Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Set Pieces: Jacksonville and the Island of Misfit Receivers

With the Draft behind us and the bulk of free agency settled, there are two months between now and the 2008 football season, when the NFL's epic story continues with another chapter. In that time, TiT will be looking at the players, coaches, and situations that will form their own small stories and will play a large role in driving our experience of the season as a whole. Today, we look at the Jacksonville Jaguars, and how adding two "busts" has made their offense the most intriguing of the coming season.

Receivers have always fascinated us at TiT, largely because they represent perhaps the most difficult position for us to predict. This is due to a number of factors. First, other positions have several key things to look for in terms of pro potential. Can a running back go between the tackles? Does an offensive lineman stay with his man after the first move? How quickly can a quarterback release the ball? With receivers, however, the traits we tend to notice first provide little, if any guidance for pro success. Productivity in college is nice, but the NFL is always shedding players like Peter Warrick who failed to make an impact. Ideal size has become a buzz word (one that even we think is the most reliable indicator), but you have wild, undersized successes such as Steve Smith challenging that idea every week. As for speed, the list of lightning fast players who flame out within the first three years is so long that the quality is almost meaningless as anything other than the price of admission to the league now (DeSean Jackson, the fastest wide receiver in the draft this year, went after six other receivers).

The other problem we have judging receivers is that their play is uniquely dependent on so many other factors. This is true for practically every position on the field, but receivers, as the endpoint of complex plays, rely on every point before them, and are often judged only by the outcomes of those plays, specifically their statistics. Yet whether or not they have a competent passer, whether or not there are other adequate receiving targets to keep defenses honest, and a host of other factors completely independent of their own abilities often play a major role in how we perceive these players.

Both of these quirks have come into play with regard to our growing fascination with what’s happening in Jacksonville’s offense. We’ve hinted at this earlier, but the more we read about positive reports coming out of Jacksonville, and the more we think about exactly what that pass attack is now composed of, the more excited we are to see it actually play out on the field. For those who are unaware, last season the team pretty much sucker punched the league with a brutal ground game that played defense as well as the actual defense did in terms of making the opposing offense meaningless. Yet what made the whole system work was the fact that defenses had no choice but to stay honest in terms of coverage, and that was entirely due to David Garrard’s emergence as a top tier quarterback last year (and there is not an argument to be made against that: 18 TDs to 3 INTS, a QB rating of 102.2, enough size and mobility to break off several game changing runs, and a playoff win in his first season as a starter = You don’t just want him instead of Leftwich; you want him instead of Romo). What made this even more interesting was the fact that Garrard was having such a great season with only Reggie Williams playing slightly respectably as a receiver. In other words, Garrard showed an ability to get the most out of the limited abilities of his receiving targets.

For those unaware, Jacksonville went out of its way this offseason to see what Garrard can do with even more talent, if not proven production, in his arsenal, signing free agent Jerry Porter and trading a sixth round pick to the Vikings for Troy Williamson. The result is the kind of backwards, yet undeniably remarkable thinking that made Jack Del Rio my favorite coach of last season, as the squad that is at once faceless and overloaded with that most hated of football words: Potential. Reggie Williams is fast enough to get downfield, and at 6’4” with good hands, he’s already proven himself a red zone threat. Now, he’ll be getting some support from Jerry Porter, another speedy wideout with the size and strength to push around smaller corners (like the number two variety he’ll be matched up against). Williamson, perhaps the fastest receiver of the group, goes from being an overmatched number one option in Minnesota to being the slot man, where his size is less of a factor and he’ll face slower linebackers in coverage. Oh, and in case you forgot, the team still has 6’6” pass catching tight end Marcedes Lewis. If the team gets really crazy, they can even convince Matt Jones to stop sulking at be the fourth option (for now…but one day we’ll write a whole diatribe on how Del Rio ruined him…seriously, it’s the only thing keeping us from loving Neanderthal Jack these days). For clarity’s sake: 6’6” MATT JONES WHO RUNS A 4.37 40 AND HAS A 39 INCH VERTICAL LEAP IS THE FOURTH RECEIVING OPTION. The end result is a receiving corps in which everyone brings at least some shining talent to the table (size, speed, red zone ability...), and has a very good quarterback throwing the passes. If teams had trouble dealing with the surprising pass attack last season, what do they do facing a lineup full of first round picks with first round athleticism?

What we love most about this is the way that it flies in the face of football logic. Williamson has had a disappointing three year stint, and is therefore a first round bust and destined for failure. Liability. Jerry Porter expressed unhappiness in Oakland to the point that it got him benched for a season. Liability. Matt Jones feels lonely and unloved. Liability. To a man, each member of the receiving corps has a huge red flag waving behind them everywhere they go, one that basically announces that despite all of the obvious reasons why any NFL team should want them, they should stay away, lest the stench of failure be passed onto their organization. In response, Del Rio has brought them all on board. The potential for failure here is, to say the least, staggering, but you’ve got to love the braggadocio involved in Del Rio riding his successful personnel move last year into this years offseason, a kind of “everything I touch turns to gold” madness that is a pleasant alternative to the play-it-safe and blame the personnel route most coaches take. We wrote about this before and said that there wouldn’t be a middle ground, that things would either go down in a blaze of glory or produce an offensive fireworks show the likes of which hadn’t been seen yet. Now, we’re leaning more than ever towards the idea that Jacksonville could be putting up something truly special (and if this offense clicks, it could be the best ever; last year’s Pats had a questionable run game, which is not a problem here). More interesting still, the result of this experiment could be more than just team based; it has the potential to revive the careers of no fewer than five first day picks, most of whom have been labeled as “disappointments” (Lewis, and to a lesser extent Williams, get passes on this because of their youth and at least average production). Operating as a mob with no clear “leader”, the receiving corps is free to roam the field as Garrard distributes the ball with the same accuracy he showed last season, taking advantage of a wealth of mismatches, and the facelessness of the operation has the potential to give a new identity to everyone involved.

(Welcome Deadspin readers! While you're here, check out the rest of our Set Pieces series, our ongoing Offseason Maneuvers skits, and our T-Shirt store for high minded lowbrow goodness.)


digital_dave said...

I like the theory but when you've got an O-Line built for run-blocking, how good are they really going to be?

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