Wilson and His Receivers (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Long Bomb)

Over the last few games, we’ve seen Russell Wilson start to come into his own, first with a good showing on the road against the Lions, then with a great game at home against the Jets’ top-five pass defense.  As I said in last week’s stats article, the Seahawks appear to have finally found their next franchise quarterback, and unlike the Redskins, who effectively used up four high-round picks in order to land Robert Griffin III, all John Schneider and Pete Carroll had to do to acquire Wilson was wait patiently until their number came up in the third round.

But bargain or not, Wilson can look forward to a great many comparisons to Matt Hasselbeck in the years ahead.  All new NFL starters are inevitably measured against the last great player to man his position for the team in question, but no one has to put up with more of that kind of relentless scrutiny than quarterbacks.  Even when a quarterback has a pretty strong career, if he didn’t perform better than the team’s previous great then in many cases he ends up being considered a failure.  Just ask Danny White, who was a reliable passer for Dallas for the better part of the 1980s (Tom Landry had nothing but praise for White in his autobiography) but is largely looked upon as a disappointment by Cowboys fans because he wasn’t quite as good as Roger Staubach.

Since Wilson has just ten career starts to his name, any comparison to a veteran QB with 150+ starts under his belt like Hasselbeck is going to be borderline ridiculous at best, but I’m going to do it anyway.  (Hell, if I was the sort of person who let my brain talk me out of doing potentially stupid things, I never would’ve started posting articles on the internet in the first place.)  Both quarterbacks are intelligent, and both have a certain Tarkenton-like flair for improvisation when a play breaks down.  Before injuries began to slow him down, Hasselbeck was surprisingly mobile (from 2001-08, he averaged 3.9 yds/att on 273 rushes), but even in his prime he was nowhere near as fast or elusive as Wilson.  Wilson also leads Hasselbeck in the all-important categories of hair, Levis commercials, and cult leadership potential, while the veteran QB is the undisputed winner in terms of height, wisecracks, and Super Bowl starts.

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The two of them also throw passes sometimes, or so I hear.  Wilson’s statistical averages so far are pretty comparable to those of his predecessor in multiple areas (completion percentage, yards per attempt, yards per completion, etc.), but things get a lot more interesting when you break down their passing stats a bit further.  Play-by-play data is imperfect – for starters, it makes no distinction between a regular incompletion and a blatant throwaway, plus it separates passes into just two distance categories, short and deep – but for our purposes here the information is good enough to get the job done.

Hasselbeck’s key strength as a passer has always been his superlative touch and accuracy in the short passing game, which is what made him such a great fit for Mike Holmgren’s heavily West Coast Offense-based system.  For 20071, the play-by-play data credits him with 444 passes to the short zones, of which he completed 312, or 70.27%.  Wilson’s numbers in the short zone are pretty good – he’s credited with completing 62 of 98 passes in that range for a completion percentage of 63.27% – but that pales in comparison to his predecessor’s accomplishments.

However, for all of Hasselbeck’s skill in the short zones, he was also notorious for his inability to make things happen at longer ranges.  He’s credited with 102 passing attempts to the deep zones in ’07, of which he completed just 42 for a depressingly low percentage of 41.18%.  In an odd sort of way, his poor performance on deep passes makes his short range passing stats that much more impressive, since he was still able to deliver the goods even though the opposing defenses he faced that year were free to focus almost exclusively on shutting him down at close range.

By contrast, Wilson has been the far superior quarterback on long throws.  So far this season, he’s completed 27 of 53 credited deep passes for a 50.94% completion rate, a nearly 10% improvement over Hasselbeck’s ’07 numbers.  And since it’s doubtful that he will be able to top his predecessor’s stats in the short range, his skill at throwing the long bomb (along with whether or not he’s able to be successful in the postseason) will most likely end up determining how he’ll be remembered by Seahawks fans once his playing days are behind him.

After a decade of Hasselbeck and his weak long-range accuracy on deep throws, it feels weird to even type the words “long bomb” and “successful” in the same sentence.  As much as I loved the old bald-headed jokester overall, I have to admit that every time Hasselbeck threw a pass deep downfield I almost took it as a given that the ball was going to fall harmlessly to the turf.  

