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Meaningless receiving yards

Shorts makes a meaningful catch

Shorts makes a meaningful catch.

Which player led the league in meaningless receiving yards last year? Wait, what are meaningless receiving yards?

I am defining a meaningless receiving yard as one where:

  • On third or fourth down, a player gained fewer yards than necessary for the first down.
  • The receiving yard(s) came in a loss and when the player’s team trailed by at least 28 points.
  • The receiving yard(s) came in a loss and when the player’s team trailed by at least 21 points with fewer than 15 minutes remaining.
  • The receiving yard(s) came in a loss and when the player’s team trailed by at least 14 points with fewer than 8 minutes remaining.
  • The receiving yard(s) came in a loss and when the player’s team trailed by at least 9 points with fewer than 3 minutes remaining.

This definition is not perfect — Le’Veon Bell had a 29-yard reception on 3rd-and-30 last season against the Patriots, and then rushed for a first down on 4th-and-1 — but I think it gets us close enough to perfect that I feel comfortable using it. The results aren’t too surprising — two Jaguars ranked in the top three, separated by the player who led the league in receiving yards — but that doesn’t have to be the end of the analysis.

Cecil Shorts led the league with 351 meaningless receiving yards, which accounts for 45% of all of Shorts’ yards last season. That might lead you to think that Shorts’ 777 receiving yards were misleading or inflated because they came against soft defenses. However, 45% of Shorts’ targets last season came in meaningless situations, too. So there’s reason to think his gross number of yards last year isn’t misleading at all, and he wasn’t taking advantage of soft defenses — he just had lots of opportunities against them.1

The table below shows all players with at least 100 meaningless receiving yards from 2013, along with their number of total receiving yards, percentage of receiving yards that were meaningless, meaningless targets, total targets, and meaningless target percentage.

PlayerTeamMean RecYdTotal RecYdPercMean TarTotal TarPerc
Cecil ShortsJAX35177745.2%5512245.1%
Josh GordonCLE282164617.1%4415927.7%
Ace SandersJAX26048453.7%508757.5%
Harry DouglasATL256106724%3213224.2%
Pierre GarconWAS201134614.9%5218128.7%
Brandon MyersNYG18452235.2%367647.4%
Kendall WrightTEN179107916.6%3813927.3%
Denarius MooreOAK17569525.2%398645.3%
Jordan CameronCLE17091718.5%3911733.3%
Rod StreaterOAK16988819%339933.3%
Aldrick RobinsonWAS16336544.7%214645.7%
Antonio BrownPIT162149910.8%2916717.4%
Santana MossWAS16045235.4%427953.2%
Alshon JefferyCHI158142111.1%3514923.5%
T.Y. HiltonIND146108313.5%3113922.3%
Nate WashingtonTEN14691915.9%2710525.7%
Delanie WalkerTEN13257123.1%238626.7%
DeSean JacksonPHI12213329.2%2312518.4%
Martellus BennettCHI12275916.1%229423.4%
Victor CruzNYG12099812%2912024.2%
Chris OgbonnayaCLE12034335%257533.3%
Zach ErtzPHI11746924.9%185731.6%
Chris JohnsonTEN11634533.6%125223.1%
Jerricho CotcheryPIT11560219.1%217627.6%
Trent RichardsonIND11531636.4%155129.4%
Rashad JenningsOAK11529239.4%194641.3%
Riley CooperPHI11283513.4%198223.2%
Kellen Winslow Jr.NYJ10838827.8%134727.7%
Jeremy KerleyNYJ10552320.1%217229.2%
Kyle RudolphMIN10231332.6%184639.1%
Vincent JacksonTAM10012248.2%4816030%

Josh Gordon’s line is interesting. While he was second in the league with 282 meaningless receiving yards, that represented only 17.1% of his total receiving yards. Meanwhile, nearly 28% of his targets came in these meaningless situations. Let’s take a game-by-game look at Gordon’s stat line:

WkOppYardsTarMean YdMean Tar

In the final 7 minutes of the Steelers game, Gordon caught 7 of 8 targets for 158 yards and a touchdown. At no point during that stretch were the Browns ever down by less than 16 points. I’m okay saying that Gordon racked up some garbage time yards there. But the amazing part is how infrequently Gordon piled up meaningless yards. In only two other games did he top 20 meaningless receiving yards, and in neither of those games did he hit the 50-yard mark. On the contrary, against the Bengals (in week 11) and Vikings, Gordon had 12 meaningless targets for 5 yards and 34 meaningful targets for 271 yards. While Gordon was putting up numbers for a bad team that passed a ton while trailing, I wouldn’t discount his numbers because of the game situation (you would, of course, discount his numbers because of the sheer volume of passes attempted by Browns quarterbacks).

Another player with Gordon-like metrics was Washington’s Pierre Garcon. It’s easy to dismiss his league-leading 113 catches as the by-product of playing for a 3-13 team. But Garcon wasn’t racking up the yards in garbage time: despite often playing in meaningless situations, only 15% of his receiving yards came then, compared to 29% of his targets. Assuming Robert Griffin III and company are improved in 2014, this provides some evidence that Garcon’s numbers won’t necessarily decline as his team gets more competitive (his numbers still could decline, of course, due to a decrease in overall pass attempts or well, any other reason).

Update: How’s this for incredible? I have Calvin Johnson down for only two meaningless receiving yards the entire season. Those came on this third 3rd-and-5 completion against Arizona in week two.

  1. I acknowledge that “targets” is not the best way to measure opportunities; the ideal metric to use would be snap counts on pass plays or pass routes, but my resources are limited. Why does this matter? It’s possible that soft defenses could have resulted in more targets for Shorts, too. If, for example, 35% of his passing routes came in meaningless situations and that’s when he got 45% of his targets and 45% of his yards, I’d argue that he was benefiting from soft coverage. On the other hand, if 55% of his pass snaps came in meaningless situations, but that’s when he only got 45% of his yards, well perhaps he has Randy Moss syndrome and checked out of those games (or his teammates tended to do better in these situations, decreasing his number of targets). I also recognize that the idea of an 8-yard meaningless catch on 3rd-and-12 is a bit clunky when applied to the concept of a meaningless target or a meaningless snap in that situation. []
  • sn0mm1s

    Did Calvin Johnson not break your threshold of 100 meaningless yards? He isn’t on the list.

    • Ian

      I would imagine so. Detroit didn’t suffer many double-digit losses, and he didn’t even play in one of them. And he’s not really the kind of receiver you would throw to short of the sticks.

    • Chase Stuart

      Great question. I’ve updated the post.

  • James

    Scanning the list only three players had a higher percentage of receiving yards than targets: Chris Ogboynna, Trent Richardson, and Chris Johnson.

    Checking down to a RB in a desparate situation has to be the definition of a meaningless pass.

  • Edward

    This might be a crazy request, but is it possible to see the entirety of the list?

  • MattR

    Why did you limit meaningless receiving yards to players on the losing team? It seems that if a player’s team is winning by 17 with 6 minutes to go (for example), any receiving yards he gains after that point on the way to his teams’s victory are just as meaningless as those of a player on the losing side of that game. Using the Super Bowl as an example, it seems weird that Demarius Thomas’s touchdown reception to cut the game from 36-0 to 36-8 at the end of the 3rd quarter is considered meaningless but all the Seattle receptions on the ensuing possession, including Doug Baldwin’s touchdown reception that increased Seattle’s lead from 28 to 35, are not meaningless (especially since if Denver had managed to recover the onside kick and passed their way down the field for another TD to cut the lead to 21 all those yards would have been counted as meaningless)

  • Interesting stuff. I would love to see this same method applied to QBs.