When the Pac-10 Coaches named their all-conference teams recently, California football fans were puzzled by two choices - WR Geoff McArthur being placed on the second team and QB Aaron Rodgers being given honorable mention. The Pac-10 had a quartet of exceptionally talented receivers in McArthur, USC's Mike Williams, Washington's Reggie Williams, and OSU's James Newsom - statistically, the four wide receivers had such similar years that all four could have been named first team and there wouldn't have been any disagreement. For the QB position, USC's Matt Leinart was clearly the conference's standout performer, but after him, Washington's Cody Pickett and WSU's Matt Kegel were named to the second team. Kegel played before struggling with injury problems, but Pickett's 2003 season was far inferior to his 2002 season and he was able to amass large numbers because his team threw far more than any other team did.
Looking at year-end statistics can be misleading because a player can pile up impressive figures against not very good teams, be rendered useless in meaningful games and still come out with an impressive stat line. How then can you measure a player's value? There are a couple of different ways to approach this - one is by measuring how a player performs against the team's best opposition -- strong games against USC or Washington State should matter more than strong games against Indiana and New Mexico State. The other is by seeing how well a player plays towards the end of the season - this is when bowl bids and conference championships are on the line. Regardless of what the BCS computers think, games in November should mean more than games in August and September. If all other comparison factors are equal - the player playing better toward the end of the year has to be given an advantage over a player who isn't.
Using this methodology - did Geoff McArthur and Aaron Rodgers get a fair shake?
Looking at the season totals, all four wide receivers had fairly similar totals. McArthur had the advantage of a 13th game, while the other receivers played 12. McArthur's average yards per catch is significantly higher than the other four. The next closest yards-per-catch receiver, Newsom, would have to have more than 50 yards a catch on seven catches to approach McArthur's average. Mike Willliams' TD total is easily the highest - he caught a lot of early touchdowns when games were still close.
WIDE RECEIVERS - Season Summary
|Reggie Williams, UW||89||1109||12.3||8|
|Mike Williams, USC||87||1226||14.1||16|
|Geoff McArthur, Cal||85||1504||17.7||10|
|James Newsom, OSU||78||1249||16.0||3|
Now lets look at how each receiver did against bowl teams - teams that they played that eventually went to bowls. There are lots of other ways that the opposition can be filtered - winning records, Sagarin top 50, BCS top 25, but to have a pool large enough so that each player doesn't have one or two games to draw from, the choice made to use bowl teams. California played eight bowl teams, Washington played seven, USC and Oregon State each played six. Because schedules are set so far in advance, teams don't have a lot of latitude in figuring out how many strong teams they'll be playing. Some teams will go so far as throwing a Sacramento State on their schedule to pile up nonconference wins. USC would have had good reason to think that Auburn, BYU, and Notre Dame would have been bowl-worthy teams, and a slight uptick by any one of those teams could have but the Trojans into the national championship game.
If we separate out the four wide receivers statistics by how they did against bowl teams - Reggie Williams had the most catches with 55. But in the team's two biggest wins of the years, against Oregon and Washington State, he had 15 catches for 123 yards (8.2 avg.) and no touchdowns. By comparison, his teammate, Charles Frederick had 15 catches for 257 yards (17.1 avg.) and three touchdowns. McArthur ha d the advantage of one more game against a bowl team than Reggie Williams and two more than Newsom and Mike Williams. McArthur has strong number in terms of touchdown and average yards per catch while more than 20% of Mike Williams' receptions were for touchdowns.
Of Reggie Williams' four best games against bowl teams, three were in losses; three of McArthur's best four games were in losses, three of Newsom's best four games were also in losses; and one of Mike Williams' best four games was in a loss - although. (See logs below for game-by-game details)
WIDE RECEIVERS against bowl teams
|Reggie Willliams, UW||55||663||12.1||3|
|Geoff McArthur, Cal||46||750||16.3||5|
|James Newsom, OSU||39||647||16.6||1|
|Mike Williams, USC||39||553||14.2||8|
Based on performances against bowl teams, one could rank the receivers this way: Mike Williams, McArthur, Reggie Williams and Newsom - with McArthur getting the second place edge because of TDs and per-catch average, followed by Reggie Williams (number of catches), then Newsom.
Another key factor to look at is how well a player does down the stretch. Looking at the last four games, California players had a slight advantage because its opposition was milder - having to play just one bowl team, versus Washington which had to play two, and Oregon State and USC which each had to play three. Nevertheless, those are games that have to be won and players have to play well in if the team is going to make it into a bowl game.
