Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why Mike Williams Isn't a #1 Receiver -- Yet

Mike Williams escapes his past
I don't need to tell you the story of Mike Williams. You've already heard about the USC sensation's selection by Detroit with the #10 pick of the 2005 draft after being forcibly benched for a year. You've heard about his early struggles - the crucial drops with the game on the line, the self-focused attitude, the trades, the ridiculous weight problems, the cuts. You've seen with your own eyes the career revival, the improbable comeback, the pro-worthy big games as Seattle rewarded his rediscovered work ethic with a three-year contract. And you've read with your own eyes his newfound humility and gratitude for his second chance, his mature perspective on football, and his locker room leadership and team mentality.

Well, I guess I just did tell you the story. That's okay. It's worth repeating. Say it with me, because we're all thinking it - how awesome is it that out of the whole league, it's our Seahawks that get to watch this guy?

I love me some BMW. I found myself oddly optimistic about him during minicamps, even as others snidely dismissed him as a feel-good story who wouldn't amount to anything on the field. He just strikes me as an honorable guy who's been changed right down to the bone by his experiences and has a lot to teach others - though he'd probably say he has more to learn than to teach.

But is it still too early to give him the title that we all want to, the moniker that will portray his comeback as a truly momentous event in modern football - a "#1 wide receiver"? I went digging for some numbers that describe a #1 receiver, and I was surprised and educated by what I found.

The answer is: it depends on how you define a #1 wide receiver. Let's look at the following definitions.

1. Results

Production alone is not the best way to evaluate players, but at the same time, football isn't abstract - it's a competition to be won. A wide receiver can hold all the potential in the world, but there's no point if he doesn't get into the end zone. So through necessity, pure production has a place amongst our valid yardsticks, especially for offensive players.

Using results to judge a receiver also lets us adjust for scheme. WR Darrell Jackson broke the 1,000 yard mark, or was on track to break it, every year with Seattle except his rookie season. He's done nothing since leaving Seattle*, calling into question whether it's his talent that gave him success. But the numbers insist that he was the West Coast equivalent of a top-flight receiver in Seattle.

At the same time, looking at results alone will burn you if you don't have context for it. On the surface, BMW's 2010 numbers aren't any better than T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 2009, but he did miss three and a half games due to injury. If you project his per-game averages over 16 games:

WR Mike Williams in 2010
ReceptionsYardsAvg Yards per CatchTouchdowns

Those look closer to #1 numbers, if there is such a thing.

Another avenue I wanted to explore was whether OC Jeremy Bates used Williams as a red-zone target as much as he could have. He was targeted 17 times out of 121 red zone plays, which seemed low to me at first. How many of us spent the season hollering at the screen about why Williams wasn't getting more fade looks in the red zone? As a big man skilled at screening defenders from the ball, BMW should have been a prime goal-line target. Instead, Bates often settled for three futile Lynch runs and a field goal.

This is where our impressions sometimes fail us. According to this helpful chart from FF Armory, Williams's red-zone targets were actually about in line with that of other top league receivers as of Week 15:

Red Zone Targets to #1 WR's Thru Week 15
PlayerRed Zone TargetsTouchdowns
Roddy White194
Reggie Wayne174
Santana Moss174
Larry Fitzgerald184
Greg Jennings177
Dwayne Bowe157
Mike Williams17**1
** Adjusted for injury time

The unpleasant figure here, of course, is Williams' low touchdown number. And this is where the worrywarts will fixate on the end-zone drop against the Giants as if it defined Williams' entire season. But although true #1's like Roddy White, Greg Jennings, and Larry Fitzgerald have a deserved reputation for sure-handedness that we all covet, tells us that not every legit #1 is free from drops - or perhaps, that lack of drops isn't a necessary #1 WR quality:

Drops by #1 WR's
PlayerDropsTargetsDrop Rate
Wes Welker1312310.6%
Reggie Wayne121766.8%
Miles Austin101198.4%
Brandon Marshall111457.6%
Stevie Johnson81425.6%
Andre Johnson71385.1%
Marques Colston61324.5%
Mike Williams51104.5%

BMW's drop against the Giants was pretty embarrassing - a simple bobbling of a laser-accurate Charlie Whitehurst throw (we'll forgive the funky-chicken dropback that preceded it) that cost the 'Hawks a badly-needed chance to get back into the game. But I found the perspective offered by the chart to be interesting, and it challenges my habit of mentally inflating drops and other mistakes without context.

