This article compares the careers of Marvin Harrison and Cris Carter. There are several measures we can use to compare two players. Part one will compare raw numbers for the players for their careers and look at extenuating circumstances. Part two will look a the career peaks and valleys. Part three will use advanced metrics to compare the players.
On the surface, Harrison and Carter had similar careers.
|G||Rec||Yards||Y/R||TD||Pro Bowls||All Pro|
In terms of raw, volume numbers it is impossible to find two players more similar. The only significant difference between Harrison and Carter is in the number of games played. Harrison’s career was 44 games shorter than Carter’s. 44 games is equivalent of just shy of 3 full seasons less. In fact, when you start breaking down their numbers by games played, Harrison’s superiority jumps off the page.
Harrison was also a superior player when compared to his peers. I’ve written about the black and grey ink tests before. Harrison lead the league in catches, yards or touchdowns a total of five times. Carter lead the league in catches and touchdowns a total of four times. Harrison was in the top five 17 times, Carter only 14 despite a longer career.
Harrison was a three time first team All Pro, but just as telling was the he was 2nd team All Pro another 5 times.
Carter was a two time first team All Pro, but was voted to the second team just once.
That means that in 8 different seasons, Marvin Harrison was considered one of the four best wideouts in the game. Carter had less than half that many truly elite seasons.
The biggest advantage for Harrison, of course, was his quarterback. Supporters of Carter will point out that Harrison played with an all-time-great thrower, while Carter in his prime played with 7 different signal callers. What’s truly amazing about Carter’s odyssey of QBs, is that almost all of them were quality players. Over the course of his career he played with:
Randall Cunningham (4 Pro Bowls, 3 while playing with Carter)
Rich Gannon (4 Pro Bowls, MVP award)
Jim McMahon (1 Pro Bowl)
Warren Moon (Hall of Fame, 9 Pro Bowls, 2 w/Carter)
Brad Johnson (2 Pro Bowls)
Daunte Culpepper (3 Pro Bowls, all w/Carter)
Jeff George (played one season with Vikes, best rating of his career)
The point is that while Harrison clearly had the advantage of playing with one excellent quarterback, Chris Carter‘s career was marked by playing with quarterbacks who were all quality pros. He played with a Pro Bowl passer 8 different times, and with the exception of George, all the quarterbacks he played with made at least one Pro Bowl in their careers. Harrison had the advantage, but Carter wasn’t exactly handed chopped liver.
Harrison was the top receiver on his team in a way that Carter often wasn’t. While the Colts from 2003-2008 are most emblazoned in popular memory, people forget that Harrison spent most his career as the only legitimate target for the Colts. During that stretch from 1996-2002, Harrison was an All Pro twice (1999 and 2002), and made four Pro Bowls. During the five years where he had a legitimate #2, Harrison made four Pro Bowls and one All Pro team.
- From 1996-2002, the Colts’ average #2 Wideout posted these numbers: 49.5 catches, 617.8 yards, 2.1 TDs per season. During this time, Harrison averaged 95 catches for 1257 yards, and 10.4 TDs a season.
- From 2003-2008 (not counting Harrison’s injured 2007), the Colts’ average #2 wideout (Reggie Wayne) averaged 79.2 catches, 1111.6 yards, and 7.8 TDs per season. In this stretch, Harrison averaged 83.4 catches, 1106 yards, and 10.8 TDs a season.
Carter’s story is different. He was the top wideout on an Eagles team that threw mostly to backs and tight ends, and then moved to Minnesota. From 1988-1993, Carter did not have a legitimate #2 wideout. During this stretch, he made one Pro Bowl.
- From 1988-1993, Carter’s average #2 Wideout posted these numbers: 40.8 catches, 586 yards, 4 TDs per season. During this time, Carter averaged 58.6 catches, for 749 yards, 6.7 TDs a season
- From 1994-2001, Carter’s average #2 Wideout posted these numbers: 79 catches, 1282 yards, 9.6 TDs per season. During this stretch Carter averaged 95.8 catches, 1157 yards, and 10.9 TDs.
Clearly, Carter’s elite seasons all occurred once he got help, first from Jake Reed and later from Randy Moss. When asked to be the #1 wideout on a team with no capable number two, Carter simply wasn’t up to the task. His numbers were strictly mediocre. Once Jake Reed appeared in 1994, suddenly Carter’s career took off.
