Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

13 Sep 2006

FO on BSMW: What Happens to a Position Deferred?

This week, the lens is on teams who lose their two top wide receivers, and how they perform after doing so; a trip that takes us back, strangely enough, to Bill Belichick's tenure in Cleveland.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 13 Sep 2006

20 comments, Last at 15 Sep 2006, 3:23pm by CaffeineMan


by Vern (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 12:07pm

Interesting calculation I did. If Doug Gabriel, Reche Caldwell, and Troy Brown do nothing more than what they did last year, and the Pats get a modest 25 receptions from rookie Chad Jackson and then guys like Childress or Smith cna combine in some mop up role to add another 16 total receptions. Then this WR squad will have produced 90% of what the 2004 vaunted Patriots WR core achieved (at least in terms of total receptions).

No need for TE Ben Watson to suddenly become a Gates or some dramatic shift in offensive style or anything else.

WRs to the Pats are like RBs to the Broncos.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 12:11pm

Interesting article. I really dislike that its basis is receptions and fantasy points, but whatever.

Anyone know what the average regression to the mean of teams with 11 wins? IE what the average 11 win team does the next year?

I'm REALLY starting to think that wide recievers are just as fungible as runningbacks.

Vern, the pats passed for 4100+ yards last year, and a lot of that was because the running game was awful. If the apparant resurgence of the running game isnt just smoke and mirrors, 3600 yards passing is more than enough to make them a VERY effective offence.

by admin :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 12:17pm

Obviously I can do this as a longer study, but there is a variable in the projection system for losing a big-time WR. Losing a Terrell Owens/Steve Smith-class receiver is a big negative. Losing a Deion Branch-class receiver, I'm not sure. David Givens/David Patten-class receivers probably are fungible.

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 12:32pm

A thought: I doubt many of the teams who lost those receivers realised as late as the Patriots did with Branch that they would have to do without the player in question. To me, the problem seems mostly to be that the replacements (Gabriel and Jackson) have not had anything like the time in training to contribute that much immediately, Jackson because of injury and Gabriel because he was acquired so late in the day. I suspect the impact over the first half of the season will be much greater than over the second, and the poor quality of the Patriot's opponents should ensure they qualify for the playoffs comfortably anyway. I'm not deviating from them as my pick for AFC champion because of this (though if the O-line and linebackers continue to have the kind of problems they appeared to at the weekend, that could be another story).

by MJK (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 12:42pm

Aaron brings up an important point that I tried to make, but that got lost in the Threads-that-shall-not-be-named parts II, III, and IV.

Losing a player at practically any non-special-teams position is a big deal if that player is an elite, game changer. RB is not fungible if your RB is Barry Sanders or Terrel Davis. WR is not if you're talking Jerry Rice or Randy Moss.

What it breaks down to is (1) did the missing player force other teams to change their gameplans significantly or pay the price (i.e. Steve Smith), and (2), was the missing player at least an average level starter? Losing an elite player hurts you a lot. Losing an average starter or starters hurts a little, if the replacements represent a talent dropoff, but the change can be gameplanned around.

That's why I don't see losing Branch and Givens as a tragedy. The offense will probably be weaker than it would have been with them, but it's strong enough in every other category and the lost players are not elite enough for it to represent a catastophe.

by sam_acw (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 12:44pm

There was definitely some linkage with the culpepper/moss thing.
I think the key is if a reciever is playing a role (even if they do it very well) or if they are unique like S.Smith or Moss.
As a QB it must be great to just toss the ball over by the sideline and have a good number of them caught!

by Kal (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 12:45pm

Another question (and suspicion) I have is that teams that do this will tend to do worse in the playoffs in the following immediate year; this goes with the idea that it takes a while to build up that chemistry between a QB and a receiver, and the playoffs will somewhat test that chemistry.

But yeah, this does definitely point to low to mid-range receivers being essentially fungible, and mid-to high receivers being slightly worse to lose. Good article. Thanks!

(I still think that given the relative inexperience and the actual receivers that the Pats have, WR performance will be down this year as a rule. However, this'll be offset by a better running game. Whether that helps out if their D sucks, I'm not quite sure)

by MJK (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 12:48pm

I'm suspecting that the Pats O-line and 'Backers will get better, barring injuries. The O-line problems were probably a game-speed communication thing--they have a rookie at RT, their C has been out of football (barring an abbreviated training camp) since the middle of last season due to injury, and their left tackle has played with their left guard and one of their TE's for all of about four games so far (because everyone was injured at different times last season). You saw the huge improvement from just the first to the second half. Linebacker will be better when Bruschi is in. Remember, they were missing their only Pro-bowl linebacker. Of course, they're one injury away from major linebacker problems, but I'm holding out hope in the fairness of the universe--after the injury woes the Pats have gone through the past two seasons, I'm thinking they deserve a relatively injury free season.

