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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fallacy Of The #1 Receiver

I don't know about all this concern with the receiving corps (though, as
always, using a word like "corps" around the varying understanding of
the internet, that will always get at me). 2013's group wasn't
exceptional, and with only a spare-parts change now and again*, the
group hasn't changed much – but the production has. It's been
QB-driven. 2011, Cam chucked it deep and receivers benefitted. When
the balls fell into the wrong hands, the receivers didn't suffer, but
the team did.

*Louis Murphy certainly seemed more talented than Legedu Naanee, with
less output and fewer options on the field compared to Naanee; at the
buy-low philosophy, Murphy had both cost more and produced more than Ted
Ginn in recent history when Ginn was brought on to be a replacement.
To further that idea, while Ginn had a season that well exceeded
expectations, his up and down resume is much less consistent than the
ancillary players brought on this year.

Now, with a more cautious approach, the team has tailored more toward
efficiency, to fit what they've been doing on the field for the last
24-26 games. I find that a positive, and haven't been afraid to say it.
Doesn't make it 'better', doesn't make it guaranteed to succeed. But,
I get it, I see what they're doing. That's why losing the extra bits
aren't that troubling to me.

But, the loss of Steve Smith, one way or another, really rocked the
boat. I can rationalize that similarly – Smith running nothing but
5-yard routes, that's not a great fit anymore than it is for Ted Ginn.
But losing that #1, that psychologically hurt some people, the idea that
there isn't this single "one size fits all", "go-to", #1 guy as if they
all run around on the field with that read every single time, regardless
of defense, regardless of route (honestly, it'd be a valid opinion to
suggest that, over Smith's tenure, him being a first option too much had
been an eventual detriment).

There's this philosophy that, unless the defense just focuses on one guy
more, nothing else will possibly work. It's similar to the idea that
you have to have a shut-down corner you leave on an island, or you have
to have a great LT who you leave on an island – or a single incredible
pass rusher who can't be left on an island. That the entire concept of
football is predicated more on a doubleteam than individual matchups, or
just overall execution.

I know the way that goes. I've thought it. "All we need is a DT that
requires that extra attention." The defense always has the numbers,
which is why they can afford to (based on scheme) have a MLB or WLB
free. It's why they can play zone. It's why the QB option reads and
even the wildcat could work when applicable, because it gave the O an
extra man, the guy who took the snap. It's why the O has had to
develop packaged plays to trap that free OLB between a run read and the
curl/flat zone.

Nonetheless, I've been there on the "we need this guy who can do this,
and that guy will make other guys better because (byproduct of whatever
"this" is). It's logic based – if this, then this. And it's just not
that easy. Teams chase that, and not to the better of the team.

I'll give Brandon Marshall as an example. I started out behind the
curve on Marshall – I wasn't aware of UCF's program, and he looked on
paper like another king-size player with gaudy stats against nobody.
Marshall was an almost immediate star, and Pro Bowler by year 3. You
could hope for Kelvin Benjamin to become Marshall as much as Calvin
Johnson, and Marshall's more similar physically in some ways – he's a
step slower, though he's about a tenth faster than Benjamin.
Nonetheless, it's not an indictment of Marshall I'm after (or a
suggestion Benjamin is at all ready to be a coverage-drawing WR), it's
an indictment of teams that have sought him since.

Desperate for that #1 receiver that would 'solve it all', two different
teams have thrown tons of resources at Marshall despite a DUI and
domestic issues, then internal team issues. I'm not against a second
chance myself – I'm showing the risk Miami threw on themselves by
trading away two shots at good starters** and giving Marshall $12
million per year. Marshall was good – 80+ passes both years, though
both off his pace of 100+ in the three prior. 3 TD, then 6 - not
incredible, but not bad given the attention you get. For Miami's
effort, they got a player, and didn't improve a lick. Yes, Matt Moore
and Chad Henne aren't world-beaters. Absolutely, if that's the best you
can do, you have to put good people around them – and when they fail,
maybe those good people will be around to help a better guy. But
simply saying, hey we have a guy who rolls the coverage his way, doesn't
seem to benefit.

**Baltimore took the 2010 pick for Sergio Kindle – oops, right before
Lamarr Houston at the same position, though consider the pick before was
Rob Gronkowski; the other pick Denver kept, and that's been OL Orlando
Franklin, who's started 47 of 48 games including some at LT.

