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Predictions in Review: NFC West

During the 2013 offseason, I wrote 32 articles under the RPO 2013 tag. In my Predictions in Review series, I review those preview articles with the benefit of hindsight. Last week was the AFC West; this week, the NFC West.

Let’s begin in Arizona, where I actually got one right.

Questioning the Narrative on Larry Fitzgerald, June 20, 2013

The conventional wisdom was that Larry Fitzgerald was going to have a bounce-back year in 2013. That view was widely-held: in fact, I caged a lot of my negative Fitzgerald comments with caveats, as it felt like criticizing Fitzgerald was just something football writers didn’t do. Fitzgerald was one of the game’s best wide receivers when Kurt Warner was under center, and it felt wrong to argue with folks who wanted to give him a pass for the mediocre numbers he produced with John Skelton/Ryan Lindley/Kevin Kolb. With Carson Palmer in Arizona in 2013, the expectation was a big year for Fitzgerald. Instead, he produced 82 passes for only 954 yards, although he did score 10 touchdowns.

For the second year in a row, Fitzgerald failed to lead his team in receiving yards per game, with Andre Roberts (2012) and Michael Floyd (2013) instead earning those honors. So what’s happened with Fitzgerald? I have no idea, but he’s certainly not the same player he was during the Warner/Anquan Boldin days. And while the touchdowns made sure he wasn’t a complete fantasy bust, he gained just 22.2% of all Cardinals receiving yards in 2013, somehow falling short of his 23.6% mark in his miserable 2012 season. [click to continue…]

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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.
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Larry Fitzgerald, innocent bystander

In the preseason, I wrote a post showing what percentage of each receiver’s receiving yards came from each of their quarterbacks. Using that same methodology, here’s an updated look at the quarterbacks responsible for Larry Fitzgerald’s career numbers entering week 14. The second receiving yards column (and second games column) shows the percentage of Fitzgerald’s receiving yards came (and games) that came from that quarterback:1

QB
Rec Yds
Rec Yd
G
G
Yd/G
Kurt Warner457244%53.539%85.5
John Skelton125812%15.611%80.6
Josh McCown121512%19.715%61.6
Kevin Kolb100810%12.99%78.4
Matt Leinart99810%14.110%70.6
Derek Anderson6096%9.57%64.2
Max Hall1521%2.12%71.7
Shaun King1121%1.81%61.4
Richard Bartel991%1.11%90.3
Tim Rattay871%0.91%97.1
Ryan Lindley621%2.72%22.7
John Navarre611%1.61%38.7

Fitzgerald ran away when he heard who his quarterback was going to be.

On Sunday, the Cardinals went into Seattle and played the type of game that leads people to wonder if a college football team could beat the worst NFL team. Coming into the game, Larry Fitzgerald had recorded a reception in 129 consecutive games, the second longest streak in football behind Tony Gonzalez. Against the Seahawks, Fitzgerald was kept off the stat sheet until seven minutes remained, and, when trailing 51-0, Ryan Lindley completed a two-yard pass to Fitzgerald to keep the streak alive. Fitzgerald, perhaps the best wide receiver of his era, has now recorded one catch in three of his last four games.

In 13 games this season, Fitzgerald has just 652 yards, an average of 50.1 yards per game. Entering week 14, Fitzgerald ranked 40th in receiving yards, and we can safely assume he is no longer ranked in the top forty.

How rare is it for an elite receiver to have such a miserable season at the age of 29? First we need to define what ‘elite’ means without asking ESPN. I came up with a quick and dirty system where I gave a receiver credit for his receiving yards over the Nth ranked receiver, where N represents the number of teams in the league in that season. For example, in 2011 Calvin Johnson receives credit for 794 yards, since he gained 1,681 yards and the 32nd receiver gained 887 yards. If you gained fewer yards than the Nth best receiver, you get zero yards for that season. The table below shows the career leaders using this formula (excluding 2012), and the column on the right pro-rates the data for non-16-game seasons.
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  1. Note: To determine quarterback games, I gave each quarterback credit for his number of pass attempts in each game divided by the team’s total number of attempts in the game. []
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