Everyone is busy. We are increasingly an “at-a-glance” culture that struggles to find time explore anything beyond the obvious. The simple narrative with the Seahawks wide receivers is that they are lacking premier talent. After all, the team’s leading receiver finished with only 50 receptions for less than 800 yards. The team’s leading receiver in 2011 had just 51 receptions. Nobody goes to the Pro Bowl with those numbers. Another simple narrative is that Doug Baldwin had a down year after a terrific rookie campaign. Take a look a little deeper. You may be surprised what you find. I certainly was.
Receiving is among the most dependent positions in the NFL. You can run the perfect route, make the perfect read of the defense, be wide open, and still not get the ball thrown your way because of the play call or the quarterback’s decision. It is easy for Seahawks fans to day dream about bringing in a 100 catch receiver that goes for 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. That player does not exist. At least, not in this offense.
The Seahawks passed the ball 405 times this season. That is a full 104 fewer pass attempts, or 6.5 per game than the year before. Thanks to the efficiency of Russell Wilson, they completed only 47 fewer passes. Still, that is three fewer completions per game to go around. Take a look at how the reduction in attempts and completions effects the distribution of receptions between the two seasons:
Notice how quickly the distribution drops off in 2012. Four receivers caught more than 30 balls in 2011, but only three in 2012. Seven receivers caught more than 20 balls in 2011, but only five in 2012. Doug Baldwin is a particularly interesting study.
Nobody would argue that he had less of an impact in 2012 than in 2011. Just look at his production:
He had a 43% fewer opportunities to make a play in 2012. That will tend to have an impact on your numbers. It is useful to look at catch rate when evaluating a receiver. Catch rate is the percentage of times you catch a ball thrown your way (receptions / targets). Let’s see if Baldwin dropped off there.
2012 Catch Rate: 59.2%
2011 Catch Rate: 59.3%
That would seem to paint a far different picture than his raw numbers. A look at ProFootballFocus.com, where players are graded after having each snap watched numerous times, shows Baldwin’s rating in 2012 was only slightly lower than 2011 (7.3 vs. 9.0).
Now, this is not to say receivers cannot affect their own fate. Zach Miller, for example, was targeted only nine more times in 2012, but caught 13 more passes. His accomplished this by increasing his catch rate from 56% in 2011 to a whopping 72% in 2012. He was a primary beneficiary of Wilson’s knack for throwing down the middle of the field, and made the most of those chances.
There is only so much production that can be squeezed out of efficiency. New Hampshire can get 99% of their residents to vote for one candidate or another in the presidential election, but it still only counts as 4 electoral votes. The volume of attempts must increase to really have an impact. Knowing that the Seahawks are going to add a speedy pass-catching tight end into the mix, one has to wonder if there is room for a “premier” receiver.
The team is likely going to pass more next year, but even if they throw the ball 100 more times, the offense is not built to support another two primary targets. Teams like the Falcons, Packers, Patriots, or Lions that throw the ball well over 600 times can feature four or five receiving options on a regular basis. They can produce 100 catch players and 1,500 yard seasons. Seattle will always look for a player that can be more efficient than the ones they have. Someone with a high catch rate and a high yards per catch, or more simply, a high yards per target would make a lot of sense. That is why a guy like Mike Wallace (10 yards/target for his career) gets a longer look than a guy like Dwayne Bowe (7.6 yards/target). Still, Golden Tate was the starting split end in 2012 and finished with a Wallace-like 10.1 yards/target. It seems highly unlikely the team would spend millions of dollars extra to secure a player that is no more efficient than the one they already have.
The idea of a dominating wide receiver will continue to entrance many fans and local radio. The reality is it will be far harder to improve on the production of this receiving corps than most will ever know. And if the team does want to improve the receiving numbers, the most reliable and cost-effective way to do so is throw more often.