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Questioning the Narrative on Larry Fitzgerald

In 2008, Larry Fitzgerald had a fantastic regular season capped off by a historically great postseason; in the Super Bowl, he set the record for receiving yards in a season, including playoff games, with 1,977 yards. Of course, 2008 was decades ago in today’s era of what have you done for me lately. The table below shows Fitzgerald’s stats over the past four seasons. The final two columns show the total number of receiving yards generated by all Cardinals players and Fitzgerald’s share of that number.

Year
Rec
Yds
YPR
TD
ARI Rec Yds
Perc
200997109211.313420026%
201090113712.66326434.8%
201180141117.68395435.7%
20127179811.24338323.6%

2009 was the last season of the Kurt Warner/Anquan Boldin Cardinals. The 97 receptions and 13 touchdowns look great, although hitting those marks and not gaining 1,100 receiving yards is very unusual. Fitzgerald was only responsible for 26% of the Cardinals receiving yards that season, although one could give him a pass since he was competing with another star receiver for targets.

Can Fitzgerald rebound in 2013?

Can Fitzgerald rebound in 2013?

In 2010, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, and Richard Bartel were the Cardinals quarterbacks: as a group, they averaged 5.8 yards per attempt on 561 passes. Arizona’s passing attack was bad, but without Boldin, Fitzgerald gained 34.8% of the team’s receiving yards. Steve Breaston chipped in with 718 receiving yards yards while a 22-year-old Andre Roberts was third with 307 yards. In other words, Fitzgerald performed pretty much how you would expect a superstar receiver to perform on a team with a bad quarterback and a mediocre supporting cast: his raw numbers were still very good (but not great) because he ate such a huge chunk of the pie. After the 2010 season, I even wondered if he could break any of Jerry Rice’s records (spoiler: he can’t).

In 2011, Skelton, Kevin Kolb and Bartel combined for 3,954 yards on 550 passes, a 7.2 yards per attempt average (Kolb was at 7.7 Y/A). That qualifies as a pretty respectable passing game and Fitzgerald appeared to have a monster year, gaining 35.7% of the Cardinals’ receiving yards (Early Doucet was second with 689 yards and Roberts was third with 586 yards). It’s always hard splicing out cause and effect, but my takeaway is that with a more competent passing game, Fitzgerald continued to get the lion’s share of the team’s production but unlike in 2010, this led to great and not just good numbers.

But last year, not only did the Cardinals passing game decline, but Fitzgerald’s share of the pie dropped sharply, too. On 608 passes, Skelton, Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer averaged 5.6 yards per attempt. For the first time in the post-Boldin era, another receiver put a dent in Fitzgerald’s production, as Andre Roberts picked up 759 receiving yards despite missing a game (he actually averaged slightly more receiving yards per game than Fitzgerald). When Boldin ate into Fitzgerald’s production, the pie was a lot bigger — in part because of Boldin — but that wasn’t the case with Roberts.

Fitzgerald’s four-year run is pretty fascinating – it’s almost like a real life science experiment on how wide receiver production varies due to supporting cast. In 2009, he played with another great receiver so his percentage of the pie wasn’t high, but he also played with a great quarterback, so he produced strong numbers. In 2010, the quarterback and the receiver were gone, which seemed to cancel each other out (more receiving yards, fewer touchdowns, although both of those numbers were due to move in that direction anyway). In 2011, the quarterback play improved, so he ended up eating the same percentage of a larger pie. Then last year, the play fell through the floor… but unlike in 2010, he wound up losing a big percentage of his value.

So what’s the explanation? I don’t think it’s as simple as “his quarterbacks stunk.” Or even if that is the answer, that doesn’t make for a very good post. Let’s investigate his last four seasons under a different microscope. This next table shows the number of Cardinals pass attempts, Fitzgerald’s number of targets, catches, and catch rate, and his yards per reception, his Air Yards per reception, and his average gain after the catch, all courtesy of NFLGSIS.

Year
Team Att
Targets
Catches
Target %
Catch %
Yards
YPR
Air Yards
YAC
20095941539725.863.4109211.268.043.22
20105611739030.852.0113712.6310.262.38
20115501548028.051.9141117.6411.546.10
20126081567125.745.579811.247.413.83

There are a couple of things that really stand out when you look at the table: Fitzgerald’s target percentage has continued to drop, while his catch rate fell through the floor last year. But first, let’s look at the 2011 row.

