A comparison of Don Hutson, Elroy Hirsch, Charley Hennigan, Jerry Rice, and Calvin Johnson’s record-breaking receiving yard seasons (+ Cooper Kupp’s close call in 2021)
In 2021, Cooper Kupp almost broke the receiving yards record (but didn’t). Along the way to almost breaking the record, most social media threads and conversations were peppered with the caveat that he had 17 games to do it. Calvin Johnson still owns the record with 1,964 in 2012 breaking Jerry Rice’s record of 1,848 in 1995. But Johnson and Rice both played 16 games, much more than the record holders before them (Charley Hennigan in 1961, Elroy Hirsch in 1951, and Don Hutson in 1942) who played 14, 12, and 11 games.
Of course, the obvious and commonly used next step to normalize based on the era is to convert to a per-game total. For example, C.Johnson’s record converts to 122.8 yards per game, a lower number than C.Hennigan (124.7) and E.Hirsch (124.6). While the number of games played is an important factor, these WRs also played in different eras in terms of style of play, and on different teams with varying levels of passing volume, etc. So, looking at each players receiving yards relative to their team’s total passing yards, the average passing yards per game in the league, will help put their yards in perspective. Don Hutson’s receiving yards per game (110) was 89% of the league average passing yards per game (124); C.Kupp was 47% of the league average.
The third part of my comparison is to look at how much of an outlier these players were compared to their peers in the top 10. Were they head and shoulders above the pack like Hutson (1,211 yards vs 2nd place R.McLean with 572 yards) or were they close to the other top players like J.Rice in 1995 (1,848 yards vs 2nd place I.Bruce 1,781)? How do they compare to the average of the top 10 or the median wide receiver in the league? These are the comparisons I’ll make below to help provide additional context to these record-breaking seasons.
We always need more context when comparing records. The volume/stat alone isn’t enough to really understand which player’s season was more impressive. A record is a record, and that fact won’t change. But taking into consideration the player’s stats in comparison to his peers in his era, the number of games played, the team they were on, etc. gives us more data to decide which season was the most impressive. Recency bias and by the nature of holding the record we might consider Calvin Johnson’s yards in 2012 to be the most impressive. But earlier record-holders like Hutson, Hirsch, and Hennigan might appear more impressive to some of you after looking at this data. My vote goes to Elroy Hirsch. The rest of this post dives into the data behind this
Notes and Caveats:
- This is not a comprehensive ranking of these receivers. I’m not looking at receptions, touchdowns, efficiency, 1st downs, or any advanced metrics. It’s simply a different way of looking at receiving yards relative to games played, era, team, etc.
- Other context to keep in mind when looking at this data that isn’t accounted for when looking only at the numbers: Don Hutson played in 1941 when the league was somewhat depleted because many players were enlisted to serve during WW2. I’m not sure to what extent the competition was depleted, hopefully, someone in the comments can add some thoughts on this. Charley Hennigan was in the AFL which was also a different level of competition at that time. It was likely easier to put up big numbers for a great player in the AFL than it might have been in the NFL. Maybe someone in the comments can add their two cents here.
- I’m only looking at the players who held the receiving yards record. Using these metrics, I’m sure there are other players who may have been comparable to the guys in this analysis and would be worthy of being included in this analysis.
- Each chart is sorted left to right from the earliest record holder to the most recent + Cooper Kupp. At the end are a couple of tables with a summary of all of the data:
Total Receiving Yards:
I’m starting with the NFL’s first 1,000 yard receiving season and Don Hutson’s record-breaking 1,211-yard season. Huston who led the league in receiving seven times from 1936 to 1944 broke his own record with his 1942 season. Each bar except for Kupp was the new record, and those seasons are the focus of the remaining charts in this post.
Receiving Yards per game:
Hutson shows up the worst here, but you’ll see in the next few charts that the level of passing in the league was also much lower in 1942. Hennigan has the best per-game total on this list from his season in the AFC. Hirsch is right behind from his 1951 season in the NFL. This is also useful for comparing Kupp’s season to C.Johnson’s as they were often discussed and compared to each other last season on Kupp’s journey to almost breaking the record.
Players’ team and league average passing yards per game:
In Don Hutson’s era, passing/receiving yards were at a minimum with only 124 yards per game, which makes his 110 per game seem ridiculous. Hutson’s receiving yards per game were the equivalent of a player in 2021 averaging 217 per game.
Players’ percentage of their teams passing yards:
There is very little difference between Kupp, Johnson, Rice, and Hennigan all who ranged from 38% to 40% of their teams’ total receiving yards. Hutson took half of his team’s receiving yards and left the remaining half to be shared by 12 other players. Hirsch had 45% of the yards coming from the two-headed HOF monster of Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield.
Player’s percentage of avg team in the league per game:
Not only was Hutson such a big % of his team’s production, but his team also passed for almost twice the league average. Hennigan’s % of his team’s production was similar to Rice, Johnson, and Kupp, but in this metric, he pulls away from those three as a result of his team’s production being much higher than league average. (see the dot chart, two charts above)
Players receiving total compared to the runner up:
Jerry Rice was only 67 yards and 4% 2nd place I.Bruce. Johnson and Kupp had similar leads on their 2nd place competition. Hutson, Hirsch, and Hennigan were all in the same range in terms of yards above 2nd place, but in terms of %, Hutson more than doubled the runner up R.Mclean (571 yards)
Players receiving total compared to the rest of the top 10 (2nd through 10th)
The results are similar here compared to the chart above. The only players switching positions is Kupp’s percentage above the group is better than Johnsons, whereas Johnson’s percentage above 2nd place was better than Kupp.
Players receiving total compared to the median WR in the league:
For the median WR, I’m only using yards for wide receivers who played every game of the season. Every player in this analysis was at least 1,000 yards above the median player; all six were fairly close ranging from +1,058 to +1,292). But as a percentage, like almost all the other metrics, Don Hutson was far ahead of the group almost 8 times the median receiver. The median WR totals in each of these players’ years: 1942, 153; 1951, 444; 1961, 545; 1995, 634; 2012, 748; 2021, 655. The median WR total has grown more than 4X from Hutson’s record-breaking year to 2021, more than doubling the 2X increase in passing yards per game during that same time period.
This table summarizes the charts above so you can see everything in one place
This is more detailed with additional information including the top 10 receiving yard leaders from each of the record-breaking seasons.
The data alone suggests that it was hands-down Don Hutson, but as I mentioned the league wasn’t as competitive because of the war. Hennigan played in the AFL, so maybe he gets downgraded a little bit because of the level of competition. I’m going with Elroy Hirsch as having the best season of all of the record-breakers. Hopefully, you found the additional data and normalization to games played, the team played on, league averages, and peer comparisons to be useful. Which season do you think is the best in terms of yards?