Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rambling about receivers

This is the point where I should probably talk about how Green Bay found a way to screw over Minnesota fans one last time this season by failing to beat the Bears on Monday night. I could go over the various playoff possibilities for the Vikings, but they're so straightforward that everyone should already know them (we win or Chicago lose = we're in). I could bring up that the Giants have nothing to play for this weekend and so might rest some of their starters this weekend against Minnesota. Or I could...

Well, I think that pretty much sums it up, Viking-wise. And based on what we, as Viking fans are used to getting from our team when they're expected to do well, I'm not really in the mood for speculation at this time. For all that Chicago Cubs fans moan (and White Sox and Red Sox fans used to moan), you have to admit that the Vikings could lay a claim to most cursed team in professional sports. At least the Cubs have won a World Series, even if it was back in 1908.

No, instead of all that, I'm going to propose a theory that's probably not correct, that's not backed by any real research, but is just wacky enough that it might just be (somewhat) correct. It's a long ride, and it does get a bit rambly, so strap yourself in.

A friend and I were talking a few weeks ago about what stats "really" determines how good a football player is. It's 2008, and we all "know" that something as simple as passing yards or passing TDs, or even passer rating, doesn't tell us everything about how good a quarterback is. Nor does raw rushing yards tell us everything about a running back -- at some point, you have to figure yards per carry and probably receiving stats into the mix. Similarly, the best defensive player isn't just the one who accumulates the most sacks or tackles or interceptions.

Then we came to wide receivers. Who's the "leading receiver" in the NFL? What is "the stat" that determines how good a wide receiver is? After thinking about this for a while, I came up with a so-simple-it-can't-be-true answer:

Receiving yards. That's it. End of story.

Now, I know it's probably wrong, but hear me out. First of all, I understand that receiving yards for a receiver are heavily dependent on the rest of his team, especially his quarterback and the team's play calling. A WR playing for New England is going to get more yards than one playing for Minnesota. Fine. And I'm not taking into account downfield blocking or other intangibles like leadership -- this is strictly a question of "What's the best stat to measure wide receivers." But, all other things being equal, a guy with 1,500 receiving yards is more valuable than one with 1,200, regardless of number of receptions, touchdowns or anything else like that.

Here's how I came to that realization. First, I looked at the other main ways we usually rate wide receivers:

Receptions. Bad because it doesn't take into account the length of the pass. It's easier to rack up lots of catches when you're only running five-yard routes. Do you really think Mike Furrey (98 catches, 1,086 yards) was a great receiver in 2006?

Yards per reception. Apart from being a rate stat (which is subject to variations based on sample size), this has a lot of the same problems as receptions, but on the other side; it's way too dependent on the length of passes being thrown your way.

Touchdowns. Extremely volatile and only more dependant on field position than anything.

Third-down conversions. Similar to touchdowns in situational basis and only a factor less than one-third of the time. Plus, really, does anyone think the guy who leads in third-down conversions is the best receiver in the league?

OK, so now I've cast some negative light on other typical stats, but why focus on raw receiving yardage? After all, I said above that the league's leading rusher, yards-wise, shouldn't automatically be considered the best running back in the league. The best example of this is the 1989 NFL. Christian Okoye led the league that year with 1,480 rushing yards. Barry Sanders was #2 with 1,470.

But here's the rub: Okoye accumulated his yards in 370 carries. Sanders had exactly 100 fewer carries, 270. Does anyone doubt that if Barry Sanders gets another 100 carries, he somehow manages an extra 11 yards to pass Okoye?

So, let's come up with a similar situation using wide receivers. Suppose Jerry Rice has 1,480 yards on 100 catches. In the same season, Don Hutson (remember, this is fictitious!) has 1,470 yards on 90 catches. I immediately declare Rice better.

"But wait!" you say. "If Hutson had 10 more catches, surely he'd make up those 10 yards on Rice!" And I say you're correct. But -- and here's the big difference between a wide receiver and a running back -- why didn't Don Hutson get those 10 catches?

Again, we can point to the different teams, different personnel, different philosophy...yes, those are all important. But again, we'll make the wild assumption that Rice and Hutson played under essentially the same conditions. If the difference between Hutson's and Rice's stats were completely dependent on their ability and their ability alone, why do I declare Rice to be better?

