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RTN: The Different Career Paths for the Cowboys’ Receivers

Posted Feb 1, 2013

“Numbers don’t lie” is, well, a lie. Plenty of stats, perhaps even the bulk of what’s out there, don’t properly reflect reality. When you hear that the Cowboys have a gaudy record when they rush the ball X times or they struggle when Tony Romo has Y attempts, those numbers are misleading because they’re simply correlated and not the result of any sort of causation. There are many statistical relationships out there that aren’t actually rooted in reality. There’s a pretty strong relationship between shoe size and yearly salary, for example, but we’d never argue that people make more money because they have big feet.

It can be difficult to determine which stats are truly meaningful, i.e. the ones that don’t “lie.” The ultimate goal of any stat, in addition to explaining a past event, should be to predict the future. When numbers are utilized to make accurate prognostications, we know they’re “good” (useful) stats. That’s one reason that passing efficiency is far better than, say, rushing attempts when we’re determining the quality of a team. Rushing attempts can explain past success, but they can’t accurately predict future victories. Meanwhile, passing yards-per-attempt is perhaps the top individual stat for predicting future team success.

With that in mind, you can perhaps gain a better sense of why I argued that Jason Witten’s 2012 season wasn’t really better than any other. In no way was I saying Witten isn’t a great player. He is. But in terms of efficiency, Witten had his worst season as a receiver in six years. His bulk stats, receptions and yards, were outstanding because the Cowboys were forced to throw the ball more than all but two teams. That allowed Witten to run over 100 more routes than he averaged over the previous five seasons.

You can start to see why Witten’s receptions and yards, although impressive, aren’t a proper representation of how he played. That’s reflected in the yards Witten gained per route he ran (1.58), which was his lowest mark since 2006. Yards-per-route is a useful stat because it accounts for game situations, limiting the value of being in a pass-heavy offense.

More important, yards-per-route is a good predictor of future success. Actually, when taking route frequency into account, yards-per-route is a better indicator of future receiving yards even than past receiving yards. We saw an example of this in 2008. Relatively-unknown wide receiver Miles Austin posted 278 receiving yards that year. That total looked pretty innocent and there didn’t appear to be much reason to expect big things from Austin down the road. Of course, if you knew what to look for, you might have noticed that Austin recorded 1.92 yards-per-route in 2008, just under the number Dez Bryant posted in 2012. In that case, the numbers didn’t lie, and Austin broke out for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009.

So knowing certain stats are superior to others and that yards-per-route is a pretty strong predictor of future success, I broke down the yards-per-route posted by Witten, Austin and Bryant over the last few seasons. This can be a useful tool because it provides a glimpse of where each player’s career might be headed.

Despite the big bulk stats in 2012, Witten’s efficiency continued its steady decline. When I posted those numbers on Witten last week, I received some feedback that we shouldn’t nitpick over just half a yard. Well, it really depends on the context. If we’re talking about yards-per-game, for example, a difference of a half-yard is trivial. In terms of Witten’s yards-per-route, however, a half-yard decline represents over 25 percent of his peak. That’s a big deal.

Looking at Austin’s efficiency, you can see just how incredible his 2009 season really was. Consider that Austin’s 2.59 yards-per-route that season was around 25 percent higher than Bryant’s figure in 2012. In terms of pure efficiency, Austin’s 2009 season is probably one of the best in NFL history. With that in mind, we’d expect a pretty big drop in 2010, but not to the extent that we saw. Austin’s gradual decline since 2010 confirms most suspicions that Austin hasn’t performed nearly as well even when he’s on the field, i.e. injuries aren’t all to blame.

Bryant’s line is also a good representation of how we typically view his career; his rookie play was about average and he didn’t take the jump we all expected in his second season. This year, however, Bryant’s yards-per-route soared higher than any year of Witten’s and all of Austin’s seasons outside of 2009.

Looking forward to 2013, we can use the graph to project how each player might continue to evolve. Entering his age 31 season, there’s a good chance that Witten’s line continues to drop. Since 2008, Witten’s yards-per-route has declined by .05, .08, .18, and .05. If the trend continues, Witten’s probably looking at around 1.50 yards-per-route in 2012, meaning he’s extremely likely to see a big drop in receptions and yards. If Witten runs closer to the 550 routes he saw prior to this past season, he’ll fall into the neighborhood of 825 yards, a decrease of over 200 yards.

Projecting Austin’s 2013 season is more difficult because he’s been all over the map. Assuming he’s still in Dallas, Austin will be a big, fast, 29-year-old No. 2 receiver in a potentially-explosive offense. That’s still a pretty strong recipe for success, and when you consider Austin’s productive past and the fact that Bryant will see more and more double-teams, things look up for Austin in 2013. I’d expect his yards-per-route to jump back up into the 1.70-1.75 range. Of course, we have no idea how productive Austin will be from a receiving yards standpoint because his health is always a concern.

As for Bryant, the league’s newest elite play-making receiver, the sky is the limit. With his skill set and a blossoming connection with Tony Romo, Bryant has an extremely high ceiling without too low of a floor, i.e. it seems unlikely he’ll regress much. With increased defensive attention on the star wideout, though, I’d expect his yards-per-route to either remain stable or increase just slightly, perhaps somewhere in the 2.00-2.10 range. If the Cowboys are able to run the ball more frequently in 2013, it’s very likely that Bryant will be more efficient but have fewer yards.

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