Two years ago, Fitzgerald averaged a ridiculous 17.6 yards per catch. That was highly unsustainable and out of character for him. And while he was catching passes deeper downfield (in Mike Clay parlance, his aDOT rose a bit), the real reason for his increase in yards per catch was due to the yards he gained after catching the ball. Fitzgerald had 14 catches of 30+ yards in 2011 compared to seven such passes in 2009, 2010, and 2012 combined. Now if I was a superstar writer, I’d fire up NFL Game Rewind and watch those 14 plays; maybe someone in the comments will do that, but I’m content to say those were outliers unlikely to repeat themselves. I’ll just note that had his 80 catches come on a more Fitzgerald-like 12.5 yards per reception, that would have given him an even 1,000 yards.

One narrative for Fitzgerald’s career is that he was a superstar receiver through 2008, had a monster season in receptions/touchdowns in 2009, a down year in 2010 because of bad quarterback play, a bounceback, 1400-yard season in 2011, and then a miserable year last season because of terrible quarterback play.

Here’s another narrative. Fitzgerald caught 100 passes in 2006, 96 and 97 in 2008/2009, and then has dropped to 90, 80, and finally 71 over the last three years. He was fortunate to string together a bunch of big plays in 2011, a trait he hasn’t otherwise possessed, otherwise his yardage totals would have seen a similar decline.

Fitzgerald had a sparkling 63% catch rate with Warner and Boldin in 2009, but dropped to 52% with bad quarterback play in 2010. Then, despite much better quarterback play, his catch rate didn’t improve in 2011, and then his catch rate fell even farther last year. His percentage of team targets has declined in each of the last two years, too. And Andre Roberts played the role of Ronald Curry in 2012, gaining more yards per game than Fitzgerald. And it’s not like the weak offensive line is to blame for that one: Roberts’ average reception came one yard farther down the field (8.41) than Fitzgerald’s: it’s not as if Roberts was running shorter routes. In fact, the fact that Fitzgerald’s aDOT was so low is a sign that the Cardinals were doing everything they could to get him the ball, and it just wasn’t working.

It’s easy and noncontroversial to give Fitzgerald a pass for last season. And in my gut, I certainly expect to see Fitzgerald bounce back this year; Carson Palmer should provide a nice upgrade, and the offensive line should be better with the return of Levi Brown and the drafting of Jonathan Cooper. New head coach Bruce Arians has talked about moving Fitzgerald around the field to get him into more favorable positions, another good sign that 2013 should be a bounce-back year.

But there’s another Arians receiver to think about. As bad as the Cardinals passing game, think back to the 2011 Colts. In lieu of Peyton Manning, Indianapolis had a quarterback chimera composed of Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky, and Curtis Painter. The 2011 Colts actually averaged more yards per attempt, but since the 2012 Cardinals passed 74 more times, Arizona gained more passing yards. And instead of competing with Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd, Reggie Wayne had to compete with Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Dallas Clark, and Jacob Tamme. Despite all that, Wayne still gained 960 receiving yards, giving him 29.8% of the team’s receiving yards despite the more talented supporting cast.

The best-case scenario for Cardinals fans is that this turns into another Steve Smith situation. In 2010, Smith looked washed up playing for a Carolina team that was as horrible at passing as the 2012 Cardinals. Then, in 2011, he had a monster season after the team drafted Cam Newton. But that’s the optimistic view. I can’t figure out where I stand on Fitzgerald’s future prospects, but I don’t think it’s as simple as “he had a bad quarterback, he’ll be fine with Carson Palmer.” With Roberts and Michael Floyd around, I would be hesitant to project more than 28% of the Cardinals receiving yards this season. Based on fantasy drafts so far, most people think he’ll be back to 30-35% of the Cardinals receiving pie or that Bruce Arians is about to perform another miracle.

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • Danny Tuccitto June 20, 2013, 1:03 am

    Salute your skepticism for sure, but I think Fitz is one of those examples where the conventional wisdom is correct, even if it’s probably for the wrong reason (i.e., Simply, he’s Fitz! He can’t be THAT bad!). His QBs could not hit the broad side of a barn if you positioned them in the hay loft. Orlovsky, for as bad as he is, completed 63% of his (nearly 200) passes for 2011 IND. None of ARI’s QBs cleared 57%. In addition to underestimating just how bad ARI’s (especially post-Kolb) QBs were, words fail trying to describe how freaking awful their OL was; not just in terms of sacks, but also in terms of hits and hurries. It takes a special kind of stoic to complete passes whilst shitting one’s pants. Then there’s the abomination of their running game (mostly horrific blocking).

    Basically, the entire passing game had no chance — to an extent that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before; a massive outlier, if you will. Most every opponent knew ARI couldn’t run (even before the “deficit-driven mandatory passing” part of the game), so they focused on defending the pass, which entailed the two-headed hydra of pressuring the hell out of ARI’s below-replacement level QBs and rolling coverage towards Fitz. (The latter also explains why Roberts was somewhat successful.)

    • Chase Stuart June 20, 2013, 11:25 am

      Thanks, Danny.