And the answer is simple. If Hutson would have racked up bigger numbers by hauling in 10 more passes, the only reason he didn't catch those 10 passes was because he failed to catch them. Why did he fail? Maybe he ran a bad route. Maybe he didn't get open. Maybe he dropped them. Maybe he was hurt and missed a game or two.

Now, go back to our Okoye/Sanders comparison. When Detroit or Kansas City called a running play that year, they knew who was going to get the ball: Okoye or Sanders. There was no choice involved. Yes, Detroit's play calling resulted in 100 fewer attempts for Sanders, but when the call was made, it was his play, 100%.

Now, consider when my fictional San Francisco or Green Bay team calls a pass. The play might be designed to go to Rice or Hutson, but sometimes that player won't get the reception, for any of a number of reasons, mentioned above. And just catching the pass isn't all you're supposed to do, most of the time. Accumulating yardage (before or after the catch) is just as important. Just before a handoff to Barry Sanders, Rodney Peete didn't just up and decide, "You know, I think I'm not going to hand it to him. There's no hole in the line, so I'll pass it instead. Or maybe run it myself." (Then again, maybe the current Detroit Lions could use some creative play-calling like that.)

The point of an offensive player is to score touchdowns, and the way to do that is to advance the ball down the field (ideally to the end zone on every play). While a running back will automatically get the ball on plays called to him and even a quarterback will accumulate some stats (even if just an incompletion) on every passing play, a receiver's stats are never guaranteed. His ability to gain yardage is dependent, yes, on his teammates and the offensive scheme, but also on his ability to accumulate those stats.

I said earlier that I really don't think my analysis is completely and factually correct, but it's an interesting way to think a little crossways at a traditional issue. And it's nearly Christmas, so I feel like I can be a little wacky juse once a year. If you don't agree, then "Bah, humbug" to you.


Cdub said...

This is an extremely difficult area to analyze, as I'm sure you're aware. But if I had to pick stats, they may be some kind of whacky ones, but important. Examples:

Yards after CONTACT: guys who can get more yards after a defender has engaged them. Moss is decent at this, Cris Carter was awesome with his stiff arm, and TO is pretty good at running over some defenders.

Another one would be number of catches with heavy coverage. This is hard to analyze, but guys who can make a grab with a defender in their face or taking their legs out mid air. This is a highly underrated characteristic. The greats make the tough catches, end of story.

Diving catches. Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison are the best I've ever seen in mid air falling to the ground and making those catches. Cris Carter did it a lot falling out of bounds but getting those feet in. He could always catch it where only he could reach and no defender could prevent.

That's just what I look for in receivers when I watch football. Basically who is going to make the catch even if the throw is off or if he's covered.

Randy Moss can be covered by 2 guys in the endzone and they still throw him the jump ball. That's the best receiver in the league in my opinion.

Pacifist Viking said...

Since I was a kid, I never understood why commentators talked about the reception total so much. I thought, aren't the yards you gain more important than how many catches you actually have? I'm much more interested in looking at the league leaders in receiving yards than the league leaders in receptions to determine quality.

Jason said...

CDub: All the categories you mention are stats where, in an ideal world, I'd like for my receiver to have a total of zero. It's the same reason, I want my team to never convert a third down (or my receiver to catch a third-down pass, ever): I'd rather they got their first-down yardage on first or second down.

YAC: I'd rather he's never touched and outruns everyone to the end zone.

Catches in coverage: To avoid having to make those kinds of catches, get more open.

Diving catches: To avoid having to make those catches, be properly positioned (yeah, the QB will have bad throws or throws along the sideline that you have to look good making).

Sure, realistically, none of that will ever happen...your receivers will have to make the "tough" catches. But giving them credit for something that, in effect, they could have completely avoided if they were better, seems wrong to me. Giving guys credit for highlight-reel catches is like saying Barry Sanders is better than Emmitt Smith (which he may or may not be -- I'm not making a judgment here, but Smith does hold the rushing record) because he had so many "OMG, can you believe he did that?" plays.