Randy Moss to 49ers: right deal, right time

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 14, 2012



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts car wash supervisor


The Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law tells us that teams, fans and analysts suffer from the delusion that flashy wide receivers can instantly change a team's fortunes. As a result of this delusion, they wildly overvalue the impact of the position.

The second principle of the Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law, meanwhile, tells us that teams "should add a flashy wide receiver only when all the other pieces of a great team are in place." The Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law, in other words, teaches us not to gush like an excitable fan or simple-minded “pundit” every time a team hauls in a big-name wideout.
 
But on all counts, the Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law applauds San Francisco’s signing of future Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss. In fact, it’s the perfect statistical marriage of strong team with one obvious need with a talented deep-threat receiver who still has something to prove.

Here's why Randy Moss to San Francisco is the right deal at the right time and at the right price.

San Francisco is a very strong team with an obvious flaw in the passing game

The 49ers were one of the great surprise stories of 2011 under new head coach Jim Harbaugh.
 
San Francisco was a struggling and tumultuous 6-10 team in 2010, in the midst of the worst decade in franchise history, before Harbaugh guided the club to an incredible 13-3 record and the NFC’s No. 2 seed in his first season at the helm.
 
The fact that the public was surprised by San Francisco’s surge is evident in the team’s league-best 12-3-1 record against the spread in 2011, according to our CHFF Insider friends from Spreadapedia.com. The 49ers consistently beat the public perception of who they were last season.
 
The Cold, Hard Football Facts accepted the strength of the 2011 49ers pretty quickly, because we were devoted to what our Quality Stats said about the team and not devoted to what year-old perceptions said about the team. After all, proficiency in our Quality Stats almost always precedes proficiency in the eyes of the pigskin public.

The 49ers were so proficient in our Quality Stats early in the season, for example, that we told CHFF Insiders to expect a very close game when they traveled cross country to play the 8.5-point favorite "Dream Team" Eagles way back in Week 4. The 49ers won in Philadelphia, 24-23. The 49ers were so proficient in our Quality Stats at the end of the season that we told CHFF Insiders to expect an outright victory over the 3.5-point favorite Saints in the playoffs. The "pundits" gushed about the mighty Saints. We gushed about the 49ers. The 49ers won, 36-32.
 
Here’s how the 49ers measured up (league-wide rank) in every one of our Quality Stats at the end of 2011.
 
2011 San Francisco 49ers Quality Stats Rankings
Team Overall QS SCOR BEND RPYPA DRPYPA QBR DQBR OPR DPR PRD OHI DHI REL
San Francisco 3 4 2 1 20 10 10 5 8 5 6 26 2 4
Overall = Overall position in Quality Stats Power Rankings; QS = Quality Standings; SCOR = Scoreability; BEND = Bendability; RPYPA = Real Passing Yards per Attempt; DRPYPA = Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt; QBR = Real Quarterback Rating; DQBR = Defensive Real Quarterback Rating; OPR = Offensive Passer Rating; DPR = Defensive Passer Rating; PRD = Passer Rating Differential; OHI = Offensive Hog Index; DHI = Defensive Hog Index; REL = Relativity Index.

That's some pretty damn good statistical hooch, 49ers fans. And a few numbers leap off the page like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines in a very bad 1980s movie about the Cold War and ballet.
 
One, San Francisco was No. 3 overall in our Quality Stats Power Rankings, behind only Houston (a team good enough to win the Super Bowl if it didn’t lose its No. 1 QB) and Baltimore (a team that was one dropped pass away from reaching the Super Bowl with a defense good enough to make life miserable for Eli Manning).
 
Two, the 49ers ranked in the Top 10 in an incredible 12 of our 14 indicators. This team was solid top to bottom almost everywhere, and especially on defense.
 
Three, the 49ers had a very obvious weakness in the passing game: they could NOT get the ball down field consistently. Thanks to the dramatically improved play of quarterback Alex Smith, the 49ers finished No. 8 in Offensive Passer Rating and No. 10 in Real Quarterback Rating. But they tumbled down the list to No. 20 in Real Passing Yards Per Attempt.
 
It was a stunning gap, actually. Typically, OPR, QBR and YPA align within a narrow band of each other. There might be a few differences, but rarely do you see those numbers 10 places apart in league-wide rankings.

The difference tells us a few things: the 49ers were very smart and efficient passing the ball in 2011 and Smith produced a VERY high TD-INT ratio – always a good sign.
 
But clearly, there was a drop off in the passing game when it came time to get the ball downfield. The 49ers averaged just 5.92 yards everytime Smith dropped back to pass in 2011. And as history proves, statistical weak links almost always snap in big moments. And in the biggest moment of the 2011 season, the NFC title game, the 49ers averaged just 6.13 Real Passing YPA -- consistent with their season-long average and not good enough to get it done against the Giants.

Sooner or later you’re going to need to extract blood from a defense with a long ball down the field and it will haunt you if you can’t deliver. Last year, the 49ers could not extract that long-ball blood from a defense. If the Moss deal works out, the 49ers would have filled one of the huge gaps on their statistical resume with some Hall of Fame-caliber pigskin putty: they'll be a better team when it comes time to get the ball downfield.


Smith is a young, efficient QB on the rise

Alex Smith was one of the great success stories of the 2011 season, and his highly efficient play the biggest reason the team improved so dramatically last year.
 
You know the Smith story: the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft had consistently struggled to grasp the pro game. He was awful as a rookie (1 TD, 11 INT, 40.8 rating) and looked like one of the all-time great busts. By 2009 (18 TD, 12 INT, 81.5 rating) and 2010 (14 TD, 10 INT, 82.1 rating) he had at least risen to become a perfectly mediocre NFL quarterback.
 
