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.
03 Nov 2011
by Mike Tanier
KIM: Reggie? Reggie is that you? Over here, in the private-but-not-too-private booth!
REGGIE: I see you! I am just having trouble getting past these busboys. Spin move. Juke! Juke! Here I am. It is great to see you! You haven’t aged a day in over 20 years. What’s your secret?
KIM: Thompson’s Water Seal. And you are in great shape. Is curling keeping you fit?
REGGIE: It is, but I am thinking of leaving the Danish team. I can be more than just a situational sweeper. They say I move the stone laterally too much and don’t know how to sweep it straight up into the house. I will show them. How are the sisters?
KIM: Still connected. Saying no to Kardashian Centipede was the best move of my career.
REGGIE: Well, when Tom Six and Lars von Trier dipped their feet into reality television you knew it would be weird. Gosh, has it really been 20 years since we did this?
KIM: Yes. Here at the Bar Massa, the day of the October snowstorm.
REGGIE: All I wanted to do was cuddle by the fire with someone. It was just before the big Giants game.
KIM: And before that great pedicure and my shopping spree on Fifth Avenue.
REGGIE: And your divorce, right?
KIM: Really? Oh, I probably squeezed one of those in somewhere, too. I was thinking, Reggie: our careers were never better than they were that day. We were on top of the world that weekend. Maybe ... maybe we were meant to be together after all.
REGGIE: Now Kim, you know we cannot do this. We are too well respected by the national media. We would not want to tarnish our reputations by doing something they might interpret as a publicity stunt.
KIM: But Reggie-poo...
REGGIE: Don’t make this hard, Kim. I have to think of my legions of fans, who followed me from USC to the Saints, the Dolphins, the Redskins, Destroyers, Argonauts, Soul, SteelHawks, Red Bulls, rodeo, jousting, and now curling.
KIM: I suppose so.
REGGIE: And what about you? You are Kim Thomas Humphries Ponder Napoli Barnwell Romney Danza Terwilliger Kardashian. What would people think if either of us entered a relationship simply to advance our careers?
KIM: You are right. I am just glad we can stay friends. Say, what was that roaring noise? Did you hear a roaring noise?
KRIS HUMPHRIES: RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRR! Where they? Where Kim and little shifty man? Me spend 20 years searching all over world to find you?
KIM: Really? I mean, every move either of us make is publicized. Have you been living under a fungus covered rock?
KRIS HUMPHRIES: You no criticize Humphries’ decorating. You lost that right. Me had friend help find you. Shifty man’s college coach.
PETE CARROLL: I am SOOOOO HORMONAL right now! Where is Reggie Bush?
REGGIE: Oh man, he is crazy when he is like this. And what did you ever see in that Humphries guy?
KIM: You, him: in summer and fall of 2011, I was into guys with zero wins. We better escape. Kris is shaking the frame of the building, and Carroll is injecting testosterone between his toes.
REGGIE: I will get us out of here. It is a straight line to the emergency exit. Shift! Fake! Cut left! Cut right! Backtrack! Spin! Kim? Where did you go? How did you beat me to the exit?
KIM: Farewell, Reggie. Farewell, Kris. I am joining a convent.
REGGIE: Ahhh! I am being buried alive! Ahhh!
PETE CARROLL: Wow. Destroying this building and smothering Reggie Bush got it all out of my system. Stan, when will that NBA season get going?
KRIS HUMPHRIES: Any day now.
Let us now celebrate the Eagles tight end screen: the weapon of choice for making the Cowboys look extra silly on Sunday night.
|Figure 1: Celling the Celek Screen|
Figure 1 shows the Eagles facing second-and-7 with a 14-point lead in the second quarter. Everything is clicking for the Eagles offense, but they must remain wary of DeMarcus Ware (94), who already has one sack in the game, will have three more, and is a mismatch for any blocker the Eagles can throw at them. If Ware is going to go through you, you may as well go around him, which is Andy Reid’s plan for Brent Celek (87) on this play.
The blocking scheme on a tight end screen is critical; if the offense cannot get some linemen out to the second level, the tight end will not go anywhere. As shown, Jason Peters (71) and Evan Mathis (69) briefly double-team Jay Ratliff (90). The goal is to turn Ratliff inside, so he is out of Celek’s way. Mathis does an excellent job, and Peters is soon free to go downfield. Center Jason Kelce (62) takes Kenyon Coleman (99) to his right, allowing the defender to get well upfield. Kelce gets manhandled but does just enough to keep Coleman away from Michael Vick, allowing Danny Watkins (63) to go downfield as soon as the pass is thrown.
