By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day
Chris Chambers, for some reason, has developed a reputation that he is a elite wide receiver waiting to break out, a player held back solely by poor quarterbacks and lack of support across from him. Brandon Funston, when talking about the Daunte Culpepper trade, wrote, “First and foremost, [Culpepper] inherits one of the most talented receivers in the league in Chris Chambers, a player that can make tough, acrobatic catches in traffic and has a knack for the goal line. His skills work well in a vertical passing game and he’s never played with a QB that can throw the deep ball like Culpepper. Chambers had his best fantasy season in ‘05, but a healthy Culpepper would make him even better. Their connection could very well be reminiscent of the hay days of Culpepper and Randy Moss in Minnesota.” Let’s just save ourselves the time with that last statement and talk about Chambers the player, in and of himself. There are some clear trends to be seen with Chambers when you look at his DPAR and DVOA:
There is no doubt that, particularly after 2003, there was a good amount of evidence pointing towards Chris Chambers’ becoming a star WR; since then, though, he has basically fallen off of a cliff.
What’s really interesting is the catch percentage on the right – despite the dramatic variance in Chambers’ play according to DPAR and DVOA, he is essentially catching the same percentage of balls regardless.
Simply put, regardless of how ugly a quarterback or how decrepit a team a WR is surrounded by, elite WRs simply catch a higher percentage of the balls thrown to them than Chris Chambers does. Take a look at last year’s WR numbers. Steve Smith was a one-man offensive machine for Carolina with limited, at best, help from the rest of his team, in addition to being a much more dynamic deep threat than Chambers. He caught 69 percent of the passes thrown to him. Santana Moss, in much the same vein as Smith, caught 63 percent of the passes thrown to him. Some of those were screens, of course, but that’s not an issue with Hines Ward, who had almost nonexistent help from the wide receivers opposite him during the regular season and was at 61 percent. And this wasn’t a single-season thing; going back to 2004 and beyond, those WRs that are consistently defined as the elite of the game, or even those who are a step below them – the Joe Horns of the world – catch right around 60 percent or higher of the balls thrown to them. Chris Chambers has yet to have a single year like that.
Of course, in 2006, the old Daunte Culpepper hasn’t shown up, but Joey Harrington has replaced him and been, at least, marginally competent; he ranks 21st in the league by both DVOA and DPAR. Chris Chambers, on the other hand, is another story altogether.
Even after his 8 catch, 121 card game against Jacksonville last week, Chris Chambers rates out as the worst wide receiver in the NFL this season. Out of 80 wide receivers who have had 39 passes thrown in their direction, Chambers is ranked 80th in DPAR and 77th in DVOA. He’s had 122 passes thrown in his direction and caught 52 of them – that’s 43%. It really stands out when you look at the wide receiver page and you see that the players who are around his level are all marginal WRs (Brandon Lloyd, Alvis Whitted, Marcus Robinson), guys at the end of their careers (Rod Smith), or young players who are stuck playing with Michael Vick (every Atlanta wide receiver). None of those guys have seen the ball very often — the 10 guys above Chambers in DPAR, on average, have had 53 passes thrown in their direction. Chambers, again, has been the target of 122 passes. Other people who have seen that number of balls in their direction: Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, Andre Johnson, Anquan Boldin, Donald Driver, Torry Holt. To a man, each of those wide receivers have numbers that make Chambers’ look shambolic. None have caught fewer than 52% of the balls thrown towards them, and they’ve had to play with Drew Bledsoe, David Carr, Kurt Warner, Matt Leinart and the poorly-calibrated JUGS machine that is Brett Favre.
So, I guess, you could argue that Joey Harrington is worse than all those quarterbacks this season. Well, let’s take a look at those WRs who are, in fact, stuck with QBs as crummy as the ones Chambers has been stuck with. I’ve linked the quarterbacks that Chambers has played with with their closest comparable quarterback over the last five years with similarity scores for those quarterbacks. Using this information, I’m going to take the QB whose numbers were most comparable to the Dolphins’ QB that year, and then find out how his top WR fared that year, comparing him to Chambers’ numbers for the same year in the process. (Since we only have catch data on the website from 2000 on, I will be dealing strictly with comparable quarterbacks from that time period.) You may notice that there’s one quarterback who shares, well, a certain kinship with another.
It seems absolutely unfathomable to me that anyone who watches him on a regular basis could make a case that Chris Chambers is a star receiver. Chambers has had to deal with some poor quarterbacks, indeed, but if he were really a stud stuck with mediocre talent all around him, he wouldn’t be this bad. There simply is not a wide receiver in our database (looking back to 1997) who has played this poorly in what should be the prime of his career and recovered to be an elite wide receiver. When Gregg Easterbrook was railing against the evils of SportsCenter several weeks ago, he didn’t point out one of the real flaws that SportsCenter’s introduced: false perception. You can watch a highlight package of Chris Chambers plays and think he’s amazing. If you watched him for a season, you might be able to forget about the drops or the mistakes. You’d have to watch that highlight package quite a few times, though. Chris Chambers has a better chance of being out of football in three years than he does of appearing in a Pro Bowl. If that seems absurd to you, I’d reply by saying that nominating the worst wide receiver in the league to go to the Pro Bowl would be an equally absurd proposition.