But last season, at the ripe old age of 27, Smith finally had a breakout performance, with career bests in almost every single category:
  • Completion percentage (61.3)
  • Yards (3,144)
  • TD-INT ratio (awesome 3.4 to 1)
  • Yards per attempt (7.1)
  • Passer rating (90.7)
Smith, in other words, proved he can play the game at a highly competent NFL level. Then he took the next step needed toward cementing his rep as a legit No. 1 QB in the divisional playoff win over the Saints.
 
Smith led two huge drives late in the game, capping the first with an incredible 28-yard touchdown run around the left end with less than 2 minutes to play; then he followed up that jaunt with an 85-yard game-winning drive in the final moments that took just 88 seconds off the clock. The game-winner was a perfect 14-yard strike to Vernon Davis.
 
The quarterback, in other words, did almost everything last year you expect out of a No. 1 QB. The only thing left to prove now is that he can consistently attack defenses vertically and help lift the team to the next level, a Super Bowl appearance. If Moss can help on both fronts, it’s a perfect marriage.

The 49ers landed Randy Moss for the right price

The Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law tells us that teams should not overvalue any wide receiver – including Moss, and especially at his age.
 
At best, a wide receiver touches the ball five or six times per game, the limited number of a touches a huge reason why they don't have the impact that everybody expects out of them. And even the greatest wide receivers, with maybe the exception of the singular Jerry Rice, have a habit of disappearing in big games. That consistent disappearing act is one of the greatest weaknesses of the position and one big reason why teams are always over-valuing the position without doing their homework.
 
Moss, for example, has caught 3 postseason TD passes over the past decade and just one since the 2005 season – and remember, he spent an entire record-setting season paired with Tom Brady. Fellow future Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison was unstoppable in the regular season. But he caught just 2 postseason TD passes in his entire career – and he spent most of that career paired with the great Peyton Manning. That’s very little postseason bang for the buck out of two of the best ever. We see it over and again out of the position, throughout much of football history. The most recent example was over-priced rookie Julio Jones in Atlanta. Hell, his entire offense was kept off the scoreboard in Atlanta's 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants.
 
Every receiver, in other words, comes with huge risks and with especially huge risks in big moments. If you're paying beaucoup bucks, there's a very good chance you're not going to get value for that money, especially in big moments.

But with that said, the 49ers clearly did not fall in love with Moss and break the bank to get him. It’s a low-risk, one-year contract, according to the NFL Network’s Jason La Canfora, with a base salary of $1.75 million and plenty of incentive clauses. Even if the decision to sign Moss blows up in the face of the organization, as Shiny Hood Ornaments so often do, there is almost zero downside risk, at least financially.

Moss is an incredible talent still with something to prove

Nobody can doubt the incredible athletic talent of Randy Moss. You can easily make the argument that no wide receiver in football history has had the same profound impact on offenses as Moss had with the Vikings and the Patriots. You surely know his history. But for the sake of argument, here are some of the notable highlights:
  • Rookie record for receiving TDs (17 in 1998)
  • Single-season record for receiving TDs (23 in 2007)
  • Top receiver on the No. 1 scoring offense in NFL history (2007 Patriots, 589 points)
  • Top receiver on the No. 3 scoring offense in NFL history (1998 Vikings, 556 points)
  • No. 2 all time receiving TDs (153, tied with Terrell Owens)
  • No. 5 all time receiving yards (14,858)
 
The fact that Moss has been the primary weapon on two of the greatest offenses in history tells us that he has been a VERY rare impact player at the wide receiver position – a guy whose impact you can actually chronicle in historic fashion on the scoreboard.
 
Moss was the common thread on the two most prolific offenses in history, in fact, until the Packers scored 560 points in 2011 to steal the No. 2 spot from the 1998 Vikings. Quarterbacks as diverse as Tom Brady and Daunte Culpepper each produced their greatest seasons ever when paired with Moss.
 
Even then, teams and fans should be wary of over-valuing any wide receiver, including Moss – and especially at his age (he turned 35 in February), for all the reasons noted above.
 
Yet for all the accomplishments, Moss still has something to prove and something to play for. He has yet to prove he can lift a team on the biggest stage in sports. He has yet to win a Super Bowl. He has a chance to do both in 2012 – with the organization at which almost every single standard for the position, regular season, postseason, you name it, were set by Jerry Rice himself. If those factors, coupled with his personal attack on statistical history, do not provide incentives to perform, then he'll never find incentives to perform.

There is one big caveat

Moss may not by himself provide the instant boost in the downfield passing game that the 49ers need to take the next step. The othere concern is one of the worst offensive lines in football, No. 26 on our Offensive Hog Index in 2011. The 49ers MUST fix this problem in the draft and/or in free agency. Otherwise, the Moss signing will prove fruitless.
 
That OL had a lot of trouble in particular protecting the passer, allowing a Negative Pass Play (sack or INT) on 9.9 of dropbacks in 2011 – not a winning number and 21st league-wide. The problem was sacks, not picks – hell, Smith was picked off just five times all year. But he was taken down 44 times.
 
The entire Football Nation saw San Francisco's Offensive Hogs overwhelmed in gruesome fashion Thanksgiving Day in the Harbaugh Bowl, when John Harbaugh’s Ravens sacked Smith more often than the Barbarians did Rome (9 times, actually, for those of you keeping score at home).
 
It will be hard to hit Moss 40 yards downfield when Smith is under so much pressure that he’s forced to drop the ball off to the safe outlet, a skill he mastered in 2011. It will be even harder to hit Moss 40 yards downfield if Smith is pulling grass out of his facemask five times each game.
 
But still, for a Shiny Hood Ornament, Moss to San Francisco could prove one of the very few deals in which a big-name wide receiver free agent or draft pick actually delivers the intended result. As of today, it's the perfect deal for the right team at the right time.

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