Celek has the hardest job: he must convincingly block Ware without getting clobbered, then slide inside for the pass. Ware knows that teams like to run screens on him, so not only does he blow Celek backward, but he ties him up, not shoving the tight end aside until he is close enough to Vick to make a play. Ware comes within inches of batting the screen away, but once he is out of the play, the Eagles have no one to worry about.
Downfield, Peters absolutely levels Keith Brooking (51), who probably should have read the screen a little more quickly. Brooking has no eligible receivers other than Celek in his zone and can clearly see Peters standing around for a split second, blocking no one, as if he is waiting for a reason to chug downfield. LeSean McCoy (25) helps Watkins with Bradie James (58). Most interestingly, the Cowboys safeties do not appear until Celek is well into the secondary. That is because they were rolling deep; the end zone camera shows one heading into the deep middle while the other races to DeSean Jackson’s side of the field. That’s one reason the Celek screen can be such an effective counterpunch for the Eagles: opponents cannot commit safeties to covering the short middle of the field. By the time the Cowboys converge and bring Celek down, he has gained 15 yards.
|Figure 2: No Harbor|
And who says it has to be a Celek screen? Figure 2 shows the start of the fourth quarter, just after Celek gained 15 yards on another short pass that was not technically a screen (it was a delay-release pass with no blockers going downfield). It is first down, and the Cowboys are expecting the Eagles to start milking clock, so they gamble with a cornerback blitz. The Eagles, lined up in a tight bunch to the right, appear to be running a "windback" counter play. All of the action, including the play-fake to McCoy, suggests a run to the right, while Clay Harbor (82) pulls behind the formation to "block" any backside pursuit and create a cutback lane. But Harbor is actually running a pass route.
What makes this play a screen and not some kind of waggle is that Peters, Mathis, and Watkins all block with an eye toward moving downfield. Also, Harbor sits down in his route. Ware is once again bamboozled: he assumes Habor has been sent to block him, so he sidesteps the very receiver he should be covering! Ware being Ware, he once again gets to Vick so quickly that the quarterback barely gets the pass off. Harbor catches the pass with no Cowboys near him and a wall of huge blockers in front of him.
Safety Gerald Sensabaugh (43) is not visible on the television tape. Since he was covering Jackson on the cornerback blitz, I put him as far downfield as possible in the diagram. As in the Celek screen, the Cowboys safety has the thankless job of rushing up from far away to try to clean up a play. This time, Sensabaugh gets to slam into Peters. Peters is penalty prone and can get beaten badly by top pass rushers, but he is a lot of fun to watch when blocking on screens. Harbor gains 12 yards on this play, and if you were not already in bed, this was the final signal that the Cowboys were not going to execute some miracle comeback.
These screens are a sign that the Eagles are more comfortable with their offensive line personnel than they were early in the year. Getting Peters back was a major boost, and Mathis is coming around at left guard. Kelce will probably have trouble all year, and Watkins has not shown very much yet, but the jailbreaks of the first few weeks should now be less common. The linemen now have their timing established, and Reid can trust them to release pass rushers and head downfield.
This is the Eagles offense we thought we would see early in the year: Jackson and Jeremy Maclin stretching the defense deep, McCoy, Celek, and a cast of thousands working the spaces in between. It is not quite perfect, but it is no longer brilliantly painful, and it should be a lot of fun to watch for the next few weeks.
I will be at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Monday, November 14, signing copies of The Philly Fan’s Code and talking about Philly sports.
The FLOP is located at 1901 Vine Street in Center City, right in the heart of everything. I go on at about 7:30 p.m., the event is free. I will probably dash out for a beer to watch the Monday night game afterward.
Speaking of beer, I will also be at The Field House bar, right next to the Reading Terminal Market, on December 1, during the Thursday night Eagles-Seahawks game. I will be signing books and maybe doing a little trivia during timeouts. It’s a great chance to have a beer, buy a book, and watch me slip into a Seahawks-induced coma.
Also, the Football Outsiders television takeover continues: sharp-eyed viewers may catch me on NBC Sportstalk on Wednesday nights on Versus. Check the Twitter feed to learn of my comings and goings.
While sifting through the all-time leader boards this week, I made an interesting discovery. Punting averages have gone up this year. Way up.
The current NFL gross punting average is 45.1, up from 43.4 in 2010 and 44.1 in 2009. Punting averages go down when the weather gets colder, so some settling is likely to take place in this year’s totals. They will probably wind up close to the 2009 or 2010 figures by season’s end.
