FNQB: Receiver Combinations and How to make Passing Games Work
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For today’s Friday Night Quarterback (on of course, Saturday Afternoon), I’ll address which receiver combinations make passing games work, and which promote mediocrity and struggle. The hardest part of this exercise will be to separate the role of the quarterback from the role of the receivers. Defining successful isn’t hard, you can just look back about five years, look at the type of team that is at or near the top of the league and make them category no. 1, and then take all other teams that don’t ever threaten to break into that elite category, and make them group no. 2.
First, it’s necessary to establish that the optimal passing structure in the NFL today is to send four players out and keep an extra blocker in to protect the quarterback against exotic blitzes. In the spectrum of NFL offense today, this is a fairly conservative, if popular, tactic. Usually, teams are willing to adjust by getting five players involved in route patterns if at halftime, their adjustments dictate this. But for the most part, quality passing teams have four full time targets they throw to in order to maximize offensive potential. Teams that are rush-heavy sometimes rely on far fewer targets and a play action passing, but the vast majority of successful passing offense, in today’s game relies on an arsenal of playmaking WRs.
I went through the last five years of great receiving units, and tried to find patterns and trends that lead to teams holding onto their elite offense from season to season, while simultaneously looking for patterns in teams that dropped out from the elite. Sometimes, teams who were elite fell out of prominence and would return in recent seasons (Denver or Dallas), while others have not found a fix to the passing game they were once known for (Seattle or Cincinnati), and mixed in with these groups are the one time wonders (Philadelphia, Arizona, Carolina, Kansas City, Miami, Jacksonville, Atlanta and Minnesota). However, it’s probably best to start with the teams that feature consistently strong passing attacks.
The best of the best of passing games over the last five years are the San Diego Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, and Pittsburgh Steelers. And to this list, I feel it’s prudent to add the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans and New York Giants as teams who really make a living throwing the football as opposed to running it. That’s a eight team sample to give us the baseline for well-constructed receiving corps in a modern NFL passing game. There are other very good examples, but for various reasons, it’s this quarter of the league that I would prefer to model a passing game off of.
There is two distinct and different philosophies at work here when it comes to building a cast of receivers. The first type is the match-up based philosophy, and typically, this approach involves teams working to build an arsenal of weapons that can dictate for the quarterback where he can throw the football based on the coverage. Teams that employ a match-up based philsophy often have two receivers: 1 and 1a who are among the top 20 at their position, and then use those players in creative formations to dictate coverage, and isolate weaker coverage players one on one against other players on the offense. The Packers do this with Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, both no. 1 types, and then have used their TE in “flexed” position to take on smaller safeties in jump ball situations. When the Bengals had a top-level passing attack between 2005 and 2007, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad JohnsonOchoCinco were the 1 and 1a targets, which allowed Chris Henry, Reggie Kelly, and Kenny Watson to take advantage of the weaker coverage players. With the decline of OchoCinco and the departure of Housmandzadeh, the Bengals struggled through 2008, and came out a different team altogether while making a 2009 playoff run.
The alternative to this is to have one go-to superstar, and to invest in complementary parts for the star. This is how Houston does it, and how Indianapolis has re-invented their offense in the wake of Marvin Harrison’s retirement. I would argue that this is how New England is built to win, although, they run a disproportionate part of their offense threw Wes Welker. But Welker would be far easier to defense without Moss out there on the outside, thus, Welker is best defined as Moss’ complement.
What’s interesting is this: more than half of the NFL is represented in having been within the elite passing offenses within the past five years (if only for a fleeting moment). Some teams, such as Denver/Philly/Jacksonville/Miami have done it largely without a lot of help from their receivers. Most teams, though, have a strong receiving corps that produces from year to year. The teams that have those strong receivers can sometimes even survive a change at the QB position (Green Bay), and those who can keep the passing game together, quarterbacks, receivers, and blockers can sustain NFL offense at it’s highest level. What I’m going to focus on is the predictive trends of this research.
I did not find one method of pass-game building to be significantly more sustainable or productive than the other method. However, one of the things I did discover was that teams that built their passing game around a few targets–and were successful (at least temporarily)–also had a tendency to not sustain. The teams who fell the furthest were the teams who were most dependant on one or two players to carry their passing offense, particularly if one or both of those players were aging.
Two teams that really stood out in 2008 as teams that had only two contributors to their passing game were the Falcons and Panthers. Roddy White and Steve Smith were among the best receivers in the league that year, and Michael Jenkins and Mushin Muhammad had excellent complementary years. Neither was a factor for their teams in 2009, and despite the effort to acquire alternative talents (Tony Gonzalez was traded to Atlanta for a 2nd round pick), the decline in the passing attack killed the playoff hopes of both teams.
Going back even further shows us that the 2006 Eagles and the 2005 Steelers suffered from some of the same effects. That Eagles passing game was built around Brian Westbrook and Donte Stallworth with a contribution from Reggie Brown. That wasn’t very deep, and even though Brian Westbrook only got better in 2007, the Eagles just couldn’t generate a consistent passing game, and missed the postseason. While the Steelers won the super bowl in 2005, Hines Ward and a rookie by the name of Heath Miller were the only targets that the Steelers used for the young Ben Roethlisberger, and drafting Santonio Holmes in the next draft couldn’t immediately get the Steelers back to the playoffs.
Obviously, there’s a sample size issue here. To be an elite passing attack, and also to have a dearth of weapons at key positions (even if it’s a star, or pair of stars, with no depth), it’s not a common combination. But we know that some teams need an elite passing attack to make the postseason, and it’s certainly a trend that teams will get thinner in terms of offensive depth before they get weaker in terms of production.
