September 26, 2016

What Happens to a Position Deferred?

By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day

Monday’s trade of Deion Branch to the Seahawks to a chapter of Patriots lore that will shine positive light on neither Branch nor Patriots management; while Branch got what he wanted, he was vilified in the process, while Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli’s initial requests of multiple high-level draft picks ended up becoming a #1 pick from a team sure to make one of the final selections of that round. While I’ve already presented a case for Branch becoming an elite receiver in a previous column, what this week’s column will analyze is the situation that the Patriots have gotten themselves into: what happens when a team loses two receivers the caliber of Deion Branch and David Givens?

Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic is based on play-by-play data which, unfortunately, has only been processed at the time of writing up till 1996. As a result, this study will be looking at two other statistics: receptions and fantasy points. While the former is familiar, the latter may not be for some readers. Fantasy points (or FP) are, simply, a measure of a player’s performance in standard fantasy football leagues. It’s calculated, for wide receivers, by dividing receiving yards by ten and multiplying receiving touchdowns by six, and then adding the two figures. The reason I’m using it is just to have a simple metric that includes both receiving yards and touchdowns.

Again using the trusty data available at pro-football-reference.com, I compiled a database with the season statistics of every receiver since 1976 (the year of the first post-merger expansion). I tracked player movement at wide receivers across each of the seasons to determine which teams had lost receivers over time. I also calculated each players’ ranking in receptions and FP for each season and for each team season. While the ranking system is slightly biased towards older teams (in that the 40th best receiver in 1976 is actually slightly worse than the 40th best receiver in 2005, considering the extra teams that have come into existence since then), it didn’t present a problem in the data and I feel that the results represent what we were looking for: teams that lost two quality wide receivers at once.

Deion Branch and David Givens finished off their Patriot careers with very solid seasons in 2005. Branch finished 14th in receptions and 22nd in Fantasy Points, while Givens was 34th and 42nd, respectively. My first attempt was to find teams that had lost two players of comparable performance in one offseason. As you might imagine, such an incident was pretty rare — in fact, it happened all of two times in the 29 seasons that were tracked, with both receptions and FP. The two teams were:

* 1993/1994 Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons are a team who, while they lost two receivers that offseason, still had Andre Rison, their #1 receiver at the time. The Falcons’ Run & Shoot offense produced numbers that were simply so good that their #2 and #3 receivers put up numbers worthy of Branch and Givens. Mike Pritchard was 11th in catches and 12th in FP, while Michael Haynes was 12th and 31st, respectively. Pritchard and Haynes went to enjoy successful seasons elsewhere in 1994, while the Falcons acquired Terence Mathis from the Jets and Ricky Sanders from the Redskins to replace them. Sanders had 67 catches in his final NFL season, while Mathis went from a 24 catch season in 1993 to 111 catches (and 1,342 yards) in 1994, supplanting Bad Moon as the team’s #1 receiver. Ah, the Run & Shoot. This team’s move and link to the Patriots’ is tenuous at best, in that they seem to both share a mindset of wide receivers not being particularly important.

* 2001/2002 Green Bay Packers: Now, the 2001 Packers have slightly more in common with the Patriots’. Like the Patriots, they won a Wild Card game at home before losing a Divisional Playoff game on the road. The Packers had 32 passing touchdowns and 11 rushing touchdowns; the Patriots, 28 passing touchdowns and 16 rushing touchdowns. Both their quarterbacks completed over 60% of their passes and had one rushing touchdown. OK, maybe the last stat doesn’t mean much. The point is that, while they’re not the same team, they have much more in common than the Patriots and ’93 Falcons do.

What the Packers did was jettison two wide receivers whose value to the Packers didn’t match what the players perceived to be their market value, in much the same vein that the Patriots rid themselves of Branch and Givens. Antonio Freeman, who had signed a deal with a $10 million signing bonus and who was earning in excess of, ironically enough, $6 million a season, was released for salary cap reasons. Bill Schroeder simply wasn’t resigned once his contract ran out (what a quaint concept!), and went off to an ill-fated run with the Lions. In fact, the Packers even lost Corey Bradford, their #3 wide receiver, to the Texans in the Expansion Draft. (Furthermore, Bradford’s Wikipedia page mentions that he “…also flipped off and beat up a ice cream man”, which I can neither confirm nor deny). The Packers’ leader in receptions for the season was Ahman Green, who had 62 in 2001, but without significant yardage or touchdown totals. While TE Bubba Franks chipped in with nine touchdowns, Freeman and Schroeder were the top options in an offense that spread the ball out to multiple receivers effectively. I’ve heard that one before.

