The New Fun Bunch: By the Numbers

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Trying to pick out the wide-receivers that are going to make the team is one of the more fun activities of almost every NFL training camp. This year, however, the Redskins seem to already have their guys down pat. Personally, I'm excited about the prospects for each and every one of them.

A day after helping the Redskins edge a thrilling 22-21 comeback victory against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2 of 2011 NFL season, then starting QB Rex Grossman told reporters in his Monday afternoon press conference that he had the privilege of playing with "the best receiver corps in the NFL".

Today only Fred Davis and Santana Moss remain from that storied 2011 Redskin passing attack.  Looking back at that bold quote, it begs the question - what if Rexy wasn't just being a good teammate - what if he really meant what he said? More importantly, what if he was right  - what if we did have the best receivers in the league back then?

Was an elite quarterback the only missing part of the puzzle?  Did the franchise take major steps back since 2011, dropping players like Jabar Gaffney and Anthony Armstrong and adding players Pierre Garçon and Jordan Reed?

I'm sure all of you reading this are well aware that the answer to all of the questions in the above paragraph is a flat, capitalized ‘No'.  Still, for the sake of argument let's take a closer look at a couple numbers from the past two seasons and access.

Statistic 1.) Rex Grossman and John Beck combined to throw for 35 more first downs and 400 more total yards in 2011 than Redskin rookie sensations Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins threw for in 2012.

Question: So were the Redskins actually worse at passing in 2012 compared to 2011?

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: Efficiency metrics almost always triumph raw totals in data analysis, and nowhere does that ring more loudly true than when using numbers to look at passing attacks in the NFL.  The slightly higher passing numbers from the Skins in 2011 can be explained by one simple football truism: when you are behind, you tend to throw more and run less.

Not coincidentally, you also tend to have more turnovers and a lower completion percentage when you need to throw downfield to catch up on the scoreboard.  Low turnovers and an extremely high completion percentage have been, and should continue to be, hallmarks of a Robert Griffin lead East-Coast offense.

Statistic 2.) Jabbar Gaffney caught nearly 75% more first downs (50) in 2011 than any Redskin receiver did in 2012, (Josh Morgan caught 29).  Gaffney was one of three Redskin receivers in 2011 that caught 3 first downs or more per game (Gaffney, Fred Davis and Santana Moss).  No Redskin receiver accomplished that feat in 2012, (Pierre Garçon lead the team with 2.6 per game).

Question: Was Gaffney actually a stud that the Redskins were crazy to let go? Were the 2011 Redskin receiver corps with Gaffney a notch better than the 2012 edition without him?

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: The more weapons you add, the more diversified your attack.  Ask LeBron James and Dwayne Wade - that's a good thing, even if everyone's individual numbers are often brought down as a result.

These statistics are simply more proof that numbers in the NFL are more dependent on context than they are in any other major sport.

So when I examined every imaginable statistic from all of our pass-catchers over the past two seasons, I refrained from making broad comparative points. Instead, I sought to use the statistics to complement specific anecdotal moments from throughout last season in order to create a hopefully telling profile of each individual player.

Taking a step back, the overall numbers for each of these players testify to just how sharp our passing games was last season.  We had 5 receivers with 20 receptions or more that caught 65%+ of passes thrown their way - that's a ridiculous stat[1].

Even if none of our pass-catchers shined to their fullest potential statistically in our diversified passing-attack last year, this new fun bunch of players lead by a 6th round draft pick and a 5'9 12-year veteran excelled all the more brilliantly as a collective group.

***

Here I've ranked the key Redskins pass-catchers from most to least important (IMHO), using last season's statistics to highlight their individual strengths and offer a projection on how they might be used in the 2013 version of the offense.

[Qualification: Player rankings only consider pass-catchers w/ 20+ catches]

Pierre Garçon*

Promising Stats:

7.4 Yards-After-Catch average (1st on team),

2.6 1st downs per game (1st on team)

4.4 Receptions per (1st on team)

10 Receptions of 20-yard+ (1st-t on team)

14.4 Yards per Catch (1st on team)

Stats to Improve:

59.1% Catch-to-First down ratio (6th on team)

10/16 games played

65.7% Catch-Per-Target ratio (4th-t on team, which says a lot.)

(*Averages include injury-hampered games vs. ATL, @TMB, vs. PHI where Garçon had 16 targets, 7 catches, and 49 yards combined.)

You've heard the stat before, and it's a telling one: The Redskins went 9-1 in the regular season when Garçon suited-up - 1 and 5 when he didn't.

