Through five games, Alshon Jeffery has 20 receptions (tied for 38th in NFL) for 246 yards (tied for 40th) and two touchdowns. Pretty much what we all expected from our number one receiver, right?
In a landscape dominated by fantasy football, we’ve developed expectations for the level of production a number one wide receiver is supposed to have. To this point, Jeffery isn’t meeting them, but it’s still early and the stats aren’t telling the whole story.
The Quarterback Connection
Building a rapport between a quarterback and receiver is a much more complex process than it’s made out to be. There are the obvious factors, such as getting a feel for each other’s speed and the velocity with which the ball is thrown, but there are countless others that are not as easily identifiable.
In the short time that Jeffery has been with the Eagles, he’s had to learn a completely new offense. Though most coaches run the same high-level concepts, the intricacies of each system are completely different.
Within those intricacies, almost every route a receiver runs includes some type of slight adjustment, a mid-route tweak based on the coverage or positioning of defender, and they’re different in every system. They require real-time reactions by both quarterback and receiver and both must read the situation in the exact same way. This is the stuff that takes time to develop.
All of these nuances are worked out behind the scenes on the practice field or inside meeting rooms, so it’s understandable why talk about the quarterback-receiver connection can seem anecdotal on the surface. But it’s a real thing, and if we just look back a few years, there is evidence supporting it.
Zach Ertz is finally having his long-awaited break out season, but his connection with Wentz wasn’t developed overnight. We always wondered why Ertz came on so heavy each year in December. One explanation is that he’s played with a different quarterback each year. Those spurts of late production could very well be due to the rapport he slowly built with each quarterback as the season progressed. This is one potential explanation for Jeffery’s lack of early production.
Doug Pederson’s Offense Is Not Designed to Support an Elite Receiver
Another impact on Jeffery’s production that isn’t discussed enough is the running game. For years, this city has cried out for a good run/pass balance, and for the past three weeks Doug Pederson has delivered.
The only downside to a good run/pass balance? It can significantly reduce Jeffery’s opportunity.
This isn’t limited to the Eagles either– check out Dez Bryant’s first five games with Dak Prescott. The Cowboys built their offense around their running game and Bryant’s production predictably slipped from previous seasons.
Secondly, Pederson’s west coast based offense is not designed to feed heavy targets to one player. In 2013, when Andy Reid and Pederson first took over in Kansas City, former Chief’s receiver Dwayne Bowe didn’t realize that:
Bowe: "(Jamaal Charles) is going to lead the league in rushing this year and I’m going to lead the league in receptions and touchdowns.’’
— Adam Teicher (@adamteicher) May 15, 2013
Then, according to ArrowHeadPride.com, Reid had to make sure Bowe fully understood:
“While [the Chiefs coaches] appreciate Bowe’s enthusiasm and ambition,” Pompei writes, “they want him to understand Andy Reid’s offense doesn’t work that way. Never has. Probably never will. Reid likes to spread the ball around to multiple targets and take what the defense gives them.”
There are countless formations based on personnel packages, and then different play concepts that can come from each one. On top of that, each has different motions or adjustments just to dress them up. The variations are endless. This complexity not only confuses defenses, but it also creates opportunities for a wide range of players.
Also, while this current Eagles offense lacks truly elite options, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz are going to get their fair share of targets. Then there are role players such as Mack Hollins, Marcus Johnson, two other tight ends, and an assortment of running backs that all have a role. That doesn’t even account for the running game. There are really a ton of mouths to feed.
In Pederson and Reid’s combined 19 years of head coaching experience, only five receivers have hurdled the 1,000-yard marker and only one has gone above 1,200. That was Terrell Owens. To expect that kind of production from Jeffery in his first season in Philadelphia, in this offense, is a bit unfair.
Through five weeks, Jeffery has faced a murderer’s row of cornerbacks. Patrick Peterson and Marcus Peters may be the two best corners in the league, and Josh Norman and Janoris Jenkins are not far behind. The worst cornerback that Jeffery has faced this season is Los Angeles’ Casey Heyward. He only led the league in interceptions last year.
Considering the matchups, maybe Jeffery’s current production isn’t concerning after all.
Aside from drawing the opponent’s best cornerback each week, Jeffery’s presence alone is making a difference for the rest of the offense.
Last season, the only real weapons that the Eagles presented in the passing game were Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews, both of which worked the middle of the field. Defenses often dropped one of their safeties down to bracket them or play in the box, and still felt completely comfortable leaving their corners in man coverage on the outside.
In the clip below, from the Eagles’ Week 9 matchup with the Giants last season, watch how the Giants’ secondary responds to the Eagles 3×1 formation. Safety Landon Collins comes downhill and brackets Ertz along with the linebacker, which left only one deep safety and both cornerbacks in outside man coverage:
In the next play, same thing. Both corners are manned up outside and Collins comes down into the box to hi-low Ertz with the linebacker. No respect for the outside receivers:
Now, check out the Giant’s coverage of the same exact formation from Week 3 of this season. They keep two safeties back and run a simple cover-two zone defense. Look at the difference in the middle of the field:
Again, later in the game, both safeties are playing back again and showing much more respect for the Eagles’ outside receivers:
Getting Beyond the Statistics
Football is an extremely complex sport. There are 22 variables on every play and each has a different skill set. As fans, this makes it really difficult to watch a game and know exactly why a play worked or which players are doing well. That’s why statistics are so useful, because they provide an easy and clean method for determining which players are good or bad.
Stats are never as clean as we need them to be, though, especially in football. While a player’s batting average in baseball can be a good indicator of his ability to make contact with the ball, stats in football are not nearly as useful at judging a player.
Jeffery’s current stat line actually creates more questions than answers. How many of those yards did he create on his own? Were some of those receptions on poor throws? Did the cornerback fall, leaving him wide open, or did he create his own separation?
The stats that we typically rely on to evaluate players are next to useless, but we use them anyway. If a player puts up a good stat line, we determine that he is good, if he doesn’t, he’s bad, but the stat line doesn’t actually change anything.
If Jeffery were to haul in seven passes for 120 yards tonight in Carolina, does that all of the sudden make him a better player? No, he is the same player, only our perception of him changes. He doesn’t get faster, stronger or become a better route runner when he makes big plays. This isn’t Madden; he doesn’t collect XP for touchdowns and then spend it on speed upgrades.
Football statistics, at least the mainstream ones, are nothing more than a random outcome from a 22-variable equation. We need to put less emphasis on mainstream stats.
For Alshon Jeffery, his production certainly does not tell the whole story. He’s bringing much more to the Eagles’ offense than what can be seen in the box score and shouldn’t be judged by his stat line.
But, if we must, we at least need to adjust our expectations. Expecting him to put up elite wide receiver numbers in his first season with Carson Wentz in an offense designed to spread the wealth, is a fool’s errand.