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The biggest difference between Hines Ward and Antonio Brown’s stats was Ben Roethlisberger

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Digging into the stats for the Steelers top two career receiving leaders.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images

With Antonio Brown briefly claiming to have finished his NFL career, the debate on whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame has erupted. One of the big discussions has been whether Hines Ward should get into the Hall of Fame before Antonio Brown.

This debate often centers on Brown’s production versus Ward’s Super Bowl wins and intangibles. While most people understand that the Steelers passed less during Ward’s career, but I don’t think people realize just how different the offense was during Ward’s prime.

Antonio Brown came into the league in 2010, and his last season with the Steelers was 2018, a run of 9 seasons. If we take the same time frame in Hines Ward’s career, we would be looking at 1998-2006. For this study, I want to look at these time frames.

One thing both Brown and Ward have in common is they didn’t play much in their rookie season, and they both broke out in their second year. Ward’s rookie season was better than Brown’s, but it still wasn’t anything impressive. So to get more accurate numbers for who they were when they were significant parts of the offense, we are going to ignore their rookie seasons leaving us to compare 8 years of their careers.

First off, the receiving totals:

Hines Ward, 1999-2006: 7759 yards, 58 TDs.

Antonio Brown, 2011-2018: 11040 yards, 74 TDs.

For a lot of people, that’s all you need to see. Antonio Brown had 42% more yards and 25% more touchdowns, so he’s that much better. But to really get the value of a receiver, you need to also consider the offense he was in, so let’s add in the Steelers passing totals from those seasons.

Steelers: 25,029 yards, 156 TDs.
Hines Ward: 7759 yards, 58 TDs.
Hines Ward accounted for 31.00% of team passing yards, 37.18% of team receiving touchdowns.

Steelers: 34,876 yards, 230 TDs.
Antonio Brown: 11040 yards, 74 TDs.
Antonio Brown accounted for 31.66% of team passing yards, 32.17% of team receiving touchdowns.

It’s pretty easy to see their percentages of the team passing game are very close, even though their totals are very different. That is because the Steelers from 1999-2006 ranked 24th in passing yards, while they ranked 4th from 2011-2018. The leading passers for the 1999-2006 time period were Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox, with Ben Roethlisberger third, all three with over 1000 pass attempts. Mike Tomczak and Kent Graham both threw at least a hundred passes as well. From 2011-2018, Ben Roethlisberger threw the vast majority of the passes, with Landry Jones the only other quarterback with at least 100 attempts.

The years for Ward which include Ben Roethlisberger involve his first two seasons when he threw less than 300 passes in each season. It also included the 2006 season which was by far Ben Roethlisberger’s worst season when a motorcycle accident led to the worst passer rating of his career. It the only season Roethlisberger has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, and the only season Roethlisberger started at least three games and ended the season with a losing record. Meanwhile, from 2011-2018, Ben Roethlisberger ranked 6th in passing yards and touchdowns and went to 5 Pro Bowls. Only Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees went to more. Kordell Stewart went to the Pro Bowl in 2001, but with fewer passing yards than Ben Roethlisberger had in any season from 2011-2018.

The point here is that looking deeper at the statistics and the situations for Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, it isn’t hard to make the argument that the quarterback play was a bigger factor in their production than the difference in talent level.

There are a few more levels of analysis that show similarities, Hines Ward’s yards per target was 118% of team yards per attempt, while Antonio Brown’s yards per target was 120% of team yards per attempt. If you take Hines Ward’s targets and readjust them to be at 120% of team yards per attempt instead of 118%, you end up with 105 more yards gained over 8 seasons, 13 yards per year.

Similarly, if you take Hines Ward’s percentage of team yards and touchdowns and apply it to the Steelers numbers from 2011-2018, you end up with 228 yards less than Antonio Brown and 7 more touchdowns. This equates to roughly 30 yards less a season, and 1 TD more.

Those are nominal differences. Antonio Brown and Hines Ward accounted for roughly the same percentage of team passing offense from their second to eighth season in the NFL.

Even if we look at big plays, Hines Ward had 9 receptions of 50 or more yards between 1998 and 2006, and the Steelers had 27 total. Antonio Brown had 14 receptions of 50 or more yards from 2011-2018, the Steelers had 42 total. Both accounted for exactly one third of team passing plays of 50+ yards.

Lastly, Hines Ward led the Steelers in receiving in 6 of the 8 years we looked at, while Antonio Brown led the team in 5 of 8 years

Across the board, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown were very close in their percentage of team passing offense, and while I will not argue that Antonio Brown did play a part in the Steelers passing more, I will argue that the difference in quarterback talent is a much, much bigger factor.