What does this mean for some of the elite passing units in 2009? Well, the teams with great offensive depth such as Houston and Pittsburgh should get even better in 2009. If the Giants can fix some leaky protection issues, Eli Manning should grow with his receivers–clearly an excellent, young group–and they should reach elite levels. The Vikings, pending the health of weapons like Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, and Vicante Shiancoe, should be back at the top of the league again, and the Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers are of course going to remain the standard by which NFL passing games are judged.
There are a few teams who might be in trouble with their passing games in 2010. The Green Bay Packers have invested many high draft picks in their receiving corps, but are still highly dependant on 35 year old Donald Driver to be a no. 1 type who can take the pressure off of 1a type Greg Jennings. Without a vast improvement from either Jordy Nelson or James Jones, defenses might be able to get away with single coverage on Driver, and putting the heat on Aaron Rodgers.
However, serious issues might be sitting just under the surface of two offensive landscapes where the future looks rosy. For the Dallas Cowboys, 2009 proved that their offense could reach levels without Terrell Owens that it could never reach with him. The key to everything was an undrafted receiver from Monmouth (NJ), Miles Austin. Austin’s emergence, combined with Jason Witten’s consistent greatness, made slot receiver Patrick Crayton a legitimate, productive target in the offense, and made Roy Williams’ lack of production tolerable. But Austin, who came from the depths of the depth chart in 2009, needs to prove he’s capable of sustaining his attention to detail…while he is getting all the attention from the defense. If Austin can’t be as awesome as he was in 2009, and some decline is to be expected, then Crayton will likely fade into the background as well.
Witten is always going to be there and be productive, but the pay hierarchy of Dallas receivers does dictate that Roy Williams is always going to be lurking to steal some reps from Austin, but the Cowboys have been built as a complementary offense since 2007, and one of the biggest problems in 2008 (and the start of 2009) is that the receivers getting a majority of the looks weren’t getting the job done. In 2010, that could again be a reality for the Cowboys one way or another.
For the New England Patriots though, having Tom Brady at the controls of an offense that fails to produce elite results with the pass is nearly unfathomable. Yet, when you look at the depth of the players on that offense, it appears that these notions could be reality as soon as 2010. It’s a bad situation there with Wes Welker coming off serious knee surgery, and Randy Moss’ age becoming a limiting factor that make his two years with the Raiders look like just a small blemish. Ben Watson has been the cover two buster on the Patriots for the last four seasons, but he’s departed now for the Cleveland Browns, and the Patriots have only Alge Crumpler on the roster with starting experience. Tom Brady is excellent at throwing interior seam routes so you’d figure the Pats will find someone to handle this mantle, but since 2007, the Patriots have weakened considerably. This unit once had more quality targets than they were allowed to play with at once. Right now, they are just Moss*, Welker*, and whatever the heck Kevin Faulk can give them at age 34. And with multiple asterisks in that group, even Tom Brady himself might not keep the Patriots among the league’s best passing teams in 2010.
Getting your offense to the next level
Teams that want to build a downfield offense through their receivers need to work on getting that one player that can make a difference before they concern themselves with getting a second player. The complementary player is an odd phenomenon. They can be among the most useful players in all of pro football, and sometime among the least replaceable, but if there isn’t a guy on the other side that can make big plays in all areas of the field, defenses are often athletic enough to take away even the best complementarty players.
The most successful passing offenses that have failed to reach an elite level, I would say, have been the Titans and the Ravens, and I believe each team’s lack of a strong receiving structure has been what has prevented them from getting to the top. Derrick Mason has had great years in Baltimore for Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco over the last three years, but a strong receiving corps he can not make by himself. The last four years, the Titans have had four different receivers lead the team in targets: Drew Bennett, Roydell Williams, Justin McCariens, and Nate Washington, with none of the above leading the team in receiving value (DYAR), the hallmark of a poor receiving structure.
So who’s next? What long dormant offense will most likely join the ranks of the elite over the next few years? The receiver structure of the Bears and the Lions are as deep as it’s ever been in either teams’ history. The Bears are hoping to develop a true no. 1 receiver, and the organization thinks that second year player Johnny Knox can fill the role. If Knox can be the guy who catches 80 balls a year for 1,200 yards and a bunch of long TDs, as many think he can be, the Bears already have the complementary parts in place: Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, and Devin Aromashadu.
For the Lions the issue of who the number one guy will be is a lot more clear: Calvin Johnson was drafted in 2007 to be the guy that none of teh top ten group of: Roy Williams, Mike Williams, or Charles Rogers could become. And the team’s call to sign Nate Burleson signals a change in philosophy from the Millen days of trying to have multiple number one type targets. Combined wih 2009 draft choices Brandon Pettigrew and Derrick Williams, the Lions are both deep and strong at receiver, so long as Calvin Johnson can be the player the Lions feel he can. One more team to keep an eye on in the future is the 49ers, but they’ll need Michael Crabtree to arrive before they can reap the benefits of a top passing game.
Internal development and external scouting are the two most direct ways that teams can develop their own receiving corps, but once a strong set of wideouts is obtained, it’s even more critical that teams do what is necessary to keep the unit stocked with young talent and productive. When you consider that teams can go longer than a decade without lucking into a strong wide receiver, you can understand why these skilled athletes are among the highest paid in the NFL, even when the amount of times that one receiver touches a football in a game is, honestly, quite limited.