This is the first in a multi-part series comparing the careers of Cris Carter and Marvin Harrison. I considered writing about why the NFL should dump the salary cap (it accomplishes nothing and hurts teams that build through the draft), but I’m tired of talking about money and labor in the NFL. I’m considering writing a whole ‘book’ comparing Harrison to every wideout in the Hall of Fame. It would be called the Marvin Harrison Project, and would be designed as a comprehensive look as his case for the induction in the Hall of Fame. We’ll see how this series goes first.
This series will attempt to compare 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.
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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.
Tomorrow: Peaks and Valleys