Well, this is the first part of an ongoing series that I intend to carry on with right up until September 2nd and the glorious coming of another college football season. I'm calling the series "Statistical Saturdays," and every Saturday I'll be attempting to use numbers to back up some assertion or another. Earlier this week, MGoBlog carried the news that Michigan has received a verbal commitment from a decent tight end recruit. In the discussion that followed the post, the topic of Michigan's recent lack of top-notch TE play came up. I went so far as to make the assertion that Michigan's offensive woes were somehow related to quarterbacks choosing to focus on only one receiver (Navarre on Walker, Joppru and Edwards, Henne on Edwards and Avant). A couple hours of investigation later, and I'm claiming my initial position to be totally false. The contribution of the leading receiver to the offense in fact depends far more on the ongoing development of said receiver than it does on the quarterback's selection of targets.
The results of my research can be summed up by the following table:
|Year||Leading Receiver||Receptions||Total Team Receptions||% of Total||WR %||TE %||RB %||Winning %|
My apologies for the clumsy table, html is not my strong suit (now if this were Fortran...). I would also have provided a pretty graph to illustrate the trends present in this data but, well, there really weren't any trends and the graph suspiciously resembled noise. Michigan's distribution of passes by position really seems to have no effect on their winning percentage. This surprised me somewhat, as I expected some trend to emerge. In 1997 Michigan threw A LOT to their running backs, something that fell off following that season. Michigan last exceeded 20% running back involvement in 2003, the season that Chris Perry was busy running over people and the running back screen provided a large portion of Michigan's short-to-medium passing game. Why is this significant?
Well, hearkening back to the original point of the post, Michigan's usage of their tight ends hit all time low in 2003, following the graduation of Bennie Joppru. Ignoring 1997 as an anomaly (I'll discuss this momentarily), Michigan's wide receiver contribution has remained at a fairly constant level, leaving the tight ends and running backs to pick up the remaining 30-40% of the receptions. Without a deep threat at either of these positions, this has largely represented the short-to-medium passing attack. Wide receiver involvement has been especially high in the last three seasons, something that I believe to be related to the increasing use of WR screens and Steve Breaston's value catching the ball near the line of scrimmage.
A final few thoughts should include my hypothesis that the '97 offense was an anomaly as that team was largely dependent on its defense to win games. I actually know very little about the team from that season, so if anybody out there has a better explanation for that season than "ball-control-offense" I would love to hear it. I should also note at this point that the data itself is up to interpretation as not all receptions are made by WRs, TEs, and RBs. In these cases, Charles Woodson was counted as a WR, QBs as running backs, and, depending the season, Jermaine Gonzales was sometimes counted as a RB and sometimes as a WR.
If you are still reading at this point, you're a trooper in my book. I would like to close by attempting to project how the upcoming season's table entry will look after all is said and done. For starters, a healthy Mike Hart, an improving Kevin Grady and plenty of running back depth most likely means less throws this season than in years past. I wouldn't be surprised if Michigan had 200 or less receptions this year, but I think that i will predict 215. Continuing with the wild guesses, Steve Breaston will lead the team with 45 catches. The WRs as a group will contribute 65% of the receptions while 20% will come from the TEs and the remaining 15% will be RB receptions.
Comments are always appreciated as I'm a relative newcomer to the analysis of sports statistics, and I'm always looking for new ways to gain insights into what happens on the field.