Marvin Harrison needed no such help. Despite comparable help from the #2 spot early in his career, Harrison still managed to become one of the most dominant wideouts in football. Once Reggie Wayne emerged as a viable second threat, Harrison’s numbers stayed in the elite range.
Whatever amount one wants to dock Harrison for playing with Manning, they have to discount at least as much from Carter playing with Jake Reed and Randy Moss. Marvin Harrison was an elite receiver while playing opposite Terrence Wilkins in a way that Carter never was until he got help.
When comparing players, it’s important to look at their peak performance. At their best, how good were they? Cris Carter‘s peak lasted 8 seasons from 1993-2000; Marvin Harrison‘s also lasted 8 seasons from 1999-2006. Both players made the Pro Bowl in all 8 years. Both were durable. Carter played in 128 of 128 possible games. Harrison played in 126 of 128 games.
Peak years average season:
During their absolute primes, Harrison was clearly the better player, averaging more than 1400 yards receiving a season, while out-pacing Carter in every possible category. If we isolate out just the five best seasons from each player (Harrison: 1999-2002, 2006 and Carter (1994-96, 1999-2000), the difference grows more stark:
|Carter 5 best||105.2||1261||12.0||11.2|
|Harrison 5 best||112.8||1537.6||13.6||12.8|
Again, at the peak of their peaks, Harrison was the superior player. He caught more passes for more yards, for a higher yards per attempt with more touchdowns. Carter posted wonderful, Hall of Fame numbers in his prime. Harrison bested him by a healthy margin, especially in the yards department. It’s relevant to note that only one of Harrison’s five best seasons came after the 2004 ‘point of emphasis’ on illegal contact.
If you sort the two players’ peak years by key categories and rank them, the results are interesting:
Catches: Harrison holds 4 of the top 6 best seasons (including an NFL record 143 in 2002)
Yards: Harrison holds the 4 best seasons, and 5 of the top 6.
YPR: Harrison holds the 5 best seasons, and 6 of the top 7.
TDs: Carter holds the top spot (17 in 1995), but Harrison holds the next three best seasons after that.
Valley years average season:
Carter had a slower start to his career than Harrison, performing below elite level from 1987-1992. He then had two ‘cool down’ seasons at the end including playing only 5 games for Miami in 2002.
Harrison was limited by injuries in 1998, or his peak might have started a year early. His valley years were from 1996-1998 and then his two ‘cool down’ seasons from 2007 (played only 5 games) and 2008.
What’s amazing about Harrison is that even his ‘non-peak’ years were quite solid. He was the Colts’ #1 wide receiver during three of his five valley years. His overall numbers during this stretch were quite respectable. Despite playing fewer average games than Carter in this stretch, his numbers were superior/comparable. Carter beat him in yards per reception, but Harrison averaged more catches for more yards and touchdowns. The advantage Carter has over Harrison in is that his ‘valley’ lasted 42 games long than Harrison’s. This gap allowed him to catch Harrison’s volume totals, despite rarely measuring up to Harrison’s production on a season by season basis.
At his best, Harrison was better than Carter at his best. When the two players were not at their peak (either on the way up or down), Harrison was STILL the better player. In fact, it’s hard to point to any phase of their careers in which Cris Carter was a superior wide receiver to Marvin Harrison in any aspect of catching the football. Harrison was the more explosive player while still catching more passes than Carter. The only aspect of the game in which Carter is superior to Harrison is longevity. He simply played almost three more seasons than Harrison, which makes their final numbers appear closer than they ever were on the field. Again, none of this should be seen as a slight to Carter. He should be and will be in the Hall of Fame.
Advanced Metrics are a way of analyzing how efficient players are. The Football Outsiders employ various statistics to try and paint a more complete picture of the value that players bring. At times, normal statistics can inflate or obscure the true value a player brings to his team. This study will use the following measures of receiver efficiency:
DYAR: Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This is a cumulative value of how much better a player was than league average expressed in terms of yards.
DVOA: Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. The superiority of one player over league average expressed as a percent. This is a rate stat, not a volume stat.
Catch Rate: The percentage of balls thrown to the wideout that were caught by the wideout.
The Football Outsiders numbers currently go back to 1992, which encompasses all of Harrison’s career, and most of Carter’s, including all his prime seasons. Remember, these statistics help complete the picture already painted in previous articles. They are simply more data points by which to compare the players. In this case, it doesn’t matter how well one understands the historical context of the metrics compared to other wideouts, it’s enough to compare them to one another. Because the sample sizes are different (13 measured seasons for Harrison totalling 190 games to 11 measured for Carter totaling 161 games), I’ll mostly focus on the 8 year primes of the two players.