Garçon's power, low-center of gravity and quick first step allows Kyle Shanahan to keep defenses honest by frequently employing him in quick isolation bubbles screens. The play design is one of the simplest in the Redskins arsenal: get the ball to the outside, let #88 beat a corner to either side, and rack up a good chunk of yards.  For all intents and purposes, the bubble screen acts as a running play on 1st down, opening up the playbook for more running plays or - just as likely - aggressive strikes down field on 2nd and 3rd down.

Largely a result of these frequent bubble screens, only 59% of Garçon's catches went for first downs last season, the lowest such ratio on the team among those with 20 or more catches.  That number likely would have been higher had it not been for a toe injury that severely lessened his effectiveness from week 2 through week 10 last year.  From week 11 on, Garçon got his feet back underneath and averaged better than 80 yards per game.

Even with all his short catches (he caught 3 passes for 5 yards at home vs. Philadelphia), Garçon still managed to rack up 14.4 yards per catch (2nd on the team, only to homer-run-hitter Aldrick Robinson) a testament to his immense talent and athleticism.

First in almost every efficiency statistic on the team, Garçon's importance to the team is still much more than you will see on the stat sheet.  He adds a needed edge to the group.  Garçon backs up his incessant trash talking with DB's, by proving his physicality with strong-blocking and overall toughness.  Twice last season Garçon had critical red zone fumble recoveries to help the Redskins earn road wins @Tampa and @Cleveland.  Both times there was a crowd of players when the ball hit the ground.  Both times he got it and held on - beast.

Fred Davis

Promising Stats:

77.4% Catch-to-target ratio (1st on team)

71% Catch-to-1st-down ratio (1st on team)

5.8 Yards-after-Catch average (3rd on team)

3.4 Receptions per Game (2nd on team)

Stats to Improve:

7/16 Games Played

0 TDs

4 catches 20 yards+

Forgive the tangent, but one can't help but wonder how different the 2012 Redskins campaign might have been had the referees not conspired against us in the run up to 2012 Presidential Election.  Prior to the November 6th result, the incumbent had won or lost in conjunction with the Redskins's performance for something like 15 of the past 16 elections.  Don't tell me the powers at be weren't aware of the correlation.

In week 7 on the road against the New York Giants, Fred Davis had what would have been his first touchdown of the season taken off the board after he got called for an absolutely bogus illegal formation penalty.  Troy Aikman and Joe Buck commented on the broadcast that they themselves couldn't see any infraction.  This wasn't the only head-scratching call to go the Giants way that day.  Not in the least.  Making matters worse: The next play Davis tears his Achilles tendon and his out for the season.

(If I had all the tapes, I could point to literally a dozen ghost holding and pass-interference penalties called against the Redskins in the lead up to the election last year. Not to mention this travesty)

Now you could argue that the fact that Davis's unfortunate penalty and more unfortunate injury came on consecutive plays was purely a coincidence.  And you could argue that the referees - who are contracted by the admittedly conservative, if not officially registered Republican, NFL League Office - did not enact a secret agenda to thwart the Redskins in Weeks 2-9 of the 2012 season in an effort to jinx the 44th president from achieving reelection.

And you might have some strong arguments.  But that doesn't change the fact that Fred Davis is a beast and y'all are sleeping on him right now.

Josh Morgan

Promising Stats:

3.0 Receptions per Game (3rd on team)

4.9 Yards-after-Catch average (3rd on team)

16/16 Games Played

Stats to Improve:

64.6% Catch/1st-or-TD ratio (5th on team)

4.2% Catch-to-TD ratio (5th on team - last among WRs)

10.6 Yards per catch (7th on team - last among those w/ 20+ catches)

Lambasted in the Redskins community for a knuckle head after-the-whistle push that likely cost us a road win @St. Louis, Josh Morgan was quietly (very quietly) the Redskins most reliable downfield target last season. Not the fastest or the tallest on our squad, the DC native has long, lean arms and can catch the ball well away from his body and in traffic. Despite not having very many explosive plays (only 4 catches of 20+ yards and only 2 TD's), Morgan's reliable grip was key in keeping the Redskins chugging along down field.  He ended the season with 29 first down catches- most on the team.

Leonard Hankerson:

Promising Stats:

73.7% Catch-to-1st-or-TD ratio (2rd on team)

8 Catches 20+ yards (3rd on team)

14.3 Yards per Catch (2nd on team)

Stats to Improve:

4.1 Yards-after-Catch Average (5th on team)

2.4 Receptions per Game (5th on team)

1.6 First Downs per Game (5th on team)

Almost the opposite of Morgan (who is probably his most direct competitor for playing time and targets this season) Hankerson didn't have too many catches, but seemed to maximize his impact when he was targeted, catching 67% of balls thrown his way and securing a first down or scoring a touchdown on 74% of those catches.