      I agree with all your points. They were essentially an expansion team on offense.

      Then again….

      The 2002 Texans were an expansion team, and Corey Bradford had 700 yards. The 2005 Texans were essentially an expansion team again, and Andre Johnson as a rookie had 688 yards in 13 games. Your 2005 49ers were horrible on offense, and they threw just 389 passes and averaged 5.6 Y/A. Still, Brandon Lloyd had 733 yards.

      Fitz’ production for a team that threw 600 passes was just terrible.

      • Kay Nuck June 20, 2013, 2:22 pm

        Brandon Lloyd is to catchting balls as vlad guerrero is to hitting balls (literally out of the strike zone). An unusual talent. For the star receivers who have a particular down season, do you see an increase in drop% for those that don’t rebound against those who do?

  • Dan June 20, 2013, 2:06 am

    Over his career, Fitzgerald has averaged:

    * a 26.2% target rate (adjusted for missed games)
    * 45% of his team’s TD receptions (adjusted for missed games)
    * a catch rate that is 2.5% below his QBs’ completion percentage (56.7% vs. 59.4%)
    * 1.46 yards/target above his QBs’ yards/attempt (7.73 vs. 6.29)
    * 3.05 yards/catch above his QBs’ yards/completion (13.63 vs. 10.60)

    During the 3 post-Warner years (2010-2012), Fitzgerald has had a 28.2% target rate, a 45% TD rate, a -4.2% catch rate (relative to team completion pct), +1.41 yards/target (relative to team ypa), and +2.55 yards/catch (relative to team ypc). In other words, pretty close to his career averages (with a slightly lower catch rate). 2012 was among his worst seasons on most of these measures, but 2011 was among his best on the yardage numbers and 2010 was among his best on target rate, TDs, and catch rate.

    Here’s the yearly data on Fitz’s yards per target minus the team’s yards per attempt:

    2004: 1.38 (6.78-5.41)
    2005: 1.92 (8.54-6.62)
    2006: 1.84 (8.55-6.72)
    2007: 1.57 (8.46-6.89)
    2008: 1.89 (9.31-7.42)
    2009: 0.38 (7.14-6.76)
    2010: 1.37 (6.57-5.21)
    2011: 2.68 (9.16-6.49)
    2012: 0.17 (5.12-4.94)

    That’s a bad 2012 and 2009 and a great 2011, and otherwise extremely consistent (relative to his quarterback).

    Looking at the receiving breakdown by distance (from Pro Football Focus), it looks like a big part of the year-to-year variability is from what Fitzgerald did on deep passes (20+ yards downfield):

    2008: 12/18 for 456 yards
    2009: 3/20 for 87 yards
    2010: 9/37 for 254 yards
    2011: 14/34 for 496 yards
    2012: 2/26 for 61 yards

    Oof, that’s 2.3 yards per attempt last year! And again – bad in 2012 & 2009 and great in 2011 (and 2008; that year doesn’t stand out as much relative to team ypa because Warner was lights out that year). And there is enough variation here (with bad years on deep passes costing him close to 200 yards and great years getting almost 200 yds extra) to account for most of the year-to-year variation in yards per target (relative to team ypa). Which suggests that his unusually bad 2012 ypa has the same rather fluky source as his unusually great 2011 ypa. Though it’s possible that some of it is a decline in his play – if you want to figure out what happened to him last year, I’d recommend watching the tape of those 26 plays.

    • Chase Stuart June 20, 2013, 11:19 am

      Thanks Dan. Really good information.

      We know from the Yards per Attempt post on Tuesday that passes 20+ yards downfield were completed 33% of the time in 2012. Fitzgerald’s rates have been terrible there, although there’s no way to know how much that is on the quarterback and how much that is on Fitzgerald. While 2012 was a big outlier in the negative way, 2011 seems like just as big of an outlier in a positive way.

      I’m not a fan of catch rate or yards/target, since I don’t like penalizing players for missed/failed targets. But I do think Fitzgerald’s decrease in target rate last year was concerning. Still, last year is last year, and as terrible as it was, it doesn’t prevent him from having a nice rebound year in 2013. I just think it’s fair to wonder if he’s really coming off two down years in a row, and whether a bunch of lucky long grabs in 2011 is distorting our perception. His YAC and YPR from 2011 seems like a huge outlier.

  • chris June 20, 2013, 9:40 am

    Fitzgerald’s catch rate last year in games Kolb started: 57%
    Fitzgerald’s catch rate last year in games Kolb didn’t started: 39%

    • Chase Stuart June 20, 2013, 10:39 am

      Kolb only started five games. One of those games was against the Eagles – the team with the worst secondary in the NFL last year (pass defense DVOA #32). In that game, Fitzgerald caught 9 of 9 targets. Against the Patriots he went 1/5, against Miami and STL he went 8/15 each time, and against the Bills he was 6/12. Also…

      Andre Roberts’ catch rate last year in games Kolb started: 53%
      Andre Roberts’ catch rate last year in games Kolb didn’t start: 56%

  • Chris June 20, 2013, 5:50 pm

    Is it possible for the casual fan to be able to access nflgsis?

