NFL Z-Score All Decade Team: 1990s
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The decade of the 90s is one that saw more dominant quarterback play than any other one up to this point. It starts with Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino well into their primes. It would end with the likes of Kurt Warner chasing some of Marino’s single season records, and a youngster named Peyton Manning bursting onto the scene.
In between is a number of Hall of Fame, or soon to be HOF quarterbacks such as Super Bowl champs Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre. Not to mention the great Jim Kelly, whose K-Gun offense took the league by storm en route to four straight Super Bowls, but the dubious honor of losing all four.
The Jimmy Johnson, and later Barry Switzer, led Dallas Cowboys were the team of the decade winning three Super Bowls behind perhaps the greatest offensive line ever, and the all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith.
Seattle Seahawks receiver, Steve Largent, held the records for reception, yards, and touchdowns when the 90s began. In 1992, the Redskins Art Monk would surpass him in catches, the Bills James Lofton surpassed him in yards, and Jerry Rice would surpass Largent in TDs. Rice of course would go on to lead every major category upon his retirement in 2004.
The Oilers left Houston for Tennessee and later became the Titans. Expansion happened yet again as the league added teams in Jacksonville and Carolina, instead of Baltimore who was in the running in 1995. What angered the Baltimore faithful ended up being a blessing in disguise. Instead of going through expansion, Art Modell moved his fledgling Browns to Baltimore the following year, amid worries that he would go bankrupt with the city of Cleveland building a new stadium for the Indians, moving them out of Municipal Stadium where he owned the lease. A new arena for the Cavaliers, and new downtown rehabilitation centering around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Browns were pretty much forgotten in their own city. With Municipal Stadium falling apart and folks losing interest, Modell moved his club to Baltimore, gave them a new name and colors, and we here in Charm City are forever grateful.
NFL football returned to Baltimore after a 13 year layoff. But it also returned to Cleveland after just a three year absence. No members of the Cleveland Browns (or Indianapolis Colts) made the NFL’s all decade team for the 1990s. However, Rod Woodson was elected, Baltimore Raven from 1998-2001.
Those are the best of the best from the 1990s. But does Z-Score with our sRBZ metric agree? Z-Score is a measure of how far above or below the average something is. For a full explanation on Z-Score, refer to this article. Of the #1 ranked most above average players in a season according to our ranks, the AP agreed with us four times this decade in picking their MVP. However, a score over 1.96 puts said player in the top 5%, or elite status by some definition. So we only have a bone to pick four times, five if you count that they split the award in 1997 between Brett Favre and Barry Sanders, even though Favre couldn’t hold a candle to Sanders season where he rushed for over 2,000 yards. Then again, why the love affair with Brett Favre? Each of his MVP seasons, he didn’t put up an “elite” sRBZ score over 1.96. Before we get there, let’s take a look at the other supposed MVP campaigns.
In 1990, Joe Montana had the 10th best season according to sRBZ. Four other QBs had a better score, and Jim Kelly had a season worthy of an MVP with an sRBZ of 2.2009. Let’s compare them shall we.
Montana – QB – 15 games, 61.7%, 7.6 Y/A, 27 TDs, 20 turnovers
Kelly – QB – 14 games, 63.3%, 8.2 Y/A, 24 TDs, 13 turnovers
If turnovers didn’t matter, than Warren Moon would have been in the conversation too. He had led the league in yards (4,689) TDs (35) and turnovers (31). All of those impressive seasons of the 80s must have played a role in the voting as 90’ definitely wasn’t one of Joe’s best. Although, by this metric, Jerry Rice had the best season as the benefactor of Montana, or is Montana the benefactor of Rice? More on Rice’s 1990 season later.
Back to Favre and his MVP seasons. To be fair, quarter back play was down in 95’. No QB posted an elite sRBZ over 1.96. Favre was the best QB at 1.8764. Jim Harbaugh was next best, at 1.4735. The elite players were Herman Moore with 123 catches, Isaac Bruce with 1,781 yards, Jerry Rice with 1,848 yards and 15 TDs, then theres Emmitt Smith at the top.