DYAR is a stat that will be difficult for some fans to comprehend. There are several ways we can compare Harrison and Carter using this stat. The first is by league ranking year to year. This allows us to see just how well players performed in this metric relative to other players.
Harrison: Three times he lead the NFL in DYAR (2006, 2002, 2001). Three other seasons he ranked in the top 10. 10 times he ranked among the 25 best wideouts in the game, including his first two seasons in the league BEFORE Peyton Manning arrived in Indianapolis. His cumulative DYAR for his 8 prime seasons was 3065. He ranked no lower than 14th in the NFL in any of his prime seasons.
Carter: Carter ranked in the top ten in DYAR four times. He ranked in the top 25 six times. His DYAR for his 8 prime seasons was 1889. He ranked 59th during his prime season of 1994 (implying he had a lot of ‘empty’ yards and catches) and was only 37th in the NFL in 1997.
In terms of ‘volume efficiency’, Harrison destroys Carter. He was consistently among the best wideouts in the game in this metric, even scoring in the top 25 in both seasons WITHOUT Peyton Manning. Carter had many strong seasons, but two of his prime seasons were actually suspect. His 1994 campaign in which he caught 122 passes scored a DYAR of about 9. In essence, he caught a lot of empty passes (think about a 10 yard slant on 3rd and 15) that season.
DVOA expresses efficiency as a percent. What percent better than league average was a wide receiver. This stat can often hurt high volume wideouts, and tends to wear better on secondary receivers (think Austin Collie or Anthony Gonzalez).
Harrison: Marvin Harrison was rated at least 10% better than league average 9 times in his career (including 1997). He posted only two negative value seasons (1998 and 2008). For the record, he was above league average in both seasons BEFORE Peyton Manning arrived. He ranked in the top 20 in DVOA seven times in his career. His entire prime was spent between 10% and 30.3% above league average.
Carter: Carter was rated at least 10% better than league average just three times. He posted five negative value seasons including two of his 8 prime years. He ranked in the top 20 in DVOA just twice. His prime ranged from -12% to 26.2%.
In terms of raw efficiency, it’s not close. Harrison managed to be an efficient receiver despite spending much of his career as the only viable target for Manning. In comparison with Carter, Harrison had two seasons (2001, 2006) better than Carter’s best season. Harrison also had seven seasons all better than the third best season of Carter’s career. Cris Carter had a lot of empty catches in his career. He was a stat compiler, and not all of those catches and yards were particularly valuable to his team. It’s useful to note that Harrison’s 1997 DVOA (playing Jim Harbaugh, Paul Justin, and Kelly Holcomb) was 11.7% above average. That would have been good enough to beat the third best season of Cris Carter‘s career from 1992-2002. The “Harrison was only great because of Manning” argument simply does not hold water.
Catch Rate is a stat that is most useful for comparing similar kinds of players. A player who has a high yards per reception can’t be expected to catch the percentage of passes as a player with a low number. Short passes are more likely to be completed than deep balls. Fortunately, Carter and Harrison were comparable wideouts. Catch rate can be affected by quarterback accuracy as well.
Harrison: He caught at leas 60% of passes thrown his way 10 times, with a high of 70% in his remarkable 2002 season. For his career his catch rate was 61.6% with 13.2 yards per catch.
Carter: He caught at least 60% of passes thrown his way 6 times, with a high of 66%. In total from 1992-2002, his catch rate was 60.4% with 12.1 yards per catch.
Cris Carter was a wonderful player and a classy man. He had a Hall of Fame career.
Marvin Harrison was better.
By every qualitative measure available to us, Harrison grades out significantly superior to Carter. Carter was a stat compiler who posted great numbers, but they were often in a secondary role. He never showed any great ability to carry an offense by himself. Harrison had better hands and was more intensely productive than Carter.
The only knock against Harrison seems to be that he played with Petyon Manning, but a close examination of his numbers show that he was well on his way to elite production levels before Manning arrived in Indianapolis. There’s no question that Harrison was helped by Manning, but there is even less of a question that Carter was helped more by playing alongside Jake Reed and Randy Moss.
There is simply no metric available to us that indicates anything but that Harrison was the better player. Anyone claiming the two were equal or that Carter was superior is either not using data or is merely looking at final volume statistics, and not considering that Harrison’s career was significantly shorter and produced the same volume numbers.