"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
22 Jul 2014
by Scott Kacsmar
Part I of our final catch radius study for 2013 featured seven of the best wide receivers in the NFC. Now we turn to the unlikely quarterback who has played with many great receivers.
We never would have imagined Josh McCown would be a relevant topic in 2014, but his career is a perfect example of why we should look at catch radii. If Alshon Jeffery and rookie Mike Evans turn their talent into the long kind of careers they're capable of, then McCown will have played with three of the best wide receiver duos in recent history. In fact, no quarterback may have ever had three distinctly separate pairs like this.
A young McCown had Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. He wasn't too successful in that time, but he did only get 19 starts in 2004-05 and was still learning the position. Years later he wound up in Chicago, and last year he thrived in Marc Trestman's offense with bigger receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. It's not every year that a 34-year-old journeyman quarterback has a career performance with 13 touchdowns and one interception. Now expected to start in Tampa Bay, McCown's receivers have only gotten bigger with the 6-foot-5 duo of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans.
If McCown continues to play well in a different system with similar talent, it makes you wonder: is bigger the way to go at receiver if you're not confident at quarterback? I think most people would agree Boldin and Fitzgerald are the best receivers he's had, but they don't have the size these other four players possess. You still need to be accurate (like a Kurt Warner) to thrive with players like that, or else you end up like the 2012 Cardinals on offense. When McCown was younger, he couldn't consistently hit the target zone, but as an experienced player in Chicago, he never looked better with Marshall and Jeffery making tough catches for him.
Or was McCown actually accurate as his 66.5 completion percentage suggests? Let's look at the receiving breakdown for these five receivers in 2013. The average depth of reception (Dist) is included.
|2013 Receptions Breakdown|
|Vincent Jackson||6-5||78||11.6||0 (0.0%)|
|Alshon Jeffery||6-4||89||11.3||12 (13.5%)|
|Brandon Marshall||6-4||100||10.1||12 (12.0%)|
|Anquan Boldin||6-1||85||8.9||9 (10.6%)|
|Larry Fitzgerald||6-3||82||7.5||14 (17.1%)|
Here are the catch radii for McCown's receivers (past and future) in 2013.
|2013 Wide Receiver Catch Radii: Josh McCown's Jackpot|
|Type of Catch||L.Fitzgerald||Pct.||A.Boldin||Pct.||B.Marshall||Pct.||A.Jeffery||Pct.||V.Jackson||Pct.|
|Above the head||6||7.3%||6||7.1%||13||13.0%||13||14.6%||8||10.3%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||3||3.5%||1||1.0%||0||0.0%||1||1.3%|
|Diving to ground||1||1.2%||3||3.5%||4||4.0%||5||5.6%||2||2.6%|
|Over the shoulder||4||4.9%||3||3.5%||3||3.0%||5||5.6%||1||1.3%|
|Pass thrown wide||15||18.3%||15||17.6%||15||15.0%||9||10.1%||5||6.4%|
2013 was a solid rebound year for Fitzgerald, but he failed to eclipse 1,000 yards for the second straight season. His game tape showed a huge tendency, but this may say more about quarterback Carson Palmer than Fitzgerald. Palmer made an effort more than any quarterback studied to lead his receiver to the ball with passes thrown wide. I charted 15 of these plays, giving Fitzgerald a WIDE% of 18.3 percent (the highest yet). Here's just a sample of those catches.
Sometimes Palmer did well to lead Fitzgerald away from the defender, but sometimes he led him right into the hit. I only noted that six of the 15 wide catches were accurate throws to lead Fitzgerald. There were plays where Palmer was behind the receiver, and plays where his throw made Fitzgerald fall or dive to the ground to complete the play. Palmer wasn't hitting Fitzgerald in stride enough to really justify making all of these throws, but Fitzgerald has incredible hands and can pull the ball in from awkward positions.
Obviously we would have to study more Palmer and more Fitzgerald to see if this was anything more than a small-sample fluke, but that was the major thing I picked up on quickly while doing Fitzgerald's season. For reference, here's a table showing 12 NFC receivers and how many of their catches on passes thrown wide were good throws or too inaccurate (requiring a superior catch).
|2013 Receptions Breakdown: Thrown Wide|
|Receiver||Thrown Wide Rec.||Good Throws||Good%|
My first choice for 2013's biggest Pro Bowl snub was Jordy Nelson, and my second was definitely Anquan Boldin. The 49ers attempted a league-low 417 passes last year, but Boldin was outstanding with 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns. He did more to elevate his passing offense than guys like Fitzgerald and DeSean Jackson, who both received credit for a Pro Bowl over Boldin. Watch how their production came and it's no contest that Boldin was better last season. When people are unfortunately still looking at things like Pro Bowls for Hall of Fame resumes, it hurts Boldin to not get that fourth selection for one of his best seasons.
Maybe he peaked early with 13 catches for 208 yards in Week 1 against Green Bay, but Boldin was dominant in other games by making tough catches. Colin Kaepernick's accuracy left a lot to be desired. While a lot of the young quarterbacks (like Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton) seem to be too high with the ball, Kaepernick was alarmingly too low at times. Boldin made three really tough catches below the waist (the most yet) where most receivers I've studied have had none. His seven chest-low catches were also one of the highest totals yet. Boldin had only three over-the-shoulder catches since he's not much of a deep threat, but one was thrown too far out in front of him. Boldin brought in three balls with one hand, which trailed only Garcon's four.