Santana Moss

Promising Stats:

82.9% Catch-to-1st-or-TD ratio (1st on team - if not in the league among receivers w/ 20+ catches)

8 TDs (1st on team)

10 Receptions of 20-yard+ (1st-t on team)

5.98 Yards-After-Catch average (2nd on team)

Stats to Improve:

2.56 Receptions per Game (4th on team)

2 Fumbles (1st on team (among receivers)

Call him old at your own peril.  The slight, 12 year-veteran looks to defy his detractors yet again this season, as he will vie for playing time against much younger and bigger teammates.

By mid-season last year, I had dubbed Moss ‘Mr. Third Down'.  That was because time after time, Moss had shown up huge, relieving blitz pressure for Robert Griffin III by finding small holes in opposing defenses in the tightest situations.  A perfect example of this ability of his was on the road against the Steelers, when all his teammates had been dropping ball after ball.  The Redskins faced a fourth and goal from the one and sure enough Moss caught a bullet from Griffin, hanging on for the score while being sandwiched by two Steelers.

Again, it's almost the same story line this year as it was last training camp, when Moss had dropped 10-15 pounds in the offseason to prepare to slide into the slot position.  Some thought the coaching staff was throwing him a bone by keeping him around.  By year's end, he made all those who thought the former All-pro bowler wouldn't or shouldn't make the team appear very, very dumb and short-sighted.

That doesn't mean that those bearish on Moss won't end up being right this year.  Maybe this will be the year father time catches up with #89.

Even if he is the same player he has always been, run-blocking from the wide-receivers positions is becoming more and more crucial in this new-look offense.  And he is inarguably at a distinct disadvantage in that category when compared with younger, bigger receivers.  Also, I've heard (from a reliable source) that Leo Hankerson's under-rated speed and first cut-ability is making the coaching staff consider putting him - and not Moss - into the slot role this year.  If that is the case - and Morgan and Garçon retain their starting positions - it might be tough for Moss to get as many snaps as his legions of fans would hope.

Aldrick Robinson (Rankings N/A due to small sample size)

Promising Stats:

21.5 Yards-per-Catch

3 TDs

100% Catch-to-1st-or-TD ratio

Stats to Improve:

11 Receptions

58% Catch-to-Target Ratio

.53 1st downs per game

This man is so fast, I heard Robert Griffin III overthrew him once.  Once.

Look out for Robinson on turf this season @Minnesota and @Atlanta

Logan Paulsen

Promising Stats

68% Catch-to-Target ratio (2nd on team)

72% Catch-to-1st-or-TD ratio (3rd on team)

16/16 Games Played

Stats to Improve:

1.56 Receptions per Game (6th on team)

1 TD (5th on team)

1.06 1st downs per game (6th on team)

I ordered these pass-catchers by their importance to the Redskins passing-attack, not necessarily their importance to the team.  Paulsen's blocking is his biggest strength.  And the Lumberjack will make his biggest impact quietly this season, opening up lanes on running-downs for Alfred Morris and RG3.

That doesn't mean he won't catch his fair share of balls this year.  A play-action play-caller's dream, Paulsen's size and solid blocking technique make him a de facto sixth lineman when he's in.  He's somebody that linebackers have to muscle up to battle, but still have to respect in the passing game lest he slip by them and break out.

Soon after the season ended last year, Coach Shanahan reminded of Paulsen's tough 3rd down grab in traffic to extend the Redskins first scoring drive against the Cowboys in Week 17 - pointing it out as was one of the biggest plays of the season.  (And also as the type of play the team needed to make more of to extend drives against Seattle in the Wild Card round).  Paulsen's huge grab showed that he can excel on the biggest stage - that bodes well for him earning extended playing time in the future.

***

Once upon a time there were a group of guys who were known as the fun bunch.  They played football together for the Redskins in the late 70's and early 80's.  They won Super Bowls.  Although a few of them were undersized and none of them fit the bill as the proto-typical stud #1 wide-out, they all supported each other - and you guessed it - all had fun.  Three members of the group were chosen at some point in their Redskins careers to represent their conference in the pro bowl - and leader of the pack, Art Monk was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of fame.  Regardless, we don't remember any of the individual accolades of the group as much as we remember their collective impact on the direction of the franchise.  We remember the group high five and them falling down in the end-zone.

Let's hope this squad will adopt a similarly self-less demeanor - and winning way.



[1] For comparison, the Ravens (with a much different passing philosophy) had only one non-running back catch 65%+ of passes in which he was targeted (Dennis Pita).  The 49ers (with a much more similar passing scheme) had only three non-running backs accomplish the feat.

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