Smith – RB – 439 touches, 2,148 yards, 134.3 Y/G, 25 TDs, 7 fumbles
Favre – QB – 63.0%, 7.7 Y/A, 41 TDs, 21 turnovers.
Favre did lead the league in yards and TDs. Could be his 21 turnovers that drove his sRBZ under the elite level. Smith did more than the other RBs by a lot, but I guess the popular vote will always go to the QB.
In 1996, Favre was oh so close, but Steve Young was the only player to have an elite season (2.3093). But Young only played 12 games. Despite the great numbers, you probably don’t get an MVP when you miss a quarter of the season.
In 1997, Favre split the award with Barry Sanders. Let’s see it
Favre – QB – 59.3%, 7.5 Y/A, 36 TDs, 23 turnovers
Sanders – RB – 2,358 yards, 6.4 Y/T, 147.3 Y/G, 14 TDs, 3 fumbles
I mean come on. Good season for Favre (although under 60% completion is very pedestrian). But Sanders was other worldly in this season. He was the third player ever to rush for 2,000 yards. Heisman trophy syndrome here as the best player on the best team gets the MVP and the Lions are not the best team.
10 best seasons of the 1990s according to sRBZ
10. Terrell Davis, RB, Denver Broncos, 1998 – sRBZ: 2.6575 – Davis was a key piece of the Denver team that won back to back Super Bowls, and flirted with a perfect season, going 13-0, before finishing 14-2. Davis became the fourth RB to rush for 2,000 yards in a season (2,008). At the time it was the third best rushing performance in NFL history. He amassed 2,225 yards from scrimmage (two shy of Garrison Hearst for the league lead) 139 yards per game, and racked up 23 TDs which tied him for third most in a season. Just two fumbles on the year as well.
9. Steve Young, QB, San Francisco 49ers, 1991 – sRBZ: 2.6963 – 1991 was Young’s first shot at leading the 49ers in a starting capacity, after serving as Joe Montana’s backup for the previous four seasons, even stealing some playing time from the great Montana in that time. An elbow injury in the preseason forced Montana to the sidelines in 91’, and Young was handed the keys. However, midway through the season he suffered a knee injury and was replaced by Steve Bono. In the five games Young missed, Bono went 5-0. Young was 5-6 in his starts, despite some gaudy numbers. (Most teams can’t find one good QB, SF had three). Young posted and NFL best 101.8 passer rating, 64.5% CMP%, 9.0 Y/A. 21 TDs in 11 games, just 11 turnovers. Given the entire season, Young may have racked up 30-31 TDs, just behind Jim Kelly’s 34 that year.
8. Emmitt Smith, RB, Dallas Cowboys, 1994 – sRBZ: 2.7659 – As great as Emmitt Smith and those 90s Cowboys teams had been, it’s funny that Smith’s best season by our metric was the one where San Francisco bested Dallas in the NFC and went to the Super Bowl. Smith led the league in touches with 418. In all those touches he put the ball on the turf just once, and scored 22 TDs. He came in second in yards per game (121.7) to Barry Sanders (135.4). Sanders actually ran for about 400 more yards than Smith in this season (Emmitt missed one game), but Barry scored just eight TDs.
7. Marshall Faulk, RB, St. Louis Rams, 1999 – sRBZ: 2.9569 – The greatest show on turf makes its first appearance here. Faulk is still one of only two backs (Roger Craig) to rack up 1,000 yards both on the ground and in the air. He had 2,429 scrimmage yards, 7.1 yards per touch, 151.8 yards per game, and 12 TDs. His 87 receptions was seventh most, including all of the WRs. Faulk helped lead the surprise Rams to their first Super Bowl title, seemingly coming out of nowhere with back up QB, Kurt Warner, only at the helm because of a torn ACL to starter, Trent Green, in the preseason.
6. Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions, 1997 – sRBZ: 2.9817 – Just one year before Terrell Davis did it, Barry Sanders also broke the 2,000 yard rushing threshold (2,053). He was the third to do it, and first back since Eric Dickerson set the record with 2,105 yards in 1984. Sanders averaged 147.4 scrimmage yards per game, 6.4 yards per touch, and racked up the third most TDs with 14.
