Monday, May 17, 2004

How does Plaxico really compare?
There’s an article in yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette by Ed Bouchette droning on about how the Steelers may have put themselves behind the eight ball by not pursuing a receiver this offseason either through free agency or the draft. The impetus for this article I suspect, was the fact that Plaxico Burress missed last week’s three-day minicamp because (as we found out later) he was spending time with his family. Specifically Bouchette writes:
Missing minicamp won't matter a bit how Burress plays this season. The real test will begin Tuesday when the Steelers' voluntary spring drills begin. Burress has a new offensive coordinator, a new receivers coach and a rookie quarterback to help break in, and if he misses a large chunk of the workouts, it could harm him on the field and make sure he does not play in Pittsburgh after next season.

In the meantime, the Steelers did not protect themselves by picking a wide receiver in the draft. Burress helps Hines Ward see a lot more single coverage, and if he's not there or his heart's not in it, the dominoes will fall on Ward, too.
I agree with the first paragraph -- and I suspect that Burress will be in Pittsburgh for the individual workouts starting tomorrow -- if for no other reason than he was taking part in voluntary workouts before minicamp.

The second paragraph seems a little fatalistic because we’re talking about Burress missing a three day minicamp that in the long run won’t mean a thing -- and it certainly won’t determine how well the Steelers do in 2004. Nonetheless, it got me to thinking how Burress’s drop off in production compares to other Steelers and here’s what I found.
Player Rec Yds Avg Year % Off Yds % Rec
Hines Ward 95 1163 12.2 2003 0.33 0.18
112 1329 11.9 2002 0.33 0.20
Plaxico Burress 60 860 14.3 2003 0.24 0.11
78 1325 17 2002 0.33 0.14
A couple of things immediately stick out. First, Hines Ward’s production has been consistent from 2002 to 2003 -- at least in terms of the percent of passing yards he accounted for (% Off Yds column in the table above). In both 2002 and 2003 he accounted for 33% of all passing yards. Burress slipped from a 2002 total of 33% to a 2003 total of 24%. Ward’s performance is all the more impressive when you consider that in 2003, the Steelers struggled so mightily on the offensive line that Maddox was sacked 41 times and the running game finished next to last in the league. For Ward to duplicate his 2002 performance certainly underscores how impressive his season really was.

In terms of receptions, Ward accounted for 20% of all receptions in 2002 and 18% in 2003 (% Rec column in the table). Burress accounted for 14% in 2002 and 11% in 2003.

A lot has been made about the fact that Burress’s yards-after-catch are abysmal -- especially when compared to Ward’s. But what’s important to remember -- and often overlooked – is the fact that Burress is more of a deep threat while Ward makes his living as a possession receiver who runs great routes. It’s obvious that Burress’s production dropped from 2002 to 2003. It was especially obvious if you watched any of the games. What’s not so evident is why Burress’s production dropped (other than the fact that he dropped a lot more passes than he did in 2002).

2003 Avg 2002 Avg
Hines Ward 12.2 11.9
Plaxico Burress 14.3 17
Ward’s average yards per reception only declined 3 % from 2002 to 2003. Burress however, saw a decline of 16 % in his yards per reception. And this can't entirely be blamed on Burress.

First, because of the instability along the offensive line, Tommy Maddox had less time to throw the ball down the field. As a consequence, he had to focus on underneath routes or face the possibility of being sacked. In fact, Maddox’s sack total increased 37% from 2002 to 2003 (26 in ’02 and 41 in ’03). Underneath routes imply that possession receivers like Ward, Randle El and Doering saw more passes than Burress might’ve seen on deep routes. This is partly responsible for why Burress’s yards per reception dropped from 2002 to 2003 while Ward was able to maintain his production.

What’s also important to keep in mind is that Maddox’s production dropped as well. Maddox increased his attempts by 38%, his completions by 27% and passing yards by 20% (primarily due to him playing in more games). However, what helped to contribute to the overall decline in offensive production for the Steelers was that Maddox’s completion percentage declined by almost 5%, yards per attempt declined by 12%, touchdowns passes declined by 10% while interceptions increased by 6%.

I’ve already mentioned this a few times here, but it’s worth repeating -- everyone knows that the problems on the offensive line affected every other aspect of the offense. While Ward’s production remained constant, Burress’s production declined by 9% in terms of reception yards and 3% in terms of receptions. And while Maddox threw for more yards in 2003 than in 2002, his completion percentage and TDs decreased while in INTs increased.

It looks like Burress’s decline in production is due more to the overall struggles of the Pittsburgh offense. That’s not to say that Burress isn’t responsible for dropped passes, falling down after catches and not running crisp routes. But the fact that Ward was able to maintain his consistency in 2003 given all the offensive woes should be all the more impressive given the circumstances than the fact that Burress (and Maddox -- and for that matter, the entire Steelers offense) had an off-year.

Of course the true test will be if Burress can have a big year in 2004.