Numbers link a quarterback and wide receiver intrinsically. A quarterback is only as good as who catches his passes. A wide receiver is only as good as the person throwing them the ball.
So how do you judge a wide receiver in the West Coast Offense? The offense is geared to short and intermediate routes, and is also geared to involve the running back in the passing game more than other offenses. So it seems ludicrous to simply judge the offense by one receiver.
But are there are other ways to put together a judgment on Jon Gruden's use of the wide receiver? What about consistency in personnel? What about the percentage of the Top 3 pass catchers as it pertains to the total reception yardage? What about by what positions receptions are distributed? Do these particular variables, and how Gruden uses them, impact his teams' win-loss records? That's what we'll explore.
Consistency in personnel
The gold standard in consistency of personnel in the West Coast Offense are the 1980s San Francisco 49ers. From 1988-94, Jerry Rice and John Taylor haunted every defensive coordinator's nightmares. Especially durable and talented, this pair executed Bill Walsh's, and later George Seifert's, game plans with such grace and alacrity that they masked injuries to other personnel on offense. Four times during that period Rice and Taylor were in the 49ers top three receivers at the end of the season.
Gruden has never experienced that kind of continuity in his top two receivers. In Philadelphia he started with Calvin Williams and Fred Barnett and ended with Irving Fryar. Fryar lasted two years.
In Oakland, Tim Brown was his top receiver each of his four years as head coach. The complementary receivers changed, from James Jett to Andre Rison to Jerry Rice. But his primary receiver never changed.
In Tampa Bay Gruden had Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell for two years, though Johnson sat out part of 2003 due to a team suspension.
But how much does consistency really matter? In Philadelphia the Eagles went to the playoffs in 1995, changed their No. 1 receiver to Fryar and returned to the playoffs in 1996.
Oakland had Brown, but it changed out secondary receivers three times, and pass-catching running backs three times, and never had a losing record.
Tampa Bay won and lost with Johnson and McCardell, and have won and lost with Galloway, Smith and Pittman as the top three pass catchers.
The consistency of personnel catching the football doesn't seem to matter as much in Gruden's offensive scheme as it does at quarterback or running back. It seems he's able to change talent at various times and still win games — or lose games, for that matter.
Weighing the top three receivers
Few teams can match what the Indianapolis Colts did in 2005, when three different receivers each caught 1,000 yards worth of passes. But most teams can rely on three receivers each year to help their quarterbacks get the ball downfield.
Whether those receivers are out wide, in the slot or in the backfield, does gauging the contribution of the top three pass catchers in each season under Gruden lend insight into how he uses receivers?
Production-wise, no. Take the totals of the top three receivers statistically each season under Gruden and compare it to the entire receiving totals for that team. How much, statistically, do those top three receivers account for in playoff and non-playoff years?
Playoff years: 56.8 percent (receptions), 62.0 percent (yardage), 69.8 percent (touchdowns).
Non-playoff years: 52.7 percent (receptions), 59.0 percent (yardage), 53.9 percent (touchdowns).
The drops in receptions and yardage are negligible. The drop in touchdowns is noticeable, but explainable. Losing teams simply don't score as much as winning teams, or else they would be in the playoffs.
Thus the contribution of the top three receivers, in terms of wins and losses, is negligible.
The West Coast offense lends itself to a high-catch total for the running back. In fact in each of Gruden's years as an offensive coordinator or head coach, a running back — or fullback — has been among his top three pass catchers.
Ricky Watters did it three times in Philadelphia. Fullback Jon Ritchie led the Raiders twice, and Randy Jordan and Charlie Garner each did it once. In the most consistent performance by any offensive player under Gruden not named Rich Gannon, Pittman has been his top pass-catching running back the past five years. In fact, only Brown has been a more productive receiver in a Gruden-guided offense.
The West Coast offense thrives on diversified distribution of the football. While Rice certainly put up unreal numbers in San Francisco, Taylor, tight end Brent Jones and, at various times, Watters, Garrison Hearst and Garner were quite productive.
So it's obvious that Gruden likes to have a capable pass-catching back to throw to, and makes it all the more important that current back Cadillac Williams continue to progress as a pass catcher.
But in the past three seasons a new trend has emerged with Gruden, and that's added use of the tight end. Gruden has used the tight end effectively in the past, most notably Rickey Dudley in Oakland. But for the past three seasons, for the first time in Gruden's career as a play-caller, a tight end has been among his top three receivers:
Michael Clayton, 80 catches, 1,193 yards, 7 TDs.
Michael Pittman (RB), 41-391-3
Ken Dilger (TE), 39-345-3
Joey Galloway, 83-1,287-10
Alex Smith (TE), 41-367-2
Michael Pittman (RB), 36-300-1
Joey Galloway, 62-1,057-7
Michael Pittman (RB), 47-405-0
Alex Smith (TE), 35-250-3
Tight end isn't a position that gets a lot of attention, even in the West Coast offense, but Jones and Dwight Clark set a standard in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s for the WCO's use of the tight end. The position can be a team leader in receptions. And in an age where some of the best receivers are tight ends — Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Todd Heap among them — Gruden's use of the tight end lately actually boasts of the offense's ability to spread the ball around.
So what have we learned? Well, sometimes building a hypothesis actually means proving some theories wrong. Consistency in receiving personnel has not meant as much during Gruden's career as you might believe. The performance of his top three pass-catchers each season has had only a negligible impact on the wins and losses. And all the ball distribution theory proved is that Gruden is willing to spread the ball around, as a good WCO disciple should.
Wide receiver is an important position in the West Coast offense, but it may prove to be the least important. Perhaps that's a bad term. Call it the most interchangeable.
Gruden has coached 10 different receivers with 500 or more career catches during his career (that includes his short stint in Green Bay under Mike Holmgren). It's an impressive list, filled with some of the names mentioned earlier. He's also coached guys like Chris T. Jones and Kevin Turner, estimable NFL players who despite their pedigree turned in Top 3 numbers under Gruden. In fact, Jones caught almost as many passes in one season (70, 1996) as Brown did (76, 2000).
In fact, six different receivers have led Gruden's teams in receptions during his play-calling career. For the first time, in 2005-06, he had the same trio of pass catchers lead the team in receptions (Galloway, Smith and Pittman).
The evidence proves two things. First, Gruden is able to use just about any receiver he wants in his offense, provided they're talented enough to learn his intricate scheme (and plenty have proven that). Second, the evidence re-affirms that the West Coast offense's success hinges more on a capable quarterback than a stable of All-Pro receivers.
Other stories in the "Deconstructing Gruden" series:
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.