5. Jerry Rice, WR, San Fransisco 49ers, 1993 – sRBZ: 3.0615 – After making the list three times in the 1980s, Jerry Rice makes his fourth (and not his last) appearance here. In 93’, his 98 catches were actually second best to Sterling Sharpe (112), but his 1,503 yards were best by plenty. Michael Irvin was about ten yards per game shy of Rice (93.9) but his 15 TDs also set the pace, tied by Andre Rison that year. Aside from 91’ when Joe Montana was out with an elbow injury, this was the first season that Jerry Rice would be without Montana for good.
4. Kurt Warner, QB, St. Louis Rams, 1999 – sRBZ: 3.1613 – One of the greatest stories of my generation of football. Kurt Warner goes from stocking shelves at his neighborhood grocery store, to Super Bowl Champion, by way of the Arena League, and NFL Europe. After being drafted and released by the Packers in 1994, Warner finally got his chance to start an NFL game in 1999 with the Rams. 1999 was the first of three consecutive seasons where Warner and the Rams offense scored 500 or more points, still an NFL record. He led the NFL with a CMP% of 65.1%, Y/A of 8.7, and TDs with 42 (41 passing).
3. Sterling Sharpe, WR, Green Bay Packers, 1992 – sRBZ: 3.1777 – 1992 was one of the rare instances where Jerry Rice didn’t lead all receivers in everything. Sterling Sharpe was the beneficiary leading the league in catches (108), yards (1,461) and TDs (13). 92’ was the first of two straight years that Sharpe led the league in receptions thanks to a pretty good QB landing in Green Bay, Brett Favre.
2. Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers, 1990 – sRBZ: 3.2915 – Yet another Jerry Rice appearance here on the list. It’s becoming clear why no doubt he was voted the great football player of all time, for any position. In 1990, Rice led the league in reception with 100 (18 more than Andre Rison), 1,502 yards (208 more than Henry Ellard) and 13 TDs (three more than Rison). This is his fifth time on one of our ten best season’s lists, and he’ll soon become the first player to lead the league in our metric four different times. This was his best season according to our metric, and the 10th best season ever.
1. Steve Young, QB, San Francisco 49ers, 1994 – sRBZ: 3.6026 – 94’ was the season that Steve Young “got the monkey off his back”. He was always playing in someone’s shadows, from Vinny Testaverde in Tampa Bay, to Joe Montana for five years in San Francisco. In the midst of the Cowboys dynasty, Steve Young led his team to the Promised Land amidst by our metric, the fourth best season ever. He notched a 70.3% completion percentage, which was the second best mark ever at the time (Ken Anderson, 70.6%, 1982). Drew Brees is the only player who has bested that mark, and has done so twice. His 8.6 Y/A was best and was almost 2.0 Y/A better than league average. 42 TDs led the league; Brett Favre was second with 35. 14 turnovers were also the lowest for a QB that played all 16 games.
Quickly, the ten worst seasons on the decade:
10. Lonnie Johnson, TE, Buffalo Bills, 1996 – sRBZ: – 2.1412
9. Roosevelt Potts, RB, Indianapolis Colts, 1993 – sRBZ: – 2.1566
8. Bobby Hoying, QB, Philidelphia Eagles, 1998 – sRBZ: – 2.1579
7. Jim Hensen, WR, Miami Dolphins, 1990 – sRBZ: – 2.2082
6. Jackie Harris, TE, Tennessee Oilers, 1998 – sRBZ: – 2.2137
5. John Avery, RB, Miami Dolphins, 1998 – sRBZ: – 2.2243
4. Reggie Brooks, RB, Washington Redskins, 1994 – sRBZ: – 2.298
3. John Vaughn, RB, New England Patriots, 1992 – sRBZ: – 2.3011
2. Anthony Thompson, RB, Phoenix Cardials, 1991 – sRBZ: – 2.3922
1. Tyrone Wheatley, RB, New York Giants, 1996 – sRBZ: – 2.9967
What does the worst season of the 90s look like for Wheatley?: 14 games, 451 yards, 124 touches (3.63 Y/T), 3 TDs, 6 fumbles.
