Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

04 Jul 2005

Third WR Could Mean Playoffs for These Five

NFL.com's Pat Kirwan makes the argument that adding a viable third WR should give teams like the Texans, Cardinals, Bengals, Lions, and Raiders a real chance to turn things around this season. According to DVOA these teams ranked 14th, 15th, 17th, 20th, and 27th on defense, so that may have something to do with it too. Still, having a healthy Peter Warrick or 6'5" Mike Williams line up in the slot puts a little more pressure on the defense than the fullback trying to catch a pass coming out of the backfield.

Posted by: P. Ryan Wilson on 04 Jul 2005

36 comments, Last at 07 Jul 2005, 5:12am by lafcadio

Comments

1
by fyo (not verified) :: Mon, 07/04/2005 - 6:19pm

Regardless of DVOA, a poor defense isn't going to hurt you nearly as much if 1) you score more points, 2) your offense spends more time on the field.

Having the offense sustain longer drives would also give the defense more time to recuperate.

And then there's the "giving up" factor that we witnessed a prime example of in Miami last year. If the offense is bad enough, the defense just isn't going to try as hard anymore.

2
by thatguy (not verified) :: Mon, 07/04/2005 - 6:56pm

Another team that would benefit from a solid #3 is Denver. If Darius Watts can step up and/or Jerry Rice can be productive, their offense will be much improved (especially with Jeb Putzier's role likely to increase as well). All of a sudden, Jake Plummer might have options. If nothing else, look for Plummer to have a much better season (similar yards and touchdown, far fewer ints).

3
by MDS (not verified) :: Mon, 07/04/2005 - 8:33pm

I just can't get excited about the Lions' three-receiver set. Rogers and Mike Williams are completely unproven; Roy Williams played fairly well last year but couldn't stay healthy. It bothers me that the football media all have jumped on the Lions' receivers' bandwagon despite zero evidence that they'll actually be any good.

4
by thatguy (not verified) :: Mon, 07/04/2005 - 8:41pm

The Lions success will depend on Harrington. All three of their receivers are big and talented, and should make plays if given the chance. Put another way, they would flourish in Indy or KC. If harrington can't get the ball to these guys, then he's just not the answer. Their passing attack will be aided too by Kevin Jones continued improvement.

5
by Kibbles (not verified) :: Mon, 07/04/2005 - 8:47pm

Denver's offense wouldn't really be impacted by a stellar performance or a sub-par performance from WR#3, because Denver rarely USES WR#3. I'd venture that they run among the fewest 3WR sets in the league. A lot of this has to do with them being the most dedicated team in the league to the run, and I suspect a lot of it has to do with not having a great WR3 in recent years. Regardless, Denver's offense has functioned just fine without a third WR for the past decade, and this season should be no different.

That said, they do need Putzier to step up, because they usually use their TE as a third WR, especially in the red zone. He needs to improve his blocking so they stop taking him off the field every time they get inside the 20s.

6
by Kibbles (not verified) :: Mon, 07/04/2005 - 8:49pm

Re #4: "The Lions success will depend on Harrington. All three of their receivers are big and talented, and should make plays if given the chance. Put another way, they would flourish in Indy or KC. If harrington can’t get the ball to these guys, then he’s just not the answer. Their passing attack will be aided too by Kevin Jones continued improvement."

How do we KNOW that all 3 are big and talented? I mean, what have they done as pros? If every WR drafted in the first round wound up becoming a star, we wouldn't have a 7th round of the draft.

I agree with MDS. Yes, all 3 WRs are first rounders. That doesn't mean they're good. Let them show me something, first.

7
by thatguy (not verified) :: Mon, 07/04/2005 - 8:59pm

Just because Denver hasn't had a solid #3 in years doesn't mean they wouldn't benefit from it. I can think of a number of key drops by Watts last season (one mistimed jump against Oakland that cost us the game).

I say they're all big and talented because they're all big and talented. They have above averege size for WR's and they are relatively fast, have good quickness, good hands, good body control (hence, they're talented). I never said they weren't unproven. Size and talent don't always translate to NFL success, but they are usually good indicator. I stand by my claim that Harrington, and not the three WR's, will be the key to the Lions passing attack.

8
by Jerry F. (not verified) :: Mon, 07/04/2005 - 10:21pm

" If every WR drafted in the first round wound up becoming a star, we wouldn’t have a 7th round of the draft."

This is in stark contrast to the NBA, where talent evaluation, aside from a number of obvious midjudgements, seems to be more precise. I remember hearing that Steve Nash was the lowest draft pick ever to win the MVP, and he was drafted 15th. That's why they only bother with two rounds.

