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.
15 Dec 2011
by Mike Tanier
It’s been a while since I wrote. I’ve really missed you.
I’m sending this to help with your quarterback issues.
I know you’re hungry for a Super Bowl, and Broncos fans are starved.
It’s been almost 15 years since that time you vanquished Favre.
Your current quarterback is both a blessing and a curse
It looks like you’re stuck with him, he’s yours for better or for worse.
It’s like a marriage on the rocks, and you can’t undo what you did.
You have regrets, but you have to stay together for the kids.
So you need to find peace, and I’m the one to help you find it.
This is a phenomenon, and you can’t beat it, so get behind it.
Prepare to draft for defense, and forget your quarterback cravings.
It’s time to turn the Broncos into the Rocky Mountain Ravens.
Build around Von Miller, and stock the secondary with provisions.
Remember that in most years, ten-and-six wins your division.
On offense, invest in a receiver who can take option pitches.
I bet DeSean Jackson could score some touchdowns on quick hitches.
It’s not like you in ’97, but I know that it’s worth trying.
Look around the league: Stafford, Sanchez, Flacco, Alex Smith, even Ryan.
Their teams do pretty well, and none of them are Brady-Manning.
It’s better than any crazy stuff you might be planning.
You can hit the quarterback market in March, but not too hard.
Go out and get yourself a nice, safe David Garrard
Who can run this option offense if and when your new guy fails
But is clearly just a backup who won’t hurt your ticket sales.
In two years, if this kid develops you can re-sign him if you like;
If he doesn’t, the world will have moved on anyway.
I hope this helps, your sometimes fan, this is Mike.
Chorus: The T’s still hot I wonder why
I watch these games at all
It’s ten-to-zip in the fourth quarter
The Bears have got the ball
Even if they win you will get the blame
For not liking him at all
Makes me realize that we’ve all gone mad
We’ve all gone mad...
I saw you on TV and you did not look thrilled;
That body language is really gonna get you killed.
There’s lots of people trying to make you out to be a villain.
I think your position is pretty clear, but they’re unwilling
To accept that this is business, all they want to hear
Is that you hate your quarterback, and it’s not true, and I get it.
If he turns out to be a fake the whole city will regret it
And you’ll have missed your chance to get someone better.
You clearly ignored all the things I said in my last letter,
But you can’t keep looking mad! The crowd thinks you’re a hater
You come across as the creepy emperor from Gladiator.
That’s just the image that some people want you to project.
The camera’s always on you, you have a legacy to protect.
So plaster on a smile, forget your common sense and
Whoot and holler at every pass. Pretend that you’re Tom Benson
And Denver is N’Awlins. And 13-10 wins are Mardi Gras,
And when the bubble bursts, you can call party foul
And act hung over and confused, like you didn’t think it’d ever happen
When you were one of the crowd, so thrilled and clapping.
I have more advice, and I will share it with you too
Just write me back, your biggest fan, this is Mike.
PS: Can I get an interview?
Dear Mister "I unleashed this scourge upon the land,"
Thanks for giving me more than I can stand!
It’s been eight weeks now! I don’t deserve this!
I can’t believe this is the reason I left public service.
I could be teaching math. Instead I’m stuck writing disclaimers
Of how a bunch of 16-13 wins don’t make a kid a Hall of Famer
And I can’t write about anything else. No one buys it. I’m not allowed.
You know that book "Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds"
About real estate booms, market crashes and Ponzi schemes?
That’s what this is like, and you’re the one who had the means
To stop it, but you just stood there golf-clapping and shrugging
And now you wonder why writers like me are bugging?
I’m sick of you, John. I hope he fades and it eats you.
I hope the Broncos get bad and that the Chiefs beat you!
You hit last place and little kids kick your shins when they meet you!
The media does an about face and everyone retreats on you!
It doesn’t matter now. I need to make that clear.
I opened up my fridge and drank all the beer.
I’m on the Walt Whitman Bridge. I’m off to sabotage my career.
I’m going on NBC Sportstalk and I will say what I am really feeling.
It’s live TV, so it will really have the censors reeling.
I’m gonna hit send now. I’m at the Broad and Pattison intersection.
Oh wait, I’m having trouble with my wireless connection!
(Dramatic sound effects of a Honda Accord crashing into a cheese steak vendor outside Wells Fargo Arena and splashing into a giant puddle of Chickie’s and Pete’s crab dip.)
Thank you for your continued Broncos support.
Playoff tickets go on sale soon, I am happy to report.
I wrote an autograph for you on an Elway hat.
And two size smalls for your sons, even though you didn’t ask for that.
I’m happy to announce that our quarterback is good as gone.
In March, I plan to trade him to Shahid Khan
For Blaine Gabbert, and two draft picks that I will squander,
Or maybe send him to Minnesota for Christian Ponder.
Then finally I can relax, and enjoy some peace and quiet,
At least after I deal with the season ticket-holder riot.
Thanks for your concern about my image, but let me tell you
That I’m happy when we win, and I think this kid is swell.