Now about that TD count: consider that Williams had a number of catches right at the 1-yard line that didn't break the plane, but were so close that it's hard to chalk up the non-scores to anything but chaotic circumstance. This catch-and-run vs. the 49ers was so close to six points that OC Jeremy Bates offered BMW dinner for not having challenged the call. I don't think a challenge would have overturned it, but you have to wonder - if Williams' shoelace flaps the other way, does Dashon Goldson catch him? That's how close it was.

What about game situation and the competition BMW faced? Williams had his way with the Cardinals this year, but that doesn't tell us much about his ceiling. Arizona's defense is awful despite the talent on it. Football Outsiders' DYAR rating helps adjust for these factors and ranks Williams 63rd amongst the top 85 receivers. That's beneath Houshmandzadeh and about on par with Devin Hester and Jacoby Jones. Sniff if you want (Housh? Really?), but it does remove the background noise of bad competition and garbage time. That's hard to ignore.

2. Qualities

Straight-line burner speed does not a #1 WR make. Mike Williams ran a modest 4.56 at his Combine, but Larry Fitzgerald was a 4.53. If elite speed were part of the #1 WR package, than a lot of current #1's wouldn't be. I suppose you could blame Mike's speed for Dashon Goldson's tackle, and it certainly means that Williams isn't the kind of receiver to stretch the field vertically. Williams' yards after the catch have also been a bit of a disappointment, although his effort is not lacking. But what about Williams' other qualities?

Like many #1 receivers, BMW is not only big and strong, but has the coordination and body control to shield defenders from the ball, creating easy, if inconsistent, mismatches. He gains some additional separation with solid route-running, although he still tends to be close to defenders when he makes catches. He disguises his routes well and has enough of a cut to gain a half-step on a defensive back. He has great hands and vertical and can high-point a ball, making him a legitimate threat on fades and jump balls. We've already seen him make a ton of plays in one-on-one coverage without any safety help.

One thing I might concern myself with is his concentration. There were several plays in the regular season where BMW appeared to run the wrong route or mis-communicate with Hasselbeck. Some fans attribute this to residual laziness, but this may be a factor of his in-play concentration, reading the defense as it shifts post-snap and reveals its true intentions. A wide receiver is usually given a primary route and a couple of "backup" routes to run before the play is run, and a receiver has to adjust based on the hand the defense shows. Dwayne Bowe has been criticized for struggling at times with these reads. (But then again, this is hard to tell even from the tape, so I'm really just talking out of my buns here.)

Williams does have admirable tools but has possibly regressed a little in his usage of those tools. This leads a few to conclude that he's already hit his NFL ceiling. I can understand the logic, although BMW is still 26 and his tools of size and strength will stay with him his entire career. But there are other factors playing into BMW's sub-#1 performance.

3. Impact

Perhaps the purest definition of a #1 wide receiver is one who demands double coverages from a defense and thus creates opportunities for other players. In that sense, "#1 receiver" is actually a defensive term.

This definition would make production almost unusable as a measuring stick, because a #1 could theoretically be shut down entirely without killing his offense. Good production from Brandon Stokley or Ben Obomanu could be credited in part to BMW drawing coverages away from them without getting a lot of looks himself. This certainly might help explain (though I have no tape-proof of this) why Stokley did well in Seattle despite being slow, aging, and fresh off an injury. Surely neither he nor Obomanu are keeping defensive coordinators awake in their beds themselves. So in that sense, can we look at BMW's numbers alone and downgrade him to a #2? I hesitate.

One stat that Williams stands out in is third-down conversions, amongst the league leaders with 18. The caveat there is that 12 of those conversions are concentrated in three games: the Chicago game and the two Arizona contests, obviously BMW's best performances of the season. Kinda hot-and-cold. Does this betray good play against bad teams and disappearing otherwise? I can tell you that the third-down conversions of Marques Colston, Reggie Wayne, and Santana Moss were a lot more spread out and consistent over the season, instead of bunched together against bad defenses.

This is possibly why Football Outsiders ranks Williams so low in DYAR. According to their metric, Brandon Stokley and Ben Obomanu were actually more valuable receivers, again probably because their production was more consistent. By FO's own admission, however, DYAR has its limitations, including its inability to judge the "double coverage" effect on other WR's (only the tape can do that) and to separate QB quality from WR quality. Which leads me to...

4. Circumstances

It's hard to know how much of Williams' disappointing games were on him and how much were on the quarterback. Matt Hasselbeck's 2010 was, shall we say, crazily inconsistent. He had some shining moments that speak more to me than any of his 2009 triumphs, like his excellent showings against Chicago and New Orleans' defenses. Those happen to have been two of BMW's best games. It's worth exploring whether BMW's success was a factor of how well his quarterback handled the defense, and whether his struggles happened because of, or despite, Hasselbeck's rough patches at other times. Or was Williams not getting thrown to because he wasn't getting open?

