Over the last several years, we have seen a shift in the NFL away from the “feature” running back. Now, most teams have two or more running backs that split time rushing the football. This allows the coaching staff to plug-and-play the best player into the game in a given situation, all while keeping fresh legs in the backfield.
Similarly, offensives have also been shifting towards the wide receiver-by-committee approach, with less focus on snagging a true, No. 1 receiver, and more of a focus on selection multiple receivers, with differing skills sets that effect the game in different ways. While it is not as “mainstream” of a concept as the running backs, it is clearly being implemented all over the league, especially within some of the more “dynamic,” pass-oriented offenses.
The first teams that come to mind is Green Bay Packers, who ranked 9th in the NFL last season in passing offense. Yet, there were was not a single 1,000 yard receiver in the offense. Randall Cobb, the Packers’ utility back and slot receiver lead the team with 954 yards, although he was only the field for 651 offense snaps. James Jones was their “top receiver” clocking 1,023 offensive snaps, tacking on 784 yards. Next was Jordy Nelson (607 snaps, 745 yards), followed by Greg Jennings (435 snaps, 366 yards).
The New Orleans Saints were the leader in passing yards in 2012, yet, much like the Packers, did not have any single receiver dominate in any statistical category. Marques Colston was the leader of the corps, with an impressive 1,154 yards on 854 snaps. However, Lance Moore hauled in 1,041 yards on 623 snaps, and Jimmy Graham, who often took the field as an off-line tight end, piled on 982 yards on 712 snaps.
In Indianapolis, where the Colts ranked 7th in passing last season, it was the same thing… Reggie Wayne was the front-runner with 1,355 yard on 1,099 snaps. But, in similar fashion, the next receivers racked up equally impressive numbers in their equivalent time on the field; T.Y. Hilton pulled in 861 yards on 682 snaps and Donnie Avery grabbed 781 yards on 1,044 snaps.
The formula was all the same, three to four wide receivers and pass-catching tight ends working by committee to dominate in the passing game. For the most part, those offenses were the most successful, with teams like New England , New Orleans, and Green Bay all finishing in the Top 5 in total points scored throughout the 2012 season.
Teams with a large discrepancy between their top receiver and the “next” receivers were not so successful. Calvin Johnson was far and away the leading receiver in the NFL last season, tallying an record setting 1,964 yards. The next receiver on the Detroit Lions’ was Titus Young… yes, that Titus Young… who managed only 383 yards. Consequentially, Detroit ranked 18th overall in passing touchdowns, and 17th overall in total points last year. Brandon Marshall was 3rd in the NFL in receiving yards last season, with 1,508 yards on 118 catches. The next best receiver in Chicago was Earl Bennett, with 375 yards. Much like the pattern in Detroit, the the Bears ranked 22nd in passing touchdowns, and 16th in overall points.
Naturally, there has to be some consideration made to the running game, especially on teams like Houston, who have a wide talent-gap between receivers, but also have a dominating running back. However, even in those cases, the figures hold true in overall scoring. Despite having a Top 5 receiver and a Top 5 running back, the Texans’ were outside the Top 5 in overall points last season. In Tampa Bay, Vincent Jackson ranked 5th in receiving yards and Doug Martin ranked 5th in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns; yet, the Buccaneers were 13th in overall points.
So, what does this mean for San Francisco?
Well, the 49ers’ were clearly a “wide talent-gap” team, with Michael Crabtree being the only receiver on the roster to clear the 1,000+ yards mark on the season. In fact, Vernon Davis, who primarily lines up as an in-line tight end, was second on the team in receiving yards, followed by the injury-riddled Mario Manningham. That gap was actually even wider after the shift to Colin Kaepernick, with over 65% of Crabtree’s receiving yards and an average of 2 more targets per game coming with the sophomore quarterback at the helm in the latter half of the season. What does that mean?
That means, with Michael Crabtree gone, the 49ers’ will be forced to try and attempt a receiver-by-committee approach in the passing game. The problem is, the grouping of players remaining on the roster are not built for that type of system. Anquan Boldin, A.J. Jenkins, Mario Manningham, and Quintin Patton are all essentially the same type of wide out… 6’0 tall, have a roughly 200 lbs. frame, and are primarily possession receivers with moderate speed and quickness. No speed mismatch. No height mismatch. Nothing.
To make matter worse, Kaepernick is not the type of quarterback that would fair well in a receiver-by-committee system, even if he had the roster to do it…
Michael Crabtree: targeted on nearly 40% of routes he ran from Weeks 11-17 with Colin Kaepernick as starter, 2nd in NFL in that span.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 22, 2013
Colin Kaepernick also rushed on 9.26% of his total dropbacks last season, behind only Robert Griffin and Michael Vick. The combination of those two statistics (high percentage of targets to a single player and high percentage of rushes) paints the exact picture of Kaepernick as a quarterback; first-option passer, second-option runner. In order for a quarterback to be successful in a receiver-by-committee system, he has to be a progression quarterback, willing to work through the second and third reads before firing the ball to the open receiver.
With Crabtree sidelined until, at least, Week 13, the San Francisco 49ers will be banking on one of three options to compete offensively next season: 1) their running game will be dominate enough to compensate for a lack of passing game, 2) one of the receivers will step up as the “replacement Crabtree” in the offense, or 3) Kaepernick will learn to play as a progression quarterback.
One of those three things might happen. Maybe, Boldin will return to mid-career form and be able to handle 8 to 10 targets per game. In Baltimore, Boldin was a slightly above average receiver during the regular season in 2012, with 921 yards on 902 offensive snaps; although, that was with Joe Flacco chucking the deep ball and Torrey Smith lining up on the other side of the field. For comparison’s sake, Michael Crabtree raked in 1,105 yards on only 692 snaps, with Vernon Davis as the only other legitimate receiving threat on the field. Maybe, Frank Gore will have an Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch-esque performance, propelling the ground game as the driving force of the offense. However, last season, Gore averaged only 4.1 yards per attempt with Colin Kaepernick as quarterback, down from 5.5 yards per carry under Alex Smith.
Chances are, we will see a drastic regression in the potency of the San Francisco 49ers’ offense in 2013. The 49ers were ranked 11th in the NFL in total points in 2012, with the 16th highest scoring ground game, but the 6th highest scoring receiving game. With Crabtree out, expect more and more defenses to stack the box against Frank Gore and Co., as well as devote more “spies” to follow Kaepernick, without the threat of a dominate receiver beating them down the field. The ‘9ers defense will inevitably help deter the effects of this transformation, but the fact remains that teams still have to put points on the board to win games.
San Francisco had better hope that their young quarterback truly is “Superman” in 2013, because their offense will need a heroic effort to compensate for the loss of their “franchise” receiver.