For the last few years, in fact, the Rams have struggled mightily to put together any kind of offensive attack that can consistently put points on the board, or even just move the ball up and down the field on a regular basis. The blame usually falls squarely on the shoulders of the receiving corps, with a healthy assist tossed the way of the offensive line. The Rams have what is still one of the better running backs in the league in Steven Jackson -- though he's no longer quite the elite force he once was -- but just can't consistently move the chains. The quarterback is a former number one overall who once upon a time looked like the second coming. It just has to be the receivers, right?
Well, maybe it is. But I'll tell you, there's at least one receiver on this team doing a far, far better job than he gets credit for, and his name is Brandon Gibson.
The Rams picked Gibson up from the Philadelphia Eagles in December of 2008, sending Will Witherspoon (remember him?), in return. It seemed like a relatively innocuous move at the time, a rookie receiver yet to play in an NFL game going for an aging but still effective linebacker the atrocious awful Rams just flat-out had no need of.
Since then, Gibson has been part of one of the most maligned receiving corps in the history of history, as the masses have year after year called for the Rams to get Sam Bradford some weapons, damnit! Here's the funny thing, though: Brandon Gibson has actually been pretty damned good. And it doesn't seem like anybody notices.
In the season just completed, Gibson played in all 16 games, caught 51 passes, and racked up 691 total yards, for an average of 13.5 yards per catch. On the surface, those don't seem like particularly exciting numbers; after all, that's barely better than three catches per game. On the other hand, his 62.1% catch rate was the best of his career, and a much better percentage than you probably actually realize.
For instance, what if I told you Larry Fitzgerald, often held up as one of the paragons of wide receiving brilliance over his career (and rightly so), has a career catch percentage of 56.6 percent? (Note: that does not include the first two years of his career, for which 'target' numbers weren't tracked.) Or what about Calvin Johnson, aka Megatron, aka The Fucking Man And Don't You Forget It? His career catch rate is 55.3%. In that context, Gibson's 62+ looks pretty sweet, eh?
But wait, you say. Those guys are both totally different types of receivers! Those are downfield, deep-ball kind of threats! Gibson is not, at all. To which I would respond: okay, that's somewhat fair. For instance, Megatron's career yards per catch figure is 16.1, which is substantially different. Fitzgerald, though...his career YPC number is 13.6. I know, I was shocked too. I thought it was way, way higher than that.
Now, to be fair, the quarterback situation in Arizona has been just an absolute nightmare the last couple years, which probably serves to skew Fitzgerald's numbers low. But, he also had Kurt Warner throwing passes to him for quite awhile, and Warner just happens to be one of the greatest pure passers the league has ever seen. (Don't believe me? Go look up his numbers and tell me he isn't. Can't do it, can you? I didn't think so.) So, that probably balances out to a certain extent.
My point is not that Brandon Gibson is somehow comparable to either Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald. My point is that this is a receiver who does a much, much better job than he gets credit for. But, I can hear you still shaking your head at me, telling me Gibson is a pure possession receiver, and not a very good one at that. So, okay. Let's compare him to a couple other possession-type guys, shall we?
My favorite guy to compare Gibson to, honestly, is Anquan Boldin, of the Baltimore Ravens and former Arizona Cardinal. Boldin is one of the most sure-handed receivers you're going to find anywhere, bar none, and I think Gibson's game shows a lot of similarities. They're even somehwat similar physically; Boldin is 6'1", 220, while Gibson comes in an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter, a fair amount of which can be explained by their difference in age. (Boldin is 32, Gibson just 25.) Boldin's career catch rate: 61.7%. Career YPC: 13.2. Now, Gibson has in no way begun to yet approach the amazing numbers Boldin put up for a few year run back in the 2007 neighborhood, but, as with Fitzgerald, the caveat that Boldin was catching passes from an all-time great applies. Gibson has yet to enjoy that luxury.
The career yards per catch numbers of Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter, two true classic possession receivers, are 13.0 and 12.6, respectively. (Catch rate numbers further back are either not available at all or really hard to find and kind of iffy, so I'm not going to bother.) Again, those guys are both borderline Hall of Famers, and I'm not trying to draw a direct correlation. But...the numbers are there for the perusing.
How about this: how about we just take one advanced statistic -- a really smart one, I might add -- and compare Gibson to his peers, rather than digging up disparate information from other eras and situations. Over at footballoutsiders.com (which you should be reading, if you don't already), they have a stat called DYAR. No, it's not some sort of pirate lingo. It stands for Defense-adjusted Yards Over Replacement, and basically it's a measure of how well a team's offense performed in situation in which a given player (in this case, a receiver), caught the ball, adjusted for situation and opponent, compared to a replacement baseline. Sound complicated? Yeah, it sort of is, but you can read the full methodology if you want, and it's sound. Just go with me, okay?
Anyway, the good folks at Football Outsiders put together leaderboards, by position. It's simple; the higher the DYAR, the more valuable a player was to his team.
Brandon Gibson, playing for the St. Louis Rams and their brutally despised group of wide receivers, ranked 21st in all of football. The names at the top are the ones you would expect: Calvin and Andre Johnson, followed by a bunch of guys who catch passes thrown by Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. Obviously, scheme and quarterback have a lot to do with this.
The names right around Gibson, though, aren't too shabby at all. He's just two spots below Wes Welker of New England, one spot above Brandon Marshall in Chicago. A.J.. Green, the all-everything phenom for Cincinnati, comes in at 23. That's some pretty solid company for a player who gets so little attention around these parts.
But wait, it gets better, he said in true infomercial form. There's also a stat on that board called DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which reflects the value a given player has over an average receiver on any given play. So, DYAR sort of an overall value thing, while DVOA gives you an idea of what a player does on an individual play.
By DVOA, Gibson ranks eleventh in all of football, just behind James Jones of the Green Bay Packers. So, per play, Gibson was one of the dozen best receivers in football this year. The primary difference between his overall value and value per play largely seems to lie in how sparingly he was used compared to some of the big-name receivers on the list.
(By the way, don't look at number one on the DVOA listing, it will only make you sad like me. Danario Alexander was, on a per-play basis, the most valuable receiver in football this year. Just...no.)
So, if all this is accurate, and Brandon Gibson is something approaching a borderline elite receiver, why does he receive so few accolades? Well, honestly, that's tough for me to say, but I think it largely has to do with his role on this team. The Rams have been starved for quite some time for a true number one receiver, that guy who takes all the double teams downfield, draws the coverage, and still breaks off a handful of 50+ yard catches per season. Gibson, for all his good points, is not that guy. He would be miscast as the focus of an offense. You want to make him your number two option? You've got something really, really interesting going on. He's not a number one guy, though. Again, think of Anquan Boldin in Arizona, where he was the second target behind Larry Fitzgerald. That's exactly the sort of role Brandon Gibson could excel in.
What the Rams actually have, though, is a marked void at the top of the depth chart at wide receiver, and as a result I think public perception of Gibson is that he's just another guy failing to make a positive difference for this team. He isn't a star, necessarily, and this is a team which desperately needs a star.
However, that doesn't change the fact that two things are true. One, the Rams should really be throwing the ball to Brandon Gibson more often than they do; those numbers extrapolated up are mighty impressive. And two, Brandon Gibson is a much, much better receiver than he gets credit for. But you don't have to take my word for it. The numbers speak for themselves.