Miami traded Marshall to another team dying for a #1 – Chicago, where he
had solid quarterbacking, and he resumed 100 catch seasons. As a matter
of fact, 2012 saw him catch 118; but did it help? No. His next best
WR? Earl Bennett caught 89 fewer balls as the next best guy. Cost? 2
#3 picks. Cheap, especially compared to Jay Cutler's cost. And yet,
the already strapped Bears, who'd thrown so much into the old Broncos
pairing, and added a 2nd in Alshon Jeffery, had finally gotten it more
or less right. They weren't relying on just Cutler, or just Marshall.
They had weapons, finally, and all to go around Matt Forte as he was
starting to show wear.

All just in time for the defense to crumble. The Bears finished an even
8-8, providing an incredible base for the offense to grow on, and sure,
maybe that defense will get better and survive what would've been a shot
in the arm had they spent half that on defense (a 1st, a 2nd, a 3rd in
two years additionally), but became a 30th best defense in short order.
One thing rapidly improved with massive resources, at the expense of
the other. That's not really better or worse than Marshall catching 118
and Bennett 29, it's just the failure came at a greater expense.

Of course, Miami followed that by sitting out a year, being unhappy not
giving a WR tons of money, and then gave Mike Wallace – much less a #1
than Marshall, even – tons of money. Wallace's father suggests that
though Miami's money was somehow less than Minnesota's, but weather was
a major factor. That's not a recipe for instant success – "I want to
spend my money more warmly", as opposed to "I have to prove I'm a #1
since I was a part of a good overall situation before". Wallace barely
got any deep balls, so his speed was somewhat wasted; it didn't matter.
With the "he's a #1, so he gets the coverage" thing, guess what? He's
not making other players better equally to the detriment he endures.
I'm not saying that Wallace shouldn't have cashed in, or that every free
agent WR faces the challenge of proving he's more Michael Irvin than
Alvin Harper, but his choice appears to have forgiven the ideas of fit
with a team, offense, QB, and so did Miami's. At least Marshall,
ill-fitting in Miami's O, produced.

You can even balance the two sides. Chicago did it to the detriment of
its defense, but Atlanta took that a whole extra level with Julio Jones.
After waiting since what feels like the Deion Sanders era for Roddy
White to live up to expectations, he did – and eventually they added
Jones to he and Matt Ryan. Sounds great, right? Two #1s later, they
lack a good enough OL and haven't improved their defense a bit in all
that time. It's often been good enough to make it to the playoffs, but
it has to kill the defense-driven Mike Smith to field a barely-there
defense that can't compete (even just in one field, the way the '12 Bucs
dominated the run at expense of the pass) in this division. Those two
#1 picks, would they really have done exceptional things?

I can't answer that. Atlanta hasn't drafted defense well, excepting
Sean Witherspoon and maybe Desmond Trufant, up to this year (I will
reserve judgement, but I don't know if Ra'Shede Hageman, Desmen
Southward, or Prince Shembo are winners in anything other than an awful
name contest). They've thrown a lot at a few guys I feared initially
(Peria Jerry, for instance) that didn't work out, but just haven't
thrown much at it overall. They were lucky Jake Matthews was still
there at OT, another place of oozing patchwork, but it doesn't make them
less offense-heavy. It's not like I'd have been satisfied with them
getting Jadeveon Clowney, I don't want to face that. To me, it's great
Atlanta's defense has been consistently beatable. But the point about
balance over some mythical superhero still stands. It's a team game.

So does that mean Cleveland had the right idea? I guess. It's so
awfully executed, where Greg Little and Brandon Weeden didn't help at
all and only 3-4 end Phil Taylor remains with the team of five picks.
If both Little and Weeden had been average starters, hard to say – the
Browns crave a star, and needed so much around that star anyway. I
think you have to take that trade, but handle it better (same goes for
not trading – JJ Watt, Robert Quinn were there amongst the ruins of QBs
taken after Cam Newton, but the consistently awful Browns will have more
chances to squander away future stars every year).

You can't have one piece. One guy can't do it all. Not a WR, not a QB,
nor OT, DE, DT. Having one guy who you can consider double-worthy,
that can be diminishing returns. No one's turning it down – but it's
not realistic, and not worth more than having a good team – limiting the
bad contributors, and then, God forbid, having depth that can stand in.
A team, not a player.
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