Joiner first eclipsed 50 receptions at age 32. He passed that threshold three times after age 36. No question he benefited from playing in Don Coryell’s famous “Air Coryell” offense and with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts.
JAMES LOFTON – 122 catches, 2,041 yards, 14 touchdowns.
Background: Buffalo Bills, 1991-92; L.A. Rams/Philadelphia Eagles, 1993. Lofton broke the 1,000-yard receiving plateau for the sixth and final time as a 35-year-old with Hall of Famer Jim Kelly as his quarterback. Lofton had 1,072 yards, but more impressively he averaged 18.8 yards per catch. Lofton followed with a 51-catch effort in 1992 – the year in which the Bills dropped their third of four straight Super Bowl losses.
DON MAYNARD – 82 catches, 1,461 yards, four touchdowns.
Background: N.Y. Jets, 1970-72; St. Louis 1973. Maynard played three relatively pedestrian years with the Jets after he reached age 35. His top reception total in those three years was 31. Future Hall of Famer Joe Namath fired errant passes his way during those years. Couldn’t resist. I am still mesmerized that a 50 percent passer with 47 more interceptions than touchdowns is in Canton – even when taking into consideration what his Super Bowl III prediction and subsequent victory meant for the NFL in its early days.
ART MONK – 139 catches, 1,737 yards, eight touchdowns.
Background: Washington Redskins, 1992-93; N.Y. Jets, 1994; Philadelphia Eagles, 1995. Monk was a serviceable receiver for three of his final four years, tallying more than 40 receptions. Interesting to note he dropped from 71 catches for 1,049 yards at age 34 to 46 catches for 644 yards the following year. Also interesting to note that Rypien went into the toilet following the Redskins’ 1991 Super Bowl victory.
JERRY RICE – 499 catches, 6,522 yards, 43 touchdowns.
Background: San Francisco 49ers, 1997-2000; Oakland, 2001-03; Oakland/Seattle, 2004. The gold standard among NFL receivers was also the gold standard among NFL receivers over age 35. Rice missed most of 1997, after tearing his ACL as a 35-year-old, then rebounded with a 1,000-yard season, with future Hall of Famer Steve Young as QB. Rice later had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as a 39- and 40-year-old during the Oakland Raiders’ “Air Gannon” phase with Rich Gannon as quarterback. Rice played in two pass-happy offenses after hitting 35 and deserves credit for taking advantage of his opportunities.
PREDICTIONS FOR MOSS, OWENS
MOSS – 52 catches, 650 yards, five touchdowns. It’s not that I don’t believe in Moss’s abilities as a 35-year-old, withered as they may be. I don’t believe in 49ers QB Alex Smith to distribute the ball downfield to take advantage of Moss’s best attributes – his speed and leaping ability.
OWENS – 24 catches, 280 yards, three touchdowns. I seriously doubt Owens will be worth the headache.