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.
|Kellen Winslow Jr.||NYJ||108||388||27.8%||13||47||27.7%|
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:
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.
- 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. [↩]