The most average season of the 1990s:
Rod Bernstein, RB, San Diego Chargers, 1990 – sRBZ: 0.0017, 629 yards, 132 touches (4.77 Y/T) 52.4 Y/G, 4 TDs, 1 fumble.
In addition to using this as a gauge toward who could be considered most valuable, we also compare the top rookies from each year. Most times, the AP agrees with our metric for rookie of the year. But there are sometimes a couple instances that leave us scratching our head.
We’ll take at 1991. Leonard Russell was named ROY despite having a below average sRBZ. Three other rookies had better sRBZ numbers than Russsell, all of the running backs. Washington’s Ricky Ervins (0.5136), Atlanta’s Erric Pegram (-0.224) and New Orleans’ Fred McAfee (-0.742) Ervins was the only one who finished above average of the group, so we’ll show you that comparison to Russell.
Russell – RB – 16 games, 1,040 yards, 3.66 Y/T, 65.0 Y/G, 4 TDs, 8 fumbles
Ervins – RB – 15 games, 861 yards, 5.34 Y/T, 57.4 Y/G, 4 TDs, 1 fumbles
I mean, not staggering numbers by Ervins. He just did more with the ball when he got it than Russell. Ervins was given 161 touches for versus 284 for Russell. Given the same touches, Ervins would have went for over 1,500 yards. Ervins protected the ball a lot better too.
In 1992, you’re likely to find one of the biggest rookie of the year snubs ever. Cincinnati Bengals receiver, Carl Pickens, was the winner. However he posted just 26 catches. To even qualify as a “leader “ in a rate state, like yards per game, you need to catch at least 30 balls in a 16 game season. So since Pickens didn’t qualify, we didn’t even measure his sRBZ. But here’s another rookie who did more than qualify. San Francisco 49ers running back, Ricky Waters, and his 1.852 sRBZ. Mind you, 1.96 which Watters was just short of, means he should be included in the MVP conversation. And he wasn’t even rookie of the year?
Pickens – WR – 26 catches, 326 yards, 20.4 Y/G, 1 TD (He did have one kickoff return TD)
Watters – RB – 249 touches, 1,418 yards, 101.3 Y/G, 11 TDs, 2 fumbles
Yeah. I don’t know either.
In 1996, Eddie George was the ROY, but our metric had him edged out by New England Patriots receiver, Terry Glenn (0.8674). Probably not a huge disparity, but let’s take a look.
George – RB – 358 touches, 1,550 yards, 96.87 Y/G, 8 TDs, 3 Fumbles
Glenn – WR – 90 ceatches, 1,132 yards, 75.5 Y/G, 6 TDs
Moving on to 1997, Warrick Dunn is your rookie of the year, but Cincinnati Bengals RB, Corey Dillion nearly doubles his sRBZ (1.4019 for Dillon, 0.7389 for Dunn). Let’s see the comparison.
Dunn – RB – 263 touches, 1,440 yards, 90 Y/G, 7 TDs, 4 Fumbles
Dillon – RB – 260 touches, 1,388 yards, 86.8 Y/G, 10 TDs, 1 Fumble
Well, you can have 3.2 more yards per game, or more scores and ball security. I’ll take the scores and ball security.
It’s worth noting that with the return of football to Baltimore in 1996, the offensive players actually put up some great number in that inaugural season. Michael Jackson was the leading receiver by sRBZ (1.6694). Vinny Testaverde ranked third among QBs (1.4978). Bam Morris ranked sixth among RBs (1.3399). Throw in Derrick Alexander, and the Ravens had four guys in the top 20 player’s seasons out of 136 qualifying players.
So the 49ers, they are pretty good. Five times, half of the decade, the best season by sRBZ was had by Jerry Rice or Steve Young. The Baltimore Colts Lenny Moore was to this point the only three time sRBZ player of the year. Steve Young now has three, and Jerry Rice now stands alone at four. The other repeat winners are Raymond Berry, Leroy Kelly, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and John Jefferson.
Joe Montana had been the first QB to win sRBZ POTY since Otto Graham, and Steve Young now joins the club. This means that Kurt Warner is the first non-San Francisco QB in 44 years to win it.
50 years down, 14 to go as we turn the page next and look at the new millennium.