I recently learned that I could never make it as an NFL scout or coach. Now to be fair, I already strongly suspected this, given my lack of real football knowledge and experience. But those are mere details. Now I KNOW I could never do it. Why?
Because I just spent roughly six hours re-watching the Chiefs offense in 2012. Even worse, I spent roughly six hours re-watching the Chiefs PASSING offense in 2012. Good God, what a mess. I feel a little bit like I used to after a three-week bender: exhausted, dirty, and with a vague feeling that I've done something illegal but won't remember what it was until I get arrested.
Why subject myself to the abuse? Well, I'm a guy who just can't let a question hang in the air. And there are questions about the offense. DOES Jonathan Baldwin suck? What does the future hold for Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson? DID Steve Breaston deserve to get benched? Who was worse, Matt Cassel or Brady Quinn (even I may stay away from that one)? Why exactly is Cyrus Gray awesome? And on it on it goes...
I want to answer some of those questions this offseason because... uh... what else are we gonna do around here? And first in my mind is the question of Dexter McCluster.
Full disclosure: I'm a Dex fan. I like what he brings to the table. I don't care about the fact that he was "overdrafted." I think he's got some skills that are very, very useful. Not everyone agrees. Such is the way of things. But his ho-hum production last year had me a tad worried.
Now don't get me wrong, I don't think that 52 catches for 452 yards is TERRIBLE by any means. But it falls short of what I'd like to see from a guy who is supposed to be a playmaker. I've heard it said he's not really a playmaker. I've heard it said he's just not that good. And on the flip side, I've heard it said he was open last year and was often the victim of garbage QB play and coaching. The truth likely lies somewhere in middle, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to look into it.
Thanks to AP user jmcgoblue and NFL Rewind for access to the all-22 film. What that means (for those who don't know) is that I can see the WHOLE field when re-watching games, not just what the TV broadcast shows. It's a MARVELOUS tool for examining the WR/QB dynamic, and I decided to start with Dex.
First, a word on what I was looking for. I focused on Dexter on passing downs (and occasionally on rushing downs). I wanted to answer a few questions...
1) How does Dex look as a route runner from the slot, and what kinds of routes was he running?
2) How often was Dex open? Were there times that he should have gotten the ball and didn't that took away from his overall production?
3) How much was Dex affected by poor throws by our quarterbacks? (I know, I know, no way that happened with our QBs, amirite? Guys?)
4) What are my overall impressions of Dex as a receiver/blocker, and how do I feel he should be used in Andy Reid's offense?
I decided to take general notes and quantify two things: "times open and missed," and "times open and hampered by the throw."
Times Open And Missed- I want to be clear that I'm aware every quarterback is going to miss the open guy from time to time. That's football. Nobody's perfect (except for Horseface if you ask Broncos fans, but I digress). Also, many plays a player could MAYBE be called open, but it's borderline. Or a player was open, but he was only a yard in front of the line of scrimmage on 3rd an 10. To take those things into account, I didn't count plays I felt were borderline, when the QB was under heavy pressure, when the QB passed to a different OPEN receiver, or when Dex was open within three yards of the line of scrimmage.
Times Open And Hampered By The Throw- Here, I quantified the number of times Dex was open and was thrown to, but a terrible throw ruined the play. These ranged from "he had to stop and therefore didn't get the YAC he could have" to "he was wide open, would've scored a TD, and had the ball go three yards over his outstretched hands" (yes, that happened more than once).
I ended up watching every route Dex ran in 12 games, along with a couple dozen plays where he was blocking in the secondary on a running play. I ended up at 332 route-running snaps total. So I feel I got a large enough sample size to judge what was going on. So let's look at the numbers (both Dex's and the ones I came up with), then move onto more general observations
(Long side note. Watching those snaps, it was weird seeing how Brady Quinn and Matt Cassel could both completely suck yet do it in unique ways. Don't get me wrong, both of them stared down their primary for too long, but Matt was especially "good" at being bad in this way. And Quinn, when he HAD an open receiver, would almost always hesitate for an extra second or two. Long story short, the quarterbacks were TERRIBLE. Moving on...)
As mentioned, Dex had 52 catches for 452 yards this year ata 8.7 YPC average. He averaged 4.2 YAC (yards after catch) per reception, and also had 12 rushes for 70 yards at 5.8 a clip.. Neither are earth-shattering, obviously.
ESPN has Dex targeted 78 times, whereas PFF has Dex targeted 70 times. I have no idea who to believe. The difference that would make in catch percentage is pretty big, going from about 67 percent to 74 percent. If you go by PFF's (which we have to do if we want to quickly compare to other players under their stats), Dex was 6th in the league in "percentage of passes caught" when thrown at. This kind of flies in the face of the current "dude drops everything" meme around AP.
Anyways, onto the stats I counted during my journey into the dregs of a crappy season.
Times Open And Missed- 41 (yes, you read that correctly...41)
Might as well start with the most "seriously?" stat. Now again, no quarterback is perfect, I totally get that. But these were not "kind of" misses. These were "I need to close my laptop and walk away after seeing that" misses. I actually woke up one of my kids yelling at my computer, forgetting that the game I was viewing had been played months ago. That's how bad these misses were.
And for the record, many of those misses were on plays that could have netted the Chiefs at least 10-15 yards of offense. Several were fly routes where he'd completely burned the CB and there was NO safety help over the top.