While I was browsing through those passing stats, I figured it might be just as important to take a look at how well Wilson has been connecting with his receivers because, as the Archie Mannings of the world know all too well, it’s damned hard to be successful when you haven’t got anyone worthwhile to whom you can throw the ball.  Let’s start with the overall results (players who are no longer on the active roster or who have been targeted less than ten times are highlighted in gray):

Name Position Catches Targets Catch %
Robert Turbin RB 11 13 84.62%
Marshawn Lynch RB 14 18 77.78%
Michael Robinson FB 3 4 75.00%
Zach Miller TE 23 32 71.88%
Charly Martin WR 4 6 66.67%
Golden Tate WR 26 42 61.90%
Sidney Rice WR 24 39 61.54%
Leon Washington RB 3 5 60.00%
Anthony McCoy TE 10 17 58.82%
Braylon Edwards WR 8 14 57.14%
Doug Baldwin WR 13 23 56.52%
Jermaine Kearse WR 1 2 50.00%
Ben Obomanu WR 4 9 44.44%
Evan Moore TE 0 5 0.00%

It might be a bit surprising at first to see Lynch and Turbin’s catch percentages at the top of the list, but there’s a simple explanation here. Wilson has thrown just one deep pass to a running back all year long (an incompletion to Turbin), while the stats for the rookie QB’s three favorite targets include multiple deep throws apiece.  

Miller has taken flak from some folks because his catch rate is much lower than it was when he was with the Raiders, but hopefully his stats here will quite some of those criticisms.  After all, how many passes you get thrown your way isn’t nearly as important as what you do with them once they arrive, and his 71.88% catch rate is tops among all non-running backs on the team.  The two most-targeted players on the team, Tate and Rice, have virtually identical catch rates, but that’s a recent occurrence.  Prior to last week’s game against the Jets, Rice’s percentage was a much more robust 69.70% (catching just one of six passes from your QB will do that to you).

Baldwin’s dropoff in production this year has been a major disappointment, but an understandable one given his injury problems this year.  If it’s any consolation to the guy, he hasn’t been anywhere near as disappointing as McCoy, whose reliability as a receiver has been streaky at best this year, and in turn McCoy has been a far, far better receiver than Moore.  I know, I know, he’s third on the tight end depth chart, but you also have to remember that he’s not a blocking specialist, he’s actually supposed to be a receiving tight end.  Going 0-for-5 is probably not the best way to impress your coaches.

Catch Rates on Deep Passes
Name Position Catches Targets Catch %
Zach Miller TE 10 12 83.33%
Sidney Rice WR 10 14 71.43%
Anthony McCoy TE 1 2 50.00%
Ben Obomanu WR (IR) 2 4 50.00%
Golden Tate WR 5 14 35.71%
Doug Baldwin WR 1 3 33.33%
Robert Turbin RB 0 1 0.00%
Charly Martin WR (PS) 0 1 0.00%
Braylon Edwards WR 0 1 0.00%
Evan Moore TE 0 3 0.00%

Tate’s catches deep downfield have received a lot of attention, but as you can see here he and Wilson haven’t actually been able to develop much consistency at that range.  Wilson’s been far more successful throwing his long bombs to Miller and Rice. Be honest now, did any of you expect to see Miller at the top of this list?

Catch Rates on Short Passes
Name Position Catches Targets Catch %
Robert Turbin RB 11 12 91.67%
Charly Martin WR (PS) 4 5 80.00%
Marshawn Lynch RB 14 18 77.78%
Golden Tate WR 21 28 75.00%
Michael Robinson FB 3 4 75.00%
Zach Miller TE 13 20 65.00%
Braylon Edwards WR 8 13 61.54%
Doug Baldwin WR 12 20 60.00%
Anthony McCoy TE 9 15 60.00%
Leon Washington RB 3 5 60.00%
Sidney Rice WR 14 25 56.00%
Jermaine Kearse WR 1 2 50.00%
Ben Obomanu WR (IR) 2 5 40.00%
Evan Moore TE 0 2 0.00%

Yes, that number really is 91.67% – seriously, how great are Turbin’s hands?  Now you know why the team likes to sub him in for Lynch on so many passing downs.

Luckily for Tate, whatever he’s lacked in rapport with Wilson deep downfield, he’s more than made up for it by being his most reliable non-RB target on short range throws.  After the last two tables, it should come as no surprise to see Miller come in second among wide receivers and tight ends here, but Edwards coming in third was entirely unexpected.  Baldwin has improved in this area over the last few weeks, having caught 5 of his 8 targets (62.5%) over his last three games.  Progress!

Other than “hey guys, things are looking up,” I’m not sure I have much of a conclusion to offer here.  Instead, I’ll just wish you all safe travels on your holiday excursions, and here’s hoping all of us can wash down our gluttonous festivities with a solid Seahawks win over the Dolphins in Miami this Sunday.

1 I know 2005 was the better statistical season, but I’ve always thought that Hasselbeck’s stats for 2007 were a better indicator of his ability.  In ’05, he had the luxury of leaning on Shaun Alexander rushing behind Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson in their prime, but by ’07 Alexander was done, Hutchinson was gone, and even Jones had begun to decline.  The success of the offense (and by extension the team as a whole) depended entirely on the strength of Hasselbeck’s throwing arm that year, and he was able to carry them all the way to the divisional round of the playoffs.