9
by MDS (not verified) :: Mon, 07/04/2005 - 11:19pm

Sure, the Lions' receivers have talent -- in the same way that Freddie Mitchell, Peter Warrick, Troy Edwards, Marcus Nash, Yatil Green, Reidel Anthony, Rae Carruth, etc. all have talent. All those guys are recent first-round picks. Would you want to base your offense around any of them? (Carruth might have been a good target for Adam Sandler in The Longest Yard.)

I'm a Lions fan. I hope all three of these young guys turn out to be great. But it's crazy to act like we already know they're great because we don't. Mike Williams has never played in the NFL. Roy Williams has played one season and had a negative DVOA. Charles Rogers has played one season and had a negative DVOA. One of the things I like about this Web site is we don't all follow the media hype that assumes because players were exciting to watch in college they'll be productive in the NFL.

10
by Jim A (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 12:44am

Back a couple years ago when STATS, Inc. used to publish splits based on the number of WRs in formation, I noticed that more than half of scrimmage plays league-wide (excluding punts and kicks) had at least 3 WRs. Perhaps its time we start considering the #3 WR a starter rather than just a role player.

11
by Basilicus (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 3:25am

Jim A - was that average number of receivers per play or average number of plays with three or more receivers.

i.e. would a set of one 2-receiver play and three 5-receiver plays come out to 4.25 receivers a play or would it come out to 75% of this set of plays involves 3 or more receivers. Just if you could explain the stat a bit more that would be useful. Thanks.

12
by lafcadio (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 8:31am

Can Lamont Jordan play without a fb? I mean, is he fast enough? I know Eddie George wasn't very fast when playing with the Titans but stilll very effective thanks to the double TE formation the Titans used to play.
So can Jordan suceed with a three receivers set in front of him? It will free space in secondary, it's sure, but I don't see Moss or Curry to throw their body to block a LB.
Will the Raiders change their T-Back every time they want to play a spread formation?

13
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 11:05am

Regardless of DVOA, a poor defense isn’t going to hurt you nearly as much if 1) you score more points, 2) your offense spends more time on the field.

I agree with #1 (well, it's a tautology, so it's hard to argue), but #2 is circular logic. The amount of time your offense spends on the field depends on the quality of the defense, so saying "a poor defense doesn't hurt you if your offense stays on the field" is equivalent to saying "a poor defense doesn't hurt you if your defense isn't bad."

To explain just a bit: it doesn't matter much if an offense scores in 1 play or in 10, so clearly the amount that an offense contributes to "amount of time on the field" isn't that important. Instead, the sole reason that the offense being on the field is important is because it means the opposing offense isn't having much success, which means that your defense is doing well.

You can't blame the Colts offense for not being on the field during the Patriots-Colts playoff game. The fact that they had a poor defense directly resulted in the offense watching from the sidelines.

14
by Led (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 11:14am

Pat: I completely agree with you that good defense helps your offense, but he converse is also true. If you have a better offense that sustains drives and burns the clock even on those drives where you don't score, you will limit your opponents opportunities to score. A good offense will also help your defense by leaving your opponent with worse field position on average.

15
by Chris McMahon (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 11:14am

FYI: It's not Peter Warick at 3 in Cincy anymore, it's Chris Henry.

16
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 12:40pm

If you have a better offense that sustains drives and burns the clock even on those drives where you don’t score, you will limit your opponents opportunities to score.

I don't agree with the clock-burning part. William Krasker had a bit on this before. It's all about statistics. Suppose you've got Team A, with a great offense and a terrible defense, and Team B, with a poor offense and a good defense. So in terms of "total DVOA", team A is better than team B, but team B's worst unit is better than team A's worst unit.

Now, when they play each other, should Team A try to score quickly, or score slowly? You might say "well, our defense sucks, so we should try to score slowly to limit their opportunities to score", but that's a red herring.

If the game was infinitely long, then the fact that team A is better than team B will average out of the whole thing, and they'll consistently pull out a higher score. But in a finite length game, the fluctuations could be quite large, and team B could win simply on a fluke turnover or two.

So, is it always good for an offense to stay on the field? Probably not. In a case where you're clearly the better team, you'd rather score quickly, because you want as many scoring opportunities as possible. In the case where you're not the better team, you'd rather score slowly (and hope for luck).

A good offense will also help your defense by leaving your opponent with worse field position on average.