  • Richie June 21, 2013, 4:42 pm

    I think Roberts may be lucky that he missed that one game in 2012. Check out the Box Score for that game (a 7-6 loss against the Jets) http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/201212020nyj.htm .

    I was curious what the WR splits were for the different QBs last year. (I didn’t look at actual QB-WR combos, but pro-rated game-by-game based on pass attempts). Fitzgerald’s Y/R was pretty steady, regardless of the QB last year. But there is a clear difference when Kolb was playing. Kolb had 30% of his completions to Fitzgerald, and 17% to Roberts. The other QBs had 17% of completions to Fitzgerald and 20% to Roberts.

    Rob Housler and Michael Floyd were catching way more passes with Skelton and Lindley in there. (Floyd was out for 2 of Kolb’s games.) Floyd had 166 of his 562 yards in week 17 with Hoyer at QB.

    The stats for this team were just all over the place last year. I was going to say that Kolb was clearly their best QB (he was by passer rating), but he had almost the same QBR as Hoyer. Kolb was sacked 12% of the time! Everybody else was sacked about half as often. Lindley was terrible by any measure. I will be surprised if he ever attempts another pass in the NFL.

    Fitzgerald is entering his age 30 season. As we know, the age curve for football players can be pretty brutal at this age. Surely Fitzgerald’s best years are behind him. But I wouldn’t be surprised if his numbers improve in 2013. 1,000+ yards seems reasonable. But I’m sure the 1,400/90/10 seasons are over for him.

    I’m not sure if this will show up in a readable format, but here’s the chart with pro-rated stats by QB for the Cardinals receivers:

    Total Kolb Skelton Lindley Hoyer
    Player Rec Yds Y/R Rec Yds Y/R Rec Yds Y/R Rec Yds Y/R Rec Yds Y/R
    Larry Fitzgerald Total 71 798 11.2 31.2 354.8 11.4 20.6 234.2 11.4 14.1 152.7 10.9 5.1 56.3 11.0
    Andre Roberts Total 64 759 11.9 17.5 238.8 13.6 24.4 323.1 13.2 17.1 161.9 9.5 5.0 35.2 7.1
    Michael Floyd Total 45 562 12.5 6.7 77.3 11.5 12.9 151.2 11.7 15.0 149.2 9.9 10.3 184.3 17.8
    Rob Housler Total 45 417 9.3 9.4 126.6 13.4 18.5 164.5 8.9 17.1 125.8 7.4 0.0 0.0 0.0
    Early Doucet Total 28 207 7.4 11.4 89.9 7.9 10.0 80.3 8.0 6.6 36.8 5.6 0.0 0.0 0.0
    William Powell Total 19 132 6.9 5.7 31.8 5.6 2.4 14.5 6.1 8.7 81.5 9.4 2.2 4.2 1.9
    Jeff King Total 17 129 7.6 5.9 50.0 8.5 5.1 52.0 10.2 2.6 16.6 6.4 3.4 10.4 3.1
    LaRod Stephens-Howling Total 17 106 6.2 1.2 10.9 8.9 10.9 90.8 8.4 4.5 5.5 1.2 0.4 -1.2 -3.0

  • James June 28, 2013, 4:47 pm

    I still think QB/randomness is the main culprit here.

    I can think of another 30+ year old receiver that saw his percentage of targets decline 3 straight years from 29.3% to 26.1 to 24.7 to go along with precipitously declining catch rates of 65.9% to 63.3 to 56.8, including a decrease of 40 targets and 400 receiving yards below average the third year. The third year also broke a string of 5 consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. Any guesses who it is?

    Chase already brought him up: It’s Reggie Wayne! From 2009-2011 when he had Peyton, Peyton, and the Collins/Painter/Orlovsky combo at quarterback, only to bounce back to another Pro Bowl in 2012 once he had a legit and healthy QB behind center. With Luck he had 40 more targets over his career high which lead to Wayne’s by far highest target percentage and receiving yard percentage of the previous 5 years, and it’s noteworthy his catch rate continued to fall to 54.0%.

    That all said, Wayne differs significantly from Fitzgerald in that his percentage of team receiving yards stayed remarkably constant through his ‘decline’, staying between 31.0% and 28.9% from 09-11. Still, in addition to Dan’s research on Fitz’s passes over 20+ yards it seems that with a real QB Fitz should bounce back nicely between improved play and regression to the mean on the long pass.

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