At most every turn in the evolution of the passing game there is a clue — something to explain an uptick in the data. The creation of the AFL led to innovation in the 1960s; in the late 1970s and early ’80s passing totals surged because of a set of new rules, aimed to provide more time for the quarterback and more protection for wide receivers; in this past decade, new rules to protect offensive players have helped passing totals reach record highs.
But every set of data has an anomaly – in this case a season that has no explanation. The 1995 NFL campaign provided several of the best single-season receiving performances in league history …
• San Francisco’s Jerry Rice set a single-season record for receiving yards (1,848). Four of the top 12 totals in history came from that one season. Rice also offered one of pro football’s greatest single-game performances – a 14-catch, 289-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece against Minnesota in Week 16.
• Detroit’s Herman Moore set a single-season record for catches (123) that has since been broken by Marvin Harrison (143) and matched by Wes Welker. Four of the top eight catch seasons in NFL history were registered in 1995.
• The Bengals’ fourth-year WR Carl Pickens and Vikings veteran Cris Carter shared the league lead for touchdown catches with 17 — a total that remains tied for fifth-most in a season.
• It’s probably no surprise that Green Bay’s Robert Brooks caught a 99-yard touchdown that season — one of only nine in league history at the time.
Arguably the best performance that year — or from any year — didn’t break a record, or even earn the player a spot on the All-Pro team. According to Aaron Schatz, creator of FootballOutsiders.com, Michael Irvin’s 1995 season is the greatest of any receiver in the history of the game (Calvin Johnson’s 2011 season ranks second on the site’s list). Irvin ranked among the top 10 in every major category that year, but it was the little things he did — the things Football Outsiders digs for — that set him apart. Schatz points to Irvin’s consistency in converting first downs and the 200-plus yards he generated for Dallas’ offense from defensive pass-interference calls.
And let’s not forget St. Louis’ Isaac Bruce, who caught 119 passes — including 13 touchdowns — and registered the second-highest receiving total in NFL history (1,781).
So, why the surge in passing numbers in 1995? Even Schatz is unsure, and he makes a living examining football data under a microscope. The league added two expansion teams that year — Jacksonville and Carolina — but those clubs did not thin the league’s talent pool enough to explain the spike in passing. And if expansion was to blame, why didn’t those receiving totals carry into 1996 and the rest of the ’90s? Rule changes? Nothing substantial.
There was evidence of a rise in passing production the year before. The 1994 season witnessed a quarterback attempt a record number of passes (New England’s Drew Bledsoe, with 691) and it was the second season in history to feature three 4,000-yard passers. Three receivers caught more than 110 balls and Green Bay’s Sterling Sharpe had 18 touchdown catches.
But even 1994 does not compare to ’95 in terms of how many receivers had success. Consider this exercise: Take the top 10 receivers for each season from 1992-97, in terms of yards per game. Next, calculate the cumulative average of those 10 players to generate an average for the group. As illustrated below, the 1995 class has an average more than 15 percent higher than the next closest season in the sample.
And the numbers run deeper than the top 10. Curtis Conway’s average per game (64.8) was good enough for 21st in 1995, but that same total would have ranked him among the top 10 in both 1992 and ’93.
We do know that quarterbacks were more efficient in the mid-1990s. Throughout the decade, an average of 5.6 teams per season completed 60 percent of their passes or better. Nine teams reached that mark in both 1994 and '95.
But nothing — not efficiency, technology, divisional realignment or defensive philosophy — can be directly linked to 1995’s record year for wide receivers. Perhaps, as Schatz suggests, it was the product of so many all-time great quarterbacks and receivers coming together in the primes of their respective careers. Tough to say. Easy to appreciate.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mikebeacom.