Well, that's not good offense - that's good offense+special teams. But yes, that's true, but it doesn't mean that a good offense should spend time on the field more.

The only argument for offenses staying on the field more is to give defenses a rest, and I'm not sure if that's important enough to have a larger effect than the statistics issues.

17
by Jim A (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 1:31pm

#11 -- it was definitely the number of plays with 3 or more WRs.

Someday when we get access to data on how many plays each player is on the field we'll have a party, but I'd bet that on most teams the #3 WR plays as many snaps as the starting FB and/or starting TE.

18
by Led (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 2:01pm

"In a case where you’re clearly the better team, you’d rather score quickly, because you want as many scoring opportunities as possible. In the case where you’re not the better team, you’d rather score slowly (and hope for luck)."

First, I don't think this analysis is particularly useful since (a) you don't often know which team is clearly better (and when one team IS clearly better, the marginal benefit of playing fast/slow is, well, marginal) and (b) you have to use the offensive style that is most effective given your personnel; i.e., unless dictated by specific game situations, it's almost never a good idea for the Colts to play like the Steelers (or vice versa) because whatever strategic value there is in playing that style will be outweighed by the decline in effectiveness. If a team is equally adept at both offensive styles, that is a huge advantage (see below re: the Pats).

Second, my point had nothing to do with scoring quickly or slowly, but how effective an offense is on drives that don't result in scores. From both an offensive and defensive POV, it is always good for an offense to get first downs rather than punt.

"You can’t blame the Colts offense for not being on the field during the Patriots-Colts playoff game. The fact that they had a poor defense directly resulted in the offense watching from the sidelines."

You can't blame the Colts offense, but you sure as sugar can credit the Pats offense. Good offense for the Pats that day was a very effective defense against Manning et al.

19
by Aahzmadius (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 2:04pm

#13 I disagree with you about where the fault lies in the Colts/Patriots playoff game. The Colts spend about 70% of their money on the offensive side of the ball. In the first half, the defense did a credible job, while the offense produced almost nil. So, yes, I can and do blame the Colts offense for not being on the field.

20
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 3:26pm

With the Colts/Pats game, let's not forget that the Colts offense had the ball near the end of the 2nd quarter, but turned it over near the red zone, where a field goal would have tied up the game. Then the Patriots got the ball to start the 3rd quarter and promptly went 3 and out. The Colts went 3 and out in thier next possession, and this is what allowed th Patriots to run down the Colts defense with a drive that lasted almost the whole quarter.

21
by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 4:00pm

All the Colts' offense had to do to win the game, was score 21. Peyton, Edge, and all those thousand-yard receivers came up with 3 whole points, and this is the fault of the defense? This is the same Colts team that averaged almost 3 points per drive during the season, including the final game against Denver with Sorgi and the mailroom staff playing.

All the Patriots' holding the ball did, was shorten the game to nine drives per team (not counting the final kneel-down). The Colts offense still should have been able to score over 20, with just a below-average game for them.

Instead, they had a terrible game. Even with arguably the best 3rd WR in football against a converted slot receiver as nickelback. Peyton Manning looked very average, his receivers dropped passes like they were trying out for Seattle, and Edgerrin James ran like he wanted to trade places with Ricky Williams.

22
by Björn (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 4:07pm

RE: # 16

"Well, that’s not good offense - that’s good offense+special teams."

I would say that field position has way more to do with special teams than offence. In a CFL game last week, Winnipeg got beat down by Edmonton, with a final score of 27-8. When you consider that Edmonton's last ten points came in the last half of the 4th quarter, the score of 17-8 is not so convincing. Just wait til you see the disparity in stats - Total offence for Edmonton, 549 yards. Winnipeg, 110 yards. The reason that the games was so close was Winnipeg's punter, Jon Ryan. he punted 11 times for 581 yard (Average 52 yards per punt). But the most impressive thing about these numbers is the net yards. In those 11 punts, Ryan netted 519 yards, for a net average of 47! Every time Winnipeg's drives went 2 and out (3 downs, remember) Ryan pinned Edmonton back. Then Edmonton would drive the distance of the punt, stall their drive, and go right back where they started. It was rather comical, really.

23
by Johonny (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 4:53pm

Roy Williams season seemed ok to me for a rookie year. Barring injury he would seem to be on the road to legitimate NFL #1 WR. But the rest of the teams WR are more of an unknown.

