Rookie wide receiver Christian Watson exploded for 3 huge touchdowns last week in the Packers’ win over the Dallas Cowboys, and he has been named the NFL’s Rookie of the Week as a result. Given the Tennessee Titans’ issues defending the deep ball, there is at least some chance that we’re in for a repeat performance. But let’s not be too hasty.
Rookies, especially good ones, pop once in a while, but the issue tends to be much more about consistency, and a disappointing follow-up would not be unusual. Dreaming on Watson is fun, but we should probably temper our expectations, especially given the history of games AFTER the breakout game. For instance:
Breakout: September 10th, 1978, against New Orleans
Stat Line: 3 catches, 107 yards, 3 TDs
Lofton broke out almost immediately, hauling in 3 of David Whitehurst’s 10 completions for 107 yards and a touchdown as the Packers knocked off Archie Manning and the Saints in week 2. Peyton and Eli’s dad completed 33 of 53 attempts but for just 303 yards and one score. For the Packers, Whitehurst was buoyed by a solid rushing attack let by Terdell Middleton and Barty Smith, and he made his 10 completions count as 4 of them found pay dirt.
Lofton would come back down to earth a bit the following week against the Raiders, catching 4 balls, but for just 56 yards and no scores in a 28-3 loss. That said, he wouldn’t stay down long as he would put up solid performances against the Bears, Seahawks, Rams, and the Bears once more. While he wasn’t a dominant force every game, the breakout was real for the future Hall of Famer.
Breakout: September 25th, 1988
Stat Line: 7 catches, 137 yards, 0 TDs
Prior to his week four breakout against the Bears in a 24-6 loss, Sharpe had only one reception for 15 yards total. After the Bears game he was consistently a target monster, averaging 4 catches and 60 yards per game, and finishing the season on an absolute tear.
The week after his breakout, a 27-24 loss to Tampa, he managed to catch 6 balls, but for only 70 yards as the Bucs mostly held him in check. Still, it’s worth noting that Sharpe was essentially a non-factor prior to his breakout and was most definitely a factor, if an inconsistent one, every week thereafter outside of a 0 catch performance against Buffalo in week 9. Still, there was a significant come-down in the few weeks immediately after the big game, and it would take until week 12 against the Lions for Sharpe to have another game resembling his breakout performance. One of the strangest things about Sharpe’s rookie season is how little he found the end zone, scoring just one touchdown against the Lions in Week 14.
Breakout: September 24th, 2006
Stat Line: 3 catches, 101 yards, 1 TD
Some might quibble that Jennings actually broke out the previous week against New Orleans with a 12-target, 6-catch, 67-yard performance where he capped off the Packers’ first drive with a 22-yard touchdown. That’s a fair point, but the following week, in a win against the Lions, Jennings scored an electric 75-yard touchdown on Green Bay’s second drive, which I think got everyone’s attention.
Jennings’ breakout was destined from the moment he was drafted, as the team force fed the rookie like no other receiver. Jennings caught only 45 balls on the season, but on a ridiculous 105 attempts. He was not efficient, to say the least, and he never once caught more than 50% of his passes in any game where he had 10+ targets. Against the Patriots and in the second Vikings game, he combined to catch only 2 of 21 targets. But when Jennings was on, he was an absolute weapon, and he followed up his breakout with a 5 catch, 86 yard effort in a loss to the Eagles, then a 5 catch, 105 yard, 1 TD game in a close loss to the Rams. Jennings is the rare example who managed to rattle off several great performances in a row before slumping a bit in the second half. If you’re bullish on Watson to repeat, Jennings is a great example as to why it’s possible.
Jennings had his ups and downs to be sure, and some of the downs were truly ugly, but the breakout was real, and almost immediate.
Breakout: October 29th, 2007
Stat Line: 3 catches, 107 yards, 1 TD
Some might quibble with this one as well, and with good reason. Jones was an extremely productive rookie from his very first game in which he had 8 targets, catching 4 for 29 yards, but that breakout game against Denver, in which Jones scored a 79-yard touchdown that would prove to be the difference in a 19-13 win, really announced his arrival. This game was also memorable as it comes from a simpler time when Jay Cutler looked poised to set the world on fire for the Broncos, but after Denver tied things up on a last second field goal, Brett Favre hit Greg Jennings for an 82-yard score on the first play of overtime. Jay, by the way, did not throw a pick.
The week after, a 33-22 win over the Chiefs, Jones only had 3 catches for 32 yards, and while he did post a few nice performances against the Vikings and Lions down the stretch, he never really got close to this level of production again as a rookie, even posting a few goose eggs against Oakland and Chicago.
Jones would have a prolific rookie season overall, and while he never managed to crack 1000 yards for the Pack, he did once lead the league in touchdowns, and always had a knack for finding the end zone.
Breakout: November 30th, 2014
Stat Line: 6 catches, 121 yards
Adams had himself a nice game earlier in the season against New Orleans, but I think everyone remembers this game as his true breakout. The Packers outdueled a very good Patriots team and Bill Belichick, on the strength of a great McCarthy game plan, Jordy Nelson toasting Darelle Revis just before half time, and the best performance of young Davante Adams’ career. Adams had catches of 45 and 33 yards, as well as a big 17-yarder in the 4th to set up a Mason Crosby field goal, as he led the team in yards and targets.
Unfortunately, Adams couldn’t maintain that momentum as he would follow up this performance with two consecutive 1-catch 6-yard performances as injuries limited his effectiveness down the stretch. Fortunately, he did reappear, in a huge way, against Dallas in the playoffs, catching 7 balls for 117 yards and a touchdown, before disappearing in the NFC Championship game against Seattle, but we don’t speak of that.
Adams was very up and down as a rookie, and really as a sophomore too, but he flashed frequently, including in a few truly big moments.
Breakout performances are outliers by their very nature, and having a lackluster follow-up game is the norm. If Watson disappoints on Thursday, it shouldn’t be that surprising. More importantly, it doesn’t really matter for his long-term prospects. Davante Adams was horrible after his big breakout, but he not only turned it around for the first playoff game, but became one of the greatest receivers in franchise history. Breakouts, more than anything, show off a players’ ceiling. They might not be able to put it all together every week, at least for a while, but you get to see what a big performance may look like. After that, it’s just a matter of how frequently they can perform.
Only 20 players in Packer history managed to have even one 80+ yard receiving game as a rookie. Most of them — like Davante Adams, Don Hutson, Boyd Dowler, Sterling Sharpe, James Lofton, Max McGee, Billy Howton, and Greg Jennings — are Packer greats to varying degrees. There are a few random one-offs like Geronimo Allison, Ray Pelfrey, running back LeShon Johnson, Jeff Query, and Clive Rush who make the list, but for the most part, receivers who do what Watson did are no worse than average, with a high likelihood of being quite a bit better. It just might not happen right away.