You think the front office is mad that we can sell a million shirts?
Hoping little kids will kick me? C’mon Mike, that stuff hurts.
I just need a quarterback who can lead a few more drives
And if this kid can’t develop neither one of us survives
The inevitable backlash. It’s already making people crazy.
I saw this show last night on Versus, the details were hazy.
It was just a football segment starring Yahoo’s Doug Farrar.
There were supposed to be two writers, but the other crashed his car
They said he was emailing while driving,
But they didn’t say who it was to
Come to think of it, his name was ... It was you!
The final scores of the last four Titans games have been 23-17, 23-17, 23-17, and 22-17.
The Titans won two of those games and lost two, so their points for and against in the last month work out to 80-79. If that is not the sign of an average team, I am not sure what is.
A 23-17 final score is an indicator of average-ness, not mediocrity, which is something different. A 16-12 final suggests mediocrity, particularly the 12: four field goals speak of ineptitude on both offense (they couldn’t punch it in) and defense (they kept letting them into field-goal range). A 16-12 game usually means that there were seven total field goals, a sign that the Niners were involved or the game was really listless. Or both.
No, a 23-17 final evokes a different kind of game. The loser scored 17 points, meaning that they scored two touchdowns (probably), so it was not a lost cause. Yet those 17 points suggest the defense did its job as well. The twenty-three is indicative of a hardscrabble effort by the victor. The easiest way to 23 points is to score two touchdowns and three field goals, so the offense drove pretty well, but also had to settle for three more often than a truly good team should. You come away from a 23-17 win appreciating how close it came to being a 23-17 loss, and the Titans have made a point of providing multiple examples of each.
The average team scores 21.9 points per game this season, so a 23-17 final score keeps the winner and loser about as close as possible to the mean scoring averages while still generating "typical" football scores. The actual mean final score for a game this season is 27-16, so Titans games are a little closer than your basic NFL game. (That’s the mean of all the winning scores compared to the mean of all the losing scores; otherwise, every game is a 21.9-21.9 tie). The mean can be thrown a little out of kilter by blowouts, though: the median final score of an NFL game this season is 25-17, putting Titans games right in the neighborhood of that 50th percentile.
Teams rarely score exactly 25 points, of course. I counted only six cases this year: five winners and one loser. Teams have scored 24 points 35 times: 20 times while winning, 15 times while losing. Teams have scored 23 points a total of 22 times, 17 times while winning. If 24 is the most common score in the NFL, 17 is a close second, with 34 appearances, 24 of them for the losing team. The losing team in a Titans game has scored exactly 17 points six times. I just set the record for most numbers with different meanings in one paragraph.
As you might expect, an almost-full season’s worth of final score data tends to clump around numbers we think of as "football scores," like 24 points, as opposed to totals like 25. Still, there are some surprisingly under-represented numbers. Only one winning team has scored 21 points this season: the Cardinals, against the Eagles. Eight teams have scored 21 points and lost. You can imagine the team that scors three touchdowns needing to drive down the field for a final field goal, or to stop such a drive, in a game that will end 24-21. There has only been one 24-21 game this season, a Vikings win over the Panthers, though it did come down to a late field goal. It is far more common to score 20 points than 21 in today’s NFL: eight teams have won, and 20 have lost, after scoring 20 points in a game. The final scores bear witness to the messiness and complexity of football: it is much more common for a team to cobble together a mix of touchdowns and field goals, or to scramble in two-point conversions in some way, than to just punch the ball in the end zone three times and call it a day.
The Titans are messy and complex in their own way. Chris Johnson waxes and wanes, mostly wanes. Their top wide receiver, Nate Washington, would make a great No. 3 receiver, and their No. 2 receivers are almost unidentifiable. When Matt Hasselbeck reaches the end of a game, it is like a super-marathoner drooling and staggering across a finish line. No Titans defender has more than two interceptions, and their sack leader is someone named Karl Klug, who sounds like an early 20th century psychologist. They were involved in some early blowouts, both as winners and losers, but they have settled down. They are now just good enough to barely lose to the Falcons and Saints, and just good enough to barely beat the Buccaneers and Bills.
DVOA sees the Titans as above-average. I cannot help but see them as truly, delightfully median.
Browns running back Montario Hardesty caught both of the passes thrown to him against the Steelers on Thursday night. Miracles do happen.
The Browns lead the league in dropped passes by most sources which track such things, including our Game Charting, which is not fully up-to-date as of this writing, but is close. Greg Little leads the league with 12 drops, including one on a quick slant in the Steelers game. Little has an almost preternatural ability to drop passes, but he is also a rookie, and Jerry Rice had issues with drops as a rookie. Little leads the Browns in receptions and has a knack for getting open. He may correct his issues or become one of those Braylon Edwards-types who is going to drop an easy pass on occasion, but can still be very productive.
