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Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Debating the merits of QBs vs. WRs

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

On Sunday, Breana of Chicago prompted this debate: If you had to pick, would you prefer a great quarterback with average receivers or vice versa? After all, that pretty much describes the situations in Chicago and Minnesota, respectively. What's the preferable arrangement?

About 500 of your closest friends jumped into the fray, with a clear majority favoring a superior quarterback over top receivers in the abstract. But there were a number of you who pointed out the limitations facing any quarterback with inferior receivers, while some noted specific instances of an otherwise middling quarterback lifted to prominence by a stellar group of pass-catchers.

Off the top, several people dismissed the premise of a deep Vikings receiving corps. Tony of Seoul wrote: "I would be ecstatic if the Vikings had elite receivers, but we do not." Nick of Portland added:

"I think it's important to note that the Vikings WR corps isn't even that good. Bernard Berrian is a serviceable No. 1, but no other WRs on that team have proven anything. Sidney Rice got 15 receptions last year, Percy Harvin has proved nothing and Bobby Wade is ... Bobby Wade. In this situation, I'd have to pick the Bears passing corps, because they have an elite player (Jay Cutler) whereas the Vikings best player has never had a 1,000-yard season, and would be the third WR in Green Bay."

But if you accept the notion that the Vikings at least have a deep group of receivers, you can continue on. Nate of Lexington, Va., put an eloquent voice to a quarterback's ability to lift an offense:

"I played wide receiver in college and the quarterback that I played with ended up winning the Gagliardi Trophy (essentially the D-III Heisman) and I was an all-conference wideout. While I was no slouch, I would have to say that without question it was because of [the quarterback] and his ability that made me and us as a group better. A good quarterback and his timing, arm strength and accuracy can make up for a lack of separation and overall talent in general. No matter how good a receiver is, if a bad quarterback can't get him the ball he is no good to an offense.

As a lifelong Bears fan it pained me to see Kyle Orton (who I like on the whole) underthrow Hester on a deep ball or miss an open receiver by just that little bit. A guy like Jay Cutler surrounded by Devin Hester, Greg Olsen, Rashied Davis and Desmond Clark will be more successful than Tarvaris Jackson throwing to Berrian, Wade, Rice and Harvin."

Tim of Kansas City notes the early success of New England quarterback Tom Brady -- before his receiving corps included Randy Moss and Wes Welker. "The Patriots had only average receivers and won three Super Bowls," Tim wrote. Akio of Tokyo concludes: "Proven quarterbacks will make receivers shine. A chicken (QB) or an egg (WR)? My vote is that a chicken comes first."

Fire up the grill!

On the other side of the debate, Brian of Sturgis, S.D., points out how a good receiver can make a quarterback look better. "I would prefer to have receivers who can catch the bad pass as well as the good ones from the suspect QB rather than receivers who miss the good ones on occasion and CAN'T catch the bad pass."

David of Austin recalls the 1998 season, when Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham came out of nowhere to have a Pro Bowl season. The Vikings surrounded him with a deep group of skill players and a dynamic scheme, factors we haven't really accounted for in a strict debate between quarterbacks and receivers. But David makes some good points:

"Cunningham's 1998 season with Minnesota, when he had Cris Carter, Jake Reed, Robert Smith, and Randy Moss (whose explosiveness was as yet largely unanticipated and unplanned for by defenses) as offensive weapons, and a decent offensive scheme, speaks volumes about how good offensive weapons and game planning was able to turn an 81.5 lifetime average QB into a wunderkind, at least for one season. His 106 QB rating that season was 14 points higher than his next best season, eight years earlier, and 24 points higher than his lifetime average."

My take? I figured you would ask. I have always felt that quarterback is the most important single position in all of sports. It's much more difficult to find a good quarterback than it is to assemble a group of competent receivers.

But just for kicks, I looked at the top two receivers for each of the NFL's five highest-rated quarterbacks in 2008. Then I did the reverse: Who was the primary quarterback for the five most productive receivers in 2008?

Here are the highest-rated quarterbacks' top wide receivers:

Leading receivers for top quarterbacks, 2008
Quarterback Team Rating Top WRs (catches-yards)
Philip Rivers San Diego 105.5 Vincent Jackson (59-1,098), Ch
ris Chambers
(33-462)
Chad Pennington Miami 97.4 Ted Ginn Jr. (56-790), Greg Camarillo (55-613)
Kurt Warner Arizona 96.9 Larry Fitzgerald (96-1,431), Anquan Boldin (89-1,038)
Drew Brees New Orleans 96.2 Lance Moore (79-928), Marques Colston (47-760)
Peyton Manning Indianapolis 95.0 Reggie Wayne (82-1,145), Marvin Harrison (60-636)

And here are the quarterbacks for the top five receivers by yards:

Primary quarterback for top WRs (yards), 2008
WR Team Yards Quarterback (rating, NFL rank)
Andre Johnson Houston 1,575 Matt Schaub (92.7, No. 7)
Larry Fitzgerald Arizona 1,431 Kurt Warner (96.9, No. 3)
Steve Smith Carolina 1,421 Jake Delhomme (84.7, No. 18)
Roddy White Atlanta 1,382 Matt Ryan (87.7, No. 11)
Calvin Johnson Detroit 1,331 Dan Orlovsky (72.6, No. 29)

And by receptions:

Primary quarterback for top WRs (receptions), 2008
WR Team Catches Quarterback (rating, NFL rank)
Andre Johnson Houston 115 Matt Schaub (92.7, No. 7)
Wes Welker New England 111 Matt Cassel (89.4, No. 10)
Brandon Marshall Denver 104 Jay Cutler (86.0, No. 16)
Larry Fitzgerald Arizona 96 Kurt Warner (96.9, No. 3)
T.J. Houshmandzadeh Cincinnati 92 Ryan Fitzpatrick (70.0, No. 31)

Because this is only a one-year sample, I don't know that we should draw too many conclusions from these charts. You can see that the NFL's five highest-rated quarterbacks last season had the benefit of working with four 1,000-yard receivers. You can also see that it's possible for a receiver to have a good year with a low-rated quarterback, but it wasn't frequent last season. (Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh were the only ones to make the cut.)

Finally, four of the five highest-rated quarterbacks made the playoffs last season. Three of the top receivers in yardage advanced to the postseason, but only one from the group organized by receptions. This tells us that in 2008, at least, you were better off with an elite quarterback than an elite receiver -- but we probably knew that anyway. For me, however, it also shows there is enough gray area in this question to make for reasonable disagreement in this debate.

In the specific question of Chicago vs. Minnesota, there are some mitigating factors that we avoided for the purposes of this debate. How does the relative quality of each team's running game impact the debate? And what about their defenses?

From a big-picture perspective, however, I'll always choose the quarterback ahead of the receivers. A really good group of receivers can bail out an average quarterback at times, but not to the extent that an elite quarterback can lift an average group of receivers. I'll take Tom Brady with Troy Brown and David Patten over Ryan Fitzpatrick with Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh any day.