Times Open And Hampered By The Throw- 11
This was actually lower than I expected when I started out. Doesn't make them not costly, though. Looking back at my notes, these particular plays cost the Chiefs over 150 yards of offense and at the very least two touchdowns. It's amazing what a difference it makes when a WR has to stop and wait for the ball while on a crossing route, especially when he's got three steps on a pursuing linebacker. A play goes from a 20 yard gain to a five yard gain. And once again, I was being kind here by not including at least a dozen more throws I thought of as "borderline."
Watching the tape, I was stunned (well, maybe "stunned" is the wrong word. It's not like it was any big surprise that the QBs sucked) at how much offense the Chiefs left on the table when it came to Dex. Dude could've had another 400 yards receiving. And that's with him running routes that he shouldn't be running a large part of the time. But we'll move into that in a second.
Overall, the stats I found make me really wonder if Dex couldn't have done a TON more for the Chiefs last year, and if he can't do more than "middling" stats this upcoming season. Supposedly Alex Smith can "see the field." Well, if that's the case, maybe Dex won't miss out on 41 opportunities this next year.
-Dex is a really willing and able blocker in the running game. In fact, short of Bowe (who is just SO much more overpowering) he was far and away the best run blocking WR. The problem he had in pass pro as a RB was that he was trying to block guys who outweigh him by almost a hundred pounds and who LOVE contact. Against CBs, he was more often than not too physical for them (no, not a typo). It's almost comical in a sense, since those guys still outweigh him by 20-40 pounds. But you can just see that most CBs shy away from contact. I suppose, in a sense, Dex has always HAD to be a physical player to make it at his size. He's a real asset in that department.
-(An in the moment note I made following an awful throw against the Falcons)- "Dex went R to L across the middle in a shallow route. Clearly had a couple of steps on an ILB, and any kind of decent pass yields a TD, as the only other CB in position to make a tackle had Bowe on him. Pass is literally 5 yards behind him. Oh well, who needs touchdowns?"
-(Another in-game note following Dex's injury)- "Quick out to the R from the slot. Dex has TONS of room for YAC and an awful pass sends him leaping in the air for the ball. He lands awkwardly and injures his arm. That's a big gainer if 99 percent of NFL QBs are making the throw, and Dex isn't in a giant casty-looking thing for weeks. I hate everything."
-Dex is really, really quick. I mean, freakishly quick. The problem was that on many routes he was running, the route looked for "speed" more than "quicks." Posts, corner routes, and fly routes do not take advantage of Dex's greatest strength -- his ability to cut incredibly quickly. He was running WAY too many routes like that this last year. If we want to get the most out of Dex, 90 percent of his routes should be short outs, ins, and comebacks. He's just way, way too quick to stay with on those routes, particularly when he throws in a fake (as in fakes an out and then cuts back in).
-One area Dex falls short is schoolyard football, when the planned route doesn't get him open and the QB needs to get rid of the ball. Dwayne Bowe is EXCEPTIONAL in those situations. He's great at coming back to the ball and presenting the QB with an easy opening to get the ball into. Dex trusts his routes too much, and he needs to learn when to break off the route and get to an open area. He's also less adept than I'd like at finding those open areas against zone coverage. Again, he trusts the route too much. Hopefully he watches more of Bowe and sees why Bowe has managed to produce despite garbage QB play all these years.
-Dex is so-so against the press. Sometimes he did an excellent job bouncing off or around the defender and then getting open very quickly. Others times he'd struggle to get away from the defender and be slowed way down. He's no Jonathan Baldwin, though. I'm very sad to say that my limited views of Baldwin were... well, let's just say I won't be stunned if he doesn't make it. Dex is significantly better at beating a press despite being about half JB's size. It's almost sad, really. Sigh...
-Dex, when he ends up against LBs, is open within about half a second. Way, way, way too quick for them. That needs to be exploited more somehow.
-Remember that game-losing interception against the Steelers on MNF? Yeah, Dex was coming open on a post route on the same side of the field that the QB was looking. Oh well, not like it cost the Chiefs the game or anything...
-In case anyone thinks it was just Matt Cassel that was missing Dex when he was open, it wasn't. The Browns game featured four separate times Dex was wide open with running room over 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Two of the times he would've had at least 30 yards. Remember when we thought Quinn might be an upgrade? Yeah, me too.
You know, when Dex was switched to slot WR before last year started, I was nervous. After a year in which his contributions were middling at best, I was still a little nervous. After watching over 300 of his routes? I'm not nervous at all. Dex can play slot WR, and play it well. He needs two things to contribute more to the offense:
1) A coach who doesn't send him downfield multiple times a game. He needs to stick with multiple-cut routes between 5-15 yards of the line of scrimmage. Sure, every now and then he should pull a double move to keep CBs honest, but 90 percent of the time I want to see him cutting rather than sprinting. I'll say it again, CBs and (especially) LBs cannot stick with him through multiple cuts.
2) A quarterback who can both RECOGNIZE the open man and DELIVER the ball to him in stride (and yes, we're in Captain Obvious" mode at this point, but bear with me). If those two things had happened consistently last year, his production doubles. Guys like him (who are best served in shorter routes) are peculiarly dependent on QBs leading them and allowing them the chance at YAC.
Now, can those things happen in Andy Reid's offense, with Alex Smith throwing him the ball? Sure. In fact, the Chiefs may have stumbled into the system that fits him best. To take the advice of one of AP's newest newbs, I'm gonna hang positive and think that things are finally gonna break Dex's way this next year.