Hardesty is a second-year player, a virtual rookie who missed all of last year with an ACL injury. He was supposed to be the change-up back for Peyton Hillis, but he has spent a lot of time in the starting lineup during Hillis’ weird season of strep throat, missed Halloween parties, and political endorsements. Hardesty has dropped six of the 21 passes thrown to him, which is remarkable because all he runs are screens, flat routes, and short angles out of the backfield. This is not Matt Forte running wheel routes up the sidelines and failing to haul in contested passes against cornerbacks we are talking about. Hardesty can drop a pass thrown across a living room.
|Figure 1: Stone Hands Hardesty|
Let’s look at one of his drops. Figure 1 takes us all the way back to Week 4, when the Browns still had hope and were playing the Titans. It is the third quarter, the ball is near midfield, and Hardesty has already dropped one pass into the flat. This is my favorite drop of his four –- yes, four -– in that game. It is second-and-6, and with the Titans leading 24-6, the Browns are not trying to do anything fancy -- they just want to sustain a drive and keep the game in reach. So three receivers run deep routes against some variation on either Tampa-2 or quarters coverage, but they are really just clearing things out. The fullback releases into the middle of the field and runs a bench route, while Hardesty probably has an option to sit in a zone or run left. The defense takes very deep drops, with the middle linebacker bailing, so Hardesty elects to sit. That’s the correct choice, assuming that he hauls in the pass.
This was my favorite Hardesty drop because the announcer is in the process of stating that Colt McCoy has completed six straight passes when the softly-thrown, perfectly accurate, pass skitters off Hardesty’s hands. "Noooooo," the announcer says, his voice dropping several pitches as he says it. It’s the sound my wife used to make when one of the boys peed during a diaper change. The color guy says that the Browns are making the "simple things look complicated," and the shot cuts to Hillis on the sideline, who is sucking on a lozenge or buying bumper stickers for his forehead or something.
Two weeks later, Hardesty was at it again against the Raiders. Late in the second quarter, deep in Browns territory, he ran an angle route out of the backfield, had a step on his defender, and dropped a ball that landed in his belly. The score was 14-7 at that point, and while the Browns had a lot of driving to do, Hardesty could have gained 15 yards if he caught that pass. In the third quarter, McCoy play-faked to Hardesty and rolled right. When he did not like what he saw, McCoy turned and threw to Hardesty, who was drifting into the left flat as an emergency receiver. This was Hardesty’s most forgivable drop, as he was the receiver of last resort, was not finished selling the play-action when the ball was thrown, and had to catch it from an odd angle. Still, it’s a drop, and in honor of it, the CBS television crew showed a montage of his four drops from the Titans game, including the play in Figure 1.
Think about it: Hardesty inspired the producers to prepare a drop montage! That puts him in the same category as Terrell Owens.
Dropped swing passes, flat passes, screens, shovel passes, and dumpoff passes are relatively rare. According to our charting data, a typical team suffers about four dropped passes of this type per season by running backs, one or two more when you factor in tight end and wide receiver screens. Besides Hardesty, the only running back with three dropped "short" passes (the ones marked as swing passes, dump-offs, and the like by our Game Charters) through Week 10 was Chris Johnson. A bunch of running backs, including LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, and Beanie Wells, had two drops. Just about every player on the two drops list was a player in the Shady-Beanie-Rice class -– an all purpose back who is thrown a ton of passes -– or a workhorse like Michael Turner or Frank Gore who can be forgiven for the odd drop. The only change-up type on the two-drop list is rookie Jacquizz Rodgers of the Falcons.
When not dropping passes, Hardesty averages an unremarkable 8.7 yards per catch to go with his 3.1 yards per rush. He is a pretty terrible running back, and though he may have the potential to get better, he is a reminder that running backs may not be as interchangeable as we think they are. There appears to be an ample supply of strong, shifty guys who can gain about four yards per carry and catch and block a little, but lurking at the bottom of many depth charts are players who cannot catch a swing pass or have less visible flaws: they cannot learn the protection scheme, don’t react to holes quickly, and so on.
So if your favorite team digs into the bench and unearths a guy who can hit the hole, break a tackle, and catch a pass that floats about 20 feet in the air, don’t take it for granted. These guys don’t really grow on trees.
Guess who is going to the Super Bowl!
That’s right! The New York Times is sending me to The Super Bowl! In New Orleans! I cannot wait! I will blog from Jackson Square. I can hit the Quarter after Media Day! There is this little bar on Magaziner Street I used to love, and I hope it is still there. Muffalettas! Lagniappe! BEADS! I can write human interest stories about how the Mardi Gras krewes cope in the post-Katrina era. The kids will love all the kitschy voodoo swag I bring home!
What? The game is in New Orleans in 2013? Well, where is it this year? Indianapolis? No, seriously. Was Anchorage unavailable?
Oh well, Indy may be less fun than the Big Easy, but my liver is breathing a sigh of relief right now. I will be in Indianapolis during Super Bowl week, and if you cannot find me here, just look for a link to the Fifth Down blog at the Times. I am not sure what I will be blogging about, but I guarantee that it will not involve beads.
60 comments, Last at 18 Dec 2011, 1:36am by justanothersteve