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28 Oct 2004

The Owens Effect

by Michael David Smith and Aaron Schatz

The Philadelphia Eagles stand atop the NFC at 6-0, and the tandem of Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens has quickly risen in stature to challenge Daunte Culpepper-Randy Moss as the most celebrated quarterback-wide receiver combination in the NFL. McNabb in particular has improved this season, with his completion rate up from 57.5% to 65.7%, his yards-per-attempt average improved from 6.7 to 8.2, and his passer rating rising from 79.6 to 105.6.

It's what we should have expected when Owens arrived in Philadelphia, right? Well, not really. Historically, no single receiver has ever had quite the same effect as Owens when it comes to improving his new team's offense. And a closer look shows that McNabb's performance with the rest of the Eagles is really no different than before.

Last year, Philadelphia's offense was built around screens to running backs. Only Atlanta, Baltimore, and Miami completed fewer passes to wide receivers than did the Eagles. The problem that was frustrating Eagles fans all season became apparent to the whole country in the NFC championship game, when James Thrash and Todd Pinkston seemed to have no idea where they were going or how to catch the football once they got there.

It was pretty clear that the Eagles needed a wide receiver who could finally help McNabb live up to his potential, so the Eagles out-maneuvered the Ravens to acquire the disgruntled Owens in a trade with San Francisco. And Owens has brought immediate returns on the Eagles' investment. In scoring eight touchdowns and averaging just under 100 receiving yards per game, he has dramatically altered the Philadelphia offense.

From 2001–03, McNabb completed 53%, 54%, and 51% of his passes to wide receivers. This year isn't much different -- except for Owens. McNabb has completed 68% of passes to Owens for a passer rating of 148.0. He has completed 57% of passes to the other three wide receivers -- in line with his historical performance --with a passer rating of 77.8.

Owens's most important attribute is his strength. Those muscles he likes to flex after he scores aren't just for show; he's physically stronger than the cornerbacks who cover him. This allows him to get off to a better start on his routes than the Eagles' other wideouts. Thanks to increased emphasis by NFL officials on illegal contact this year, a cornerback needs to hit a receiver and slow him down within the first five yards of his route. With many of the league's smaller receivers, that's easy to do. With Owens, it's nearly impossible.

Owens often complained that Jeff Garcia didn't have a strong enough arm to fully utilize his skills in San Francisco, and the evidence to date seems to back him up. Owens has already caught six passes of 40 or more yards this year, equaling the most he ever had in a full season with the Niners. He has also been able to adapt to the Philadelphia offense quickly because Eagles head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Brad Childress use a system very much like the one used by Steve Mariucci and Greg Knapp in San Francisco. Both offenses use similar terminology, and feature routes over the middle rather than on the sidelines to take advantage of Owens' strength bumping with corners and safeties.

NFL watchers expected Owens to have some impact on the Eagles' offense, but the improvement we're seeing in Philadelphia is unprecedented in the era since passing rules were relaxed in 1979. Since that year, 14 different quarterbacks have added a receiver who, with a different team, gained either 1,000 yards the previous year or a combined 2,000 yards in the previous two years. None of these receivers made an impact like the one Owens has had on McNabb.

In fact, only two of them seemed to make a real difference for their quarterbacks at all. And those two aren't Hall of Famers, but merely a couple of decent players, Keenan McCardell and Yancy Thigpen. McCardell joined Tampa Bay for its Super Bowl run two years ago, and he provided an important target for quarterback Brad Johnson. But McCardell wasn't the no. 1 receiver in Tampa Bay the way Owens is in Philly -- Keyshawn Johnson filled that role. Similarly, Thigpen joined the Tennessee Oilers in 1998 and helped in the development of Steve McNair, but the Oilers' top two pass catchers were tight ends Frank Wycheck and Jackie Harris.

More typical of the situations where a quarterback got to add a star receiver to his arsenal was the arrival of David Boston in San Diego last year. Boston joined the Chargers only a year removed from leading the league with 1,598 receiving yards, but he clashed with the coaching staff and caught a modest 880 yards from Drew Brees. After the season ended, Boston was shipped to Miami and the Chargers had drafted Brees's replacement.

And even Brees-to-Boston turned out better than several pairings of new star receivers with established quarterbacks. Cris Carter ended his retirement in 2002 to join the Miami Dolphins and caught a whopping eight balls for 66 yards while suffering through health problems. He made such a minimal impact that there's no sense in discussing how he affected Jay Fiedler. Although, come to think of it, he'd probably be welcome in Miami this season -- the offense couldn't get any worse.

Often a star receiver arrives to join an established quarterback, only to find that the team he's joining has too many holes to plug. In 1994 Anthony Miller signed with the Denver Broncos and became John Elway's deep threat, leading the team with 1,107 yards and five receiving touchdowns and averaging an impressive 18.5 yards per catch. But Elway's statistics actually got worse. Miller was one of the few bright spots for the Broncos, who lost wide receiver Mike Pritchard (who would have been a fine No. 2 to Miller) to injury, had an abysmal defense, and finished 7-9.

Of all the instances of new star receivers joining established quarterbacks, the one that looked at the time most like Owens joining the Eagles was the addition of John Jefferson to the Packers in 1981. Jefferson was a young star who was unhappy with the San Diego Chargers. Like Owens, Jefferson was in a contract dispute, so the Chargers shipped Jefferson to Green Bay. The Packers were sure they had just the man to be the perfect target for quarterback Lynn Dickey. Dickey improved marginally, but Jefferson had little to do with it, catching only 39 balls in his first season in a Packers uniform.

So why has McNabb-to-Owens been different? Part of the reason is that Owens needed to succeed more than most star receivers who have switched teams. He had developed such a bad reputation in San Francisco that, despite his great talent, the Ravens and Eagles were the only two teams that had any interest in him. That might have been the wakeup call Owens needed to teach him that end zone antics are tolerated only if they are performed by a player who's respected by his teammates.

The addition of Owens is also significant in relation to the performance level of the players he replaced. It is one thing to add a star wideout to a group of average receivers, but in Philadelphia Owens was added to probably the worst wide receiver corps in the NFL. McNabb knows that he no longer can use his sub-par receivers as an excuse for poor performance, and with Owens down the field he feels much more confident throwing long instead of dumping off to Brian Westbrook. It isn't that McNabb was not a great quarterback before, but a great quarterback needs receivers to throw to, even average ones. Now that McNabb has a receiver of superior ability, he is playing at a level that was impossible when his weapons were limited. That level has the Eagles far above the rest of the conference and on a course that will probably take them to the Super Bowl.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Wednesday's edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: admin on 28 Oct 2004

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