Mike Williams tops the list, having both the most catches and the most touchdowns. To catch eight touchdowns against three bowl teams, when defenses have identified him as USC's more dangerous offensive weapon, is amazing. McArthur's average per catch (20.2) is remarkable considering that unlike either of the Williams, he didn't have a consistent #2 receiver lining up on the other side of the field from him.
In the final four games, USC was 4-0, Cal ws 3-1, OSU and Washington were 2-2. In the final two games, Mike Williams and McArthur were key players in their teams' victories, Newsom had two strong games while Reggie Williams was a nonfactor.
WIDE RECEIVERS in last four games
|Mike Williams, USC||33||440||13.4||8|
|Geoff McArthur, Cal||31||627||20.2||4|
|James Newsom, OSU||31||405||13.1||2|
|Reggie Williams, UW||31||333||10.7||1|
Based on performances in each team's final four games, the wide receivers would have to be ranked just as they are listed in the above box: Mike Williams, McArthur, Newsom, and Reggie Williams.
Setting aside those two criteria - performances against bowl teams and performances in the last four games - are there any other reasons that might cause a receiver to either rise or sink? Newsom was by far the conference's most consistent performer, catching passes for at least 79 yards all 11 games (he missed the Sacramento State game) he played - by comparison, McArthur topped that figure in nine games, Mike Williams topped it in eight, Reggie Williams topped it in seven. Should consistency outweigh the other two factors? Probably not, unless a player's output yo-yos so much that it's impossible to know what to expect on a game-by-game basis.
Looking at everything, of the four receivers, Mike Williams tops the list; with the differences between McArthur, Newsom and Reggie Williams being harder to define. Based on the two criteria that are being used, McArthur would get an edge based on touchdowns, yard per catch, and the fact that he was a key factor in helping his team win in the latter stages of the season. Newson would then get the nod over Reggie Williams because of consistency.
Conclusion: An excellent case could be made for McArthur being the second-best receiver in the Pac 10 this year - there could be a question about whether he was one of the two best receivers in the conference this season; but absolutely none about whether he belonged in the top three.
Of the four Pac-10 quarterbacks being considered, only one saw significant playing time last year; and Cody Pickett along with Arizona State's Andrew Walter were the preseason favorites for all-conference honors. Carson Palmer, Kyle Boller, and Jason Gesser all had to be replaced - at USC, Matt Leinart fought off competition from Matt Cassell, Brandon Hance, and John David Booty; at Cal, Aaron Rodgers wrested the job from Reggie Robertson early in the year, and at Washington State, Matt Kegel was by no means a sure thing going the season.
Just by looking at the year-end statistics, there seems to be ample separation between the four quarterbacks that there shouldn't be much room for discussion. All four quarterbacks three often - with Pickett having 20% more attempts than everyone else, yet with all those extra attempts he didn't show much of an advantage either in yardage or touchdowns. Leinart played well all season long and amassed impressive numbers even though USC was involved in numerous blowouts and rarely passed in most fourth quarters. Rodgers earned the starting job in the fourth game of the year - and overcame a dreadful game against Oregon State to finish strong. Kegel played well at the beginning of the season, but struggled with injuries late.
There isn't much question about whether Leinart deserved first-team honors, but in finding what about Kegel and Pickett's performance might have allowed them to leapfrog Rodgers into second-team honors.
QUARTERBACKS - season summary
|Matt Leinart, USC||368||232||63.0||3229||9||35||-46||163.2|
|Aaron Rodgers, Cal||314||188||59.0||2509||5||17||180||141.7|
|Matt Kegel, WSU||362||200||55.2||2744||13||19||-52||129.1|
|Cody Pickett, Washington||454||257||56.6||3043||13||15||-61||118.1|
Against bowl teams, Kegel jumps into 2nd place. Kegel had two very good games against New Mexico (138.2) and Oregon (131.0), two blah games against Oregon State (116.3) and USC (114.3), and played well in the opening moments against UCLA before having to leave the game with an injury. Rodgers saw reserve action against Kansas St. and Southern Mississippi and didn't play against Colorado St. He had good games against Utah (161.7), USC (155.3) and UCLA (142.3), an ordinary game against Oregon (118.9) and a clunker against Oregon State (33.4). Of Pickett's seven games against bowl teams, in only one did he have better than a 120 rating.
Rodgers had higher highs and lower lows than Kegel. The Oregon State game pulled Rodgers down significantly - without it, Rodgers' rating against bowl teams would have been 144.75 - which would have been even better than Leinart's numbers - but college statistics aren't like figure skating or diving where you can throw out the high and the low score and work with what's left. In Kegel's defense, the Cougars were 3-1 against bowl teams in games he played a lot; Rodgers by comparison was 1-4, and the one win was against USC - a game that Reggie Robertson completed. Pickett's best rating game was a 127.1 against Oregon State - a game where he completed less than 50% of his passes (19 of 40).
