Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
12 Dec 2013
by Cian Fahey
It is inevitable that Peyton Manning will be the 2013 NFL MVP. It's almost impossible to come up with a legitimate argument against him. Even before his Denver Broncos face the San Diego Chargers in Week 15, he has 45 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. That production on a top seed from the AFC and while playing behind a less-than-stellar offensive line means that Manning wins seemingly every possible argument that one could make.
But even though there is no doubt who is the MVP, there is still value in recognizing the players who will at least be mentioned in the discussion that takes place before Manning is crowned.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has rebounded after a disappointing 2012 season. With head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines and a reborn defense supporting him, Brees has thrown for 33 touchdowns, eight interceptions and over 4,000 yards so far this season. With the Carolina Panthers hoping to make the playoffs and the New England Patriots expecting another division crown, both Cam Newton and Tom Brady are being considered by some. It's difficult to argue that either player has outperformed LeSean McCoy, Calvin Johnson, Jamaal Charles or Josh Gordon, but that is the benefit of being a quarterback in today's NFL.
None of those players appear to be as deserving as the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson.
Wilson has thrown for 23 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, with 2,871 passing yards on 330 attempts. Statistically, he doesn't compare to Brees or Manning and playing with Marshawn Lynch and the best defense in the NFL appears to be working against him. However, Wilson's statistics are very misleading. They don't take into account the cracks that he has covered on the Seahawks offense with his ability to elevate the play of his teammates. No, that is not a reference to his celebrated leadership qualities. It's a reference to what he has consistently done on the field from week-to-week.
For long stretches of this season, the Seahawks offense has been missing key players because of injury. Starting wide receiver Percy Harvin, who was acquired in the offseason to diversify the passing attack, has played just one game all year because of a hip injury. Sidney Rice, the team's second starting wide receiver, entered the season with injury issues before he tore his ACL and was placed on IR after Week 8. Losing Harvin and Rice hurt, but not as much as playing without both starting offensive tackles for an extended period. Starting left tackle Russell Okung was placed on short-term IR after tearing a ligament in his toe before Week 3, while starting right tackle Breno Giacomini missed seven games because of a knee injury suffered against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 3.
Lynch has been healthy all year and while he has been a valuable asset who has enjoyed an outstanding season, he alone hasn't offset the impact of losing both starting receivers and starting offensive tackles. Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate have been very good in relief of Rice and Harvin, so the drop-off in receiving options hasn't been detrimental. However, with a lesser quarterback the drop-off in quality on the offensive line could easily have destroyed the Seahawks season regardless of who was in the backfield or playing on defense.
The above chart represents every pass from Wilson through Week 14, though it excludes throwaways, passes tipped at the line of scrimmage and spikes. The chart doesn't reflect incompletions and completions, but rather accurate and inaccurate throws from Wilson regardless of the result of the play.
Clearly the Seahawks offense is based on a short-passing game with a heavy dose of screen plays. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell intellegently designed his offense this way because it released some of the pressure from the team's leaky offensive line. Wilson has had an almost unnatural precision on passes that land 12 yards or less away from the line of scrimmage, while his accuracy throwing down the field is as good as any other quarterback's. His ability to find receivers all over the field consistently in different situations is a testament to how talented he is physically.
Even though Bevell built his offense on shorter passes, the Seahawks certainly don't run a limited offense through the air. On deeper throws, Wilson showed the ability to both bail out his teammates from their mistakes and to elevate the play of those around him.
Early in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals, Wilson was lined up under center with a fullback and running back behind him. Although the Seahawks were leading by 15 points, there was still plenty of time left for the Cardinals to catch up. On first-and-10, the Seahawks' heavy formation brought eight Arizona defenders into the box, with Patrick Peterson in press coverage against Tate to the top of the screen.
As he often does, Wilson takes a deep drop in the pocket to survey the field. His pass protection almost immediately begins to crack after play-action, but Wilson quickly locates his receiver down the field after the fake. While his height is always a talking point, Wilson is smart and composed enough to locate Tate down the field between the two incoming pass rushers.
Even though there is pressure coming up the middle from two defenders, something that is a nightmare for most quarterbacks, Wilson doesn't panic. He also doesn't immediately look to scramble or escape into the flat, showing that he doesn't have an over-reliance on his mobility. Instead, Wilson resets his feet by stepping sideways twice while keeping his eyes on his target downfield. This takes him away from the pressure and allows him to remain in a comfortable throwing position throughout the whole play.
Wilson has already covered for the failures of his offensive line at this point in the play. Now he is going to throw Tate open because he understands the coverage Peterson is playing and where the space is. Only a perfect throw will beat Peterson's coverage. So even though Wilson understands the situation and has perfectly managed the play to this point, he still has to have enough ability to make what is a very difficult pass down the left sideline.
Tate is able to catch the ball with his hands as Wilson leads him towards the sideline and puts the nessecary arc on the football to get it over Peterson. That is the type of play that only the very best NFL quarterbacks can make. Yet, it's the type of play that Wilson makes on a regular basis.
