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Collie and Garcon: Not as good as you think

All off season long, we’ve been debating how good the Colts receiving corps is and how good Collie and Garcon are specifically. Well, the Football Outsiders have a thing or two to say about that.

In discussing their new “Plus/Minus” stat, they use the Colts to discuss the issue of team context in evaluating raw numbers.  Plus/Minus is an adjusted statistic that shows how many catches a player had over the average for the number of times he was thrown to at various distances.  FO has determined that Plus/Minus depends heavily on context because the quarterback throwing the pass plays a big part as to whether the passes were caught.

Today, they discuss the Colts specifically to see which receivers were actually good, and which ones were only good because Peyton Manning threw the passes.

The bad news for Collie and Garcon?  They weren’t actually very good last year.  On a raw basis, Pierre Garcon had a raw +/- of 0.2.  In other words, he basically caught exactly the number of passes that an average receiver would have running the same routes.  However, when you adjust for the fact that Manning was throwing him the ball, Garcon’s number plummets to -6.4, worst on the team.  That means that on the season:

Pierre Garcon is another excellent example of how context can make a player with below-average hands look good. Garcon’s plus-minus was about league-average relative to the distance and nature of his routes, but once you factor in the context of his offense, he was actually pretty mediocre at catching the ball in 2009. That blends well with DVOA, which saw Reggie Wayne and Collie well ahead of Garcon a year ago.

Actually, the news for Collie isn’t much better.  Collie had a +/- of 3.4 (three catches better than average).  However, once you account for Peyton, that number drops to -2.8, ahead of only Jacob Tamme and Garcon.  Of Collie they said,

There were 465 qualifying targets thrown to the remainder of the Colts’ players. On those plays, the rest of the team accrued 33.7 catches above expectation. On a per-play basis, that’s 0.07 catches above average; because that’s higher than Collie’s average, it means that Collie was worse than his teammates.

Subtract the difference and multiply it by Collie’s 86 targets and you’ll find that the tune of his numbers has changed. While Collie was catching passes at an above-average rate according to both catch rate and plus-minus, adjusting the figure for his team context produces a plus-minus figure of -2.8, a figure below what his Colts teammates were producing.

Now, not all the Colts suffer in this metric.  Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark come out just fine.

Team-adjusted plus-minus tells a distinct story for the 2009 Colts — Wayne and Dallas Clark caught a lot of passes at a well-above-average level, and everyone else was average or worse — but the team’s statistical signature isn’t always so similar. In 2008, for example, Wayne’s raw numbers declined, and his plus-minus figures were no different. He had a raw plus-minus of 10.4 on 124 targets; adjust that for the team rate, though, and he was only at 2.1. Anthony Gonzalez led the team, with a team-adjusted plus-minus of 4.4 catches above average on 77 targets.

In Wayne’s dominant 2007 season, well, he was a one-man wrecking crew. His 18.3 raw plus-minus was met with mostly mediocre performances by the rest of the offense, producing a team-adjusted plus-minus of 16.7 that led the league. It’s the second-best figure of the four-year stretch we have plus-minus available for, having been narrowly beaten out (16.74 catches above average to Wayne’s 16.72) by a receiver in 2009. One of the main reasons why Wayne’s figure is so high is because the only other Colts receiver with more than 50 qualifying targets that year was Dallas Clark, who had a raw plus-minus of -5.6 on 94 targets. After adjusting that for the team context, Clark was at a very disappointing figure of -9.5 catches, the worst figure in the league that year.

That all jives with what we know.  Clark had a bad thumb in 2007 and led the league in dropped passes, including the final damning drop of the season in the playoffs against the Chargers.

So, when it comes to evaluating 2009, Manning’s performance with Collie and Garcon catching passes is truly remarkable.  Whereas by most metrics, Anthony Gonzalez has elite skills, Collie and Garcon were basically “just guys” in 2009.  Now, they could conceivably keep improving, and in the case of Garcon I consider that likely or at least possible.  However, there was nothing about the performance of either player that screams out “this is an elite wide reciever!”.

So for all the Patriots fans who ever screamed about Manning only being great because of his ‘weapons’, now you know what 18 would do if he had to throw to ‘other guys’.

He won 14 straight games, an MVP award, and took his team to the Super Bowl.