But here’s the thing: those 2009 and 2010 numbers were extremely high compared to historic averages. As recently as 2004, the league gross average was 42.0 yards per kick. The average was 41.9 in 2000. The average hovered between 40.5 and 41.5 for most of the 1980s and 1990s. We have gained about 2.5 yards per punt in the last few years, which over the course of a season comes out to over 6,000 punting yards.
The effect is most pronounced when you look at the all-time punting leader boards. Eight of the ten career punting average leaders are currently active. Six of them are 30 years old or younger. Some of these punters will see their averages dip as they get older and their sample size increases. But all-time leader Shane Lechler is not likely to leave the top of the list anytime soon: he currently averages 52.2 yards per punt, and at 34, his career averages are going up, not down. The same goes for Cowboys punter Mat McBriar. He averaged 49.9 yards per punt entering Sunday night and is likely to post his highest career punting average at age 32. The trend toward higher punting grosses is lifting all boats and may be powerful enough to counteract the effect of aging.
Slide over to the all-time single-season lists, and you find that seven of the top-ten single-season averages are from 2011! Again, cold weather and larger samples are going to eliminate a few of those seasons. Take out our unfinished year, and Sammy Baugh still holds the all-time single season punting record with 51.4 yards per punt. Lechler, in 2009, is second. Donnie Jones in 2008 is third. Lechler in 2007 is fourth. Glenn Dobbs, from 1948, is fifth, followed by McBriar in 2008, followed by Yale Lary in 1963. Then Lechler, Baugh, Lary as if shuffling a deck, with McBriar and Dobbs poking their heads in again further down the list.
The culprit, I suspect, besides punters getting bigger and stronger and better trained, is that teams go for it on fourth down near midfield much more than they used to. The rise in punting averages appears to coincide with an increased understanding that fourth-and-1 from the opponent’s 46-yard line is really a go-for-it down. In the mid 1980s, the only coach who would regularly go for it in that situation was Bill Parcells; it was considered automatic punting territory. Punts from around midfield are usually short pooch punts, and six or seven of them per year for each player probably brought averages down, on aggregate, by perhaps a yard.
Proving that a reduction in pooch punts has had that great an impact on the increase in gross averages is tricky. It is the type of dig-deep research better done in mid-February. As a percentage of plays, punts have held steady in recent years. In 2010, teams punted once every 13.1 offensive plays. In 2004, they punted every 12.7 plays. In 1988, when the gross punting average was 40.6 and going for it on fourth down was an emergency-only strategy for nearly every coach, teams punted every 13.1 offensive plays. There are many variables that affect the number of plays per punt, starting with offensive levels. Trying to tease a specific situation -– a punter tapping a 28-yarder into the coffin corner five times per season in 1991 but only once in 2011 –- from the raw totals is probably impossible.
Looking at touchback and inside-the-20 totals is also dicey. You would figure that fewer kicks from the midfield range would mean fewer touchbacks and inside-the-20 situations. Unfortunately, it is hard to find any truth in the statistical noise. Jeff Feagles had 40 punts land inside the 20 or for touchbacks for the 1991 Eagles, in 87 attempts. In 2009, he had 25 touchbacks/inside-the-20’s in 64 punts. As a percentage, his number of "near the end zone" kicks went up significantly, not down. Select other punters and other years, and you get less pronounced or contradictory results. If fourth-and-short strategies are affecting punting averages, the effect is very hard to diffuse among teams, years, and punters.
Whatever the causes, we now see a roller coaster pattern in the all-time punting leader boards. For decades, Baugh and Dobbs were at the top of the lists, their 1940s records unassailable. Punting was a little different back then: players like Dobbs were both punters and return men, and directional punting plus slower return men equaled a lot of long, rolling punts. The effect of rolling punts is sometimes overstated to explain away Baugh’s punting record: only a handful of punters could do what he and Dobbs (an AAFC all-purpose player with a short-but-fascinating career) did in the 1940s, so every punt was not rolling through the mud while a slow-footed quarterback/safety chased it. But the standardization of punting and return strategies and techniques shaved away the outliers over the years, locking gross averages in place from about the merger until five or six years ago. By Baugh’s era, the strategy of punting on early downs had all but disappeared. The punter/return man disappeared around Yale Lary’s era, in the mid 1960s. The specialist punter (or kicker-punter at least) joined the fast, professionalized return man to create a balance: the punt went around 42 yards, the return about eight yards, for decades.
Now, the balance is off by almost three yards. A two-to-three yard per play change, against the backdrop of NFL history, is a big deal. It is a sign that the game itself is changing, in a quiet way that many people may not be noticing.
41 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2011, 4:17pm by alaano