The question "can Matt Hasselbeck lead an explosive offense?" was asked the other day and it got me thinking. Then, an exquisitely well executed fanpost by newly front page'd author WinnipegTitanFan13 (thought I'd go formal and spell it out for you) taught us the benefit of space players like Darren Sproles and, of course, Kendall Wright. Now, I'm trying to find out what makes some of the NFL's more explosive offenses so hard to stop. My first inclination turned out to be correct: it a lot of it can be boiled down to yards after the catch.
To back up this statement, I'll take a cursory look at the top offenses from 2011 based on Football Outsiders' offensive efficiency ratings. More specifically, I'll look at passing efficiency since YAC is, obviously, a passing stat. Surprising to no one should be the fact that the Green Bay Packers were a dominant team through the air last year. They were nearly 15% more efficient than any other team in football when it came to airing it out. Aaron Rodgers played absolutely out of his mind last year and he was surrounded by an incredibly steady group of receivers, a real "next man up" kind of unit. Turns out, this wasn't the best team to try and prove a point with, at least from a player-by-player standpoint, however, as I delved deeper into the numbers, I realized that while it is fun to watch when there is one guy accounting for the majority of a team's yardage, it is more about having multiple threats who can run in space. Jordy Nelson, the breakout star from Green Bay's Super Bowl run in the 2010/11 season and fantasy stud from 2011/12, lead the team with 418 yards after the catch. That's not a terrible number, good for twelfth in the league among pass catchers, running backs not included (basically all of their receiving yards should occur after the catch, it's not really fair). Coming in second would be Greg Jennings with 309, rather pedestrian for a guy praised for his ability to stretch the field. Not to say that Jennings didn't light it up in 2011, it's just that I expected more. Now, one theory for this is that because the Packers had such a solid group of receivers that, individually, their stat totals were destined to be underwhelming. I think there's some credibility that can be given to this school of thought. It's logical, and it actually makes sense when I further explain why YAC is still important to the Green Bay Packers.
To understand fully, we must take a look at the Packer defense. Widely known fact: Green Bay's pass defense was b-a-d, bad in 2011. In fact, if one were to take the stats accumulated against their team during the regular season, they would see that, in terms of yards per game, QB's who faced the Packers measured out as the fourth most productive QB of the year, finishing more prolifically than Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers, Tony Romo, and Carson Palmer (who was surprisingly stout in this category), with 311 yards yielded through the air. However, Green Bay's offense carried them. They outperformed opponents in a few key areas: touchdowns, yards per game, and, naturally, yards after the catch. As dreadful as their pass defense was, it didn't surrender many touchdowns, so maybe the fact that the Pack scored 22 more times through the air than opponents in 2011 is unsurprising, but when you see that opposing teams threw the ball nearly 90 times more than Green Bay did last year, converted an extra fifteen first downs, and even hit on one more play for 20+ yards, the fact that they lead in Y/G and YAC is interesting. As a team, they racked up 2,337 yards after the catch, also known as more yards than Vince Young has thrown for in one season in all but one year of his storied career. Clearly, the Pack were no slouches when it came to moving the ball in space, and with a group of players that includes Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and the ageless Donald Driver, it's easy to see why.
Other notable passing offenses from 2011 include the Patriots and the Saints. If you've noticed the fact that all three of these teams have outstanding quarterbacks, good for you, but that's not really the focal point of this piece. This is a post meant to praise playmaking receivers and the systems that give them space to operate. There isn't enough time to list out all of the NFL's teams and how they measure up to the top three, but I've taken the liberty of compiling an average for teams outside of New Orleans, Green Bay, and New England. On average, teams threw acquired 1607 yards after the catch. Compare that to the nearly 2,500 (2,470 on average) yards that Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England gained in YAC and you have a clear correlation between YAC and quality of a passing offense. Some of you may be surprised to know that the Titans actually compare pretty favorably to the big boys, breaking the 2,000 yard mark at 2,040 YAC. This seems to be a testament to Nate Washington, Jared Cook, and the coaching staff's insistence on throwing checkdowns to CJ*.
* Great idea in theory, not so much in practice.
So, how does this relate to 2012 and beyond? Well, it just so happens that the Titans have picked up one of college football's most exciting space players in awhile. Sure, maybe you could just write it off as being in a system that was designed to maximize the number of times that he caught the ball and, more importantly, caught the ball with room to run, but it doesn't change the fact that Wright has the physical ability to be an amazing space player in the NFL, just as he was in college. Every scouting report that you will read on Wright gives him major props on being able to pick up yards after the catch. This should be exciting news for Titans fans. Given an extra 400 YAC, this team is instantly in the upper echelon of "explosiveness". Of course, a lot of this is about how much faith you put in YAC as a stat, and while I'm not about to declare it the king of receiving metrics, I think that its' importance is often underplayed. When people say that a player has the ability to take it to the house every time or that he has game-breaking ability, they're really talking about how adept he is at getting upfield after the ball is in his hands.
My hope and expectation is that the 2013 version of the Titans will be absolutely lethal through the air. I think it's important to realize that Kendall Wright will be a rookie next year and, like all rookies, he will have trouble adapting to the NFL. I don't expect him to make up for that 400 or so yards that the Titans lack in the YAC category by himself (meaning he'd have to be essentially 400 YAC better than Damian Williams). However, 2013-14 looks incredibly bright. A lot of this rides on the improvement of Jared Cook, the sustainability of Nate Washington's production, and Kenny Britt's two knees, but I have faith that this team will be ready for primetime very soon and that their explosive passing offense will be a big reason why.