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Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Adding star WR rarely improves team

By Aaron Schatz
Football Outsiders.com

When it comes to NFL wide receivers, the watchword of the day is "disgruntled." Chad Johnson is unhappy in Cincinnati and has demanded a trade. Anquan Boldin is unhappy in Arizona and has also demanded a trade. At least we know Boldin is unhappy about money; nobody seems to know why Johnson wants out of Cincinnati.

In recent years, adding a disgruntled wide receiver has provided the final piece of the puzzle for a number of Super Bowl contenders. Trading for Terrell Owens helped the 2004 Eagles finally advance to the Super Bowl. Trading for Randy Moss transformed the New England offense and led to a 16-0 regular season. It's no wonder numerous teams have contacted Cincinnati and Arizona, trying to talk trade.

However, if the Bengals and Cardinals give in to the trade demands, it may not mean as much as people think. NFL teams that add a star wide receiver don't actually have a very good record of improvement.

Of course, there is no precedent for a consistent wide receiver of Johnson's caliber changing teams. Johnson was third in the NFL last year with 1,440 receiving yards, and has five straight seasons with at least 1,200 receiving yards. No wide receiver in NFL history has ever changed teams after two straight 1,200-yard seasons, let alone five. No wide receiver has ever changed teams after five straight 1,000-yard seasons, and only two changed teams after four (Owens and Muhsin Muhammad).

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only six different receivers have changed teams after a 1,200-yard season. Here's a look at those receivers and what happened to their teams (counting a tie as half a win).

Receivers who have changed teams after a 1,200-yard season
Name Years Old Team Wins - Year 1 Wins - Year 2 Dif New Team Wins - Year 1 Wins - Year 2 Dif
John Jefferson 1980-81 SD 11 10 -1 GB 5.5 8 +2.5
Jeff Graham 1995-96 CHI 9 7 -2 NYJ 3 1 -2
Yancey Thigpen 1997-98 PIT 11 7 -4 TEN 8 8 0
Laveranues Coles 2002-03 NYJ 9 6 -3 WAS 7 5 -2
Peerless Price 2002-03 BUF 8 6 -3 WAS 7 5 -4.5
Muhsin Muhammad 2004-05 CAR 7 11 +4 CHI 5 11 +6
Average Col 2 Col 3 Col 4 Col 5 -1.3 Col 7 Col 8 Col 9 0.0

Each of the teams that lost a 1,200-yard receiver suffered except for the 2005 Panthers, but that's a special case -- they lost Muhammad, but they also got Steve Smith back from the broken leg that cost him nearly all of 2004, and he moved right back into the No. 1 receiver role.

Meanwhile, the teams that added these receivers generally didn't get any better. By far the biggest improvement came from the 2005 Bears, but that had a lot more to do with defense than it did with signing Muhammad. Of these six wide receivers, Laveranues Coles was the only one who gained 1,000 yards in his first season with his new team.

Loosen the restrictions to get a bigger group of receivers, and the analysis gives pretty much the same result: Teams that lose a top receiver usually decline, but despite what we've seen in recent years from Owens and Moss, the average team that gains a top receiver doesn't improve.

For example, let's look at a group that would include not only Johnson but also Boldin: receivers who gained 1,000 yards the previous season or a combined 2,000 yards the previous two seasons. Twenty-eight receivers qualify for a total of 31 seasons, since three receivers did it twice (Coles, Tony Martin and Keenan McCardell). Note that Moss counts only when he went from Minnesota to Oakland, not when he went from Oakland to New England, because of his poor 2006 season.

The 31 teams that lost these receivers dropped from an average of 7.3 wins to an average of 6.6 wins. But the 31 teams that picked up these receivers also dropped slightly, from an average of 7.9 wins to an average of 7.8 wins.

Even if we look at the teams with the biggest improvement, it is hard to say that the new receivers made a big difference. The 2004 Chargers had already turned things around by the time they picked up McCardell at midseason. The 2002 Colts bounced back because Edgerrin James returned from his ACL injury, not because they added Qadry Ismail. Brett Perriman had nothing to do with the 1997 Chiefs going 13-3; he caught just six passes and Kansas City released him after five games. I already mentioned Muhammad above. Of the five receivers whose new teams gained four wins or more, the only one who really had a major impact was Tony Martin joining the 1998 Falcons, who didn't have a 1,000-yard receiver the year before.

One reason these players haven't been more important to their new teams is that 1,000-yard receivers who change teams have usually tended to be very good No. 2 receivers like Boldin, rather than superstars like Johnson. Only 15 of these 31 receivers led both their old team and their new team in receiving yards. This group had a slightly positive effect, with teams that picked up these players going from an average of 7.7 wins to an average of 8.1 wins.

As I said earlier, no player with Johnson's pedigree has ever changed teams in the offseason. Just because guys like Derrick Mason and Yancey Thigpen weren't major difference-makers when they changed teams, that doesn't mean Johnson couldn't transform an offense that desperately needed a No. 1 receiver (hello, Jacksonville). Obviously, this analysis doesn't do a good job of measuring the transformative power of Owens in Philadelphia or Moss in New England. Owens helped the Eagles win more playoff games, not more regular-season games. Moss and the 2007 Patriots don't even show up in the analysis because he was so bad in Oakland.

On the other hand, Owens and Moss have each switched teams twice, and neither one made as much of a difference the other time. The Cowboys signed Owens and went from 9-7 to … 9-7. Even after trading for Moss, the Raiders' offense was still a joke.

Nothing guarantees Johnson will help carry his new team to the Super Bowl the way Owens and Moss did for the Eagles and Patriots. Odds are that the loss of Johnson or Boldin will hurt Cincinnati or Arizona more than the addition will help their new teams.