There's also health to consider. Williams not only rode the bench for three and a half games, but played through other injuries of the nagging variety (thigh bruise, finger) that limited his effectiveness. His production could increase with better health, but Seattle fans don't want to hear that right now. We're sick of perpetually gimpy skill players. The luck of health may be an uncontrollable factor, but surely it plays a part in the careers of #1 receivers nonetheless. A #1 receiver is a healthy receiver.

Perhaps what Mike Williams needs to boost his production is a more cohesive offense around him. There's no point in drawing double coverages if the defense can afford to single-cover or zone-cover everyone else anyway, and again, Seattle's WR corps apart from Williams really isn't that threatening. Stokley managed a lot of third downs, but Obomanu factored largely on long bombs and it's still a question whether Deon Butler and Golden Tate will factor significantly at all next year.

There tends to be an inflection point on offensive success in this league: a little bit of talent won't help you much at all, but reach a certain threshold of talent and suddenly things open up into an upward spiral effect. Seattle has not gotten anywhere near that point yet.

I cannot conclude that Mike Williams was a bonafide #1 wide receiver in 2010. Amazing and unbelievable for a guy just bouncing back from first-round bust status, but not a #1. Maybe the Seahawks' lowered-expectations version of one, but not by league standards. Maybe that was too much to ask in his first year back anyway. His inconsistency and errors speak against a #1 designation, as do his kinda-limited skill set.

But do those things cloud his future as a possible #1? What could he do with a running game, a steady QB, and more playmakers to actually take advantage of double coverages? That's what I want to see. Any player would tell you that there's no point in being a #1 receiver if it's not going to keep your team on the field into January anyway. Just ask Larry Fitzgerald. When you look at it from the angle of Williams having to overcome the drag-down effect of the generally broken offense, you could call Williams' achievements flat-out impressive.

There are many avenues by which to create a #1 receiver. Luck, health, QB chemistry, bad opponents, and varying degrees of tools have always combined in different permutations to create a variety of #1 WR's over the years. BMW has the tools and effort to get there, and he's not making excuses for himself. He has the maturity to take his place amongst the greatest success stories of Pete Carroll's tenure. Maybe he just needs the right circumstances. And maybe, despite how demanding we are of our players, we do need to respect circumstances as a shaper of #1 receivers.

Mike Williams himself, I am confident, is not making any excuses for himself. And if there's going to be a difference next year, it will come from that.

* D-Jack was on track in 2006 for 1,177 yards and 12 TD's before a late-season injury. Those are Dwayne Bowe numbers. GM Tim Ruskell traded him away for a 4th-round pick that became DE Baraka Atkins, who is not currently on a team, and replaced him with WR Deion Branch, who cost a first-round pick and a massive contract and failed to reach either Jackson's production or his health quotient.


  1. Great article, Brandon. I am excited to see what BMW does next year and as the Offense hopefully improves around him.

  2. Your articles are an oasis in the desert that is the NFL off season. Keep up the great work!

    BMW is another outstanding piece of the puzzle that PC & the Schneid are aggressively putting together. The sooner we have a CBA the better so they can keep assembling what is sure to become a masterpiece.

  3. Great post. Is there any tape evidence that BMW drew double-teams with some regularity? That seems to be the biggest question mark for me: even if the 2010 Hawks couldn't exploit a double-team, a minor upgrade or scheme adjustment might be able to do so in 2011.

  4. Tyler and Neil: thanks, guys. An oasis is just what I'm trying to be, for my sake as much as yours. Spread the word!

    Anonymous...I'm going to look at some tape and get a better idea.

  5. "Williams does have admirable tools but has possibly regressed a little in his usage of those tools. This leads a few to conclude that he's already hit his NFL ceiling."

    I would argue that this is more a result of the two years away from football than Mike having hit his NFL ceiling. If he continues to have this issues, the latter may eventually prove to be true; however, I think it's too soon to jump to that conclusion.

    Good article, Brandon

  6. Good job Brandon, enjoyed the article. Raised several interesting points. I would agree that the 1st down conversions stats would be a great talking point for William's spot as a #1 if they were spread across the season.

    The questions about his impact from game to game was another one. Was it the opponent who took him out, his offense or his own efforts?

    If Whitehurst and he are to be paired in the future, maybe their chemistry improves? If it is to be Matt for awhile, seems they have a rhythm developing, just have to keep the QB healthy. Hopefully the offense will improve overall and we will see if Mike has reached his ceiling or not?

    Thanks for the efforts and good luck with keeping this going.

  7. Big Mike is going to be just fine . Pete Carroll is building a big strong fast talented team in Seattle !