Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
05 Mar 2009
by Bill Barnwell
The easiest way to get over a breakup is to find someone better and rub your newfound success in your old flame's face.
It's a familiar trend to Terrell Owens, who couldn't wait to espouse the virtues of his new teams after burning bridges with his old one. Of course, Owens also walked the walk with big performances in both Philadelphia and Dallas; once his performance didn't match his mouth, both teams decided to cut bait.
Now that T.O. is on the free market, the big question for his suitors is simple: Will he produce another banner year in his new digs, or is Owens done as an elite receiver?
If you look at Owens' traditional statistics from 2008, the figures aren't all that bad. He accrued 1052 yards and ten touchdowns, figures that were 12th and ninth in the league amongst all wide receivers, respectively.
However, if you're thinking that those numbers don't jibe with how Owens really played and what it meant to the team, you're right. Owens only had two 100-yard games all season, with a 213-yard performance against a mediocre 49ers' pass defense joined by 103 meaningless yards in the season-ending disaster against the Eagles. He only had three other games above 80 yards, two of which came against the woeful pass defenses of Seattle and Cleveland.
There was also a noticeable dropoff in other metrics as well. Despite being thrown virtually the same amount of passes (140 in 2008 as opposed to 141 in 2007), Owens saw his first downs drop from 69 to 38. His catch rate went down from 57 percent to 49 percent.
All of that data gets encapsulated into Owens' DYAR, our metric which measures performance against the league average on a cumulative basis after adjusting for down, distance, opponent, and situation. In 2007, Owens accrued 449 DYAR, a figure which put him behind only Randy Moss among the leaders at wide receiver. In 2008, Owens accrued 86 DYAR, a total which left him … 46th.
It's precisely that ignominious drop that foretells the likely end of the 35-year-old Owens' career as an elite NFL receiver.
Across the 14 years we've calculated our advanced statistics for, 15 players aged 32 or older have cracked the top ten in wide receiver DYAR, only to fall out of the top ten in a subsequent season. Only one has made it back to the top ten, and his name is Jerry Rice.
|Help The Aged|
|Player||Last Year In Top Ten||What Happened?|
|Andre Reed||1996||Got up to 15th in 1998 but was done after that|
|Irving Fryar||1996||11th a year later, but never made it past 34th after that|
|Cris Carter||2000||47th in 2001, done by 2003|
|Ed McCaffrey||2000||Missed 2001 with broken leg, 20th in 2002 as second fiddle, done by 2003|
|Jimmy Smith||2001||Stayed between 20 and 49 for rest of career|
|Tim Brown||2001||Oakland O brokedown; 30th in 2002, 70th in 2003|
|Joe Horn||2004||20th in 2006, mid-80's in 2005 and 2007|
|Eddie Kennison||2005||43rd in 2006, disappeared after 2007|
|Keenan McCardell||2005||42nd in 2006, bit player in 2007|
|Rod Smith||2005||72nd in 2006, never played again|
|Marvin Harrison||2006||Hurt for most of 2007, never gained separation in 2008 (64th)|
|Terry Glenn||2006||Hasn't caught a pass in the regular season since|
|Bobby Engram||2007||Injuries dropped the FO favorite down to 74th last year|
|Jerry Rice||1996||Made it back to top-five in 2002 and 2003 before Oakland offense fell apart|
|Terrell Owens||2007||Will need to buck history to return to the elite in 2009|
There are various reasons why these players don't return to their previous level of performance. Some of it is the cratering of an elite offense and/or a move to a new team, a fate suffered by Tim Brown, Cris Carter, and Jimmy Smith. Other players suffer injuries that retard their ability to play at a high level, like Marvin Harrison, Terry Glenn, and Rod Smith. Other guys just get old and either retire or fade into oblivion, which includes Joe Horn, Keenan McCardell, and Andre Reed off this list.
Owens has no injury history to speak of outside of the broken leg he suffered at the hands of Roy Williams in 2004, and he'll have his pick of several successful offenses as a free agent. The reason that T.O. won't be the receiver he once was is what's behind door number three: About 90% of what Owens used to be.
Teams began noticing during their film study this year that Owens was struggling to break free from press coverage, something his preternatural athleticism allowed him to do throughout his career. That was leading to an inability to create separation for himself downfield, which prevents quarterbacks from properly identifying open passing lanes, while also making passes both harder to catch and easier to defend.
To counter the constant stream of cornerbacks pressing him at the line, the Cowboys sent Owens in motion as often as possible. When that didn't work, they took things to a new extreme, motioning the 224-pound Owens in behind the allegedly 203-pound Patrick Crayton, hiding their huge star wideout behind their tiny slot receiver to try and create space. That helped, as Owens averaged 9.4 yards per attempt and had a success rate (picking up 40 percent of the yardage needed for a new set of downs on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third or fourth down) of 43 percent in three-receiver sets, which was a huge improvement over the 5.0 yards per attempt and 35 percent success rate he put up with only two receivers on the field.
Could Owens defy the past and come back with a huge season? Perhaps. Maybe he'll be inspired by his release, sign with a team like Minnesota or (gulp) Washington, and be part of a high-powered offensive attack. Maybe the appearance of Brad Johnson for three games threw Owens off and he never adjusted. Maybe the arrival of Roy Williams created confusion in the Dallas offense and forced Owens to run suboptimal routes.
What recent history tells us, though, is clear: There are no second acts in the lives of veteran wide receivers.
55 comments, Last at 10 Mar 2009, 11:50am by Phill O'sopher