In 2002, the Packers replaced their production with that of several players. Bubba Franks caught 54 passes, up from 36 a year earlier, while Ahman Green maintained his level of production from the previous season. Donald Driver took over the lead role in the offense from Freeman, catching 70 passes for 1064 yards and 9 touchdowns, a huge leap from his performance in the previous three seasons, but commensurate with an increase in playing time and balls thrown in his direction. Driver caught 68% of the passes that were thrown to him in 2001, and that number actually decreased to 59% in 2002. Meanwhile, Terry Glenn stepped in as the #2 receiver, catching 56 passes, an increase on Schroeder’s 53 and Freeman’s 52 the year before.

Now, at this point, you’re probably asking how the teams did after putting the wide receiver position through the wash cycle. Well, that’s where the fun begins. Note that the Y0 season listed below is that with the two receivers on their roster, while the Y+1 season is the first season the team was without them. The rank listed is their rank within the league for points scored, while PF is the abbreviation for “Points For”.

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These two teams’ both scored more points after losing their wide receivers than they did with them! The offensive rank, a perhaps more accurate measure though, did decrease slightly. Maybe most importantly, though, Atlanta won one more game (they were sadly still stinky), while Green Bay maintained their win-loss record. While the sample of two teams is undoubtedly too small to draw any significant conclusion from, it’s interesting that both teams were able to replace the production from their two stud wide receivers without skipping a beat.

The next question that I wanted to look at was a question more concerned with teams who’d lost their wide receivers as opposed to the inherent quality of those receivers. The query was simple: teams who lost their top two wide receivers (measured by either receptions or FP, which almost always coincides on a team level) over the course of a single offseason.

This yielded 20 teams who had suffered such a fate, 18 losing their top two receivers by reception and/or FP, and two more who lost their top two solely based upon Fantasy Points. These teams had very little in common: some lost their only two wide receivers of any real merit, while others lost two in a deep WR corps. Some were among the better offenses in the league, while others weren’t brilliant. You get the idea. The numbers for those twenty teams are listed below. The “New Coach” column simply denotes teams who changed head coaches either during the first of or in-between the two seasons — naturally, new coaches who come in are more likely to shift the deck chairs around a little bit. Also, note that the averages of wins and losses may not add up to 16 games due to rounding.

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I can’t remember why I bolded those two Cleveland lines for — oh — maybe it was the coach. Some Belichick guy. That’s right — something I’d forgotten about — Bill Belichick has done this before. In 1991, he let Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne leave (it was also Bernie Kosar’s final season as a full-time starter) as part of his rebuilding project in Cleveland. Langhorne was 26, while Slaughter was 27. Branch left the team at 26, Givens 25. He replaced them by restoring Michael Jackson to a role of prominence within the offense — he led the Browns with 44 catches and 9 scores in 1992. He also restored an injured Eric Metcalf to the starting lineup, and the hybrid RB/WR responded with 47 catches. Lawyer Tillman, meanwhile, came back after three years of inactivity to catch 25 passes. No other WR caught more than five balls, including a green rookie by the name of Keenan McCardell. While the team’s offensive performance dropped from 16th to 20th in the league, they did win one more game than they had previously; their defense improved from 14th to 10th. The Browns’ offense under Belichick never reached higher than 11th — when it did in 1994, it was joined by a first-ranked defense and was Belicheck’s only playoff appearance as Browns coach. The second time around, Belicheck’s wide receivers were let go by Ted Marchibroda. McCardell and Andre Rison were replaced by a resurgent Jackson (who had a career year with 14 touchdowns) and backup Derrick Alexander on the way to a sixth-ranked offense…and a 4-12 record.

Belichick’s past aside, the study revealed some interesting results. The teams, as a whole, perform slightly worse – three-tenths of a win – than they did with their two old wide receivers. That being said, their offensive rank actually improves, on average, from 21st to 19th. This was very surprising to me.

Since a 2-14 Buffalo team getting rid of their wide receivers doesn’t really have much in common with the Patriots, I also computed the average performance of those teams who had winning records (none of the teams who changed coaches had a winning record and therefore, are irrelevant to the discussion). In this, the drop in record was twice as pronounced — teams lost eight-tenths of a win. However, some of this is due to what Bill James’ calls the Plexiglass Principle: the idea that the performance of all teams regresses to the mean over a large enough period of time. While I don’t have the data available at the time of writing, this intuitively makes sense: not many fourteen-win teams win that many games the next season, while not many two-win teams (the putrid ’84-’85 Bills aside) remain so awful. An eleven-win team (by rounding) becoming a ten-win team the season after is, obviously, not out of the ordinary by any means. With only five teams of data to look at, the sample isn’t particularly large either. What’s more interesting, to me at least, is that these teams’ offenses improved by almost four spots the year after they got rid of their top two wide receivers, an even bigger improvement than when you include the teams that were mediocre at best all around.

What the past shows us here is that getting rid of your top two wide receivers, even if they’re as good as Deion Branch and David Givens, is no death wish. That’s not to say that the Patriots won’t suffer — judging from their Week 1 performance, the receiving corps still has a ways to go — but if the Patriots’ offense ends up coming close to or even exceeding its performance of a year ago, well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

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