In which we take two players from different generations and throw them into an imaginary ring for you to decide the winner. This is the first such installment, and it’s a battle of tight ends with Heath Miller going up against Eric Green.
If you frequent sports talk radio in Pittsburgh there’s a good chance you’ve heard somebody, at one time or another, complain about how the Steelers don’t throw to their tight ends enough. And hey, maybe when their options at the position were Jay Reimersma, Mark Bruener (great blocker, you have to give him that) or Jerame Tuman that was very well true. But sandwiched around a stretch where they lacked elite pass-catching talent at the position the Steelers boasted two impact players in Eric Green and Heath Miller, both of whom created matchup problems for opposing defenses (and in the case of Miller, still does).
But which one would you rather have on your team? The argument for Green is that he was consistently better compared to his peers at the tight end position than Miller has been. He also played a larger role in the Steelers passing game. Green played five seasons with the Steelers and in four of those years finished in the top-nine among tight ends in both receptions and yards, including his best season in 1993 where he finished with 63 catches (fourth among all tight ends) and 942 yards (second).
Miller, by comparison, has finished in the top-10 among tight ends in receptions and yards (admittedly not the best way to measure this) just once. Green was also the No. 1 option in the passing game for the Steelers during the ’93 and ’94 seasons, leading the team in receiving yards each year, while also leading the team in receptions in ’93. This, however, can be a little unfair to Miller.
For one, I think Miller is facing better competition across the league. Every team in the NFL has a playmaker (some, like New England, have more than one) and there’s simply more talent at the position right now as opposed to 15 or 20 years ago. The other factor is that Green was the go-to guy for two main reasons. First: because he was good enough, obviously. Just how much of an impact was Green capable of making? Consider his rookie season, which began after he held out through the season opener and ultimately missed the first four games. Without him in the lineup the Steelers were 1-3 and didn’t score a single offensive touchdown (the only game they won was because of a defensive touchdown and a special teams touchdown). With him they went 8-4 and he hauled in seven of the teams 20 passing touchdowns. No other player had more than three. In an article that appeared in an issue of Sports Illustrated, Joe Greene, who was the Steelers defensive line coach in 1990, said that “Without Eric Green, we might not have scored a touchdown last year.”
The other reason he was relied on so much: the Steelers wide receivers weren’t anywhere near as good as they are now. He needed to be the go-to guy. Where Miller has had to compete with players like Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Santonio Holmes for catches, Green was accompanied by the likes of Charles Johnson, Dwight Stone and Jeff Graham, a rather large disparity in surrounding talent.
Still, there’s something to be said for being the leading receiver on a playoff caliber team like Green was. There’s also something to be said for being a key cog in a machine that’s played in three Super Bowls — winning two — like Miller has been. Turning to more advanced metrics, Football Outsiders tracks DVOA all the way back to the 1992 season, and we see that Green finished in the top-10 among tight ends twice: 1993 and 1994. He only played seven games in 1992 due to a suspension, catching just 14 passes.
Miller has finished in the top-10 three times (first in 2007, fifth in 2005 and eighth in 2008) and also 17th (2006), 12th (2009) and 27th (2010). Looking at Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value we see that Miller’s average season comes in at 7.4, compared to 6.5 for Green (though, his average is hurt by his shortened 1992 season).
Green was an extremely productive player, and a freak athletically when you consider he was usually pushing three bills in the weight department. He also carried plenty of baggage (two different holdouts and a suspension). Miller, on the other hand, is also a tremendous athlete and extremely productive, but is rarely in the spotlight outside of making plays on the field. He’s never a distraction and keeps his nose clean. Cast your vote now.
(Next up will be a battle of insane outside linebackers: James Harrison vs. Greg Lloyd)