I've said enough on Boldin. Treat yourself to some visuals. That's Boldin making a tough catch high off the ground against Richard Sherman in the top left corner. Dead center, that's a catch against Tennessee. I thought the zoomed-out version best displayed the body control necessary to make a one-handed catch like that.
In today's game, a lot of receivers can have good numbers at the end of the year. Boldin ranked only 16th in receiving yards last year. But if we start paying more attention to how that production is gained, then a season like Boldin's last year would get more of the proper praise it deserves.
We'll tackle these Chicago receivers together, though it may take an army of us to bring them down. Their catch radius percentages were very close across the board, though Jeffery caught two more over-the-shoulder catches because he was better on the deep routes. Both caught 13 passes above their head, with Jeffery having the highest rate (14.6 percent) studied.
Only 43.0 percent of Marshall's catches were chest-level -- the lowest rate yet. However, Jeffery's film was just more impressive. Unintentionally, I ended up capturing more highlights (10) from Jeffery than any other receiver.
We watched Marshall play at a high level in 2012, but last year was more about the breakout performance from Jeffery. Now the question is, did Jay Cutler or McCown rely on more of these miraculous catches last year? I split up the two receivers based on how they fared with each quarterback last year.
|2013 Wide Receiver Catch Radii: Chicago Quarterbacks|
|Type of Catch||Brandon Marshall||Alshon Jeffery|
|Above the head||8||12.5%||5||13.9%||8||16.0%||5||12.8%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||1||2.8%||0||0.0%||0||0.0%|
|Diving to ground||2||3.1%||2||5.6%||4||8.0%||1||2.6%|
|Over the shoulder||3||4.7%||0||0.0%||3||6.0%||2||5.1%|
|Pass thrown wide||11||17.2%||4||11.1%||7||14.0%||2||5.1%|
Interesting. Cutler was more consistently wide with both receivers, and McCown was more consistently at eye-level, which I am still not sure is a bad thing for any quarterback. Cutler fared better with Marshall, which makes sense given their long history together. But McCown was a little more accurate with Jeffery. Either way, these two receivers made for a special offense in Chicago -- something we rarely get to say.
How will McCown play with Jackson in Tampa Bay? Believe it or not, Jackson had easily the highest chest rate of these receivers at 65.4 percent last year. Most of that was with rookie Mike Glennon, but it would be criminal to say Jackson enjoyed accurate quarterback play in 2013. Glennon only completed 48.8 percent of his passes to Jackson, but I guess we have a "65 percent of 51 percent of the time, Glennon hits Jackson on the numbers every time" thing going on here. For example, we rightfully think of Jackson as a deep threat, but he had one over-the-shoulder catch last year and it didn't happen until December against the Panthers.
Incredibly, Jackson's two greatest catches of 2013 both came against Asante Samuel in the games against Atlanta. Jackson somehow clamped the first one with his arm to get it into his hands for a 59-yard touchdown. The second was just an absurd one-handed effort. Say what you want about Samuel's coverage skills falling off a cliff last season, but that's 106 yards and a score where he couldn't really do anything more (legally) to defend.
Could there ever be a better mentor for Mike Evans than Jackson? Maybe it's not ideal to have two guys so similar at the top of the depth chart, but McCown should like his options this year. Too bad Tampa Bay didn't keep Tiquan Underwood, because he might be 6-foot-5 too if we count his hair.
Here's a look at the catch radii for all 31 seasons studied to this point. The NFC receivers from the past two articles are in bold.
|Summary of Wide Receiver Catch Radii Study|
You know, Andy Dalton doesn’t look as inaccurate now. Then again, after watching more of the Herculean efforts by his receivers in the Cincinnati playoff loss, I think I was fair in that week's analysis.
We're putting catch radius to bed for now, but it will return next offseason. No stat is perfect, and in its infancy this one certainly has room to mature. Adding the receiver's drops can be helpful in determining their weaker areas. Factoring in throws made under pressure could give better context to the quarterback's accuracy. Maybe we need to stop worrying about perfect summation and start double counting catches if they're both wide and high. Trust me; that will have to be done if Matt Barkley sees the field in 2014.
One thing I will surely do in light of this week's data is to redo the 2011-12 data, because we did not have access to all the angles (All-22) we have for 2013. Maybe some of those Mike Wallace chest catches were actually thrown wide or at eye-level. I don't expect huge changes, but that needs to be done. This is time-consuming work, but it will be valuable if perfected.
It's silly to make any sweeping generalizations over what's been done so far, but my original hypothesis was that a taller receiver should be easier to hit in the chest region. He just presents a bigger target. What seems to be happening -- really stressing the word seems here -- is that the quarterbacks with the big receivers are taking full advantage of that size by putting the ball in places they think only that receiver will get it. Sometimes, especially in the red zone, that's a necessity to get a completion regardless of receiver size. But it almost feels like the quarterbacks are intentionally being less accurate ("giving a guy a chance"), because there is a margin for error that doesn't exist with the 5-foot-10 receiver.
If having a shorter receiver means the quarterback is forced to be more accurate a higher percentage of the time, then that sounds like a good thing to me. When Ben Roethlisberger says he wants a tall receiver, is he really just saying "I want to be able to miss throws more often, but still get the completion?" I don't know, but I think any exploration that tries to solve the quarterback-receiver connection is worth continuing.
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