Sifting Through the Garbage for Megatronhttp://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/877 ... ek-16-news
The one bright spot in Detroit's loss to Atlanta on Saturday night was the record-setting performance from Calvin Johnson. Megatron caught 11 passes for 225 yards, and in doing so, he erased Jerry Rice's 17-year-old record for most receiving yards in one season. With 1,892 receiving yards under his belt, Johnson would almost surely become the first receiver in league history to pick up 2,000 receiving yards in a single season by producing his ninth consecutive 100-yard game on Sunday against the Bears. After the record was set, though, the discussion started to shift toward another topic: Is it fair for Megatron to get so much of his yardage in the proverbial "garbage time," when yards aren't anywhere near as meaningful as they are in closer games?
I don't think that's the case, but it depends on what you define "garbage time" to be. My initial conception of garbage time was as those plays when a team trails by more than two touchdowns at any point during the game. If that's your definition, Calvin Johnson has almost assuredly not benefited from garbage time. Through the first 15 weeks of the year, Megatron had just 104 receiving yards while his team was down by 15 or more points, which put him below dozens of other NFL receivers. He had 62 such yards on Saturday night, bringing his total to 166 yards, but that leaves him no higher than 12th among NFL receivers this year. Just 8.7 percent of his yardage has come down 15 points or more, which is actually below what you might expect: The average receiver, through 15 weeks, gained 11.8 percent of his receiving yardage while trailing by 15 points or more.
What if we change the definition of garbage time, though? Let's say that garbage time is any point in the fourth quarter at which your team trails by more than one touchdown. By that definition, Calvin Johnson leads the league in garbage-time receiving, and it isn't close: He has 416 receiving yards in that situation this year, and only Brandon Myers of the Raiders is approaching 300 yards in the same split. Solve for x and you can gather that Calvin Johnson has gotten a huge chunk of his yardage, 319 yards, this year in the fourth quarter while his team was down by eight to 14 points.
Was that yardage meaningful? I'll let you decide. Those 319 yards including the following plays of 20 yards or more, sorted by yards gained:
A 37-yard gain with the Lions down 16-6 and 13:08 to go against the Eagles in a game the Lions eventually won
A 30-yard gain with the Lions down 24-10 and 9:26 to go against the Cardinals in a game the Lions would lose 38-10
A 26-yard gain with the Lions down 20-9 and 14:00 to go against the 49ers in a game the Lions would lose 29-17
A 25-yard gain with the Lions down 24-10 and 11:59 to go against the Vikings in a game the Lions would lose 34-24, but on a play that brought them down to the 2-yard line
A 22-yard gain with the Lions down 41-27 and 0:55 to go against the Titans in a game that the Lions would memorably tie up with two scores in the final minute and send to overtime before losing, 44-41
A 20-yard gain with 1:08 left in that same game
A 20-yard gain with the Lions down 16-6 and 10:56 to go against the Eagles in a game the Lions would win 26-23 in overtime, on a play that brought Detroit to the 1-yard line
A 20-yard gain in the aforementioned Vikings game with 8:06 left and a 31-17 deficit, but one where Johnson fumbled the ball away to Minnesota
Those eight plays count for an even 200 yards, or close to two-thirds of the yardage we would consider to be otherwise meaningless stat padding from Megatron. Well, two of those plays came in games the Lions actually ended up winning, two more came in games that produced a comeback and overtime, a fifth came with nearly the entire quarter to go in an 11-point game, and a sixth moved the Lions to the 2-yard line for a score that came on the next play, putting the Vikings down seven with 11:34 to go. The other two might not even qualify as garbage time, either. The case for Johnson padding his stats in garbage time there, even with his league-leading yardage total, is specious.
That's the problem with making claims of stat-padding in garbage time: I suppose you can make "garbage time" mean anything you like, and eventually, you'll probably come to some sort of split that tells the story you want to tell. You could make that argument about the two definitions I proposed above, and I suspect that somebody could eventually contort the play-by-play logs into some gerrymandered fit to prove the point about Johnson. By my definitions of the concept, though, I don't see any evidence that Johnson is unfairly accruing meaningless numbers.
Of course, the flip side of this argument is that Rice wasn't picking up every single one of his yards against the league's best defense in the fourth quarter of tied games, either. I don't have the play-by-play data for that year, but there are other arguments you can make regarding Rice's total. For one, Rice's starting quarterbacks were Steve Young (for 11 games) and Elvis Grbac; that's a sight better than the sidearming wizardry of Matthew Stafford.
Furthermore, Rice's big year came in 1995, a season that had a disproportionately high number of ridiculous yardage totals from top receivers. Even after Megatron's big year, three of the top seven receiving yardage totals in NFL history came from the 1995 campaign. It was Rice's best yardage total by a wide margin, something that was even more true for Isaac Bruce (1,781 receiving yards) and Herman Moore (1,686 receiving yards), both of whom failed to hit those lofty heights again. That seems like a far more damning quirk than whatever Johnson's done late in games.