|Posted by Ryan on May 17, 2012 at 2:50 PM|
Every now and then, due to my never ending thirst for football knowledge and inspiration (especially during the oftentimes slow off-season), I come across an article or a website that ends up being just what the doctor ordered. Such is the case today, where I found an article on www.FootballOutsiders.com which gives a divisional breakdown of each team’s post-draft ‘needs’. Football Outsiders, for those of you unfamiliar, is a great resource for hard-core NFL fans who want a statistical analysis of their teams and/or favorite players. I can’t possibly do what it is that they do justice in this post, so you’ll just have to check out the site and snoop around to get a better sense of the sheer wizardry of player evaluation they do over there.
Like most NFL observers, from ardent draftniks and professional analysts to the most uninformed mouth-breathers in the land, if you ask anyone what the Cleveland Browns still need following a draft where they came away with the best Running Back prospect in years and what could finally be the answer Clevelanders have been looking for at the Quarterback position, they will essentially say “The Browns still need a Wide Receiver”. And while I have argued vehemently, mainly via podcast, that the Browns current group of receivers, alongside the addition of 4th round pick Travis Benjamin and possible undrafted Free Agents such as Josh Cooper and Bert Reed, will be remarkably improved, I understand it all means little until it shows up on Sundays.
It is the purpose of this post to present both sides of the argument, through statistics and a heavy dose of common football sense, so that everyone can make up their minds for themselves, even if you think you have already made up your mind when it comes to the complicated chicken/egg debate that is the Browns Receiving Corps. Without further ado, let’s begin with some data-based research.
According to Football Outsiders, the concerns about the Browns receiving corps are, at least for the time being, warranted. And while the guys at FBO are “wicked smaht” in the areas of statistical analysis, unlike many of the aforementioned mouth-breathers, they also know what they do not know. Before breaking down their rankings for Wide Receivers, they offer up this nugget of truth for consumption: We cannot yet fully separate the performance of a receiver from the performance of his quarterback. Be aware that one will affect the other. That, in itself, is the crux of my rebuttal against those who insist on slamming our current group of wide outs; a necessary caveat when you consider the following statistics. According to the article by FB Outsider Danny Tuccitto, “Last season, Cleveland had three or more wide outs on the field 52 percent of the time, which was 12th-most in the NFL, and those three receivers were almost always Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi, and Josh Cribbs. According to our metrics, Cribbs was the most valuable of the group, but he only ranked 42nd in the NFL. As for Little and Massaquoi, they ranked 85th and 88th, respectively -- out of 92 qualifying wide outs.”
Now, before we demand that Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi be tarred and feathered in Public Square, let’s look at what they mean by “metrics” and “qualifying wide outs”. Metrics is a fancy name for calculations based on statistics. For example, when calculating a Wide Receiver’s metrics, FBO says Wide receivers are ranked according to DYAR, or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the performance on plays where this WR caught the ball, compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. The other statistic given is DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. This number represents value, per play, over an average WR in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Got all that? As for “qualifying wide outs”, FBO compared the DYAR and DVOA for 92 Receivers with 50 Catches or More. Cribbs, Little and Massaquoi all qualified in this group while late-bloomer Jordan Norwood, the only other Browns receiver ranked, qualified for the 49 Catch and Under group.
To put these rankings in perspective, FBO graded Detroit WR Calvin Johnson as having a DYAR of 586 (Ranked #1) and a DVOA of 33.2% (Ranked #7). Next on the list was Green Bay WR Jordy Nelson with a DYAR of 530 (#2) and a DVOA of 54.1% (#1). To put that into common terms, in 2011, Calvin Johnson had 158 Passes Thrown To (PTT) for 1680 yards and 16 TDs while Jordy Nelson had 96 PTT for 1263 yards and 15 TDs. By comparison, Josh Cribbs had a DYAR of 134 (Ranked #42) and a DVOA of 12.6% (#26); or 67 PTT for 518 yards and 4 TDs. Greg Little had a DYAR of -60 (Ranked #85) and a DVOA of -18.8% (#84); or 120 PTT for 709 yards and 2 TDs. Mohamed Massaquoi had a DYAR of -69 (Ranked #88) and a DVOA of -24.7% (#87); or 74 PTT for 384 yards and 2 TDs. Additionally, Johnson had a Catch Rate of 61%, Nelson 71%, Cribbs 61%, Little 51% and Massaquoi brings up the rear with a lowly 42%.