24
by Kibbles (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 6:34pm

Re #7: Yeah, a couple of Watts catches could have meant a couple more Denver wins, but I still contend that if Putzier knew how to block well enough that he didn't get pulled off the field in the red zone, Watts wouldn't have been in that position. The TE tends to be the #3 WR in Denver, and I'd rather have Putzier come on like gangbusters than Watts.

That said, for anyone who plays fantasy football, I think Putzier could be one of the biggest steals at TE this season. DVOA ranks him as third last season, just behind Crumpler and Gates and just ahead of Gonzolez, and Shanahan has a history of turning TEs into studs. The biggest limitation on Putzier is he got pulled off the field in the red zone, but you can rest assured that with the new contract he got he's not going to be coming off the field that much this year. I like him as the #5 TE behind Gonzo, Gates, Witten, and Crumpler.

25
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 6:41pm

I would say that field position has way more to do with special teams than offence.

In the NFL, the average start is something like the 25-30 yard line. An average punt is 40 (net) yards or so for a good special teams unit. In order for special teams to help field position be better than average, the offense has to gain at least 10-20 yards.

Of course, a good special teams unit there is still better than a bad one, duh. But if the offense is incompetent, you'll still lose the field position battle.

(There's actually some evidence for this from DVOA stats, but there's not a ton of statistics on it - it's a total of something like 3 teams - NYJ, PHI, and ATL)

All the Colts’ offense had to do to win the game, was score 21. Peyton, Edge, and all those thousand-yard receivers came up with 3 whole points, and this is the fault of the defense?

Yup. The 14 points that the Patriots scored against the defense gave their offense very little time to make up the deficit. The Colts offense struggled, but hey, the Patriots defense is very good. The only way they were going to stay in the game is if they were going to have enough opportunities - which they never had.

26
by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2005 - 8:05pm

The 14 points that the Patriots scored against the defense gave their offense very little time to make up the deficit.

The Colts' offense didn't use the opportunities they had very well, considering the Patriots didn't score their second touchdown until the 4th quarter.

The Colts' offense spent the entire first half getting one field goal, and went 5-and-out on their first drive of the second the second half, before the Patriots scored their first touchdown, then punted again less than two minutes after the kicoff. (ESPN's drive analysis page for that game linked on my pseudonym). That's terrible.

Up until the Patriots' second drive of the second half, Indy's defense had forced four punts (including three 3-and-outs) and two FGs. That's pretty good, considering their offense had essentially taken the game off up to that point.

I'm not saying that Indy's D should all be enshrined in Canton, but c'mon, now. Their job is to slow the other team down while the big money on offense scores points, then play take-away while the other team is playing catch-up. The defense covered step 1, the offense failed to deliver step 2, and we'll never know about step 3, since New England got to play ball-control the rest of the game.

Yes, the Patriots' defense is very good. But the Colts' offense was supposed to be one of the best of all time, and they got crushed. The Colts' defense is only supposed to be adequate, and they did an adequate job for much of that game. They only collapsed after the offense had already disappeared.

27
by J (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2005 - 1:36am

Just an observation....

Indy's 2004
S.T. DVOA -1.8% (rank 22)
OFF DVOA 38.9% (rank 1)
DEF DVOA 2.3% (rank 20)

OFF Playing Salary = sum of all QB, RB, TE, OL, WR cap value

=$41.7m or 21.9% MORE than the average OFF playing salary for 2004

DEF Playing Salary = sum of all DT, DE, LB, CB, S cap value

=$17.9m or 45.3% LESS than the average DEF playing salary for 2004 (that's right, Indy's entire defensive squad, including all backups, total cap value was $17.9m...compared to the highest cap value of an individual player for 2004, Antoine Winfield. His cap value alone was, according to USA TOday, $12.5m!)

Indy's Special Teams last year was below average. There DEF was below average; however, comparing what they paid to their production, Indy did get great value from their DEF.

This, IMO, has to be a combination of three things...
1) Great DEF coaching, getting more value out of players than expected
2) Great DEF Management, paying players less than what they should be making
3) Great OFF, their incredible OFF had to have some impact on their DEF. IMO, the discrepancy between what Indy paid for and their production was too large just to be contributed to great coaching/management. Dungy had been known for great defensive coaching, and Indy's management has done quite well managing the cap. Still, their DEF playing salary was only $17.9m and their production, (2.3% DVOA) was not too bad.

I just thing that if you put Indy's DEF on the 2004 Dolphins team, there DEF DVOA would have been much lower.

As far as Dungy, I have more info which strongly suggests he is still a great defensive coach. The Colts are not investing in their DEF, but he is getting great value from what they do invest...which is not the case before Dungy arrived in 2002.