QUARTERBACKS against bowl teams
|Matt Leinart, USC||191||115||60.2||1447||5||15||-16||144.53|
|Matt Kegel, WSU||167||94||56.3||1279||6||8||-70||129.24|
|Aaron Rodgers, Cal||169||96||57.0||1139||4||7||105||122.35|
|Cody Pickett, Washington||276||149||54.0||1447||8||7||-52||105.19|
In the last four games of the season, Rodgers was dazzling, although his cause was helped by facing three of the conference's sad sacks, but when the team needed strong games to have a winning record and become eligible for a bowl, he was up to the task as the Golden Bears went 3-1. Leinart played well, USC won all four games - including games against bowl teams Oregon State, Washington State, and UCLA. Kegel played the entire game against USC, but only parts of games against UCLA, Arizona State and Washington as the Cougars closed at 2-2. Pickett had a good game against Arizona, but sub-100 games against Oregon, California, and Washington State; Washington closed the season at 2-2, more in spite of their quarterback play instead of because of it.
QUARTERBACKS in last four games
|Aaron Rodgers, Cal||119||78||65.5||1202||2||10||95||180.41|
|Matt Leinart, USC||131||84||64.1||1054||2||14||-19||163.92|
|Matt Kegel, WSU||75||42||56.0||513||4||3||-28||115.99|
|Cody Pickett, Washington||156||87||55.8||856||4||4||-30||105.19|
The question that has to be asked is how much should it count against a player if he's injured and has to miss parts of the season. In the first nine games, Kegel averaged 37 passes per game, in the last three he averaged nine - during he missed a little more than seven quarters or close to two games. In missing those seven quarters, Kegel was out for about 15% of the season - by comparisons sake, that would be 24 Major League Baseball games, 12 NBA games, or two-and-a-half NFL games. While his quantities would have been larger if he had stayed healthy, his QB rating wouldn't have dipped as much. By comparison, Rodgers missed close to two games because he was Reggie Robertson's backup.
The quarterback rating formulas take into consideration four factors: completion percentage, yards per attempt, interception percentage, and touchdown percentage. One number that's not taken into consideration is a quarterback's ability to avoid sacks or scramble for positive yardage. While Rodgers didn't remind anyone of J.C. Watts while running the option, early in the season he was smart enough to avoid taking big losses on sacks and transform an eight- or nine-yard loss into a two- or three-yard loss. As the season went on, he was able to read defenses well enough to start runing for short gains - of the four quarterbacks being considered, Rodgers, under all three breakdowns, is the only quarterback to finish with positivie rushing yardage.
Naming Leinart as the first-team all conference quarterback was a no-brainer, although an argument could be made that Mike Williams was more deserving of conference offensive player of the year honors. Kegel's only advantage over Rodgers would be that of consistency and not having an extremely bad game. Even with the bad game, Rodgers numbers are close to Kegel's against top competition. In the last month of the season, Rodgers was the best offensive player in the conference, something that Kegel couldn't have argued during any other month of the season. How Pickett's name ever entered the discussion of first- or second-team all conference is beyond understanding.
Conclusion: This mirrors the wide receiver comparison in that the USC player clearly belongs at the top, and the following places are somewhat muddled. While Washington State had a better won-loss record, Kegel's performance fell off in the second half of the year because of injury. While Kegel's and Rodgers' numbers were close at season-end, Rodgers was playing significantly better football at the end of the season. If one quarterback was going to be named to the second-team all-conference, one could make convincing arguments for both players. If two quarterbacks were going to be named, then both would certainly be worthy of the honor. There is nothing in any of the analysis undertaken that would suggest that Pickett is anything other than the fourth-best quarterback of the four quarterbacks that are looked at.
Both McArthur and Rodgers deserved to be voted higher than they were. Part of it had to with the fact that coming into the season, expecations were low for the Cal football team and even the Bears' upset of USC wasn't enough to keep them in the national spotlight all season long. Also, in November, when Cal was playing its best football of the season, the only game that was televised on a broad basis was its game against Oregon, it's worst effort in the last five games. By comparison, one of Pickett's best games of the season took place on TBS when the Huskies defeated Oregon State. But next year, McArthur and Rodgers will have the same momentum that Pickett and Reggie Williams had this year. While Leinart and Mike Williams will return, competition for first team all-conference honors will be stiff next season, but not altogether out of the question.
(For reference purposes, game-by-game charts for all eight players are listed here.)
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