A couple of months ago one of my best friends and I had a text message conversation about the future of the Seahawks. In that conversation, one that basically bears mostly no repeating because this was a season with little to complain about, the most important thing that came to light was that Sidney Rice, by his measure, wasn’t a top-tier receiver. In his opinion, the Seahawks needed to cut Sidney Rice, and draft or sign someone to be the team’s No. 1 receiver.
This came as a bit of a shock to me. Sidney Rice possesses a rare combination of size, athleticism, ball skills, and catch radius that make him a mismatch for almost any defensive back. Rice came into 2012 with only one season of elite production—his 2009 which was quarterbacked by Brett Favre—but nonetheless, when healthy, Rice had the ability to dominate stretches of games.
That was the rub though. Rice left Minnesota after suffering a substantial hip injury, and in his first season with the Seahawks he got two concussions, and it was discovered later on that he had two torn shoulder labrums. Sidney Rice had some fucked up sockets, and there was a chance that his concussion—especially in this new day and age of the NFL—could mean repeat injuries and additional missed games. Tendons can be reconstructed. Torn muscles can be rehabbed. Concussions can be fatal, and that has manifested itself into the NFL being very strict about the way players with concussions.
Then Sidney Rice came out this year, and from my perspective was very successful. He was getting separation and open more often. He was making acrobatic catches when he wasn’t open. The Seahawks passed the ball very little early on, and Russell Wilson seemed a bit fixated on Golden Tate at times during the season, so it didn’t come as a shock to me that Rice wasn’t statistically dominant.
We’ve seen tons of second receivers benefit from having top-talent across from them, from Jake Reed to John Taylor, football has had its share of receiving-corps’ equivalent to Scottie Pippen. That’s not to say that Tate, or Taylor, or Reed are not talented, but that circumstance must share some of the credit for their production with talent.
So back to Rice. How is it possible that a guy who ranked 48th in receiving yards and tied for 73rd in receptions in the second best season of his career be a top-level receiver? The answer for that is substantially less simple.
The concept, of course, is that Rice and the rest of the Seahawks receiving corps are largely at the mercy of play calling distribution and aggressiveness, as well as ultimately the Seahawks position in a game. The Seahawks ranked dead last in the league in pass attempts, 31 behind the 49ers, and 37 behind the Washington Redskins. The next lowest team was the Kansas City Chiefs, and they threw the ball 70 more times than the Seahawks. With that many balls to go around, it’s no wonder the Seahawks didn’t have a 1,000 yard receiver.
But if we’re looking to predict future performance, using raw counting stats is sure to completely ignore context. Ranking Rice among receivers that play in offenses that all ranked ahead of the Seahawks in terms of pass frequency is bound to miss the contribution he makes on a rate basis.
The brilliant men over at Football Outsiders have devised a formula that assigns a yardage value to all plays, much like the run values assigned to all baseball events according to research by Tom Tango. According to Football Outsiders, Rice was the 14th best receiver in terms of Defense-Adjusted-Yards-Above-Replacement, also known as DYAR. For SABR nerds, DYAR functions something like Runs Created, and its close relative Defense-Adjusted-Value-Over-Average, or DVOA, measures players on a scale where zero is league average, and any percentage above is a positive contribution compared to average.
The beauty of DVOA is that it controls for opportunities and is a true rate stat. It is the closest thing to wRC+, my preferred SABR measure for batting performance, that Football Outsiders has.
It’s worth noting, as is common in posts about baseball metrics, that sample size determines a lot about these stats’ predictive qualities. By this measure, though, Rice had the eighth best season of any receiver last year, while Golden Tate had the fifth best.
Of course, neither season occurs in a vacuum. While I spent a paragraph comparing Tate to Scottie Pippen, it’s not as though Pippen didn’t help Michael Jordan at all. And if I’m wrong, and Rice is Pippen, then whatever. Pippen is a hall of famer, and considered one of the 50 best basketball players to ever live. This basketball analogy is done, and was poor when I made it.
It’s entirely rational to think that the Seahawks should go into this offseason looking to improve the receiver position. The source of that rationale, however, should have nothing to do with a deficiency at the top two spots. If the Seahawks want their receivers to post bigger numbers, the solution for them is simple: pass the ball more.
The Seahawks can afford to take the best player available in the draft, and if they have the opportunity to acquire a receiver in free agency at a relatively good value, signing them makes sense. The idea, however, that the Seahawks need a major upgrade at the position is likely misguided.