The Myth of the #1 Receiver

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 |

It seems that with lone exception of Sporting News, every preseason magazine, blog, TV pundit and sports radio host in America is convinced that the Giants can't make it to the Super Bowl this season without a true #1 (or go-to) receiver. Most of them have cited how the Giants lost 4 of their last 5 games (including the playoffs) and struggled to score points last season after Plaxico Burress exited the lineup. But while these doubters are looking at recent past performance as an indicator of what to expect in 2009, they would also do well to take a look back at some history.

The 2009 Giants, like many championship teams of the past, are built around a great defense and a dominant running game. These hallmarks of smashmouth football are what led the Giants to titles after the 1986, 1990 and 2007 seasons. In recent years, they are also what propelled teams like the '00 Ravens, '02 Buccaneers, '01, '03 & '04 Patriots and the '05 & '08 Steelers to Lombardi trophies.


In 1986, arguably the greatest season in franchise history, the Giants didn't have a single wide receiver top 31 receptions in the regular season. Their #1 wideout, statistically speaking, was Bobby Johnson, an undrafted third-year player who totaled one catch for 15 yards in the entire postseason that year. Johnson, of course, is most famous for hauling in Phil Simms' pass on fourth and seventeen at the Metrodome that season, but it is notable that his 31 receptions, 534 yards and 5 touchdown grabs were all team highs among the 1986 Giants wide receiving corps.
Do you remember who the Giants leading receiver was in Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena? No? Why it was none other than Stacy Robinson (pictured at the top of this post) a young, second-year player of North Dakota State whose 48 career catches spread across 6 NFL seasons were 9 less than a fellow young, second-year player, Steve Smith, registered last season. Lionel Manuel (3-43-0) and Phil McConkey (2-50-1) also got in on the action in Pasadena that day, as the Giants offense scored 39 points en route to their first Super Bowl championship. Would even the most ardent Giants fan argue that Robinson, Manuel, McConkey, or Johnson was a #1 receiver?

To be fair, the Giants #1 receiver in 1986 (and, it could be reasonably argued, 1990) was Mark Bavaro, who that year became the first and last Giants tight end to gain 1,000 yards in a season. Bavaro's 66 receptions from the tight end position were twice that of the Giants second leading receiver, fullback Tony Galbreath, those 99 combined receptions a strong indication that the Giants ball control-oriented rushing attack produced a lot of manageable third and shorts for Simms & Co.

In 1990, when the Giants returned to the Super Bowl (again powered by a strong running game and overpowering defense), they were again led in receptions by Bavaro and a running back (David Meggett). Stephen "The Touchdown Maker" Baker (26-541-4) and
former first-round pick Mark Ingram (26-499-5) tied for the lead among wide receivers with 26 receptions apiece. In the Super Bowl against Buffalo that year, both Baker and Ingram made career-defining plays when the Giants needed them most, but let's not fool ourselves into believing that either player was ever a true #1 receiver. They weren't.

Instead, Baker and Ingram were key cogs in an offensive machine just efficient enough to keep the chains moving, the clock winding, and the Giants defense fresh. They made plays when they had to, but they were not game-breakers. The only game-breakers the 1990 Giants had, with the possible exception of Meggett, were on defense. And that was fine. For all the talk of "stretching the field" and "keeping the defense honest," the Giants simply lined up and ran the ball down its opponents' throats. Three yards here. Four yards there. A short pass on third down. It got the job done.

Even in 2007, when the Giants actually had a true #1 wideout in Burress (his performance in Green Bay was positively Ricean) it was the unsung receivers who came up big in the Super Bowl when the game was on the line. Sure, Burress caught the game-winning pass, but the Giants never would have been in a position to make that play had it not been for the contributions of Kevin Boss, Steve Smith, and David Tyree.

Boss' 45-yard catch and run on the first play of the fourth quarter was, many believe, the turning point of the game. Steve Smith's 12-yard reception along the sideline on 3rd and 11 with 45 seconds remaining gave the Giants a much needed first down and clock-stoppage, and put the Giants in a position to take that shot at the end zone on the next play. And Tyree? Do I really need to explain Tyree's contributions that evening?


All of this is just a roundabout way of trying to say that football is a team game, and that it takes a team to win a Super Bowl--not individual superstars, especially at the wide receiver position. Despite their best combined efforts, all-world wideouts Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter and Tim Brown own zero championship rings. Lesser-light Troy Brown, on the other hand, owns three. I never said it was fair, but it is what it is.

And the Giants are what they are, too. In their 6th season under Tom Coughlin they know exactly who they are and what they're capable of. They've got one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and, even with the loss of Derrick Ward to free agency, an outstanding running game with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw (and Madison Hedgecock) leading the way. They've got a reliable if not exactly spectacular tight end in Boss, whose 6 touchdown receptions was fourth best among NFL tight ends in 2008, and a group of young wide receivers eager to prove that they can consistently make plays at the NFL level. Add all that to a sack-happy defense with a front four that's 8 deep, and you have a team that looks to be as good as any other in the National Football League in 2009. With or without a true # 1 receiver.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very good article

G-Fafif said...

I remember reading some time ago, probably in the '90s, that the Giants hadn't had a Pro Bowl/All Pro wide receiver since Del Shofner. Does that still hold? Burress and Toomer didn't make it to Hawaii in blue, I don't believe.

I'm still waiting for Earnest Gray to bust loose.

Weinstein said...

Last Giants wideout to be selected to the Pro Bowl was Homer Jones in 1968. Yeah, it's been a while.

TouchdownBlue.com said...

Well written article.
The Giants power run game and very good offensive line will open things up for our receivers this year.

Andy F. said...

Mark Bavaro himself said that Kevin Boss can deliver 1000 yards for the Giants in a season. The question is not who, but rather WHY NOT Boss?!! Are you listening Kevin (serial waster of TE talent) Gilbride?!