Monday, August 04, 2008

Long Distance Operator | by Mike

Jeff Samardzija's recent major-league debut reminded me of some data I had looked at around this time last summer. I was looking for ways to measure Samardzija's importance to the offense and what we could reasonably expect his successors to produce. I was also interested in looking at his "quick-strike" capabilities. Even when things were going well for the Irish offense in 2005, I can recall posts on ND message boards longing for the "quick-strike offenses" of other top teams. While ND certainly lacked someone with the explosive ability of Reggie Bush in 2005, I was surprised by posts suggesting ND didn't have anyone in Dwayne Jarrett's league either.

For these reasons, I decided to look at the "quick-strike ability" of some elite college football offenses. I think of a "quick strike" as a touchdown scored from beyond field-goal range. I recalled that Mason Crosby's 58-yard field goal against the Hurricanes in 2005 was the longest FG in college at sea-level without a tee, so I figured that with almost any other kicker a touchdown play of 40 or more yards (at least a 57-yard field goal) would be from beyond field-goal range. Obviously, this is a somewhat arbitrary measure, but it seemed good enough. I then identified who I believed to be the premier receivers in college football for the two preceding years - Samardzija, Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn, Dwayne Jarrett and Mario Manningham - and looked at how many touchdown receptions of 40 or more yards they each had. As with the distance threshold, this list represents my gut reaction rather than the product of extensive data review. Here are the numbers:

      Samardzija                   Ginn                   Johnson
Yards Opponent Year Yards Opponent Year Yards Opponent Year

80 Stanford 2005 73 Illinois 2005 66 UVa 2006
55 Purdue 2005 58 No. Ill. 2006 58 UVa 2006
52 UW 2005 57 BGSU 2006 53 VaTech 2006
51 AFA 2006 57 MSU 2005 48 WVU 2006
45 UCLA 2006 56 ND 2005 42 NCSU 2006
43 MSU 2006 42 Miami (OH) 2005 42 UConn 2005
42 UNC 2006

Manningham Jarrett
Yards Opponent Year Yards Opponent Year

69 ND 2006 62 Mich 2006
49 Wisc 2005 43 ND 2006
43 MSU 2005
41 Minn 2006
41 MSU 2006
What do these numbers tell us? Well, they certainly tell us Jeff was one of the most fun players in the country to watch during those two years. However, I certainly would not attempt to produce an ordinal ranking of the best deep threats based solely on these numbers. There are numerous caveats that should be applied to these numbers. First, they're largely a function of where I set the thresholds. If your threshold for a "quick strike touchdown" is 50 or more yards, then the numbers become Ginn 5, Samardzija 4, Johnson 3, Jarrett 1 and Manningham 1. Additionally, these numbers do not account for strength of schedule, quality of quarterback play (e.g., while Samardzija was catching passes from Brady Quinn, Calvin Johnson's quarterback was Reggie Ball), games missed due to injury, defenses accounting for a given player, etc. Finally, I only looked at touchdowns, but some of the biggest plays made by these receivers did not reach the endzone. Recall Samardzija's 73-yard reception against Tennessee in 2005 or Dwayne Jarrett's 4th and 9 reception against the Irish, easily as significant as any of the above touchdowns.

While these numbers are thus an imprecise measure of ability, they are (obviously) an accurate measure of production. Big passing plays are a key component of a functioning Weis offense. As SMQ noted following the 2005 season:
And there's the unreal 43 pass plays over 25 yards (and 100 over 15), which negates the notion of a short, safe, toss-and-pitch philosophy with no big play threats.
SMQ's comment mentions a disparity between stats and perception when it comes to Weis's first two Irish offenses. Despite the perception of a "short, safe, toss-and-pitch philosophy" designed to produce meticulous drives, Quinn & Co. frequently chewed up large swaths of yardage in single plays. And despite a widespread perception of Jeff Samardzija as a "young Ed McCaffery", he turned in more 40+ yard TD receptions during the '05 and '06 seasons than Ginn, Johnson, Manningham and Jarrett. Part of this perception is probably due to the importance of yards-after-catch to Samardzija's long touchdowns. When most football fans think of elite deep threats, they have visions of a receiver catching a ball from the quarterback after getting behind all the defensive backs and sauntering into the endzone. That certainly seemed to be the formula for the long TDs on the above list that came against the Irish defense (Ginn in the Fiesta Bowl, Manningham in South Bend). While Jeff's 52-yarder against Washington and 51-yarder against Air Force were of this variety, he created several of his long touchdowns with the ball in his hand, using his superior agility and balance to make cuts that left the defensive backs between him and the endzone stumbling to the turf. However, regardless of the form of Jeff's quick strikes, the numbers make clear that he was a playmaker at wide receiver by any credible definition of the term.

Why revisit these numbers at this point? On the list of reasons why Notre Dame's offense stunk in 2007, the lack of 40+ yard passing touchdowns ranks behind a multitude of other reasons. (For the record, the longest passing touchdowns the Irish offense produced in 2007 all covered 25 yards - Golden Tate against Purdue and David Grimes and Duval Kamara against Duke. Even David Grimes' dramatic and unjustly overturned grab against Stanford only covered 29 yards.) While thinking about these numbers, I realized how important having playmakers at wide receiver is to the Notre Dame offense under Weis. Weis's NFL reputation was burnished by his ability to construct a competent passing attack with a green quarterback and a wide receiver corps of Troy Brown, David Patten and some warm bodies, suggesting that elite WR talent was not a requirement for his offense. However, Samardzija and Stovall's ability to create big plays in the passing game was a key component in 2005's offensive explosion and the loss of Stovall accounted for much of the decline from 2005 to 2006. The Irish offense has several young receivers that could emerge as playmakers, including sophomores Kamara and Tate and freshmen Michael Floyd and Deion Walker. With a sophomore quarterback and lingering questions along the offensive line, it will be critical for one or more receiver to emerge as someone who can score from anywhere and reduce the need for Clausen and the line to sustain meticulous drives. In a few weeks, we'll find out if this will happen in 2008. Then again, the best aid for a young quarterback and an uncertain line is a strong commitment to the running game. Hopefully we'll see this as well.