Twitter has empowered folks to deliver hot takes to a global audience with unprecedented velocity. Anyone with an account that, you know, hasn’t been suspended for spreading lies that pose a threat to democracy and/or thousands of lives can shoot an opinion through the internets or troll the masses and instantaneously garner a reaction: the more outrageous the statement, the more intense the fallout. As anyone reading this is well aware, Political Twitter is the most frequent cesspool for this form of chicanery. However, NFL Twitter is also a hotbed for such shenanigans.
One such Twitter bleep-storm slammed into the NFL on Wednesday, and Vikings Twitter was quickly engulfed in the debate.
For those who haven’t seen the tweet and subsequent reasoned, not-at-all apocalyptic reaction it has received by now, here it is:
Unlike Mike Zimmer and maybe many others who’ve forgotten more football than I’ll ever know, I enjoy much of the content put forth by Pro Football Focus. I’m not familiar with their senior college analyst Anthony Treash, and I’m very certain he doesn’t know me from Adam, either. But that’s not the point. It could have been any outlet or any analyst who said this, and my reaction would have been the same.
To even suggest that Tyreek Hill might be the best deep threat of all time is either:
A. A blazing hot take
B. Grade-A trolling
C. Outrageously ignorant
The hunch from this corner of the interwebs is that the answer is a resounding C.
Why? Because it was delivered without a hint of troll or whiff of sarcasm. He took a beating from the Twitter-verse of several fanbases. The blowback from Vikings territory was especially aggressive. You don’t disrespect Randy Moss on the watch of Minnesotans any more than you would blaspheme Prince or say, “Duck, Duck, Goose.” It’s just asking for trouble.
And Treash, to his credit, attempted to back up his claim with data.
He also attempted to throw a bone to the thousands of responses that killed his tweet with fire and pounded him with names of other notable deep threats such as DeSean Jackson, Calvin Johnson, and… oh yeah, that Moss guy.
It came off as back-pedaling, which was appropriate given the subject matter. It was reminiscent of any overmatched corner attempting in vain to cover an elite deep threat wide receiver.
No, this wasn’t a troll job.
The data in the above tweet that shows deep touchdown receptions, while informative, tells only part of the story. It obviously leaves out any 20-plus yard receptions that didn’t result in a touchdown. It also doesn’t account for how many yards downfield the ball was caught, opting to include numbers inflated by yards after the catch. Moreover, it neglects anything other than the past 15 years. Now, there’s a very good chance that the data for this metric is only reliable and complete for the past 15 years or so. However, by buttressing the Hill opinion with this and suggesting it’s anything other than what it is – evidence of players who have been prolific at scoring long touchdowns the past 15 seasons – is either purposely misleading or assumes the audience is dim. Or both.
The overwhelming majority of those reacting to the Hill opinion pointed out its blatant recency bias. What? The NFL wasn’t a thing before 2005? Calvin Johnson, DeSean Jackson, Terrell Owens, James Lofton, Paul Warfield, Cliff Branch, and Flipper Anderson never existed?
What’s next? Josh Allen owns the strongest throwing arm in NFL history? Alvin Kamara is the best pass-catching back of all time? T.J. Watt is the greatest pass-rusher ever? The Jonas Brothers belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Hard seltzer is superior to beer?
However, for me, this isn’t merely a recency bias issue. It’s also not just a data issue. You can probably come up with all kinds of cherry-picked stats to support anyone as “the best” at something, whatever it might be. This comes from someone who toils in sports data as a full-time job. I appreciate the value of data in sports. I love sports statistics… yes, even advanced stats, sabermetrics, and next-gen stats. More information is a good thing. It helps us better describe and contextualize sports.
Yet, the big picture is cast aside all too often in debates of this ilk.
When the rubber meets the proverbial road, which wide receiver do you want to be lined up outside with the game on the line racing past defenders for the 50-yard bomb? Pick anyone. To make things fair, let’s give them all the same quarterback, facing the same defense. How about Hill’s guy Patrick Mahomes throwing against the 1985 Bears, 1976 Steelers, or 2000 Ravens – pick your opponent. The opponent doesn’t matter.
Let the only variable in this equation be the wide receiver. Who do you choose? Who would head coaches and offensive coordinators choose? Who would quarterbacks choose?
Who would defenses fear the most?
A-ha! That’s the question.
Tyreek may or may not be the fastest player in NFL history. There are a whole bunch of his contemporaries that would give him a helluva footrace in the 40 or 100. I’d probably put my money on Hill, but who knows? There are also a bunch of former players that would give him a go, as well. The line starts with the likes of Chris Johnson, Bob Hayes, Darrell Green, Deion Sanders, and Bo Jackson. Being fast or even being the fastest doesn’t equate to being the best deep threat, though.
The biggest threat — the player most likely to come down with the do-or-die deep pass — is Moss. He obviously possessed elite speed, too. I’m not even sure Hill is faster than Randy was in his prime. But what I can tell you is that Moss would have to take fewer strides to cover the same distance in the same amount of time, had the vertical jump to outleap anyone, the length to reach around, over, or through any corner, and Hall-of-Fame hands. Heck, showing highlight-reel, downfield receptions in a segment called “You got Mossed!” became a thing on ESPN because of all these attributes.
By no means should this be taken as throwing shade at Hill or Megatron or T.O. or DeSean or all the other talented deep threats the NFL has witnessed over the years. Single-coverage against any of them was and is futile. Moss continues to be the gold standard for deep threats — some would argue he’s the gold standard for wide receivers, period — for what he did with that speed and that skill set against double-teams and Cover 2 schemes specifically designed to contain him. That’s why he’s the best deep threat of all time. He’s the answer even if your data only goes back 15 seasons and “Rugrats” was your favorite cartoon when you were a kid so you’ve only been studying the NFL for 10 years.
Moss single-handedly changed game plans and elevated the weapons around him. He raised throwing downfield to an art form. Starting in 1999, he altered the way divisional opponents drafted. He shook the NFL in a way few players at any position ever have because he was such a lethal threat down the field no matter how you tried to stop him.