The 2015 success of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker got me wondering about the most successful receiver tandems for a single season in New York Jets history. This is a difficult subject to tackle on a number of fronts, most notably, that it’s really hard to cross-compare across eras, particularly given the recent rule changes that opened up the passing game, and advancements in equipment that have made pass-catching easier.
Nonetheless, let’s take a shot at it, with the caveat that we’re not picking any tandem more than once (we're looking for the best at their best) and we’re not including tight ends among our selections. We're just looking for wide receivers at their very best.
No. 1 Don Maynard and George Sauer (1968)
Maynard caught only 57 passes in 1968, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but he turned those into 1,297 yards. His 22.8 yards per reception average led the AFL, as did his 99.8 yards per game.
Doug Drinen, who founded Pro-FootballReference.com, devised an approximate value stat intended for cross-era comparison, in which the principal component is yardage accumulated compared to team yardage (though the numbers aren’t posted for 2015). It gives Maynard four of the best six seasons by a receiver in Jets history, including this one, which ranked best by a Jet and best among all AFL players in 1968.
One of the other two players in the top six is Sauer, who caught 66 passes at an average of 17.3 yards per catch. Maynard ranked first in the league in receiving yards per game. Sauer ranked third and had the better game in Super Bowl III (eight receptions, 133 yards), when Maynard was limited with a hamstring injury.
Maynard and Sauer excelled in a league that wasn’t as pass friendly. The average AFL team completed 48 percent of its passes and averaged 178 passing yards per game that season. The average NFL team in 2015 now completes 63 percent of its passes and averages 245 passing yards per game.
Given that these two rate so well in an advanced-stat look and they’re the only combo to win a Super Bowl, we feel obligated to rank them No. 1.
No. 2 Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet (1998)
This is the pair that Jets fans who weren't old enough to live through Super Bowl III tend to romanticize, probably because they got closest to the Super Bowl of any Jets team since the one that won it (blowing a 10-0 lead to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game).
The fourth-quarter catch that Marshall made to tie the Giants was a Keyshawn Johnson-like catch. He made those with regularity. Johnson made the tough grabs and the important grabs. That season matches his best in terms of approximate value, and was the only one in his career in which Johnson recorded double-digit touchdown receptions. He ranked sixth in the NFL in receptions (83) and 10th in receiving yardage (1,131). Johnson also had a huge game in the AFC Divisional Playoffs against the Jaguars, with nine receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown (he also ran for a score and intercepted a pass to end the game).
Chrebet, who went from undrafted and undersized (5-foot-10) at Hofstra to one of the most popular players in Jets history, also had his best season in 1998, with 75 receptions at an average of 14.4 yards per catch, and eight touchdowns.
Johnson and Chrebet did this 17 years ago, at a time when offenses averaged 205 passing yards and a completion percentage of 57 percent. Passing was easier than it was in 1968, but not as easy as it is now.
In a media session last year prior to Chrebet’s induction to the Jets Ring Of Honor, Johnson said Chrebet was a better small receiver than Wes Welker and Julian Edelman and that Chrebet doesn’t get the credit he deserves. But Jets fans know how good he was and the tandem was.
No. 3. Al Toon and Wesley Walker (1986)
Though some Jets fans revere Johnson and Chrebet, there is another group that holds Toon and Walker in high esteem. They excelled in a bunch of seasons, including for the 1986 team that started 10-1 and lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to the Browns in the AFC Divisional round.
Toon’s 85 receptions that season set a Jets single-season record, a mark he would break with 93 two years later (Marshall enters this week tied with Toon). The 1986 season, in which he had a career-high eight touchdowns, rates as Toon's best by that approximate value metric.
Walker was the Jets' best big-play receiver. He had six seasons with at least 20 receptions and an average of 20 yards per reception (only Dolphins great Paul Warfield had more, seven). The 1986 season was the second-best of Walker’s career per approximate value. He had 49 receptions at an average of 20.7 yards per catch, with a then-team record 12 touchdowns.
The signature game for Walker is the 51-45 epic against the Dolphins on Sept. 21, 1986 that ranks as one of the best in franchise history. Walker set a team record with four touchdown receptions, including the game-tying catch with no time left in regulation and the game-winning grab in overtime.
Statistically offenses in 1986 were reasonably comparable to 1998. They completed 55 percent of passes and averaged 206 passing yards per game, still far from their 2015 counterparts.
No. 4 Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker (2015)
We can’t put Marshall and Decker in the Top-3 just yet, but this pair has been fantastic. Marshall is as advertised, a huge target (6-foot-4) capable of 100 catches (he’s seven shy), tough catches and finishing drives.
Decker, in his second season with the team, has been more productive than he was in his first (probably because Marshall is playing with him). They are the first pair of receivers in Jets history with at least 10 touchdowns apiece.
What’s missing from this group could still be to come -- postseason success -- if they keep playing like one of the best tandems in team history. And that might vault them a little higher in this writer’s ranking.