Numbers Dive: What Changing Offenses Could Mean for Josh Gordon

by Andrew Moss

When a wide receiver changes teams, he must retrain, his feet, hands, and brain to react to a variety of changes that come with the new situation. For example, the verbiage may be different, the ball may come out with significantly more or less velocity, or even something as extreme as the ball spinning in the opposite direction because the new quarterback has the opposite handedness as the old one (well probably not). It is an observable fact that WRs take time to get used to their new offenses.

Brad Kelly, a college football receivers coach, states “I think the #1 thing would be role and usage in a different offense. For example: alignments, motions, depth of targets, primary routes, etc. There isn’t a science of figuring out the best way to mix and match a new group of WR’s within an offensive scheme” A nuance that Kelly notices is that just because a receiver succeeds in a single role in a single offense doesn’t mean that that particular role will even be existent in the new offense. When receivers need to reinvent their repertoire with a new team they sometimes lose touch with the strengths that made them a successful receiver on the first team.

One figure sticks out while parsing through the receiver data. It includes all receiver seasons where they accrued more than 500 yards in consecutive seasons since 2000, and then separating them into two groups: One where the wide receiver was on the same team for the two consecutive seasons, and another where he switched teams in between the seasons. The correlation between a receiver’s yards and the yards the next year if he stays on the same team is .41. When the receiver changes teams, the correlation drops to .19.  When considering receptions, the year-to-year correlation for receivers who stay on the same team is .49, but for those who change teams, it is .26. The correlation value shows the instability of the role of the receiver that occurs when he switches teams. 

Related: The Patriots, Two-Back Sets and Hunt Matchups

The plots below show the yards and receptions, in both of the consecutive years, for both groups of receivers. The seasons are referred to as year n (the first year of the two consecutive) and year n+1 (the next year). This is important for the WRs in the plot titled “WRs that changed teams” because year n+1 shows the first year with the new team.

An interpretation of the two lines on the yards plot is that the receivers who are changing teams are more likely to be big-ticket type free agents or trade targets, or at least better than the average receiver of all receivers who post back-to-back 500-yard seasons. This is because the y-intercept of the plot of the receivers who changed teams is lower than the WRs who stayed on the same team in a given offense. The slope of the line is greater for the receivers who are on the same team in the nth year and the (n+1)th year because the general positive relationship is stronger between the previous year’s yards and the next year’s. This is likely a result of catching passes from the same quarterback and occupying the same role in what is likely the same offensive system with the same offensive coordinator.

With analysts everywhere comparing the Josh Gordon trade to the Randy Moss trade in 2007, it is important to understand the anomaly not only of the situation he was traded into but also his unique skillset. By the time Moss was traded to the Patriots, he had already defied the model plotting receivers when he went from a 49 catch 767 yard season in his last campaign in Minnesota to a 60 catch 1005 year in Oakland. The model from the plots only predicted 58.7 catches for 831.2 yards. While his transition from Oakland to New England is more of an outlier, beating the model by a lot more, the precedent had already existed to show that Moss, as an individual, was capable of transcending his role from his previous team.

Related: Will the NFL Ever Stop Manufacturing Passing Efficiency?

It is difficult to create this sort of projection for Gordon using this model because he did not have a complete 2017. Using prorated statistics from 2017 to create a 2018 Browns + Patriots projection would create unrealistic expectations because of his insane volume from his four-game sample in 2017. Time will tell, but there is an example of a physically gifted receiver succeeding in New England despite less production in the previous year or two before the move. However, while Josh Gordon has physical skills that have been compared to Randy Moss’s, there is a litany of examples of receivers failing, or not sustaining their level of production in a move to a new role.

The low correlation value suggests that Gordon’s success or failure would be attributable to the latent factor of his individual talent. While there is no certainty to whether Gordon will succeed in the Patriots’ offense in 2018 or beyond, it does spark another intriguing narrative in what has already been a wild 2018 season.