28
by lafacdio (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2005 - 5:08am

Still a topic on the way to become a Pats vs Colts War...
They both use a lot the three receivers set, but they're not concerned about a big improvement due to the maximum use of this formation :
they're already two of the best teams.
I thought the topic was about poor teams who could improve using the 3 receivers set more often.
So can this formation trully help the running game of the raiders? I have my doubts.

29
by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2005 - 11:02am

Lafacdio (#28 )--

So can this formation trully help the running game of the raiders? I have my doubts.

It depends how good Lamont Jordan is, running with fewer dedicated blockers. We all know he did pretty well last year, running in the offense that helped Curtis Martin win the rushing-yardage title -- but that was a very run-oriented setup.

What three-WR sets do, is force nickelbacks onto the field. Considering that some teams would already be inclined to have more DBs on the field just to deal with Randy Moss and Jerry Porter, the Raiders could see a lot of really light formations facing their offense. If you have a runner with good vision and who can make quick cuts, it's worth trading in a blocking TE or FB to get the nickelback on the field, especially if your WRs also block. (So Randy Moss is of limited use there, except in running a deep route to pull the safeties back.) It's always fun to watch somebody's third or fourth CB try to tackle your starting RB.

Of course, if the Raiders' O-line can't reliably spring Jordan past the defensive front, it doesn't matter if the 3rd CB is on the field. So we all can have doubts until the Raiders' line shows that they can actually do that.

30
by lafcadio (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2005 - 12:26pm

Thks.
As I said before, I just can't imagine Raiders' WR go to block defenders and Jordan is not known to be very fast or very imaginative but rather a pounding guy. My initial question was :

Can Lamont Jordan play without a fb? I mean, is he fast enough? I know Eddie George wasn’t very fast when playing with the Titans but still very effective thanks to the double TE formation the Titans used to play.
So can Jordan suceed with a three receivers set in front of him? It will free space in secondary, it’s sure, but I don’t see Moss or Curry to throw their body to block a LB.
Will the Raiders change their T-Back every time they want to play a spread formation?

Of course, all will depend on the O-line.

31
by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2005 - 1:21pm

Well, a 3-WR set still permits one TE or FB as a lead blocker. With Jolley gone and not a whole lot of playing time for Courtney Anderson last year, the Raiders would probably rely a little less on their TEs anyway. Zack Crockett is still a serviceable FB who can catch a pass as well. For that matter, Jordan catches passes, too.

And I wouldn't write Jordan off as slow and unimaginative just yet -- he did okay returning kickoffs for the Jets, so he has to have some speed, cutback ability, and vision. Edwards's and Hackett's offense wasn't exactly a showcase for anyone's speed on the Jets last year, so I'd wait to fret about him until after a couple of regular-season games.

32
by yep (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2005 - 3:51pm

Ah yes. Nice to see that MDS is well down the Trail of Tears otherwise known as Detroit Lions fandom.

Poor guy. It's not too late to switch teams, you know.

33
by MDS (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2005 - 4:06pm

Well, that's an interesting point, because I've actually switched favorite teams in other sports. But I don't know, it just seems like I've given too much to the Lions to give up on them now.

34
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2005 - 5:31pm

Starshatterer:

The Colts’ defense is only supposed to be adequate, and they did an adequate job for much of that game.

Absolutely no argument. I completely agree that relative to the amount of money they get paid, the defense did a great job, and the offense sucked.

However, I think what that game shows is you cannot - absolutely cannot - have that lopsided of a team and be able to beat a team that's more balanced. Eventually your strong unit is going to stumble a little, and the other unit can't do squat to help out. Aaron's Koyannsqwhattheheckisthisword article pointed that out - unbalanced teams stumble in the playoffs, and I think that game shows why. A balanced team will just come along and shove a knife in your weak side, and twist, twist, twist.

Is it all right if instead I blame the Colts front office for that loss? :)

35
by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2005 - 6:29pm

I can probably live with blaming the Colts' front office. :-D

As far as unbalanced teams -- curiously, teams unbalanced the other way (pedestrian offense, great defense) have done okay in the playoffs -- in some cases, even better than the balanced teams.

36
by lafcadio (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2005 - 5:12am

It's the same in every sports.
It's a lot easier to win base on your def than on your off, a lot of teams won championnship with a very (very) poor play.
Among other exemples :
England (2003 rugby world champion)
England (80's, 90's Slam 5 nations rugby tournament)
Greece (european soccer champion)
SA (1995 rugby world champion)
...