Wilson's mobility is well-documented. He regularly makes extravagant escapes from pressure in the open field and he can be used as a running quarterback like Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin. However, Wilson primarily only runs behind the line of scrimmage when he has to and more often than not he is doing so to buy time to throw the ball downfield. Any athletic quarterback can escape pressure frantically, but in the NFL you need to have the subtleties that Wilson has. Manipulating the pocket while keeping your eyes downfield is a sign of a poised pocket-passer.
When you face the better pass defenses in the NFL, they force you to make these kinds of plays or accept that your offense will be one-dimensional for the day. Of the 13 games that Wilson has played in this year, eight saw him face defenses that are currently ranked in the top half of pass defense DVOA and five are ranked in the top eight. Couple that with the number of blowout victories the Seahawks have enjoyed and it's easy to see why Wilson's statistical output is so modest.
In one of the biggest games of the season, Week 13 against the New Orleans Saints, Wilson had one of his best displays. The Seahawks won 34-7 in a very convincing fashion and the young quarterback finished with 22 completions on 30 attempts for 310 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions along with eight rushes for 47 yards. While one of his touchdown passes was very fortunate, his accuracy throughout the game was very impressive. In the second quarter, he made what could be the biggest play of the game.
There were roughly eight minutes left in the second quarter. The Seahawks were winning 17-7, but their offense was facing a third-and-3 deep in their own territory. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan understood the gravity of the situation and he responded in a way that is typical of his philosophy. Before the snap, Ryan had eight defenders pressing the line of scrimmage threatening to blitz. His defense came out like this, not looking to mask their intentions, but rather get in the head of the young quarterback.
The Seahawks got to the line early, so Wilson had time to walk around behind the line of scrimmage and set his protections. After he did that, he dropped back into the shotgun and surveyed the field again for a moment before he looked quickly at Baldwin in the slot. After looking at Baldwin, who kept his eyes on his quarterback throughout, Wilson looked back to the center but clearly made a signal with his hand. Baldwin responded to the signal by reaching his own arm out to the receiver outside of him.
While we can't be 100 percent certain, it's likely that Wilson was adjusting the routes to that side of the field.
Wilson catches a slightly low snap, something he regularly has to deal with, and keeps his eyes on Baldwin from the moment his hands touch the ball. He doesn't hold the ball for very long, just a moment to allow Baldwin to get on the shoulder of the safety covering him.
Baldwin runs down the seam and Wilson finds him seemingly without much effort. He throws the ball at least 40 yards in the air and lands it perfectly on the outside shoulder of his receiver. That means the defensive back has no chance of making a play on the ball. Wilson's pre-snap adjustments set up the potential for a big play, while his execution eradicated any potential for an overwhelmingly negative play.
In theory, Rob Ryan was playing the percentages by being so aggressive. In big moments such as these, less experienced quarterbacks aren't supposed to be able to be so poised before the snap and so effective after it. Of course, if theory was to be followed, Wilson wouldn't even be on the field not least one of the best players in the league.
While poise, physical ability and intelligence are all crucially important aspects of playing quarterback on the professional level, so is toughness. Most of the quarterbacks in the NFL could likely play to an elite level in 7-on-7 drills, but it takes a certain level of bravery and toughness for that ability to translate to the field on Sundays. In spite of the rule changes that protect the quarterback more than any other position, those playing under center must still execute on every drop-back with a defensive lineman trying to fall on top of them or a linebacker trying to explode through them at speed.
It's cliche to reference Wilson's height while talking about his toughness. The reality is his height has little to do with how resilient he is. Is he more resilient than any other top quarterback? Who can really tell. Is he brave enough to get the most out of his ability? Yes and that's the only question that is important.
On one of the rare occasions when the Seahawks were in a hole at home, Wilson showed off his toughness in the pocket with a very poised touchdown pass. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were leading by 21-0, with just under two minutes left in the first half. The Buccaneers only rush three defenders, but defensive tackle Gerald McCoy quickly sheds the Seahawks lineman who is trying to block him. The Seahawks are running a fake screen play, so Wilson needs time to fake a pass into the flat before looking for a receiver downfield.
Just as Wilson turns back to find Jermaine Kearse and let the ball go for a touchdown, McCoy arrives. Wilson's quick release allows him to let the ball go with perfect accuracy, but he gets pummeled into the ground by the big defensive tackle. A roughing the passer flag is thrown, but the Seahawks have already kickstarted their comeback with the touchdown.
Poking holes in what Wilson has achieved this season is very difficult. The Seahawks may have a talented roster, but he's not simply supplementing superstars around him. He's not Josh McCown or Nick Foles and he's not Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III. Wilson is clearly on that elite quarterback level. He may not be residing in the upper class level of the elite with Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning just yet, but based on this season he is clearly at least on par with Drew Brees and above Tom Brady.
Even if he's not today, it appears inevitable that Russell Wilson will someday be the best quarterback in the NFL.
94 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2013, 8:02pm by tuluse