So what does this all mean? Well, it’s basically a fancy way of telling us what we already knew. The Browns stable of Wide Receivers in 2011 definitely underperformed. What’s most remarkable to me is that Josh Cribbs, a Quarterback-turned-Returner-turned-Receiver, performed the best of the three. Greg Little, a Running Back-turned-Receiver-turned-Ineligible For His Senior Season, was second. And Mohamed Massaquoi, the only true Wide Receiver of this group, was four spots away from dead last in his 3rd year in the league, which is supposed to be when “the light comes on” for most NFL WRs. I don’t know what it all means, but for Massaquoi, it’s not confidence inspiring. Unfortunately, what these stats don’t tell us is why these guys performed the way they did. Was the fact that Calvin Johnson had 91 more passes thrown to him than Josh Cribbs did really Josh Cribbs’ fault? Was it the quarterback who threw the passes? Or was it the play-calling by the Head Coach, Pat Shurmur? We have no way of knowing for sure. And that brings us to the other side of the coin.
The answer usually lies somewhere in between where it can point at everyone involved. Maybe the reason our receivers underperformed is because they aren’t very good. Maybe the reason they underperformed is because the quarterback couldn’t make all the throws or the proper reads. Maybe the offensive line, in flux due to injury and inexperience, didn’t pass protect as well as they should have. Maybe the lack of a reliable running game allowed opposing defenses to shut down our one-dimensional offense. Maybe the NFL Lockout didn’t allow the personnel the proper time to build chemistry in an offense based on precision and timing. Maybe the Head Coach couldn’t call the plays he wanted to or was forced to operate from a limited playbook because of all the reasons above. The fact remains, the 2011 Cleveland Browns Offense, as a whole, performed at below-average levels all season long. This is no mystery. The mystery goes unsolved until September. Only then will we discover if the problem still exists in 2012.
Until then, Browns fans can take comfort in knowing that the Browns have addressed every facet of the issue in some way. By drafting Travis Benjamin, the Browns have added a super-speedy deep-threat Wide Receiver to the stable, which will hopefully draw coverage away from the others. By drafting Trent Richardson and a massive run-blocking Right Tackle in Mitchell Schwartz, the Browns will have a reliable, and possibly, downright frightening rushing attack to keep defenses honest. By drafting Brandon Weeden, the Browns might finally have a Quarterback who can make all the throws on a traditional NFL-caliber route tree, which will open up the playbook moreso than it had been before. By hiring Offensive Coordinator, Brad Childress, Head Coach Pat Shurmur will have help in installing the version of the West Coast Offense they collectively envision for the Cleveland Browns. And finally, perhaps having an off-season to coach the players and teach them the nuances of the system in non-truncated form, will allow the learning and timing that the West Coast Offense demands take place.
Therefore, in conclusion, while on one hand it may seem obvious that the Browns need to bring in another Wide Receiver to the mix, there is sufficient evidence to support the decision to stay the course with what they already have. In my opinion, bringing in another wide receiver is akin to placing a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Without the other aspects of the offense addressed, as they have been, it would do little to solve the larger problem. Bringing in a veteran now will only stunt the growth of the group by taking valuable reps away from the younger guys who clearly have some improving to do. This off-season, we have now finally built the foundation for a strong offensive identity. By letting the current situation play itself out, only then will we truly solve the mystery of the Browns Receiver Conundrum.
Further Reading Suggestions:
AFC North Biggest Post-Draft Needs by Football Outsiders