by MJK (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 12:53pm

A good running game does help out a bad D, because it allows the offense to control the ball and allows the defense to rest. I'm of the opinion that a lot of running yards correlate to wins not just because a team is running out the clock when ahead, but also because more running yards usually correlate to longer time of possession, which allows the D to be more rested and play better when they are on the field. Conversely, I think part of the reason defenses like KC, CIN, and IND have been so poor in recent years is that the teams in question have such potent offenses, especially passing attacks, and move the ball and score (or end their drives) so quickly (especially Indy, who runs no-huddle), that their defenses don't get enough rest and wear out by the end of the game.

by throughthelookingglass (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 1:50pm

does anyone know anything else about the ice cream man story

by Travis (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 2:01pm

Corey Bradford's Wikipedia page also says that he "crapped more than anyone else in the world," so I don't think the ice cream man story is true.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 2:09pm

but I’m holding out hope in the fairness of the universe

I'm dumbfounded that any Pats' fan (I'm assuming) would have the testicular fortitude to suggest that the universe owes them anything after the past half decade.

by Kal (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 2:16pm

A better running attack doesn't necessarily help Ds stay rested, any more than a passing attack does. What helps is a ball control attack, because it isn't the time of possession that matters, it is the number of plays run. The more plays run, the more tired a D can get. Less plays, better rested. Similar idea to pitchers and tracking how many pitches they've made, not how many innings they've pitched.

Good running games tend to help ball control because you tend to get yardage in shorter, more consistent increments instead of bang or bust. But the Pats already ran a ball control system in their passing game, so in that respect it's pretty much a wash.

by Smeghead (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 2:35pm

But 12, before the past decade, what did New England have then?

I mean, apart from 16 NBA titles in 30 years? And two other Super Bowl appearances? And four Stanley Cup finals runs since 1970? And I hear they waited on that World Series, but dagnabit if they didn't get one of those too.

It's a cold, cruel cosmos.

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 2:56pm

Thank God for Wikipedia.

I still get night tremors from the Lawyer Tillman experiment. My goodness, what a waste. He was the first guy I can remember a team saying "He's a big, slow wide receiver who's never blocked in his life - let's draft him high and convert him to tight end!" Ugh.

by MyrAn (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 3:49pm

Are there any stats for how a good running game vs. a good passing game vs. a balanced attack would influence the number of 3rd down sitations a team faces and then how long they are (and also the ensuing success rates)? I am also wondering about how the offensive rank in terms of points or DVOA is affected by that. The Patriots should certainly give a good sample as they were a passing team last year and have the looks of a power running team this year.

by Kevin11 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/13/2006 - 10:38pm

Re: fungibility of WRs.

In 2004 Terrell Owens was having an all-universe season for the Eagles until he was injured. In 2005...well, we all know what happened with Owens.

The Eagles went from the Super Bowl to last place. Yet some people would have you believe that losing Owens and the performance he brought to the table had nothing to do with it. Of course there were other factors, but at some point one has to admit that losing Owens was a terrible blow.

I have the feeling that if the 2006 Patriots struggle on offense and / or the passing game falters, some people will blame anything but the fact that the team is terribly weak at WR.

At the same time, if the passing game and offense do well, the "New England doesn't need top WRs" argument is quickly validated.

We'll see how it all pans out.

Also want to quickly point out that while NE hasn't spent a #1 draft pick on a WR since Terry Glenn, they've spent three second-round picks on WRs in the past five years:

2002: Deion Branch, recently traded.

2003: Bethel Johnson, recently traded.

2006: Chad Jackson

They traded up to grab Chad Jackson in the 2006 Draft (giving up their second and third round picks to do so), so obviously the team puts *some* stock in the position.

by Peter (not verified) :: Thu, 09/14/2006 - 1:45am

God, over/under on Pat's response to Kevin... half an hour.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Fri, 09/15/2006 - 11:08am

"In 2004 Terrell Owens was having an all-universe season for the Eagles until he was injured. In 2005…well, we all know what happened with Owens."

The eagles won the games where he was hurt. They didnt lose till he came back. (not that it really means anything, but its just as valid of an argument as yours.)

The decline was because McNabb went down, not TO.

In addition, Deion Branch is nowhere near the reciever that Terrel Owens is. My whole point is that yes, there are some really standout recievers, but once you get out of the top 15 or so, theres not much difference.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Fri, 09/15/2006 - 3:23pm

God, over/under on Pat’s response to Kevin… half an hour.

Ha ha. My money's on Andrew. :-}