Yes, Dwayne Bowe is making over $11 million this season. Yes, the scheduled cap hits for his current deal are $14 million, $13 million, and $13 million over the next three years. Yes, that's too much money to pay for a non-elite wide receiver. His contract, as things stand, makes it unlikely the Chiefs stick with the status quo over the next couple years (now that he's gone ahead and voided his guarantees by being suspended for a game). I get it.
But I don't want to talk about Dwayne Bowe's contract.
Now that we've gone and acknowledged the obvious, I want to talk about Dwayne Bowe the player as it pertains to THIS season. Forget about the contract for a few minutes. Just a few.
Because somehow, very quietly, Bowe is starting to piece together his most efficient season as a pro.
Let me give you a couple of minutes to stop laughing and making fun of me.
You good? Great. I suppose what got you laughing was the idea that Bowe is somehow better this season than he was in 2010 or 2011 (his most productive seasons by yards and touchdowns) is pretty ridiculous. Which is why I'm not here to argue as to whether Bowe is going to post better overall stats than he did those years.
This is where the word "efficiency" becomes important. Because so far this season, Bowe has been highly efficient with the targets he's received.
Through six games played this season, Bowe has amassed 25 receptions for 343 yards. On the surface (and even beneath the surface, really) that's not an impressive number. If you extrapolate it for the remainder of the season, Bowe is on pace to finish with (rounded, because the idea of decimal-point catches and yards is weird) 67 catches for 919 yards.
Again, those are hardly amazing numbers over 15 games, especially when compared to Bowe's two "career" seasons (2010 and 2011). His catches and yards those seasons:
2010: 72 catches, 1,162 yards.
2011: 81 catches, 1,159 yards.
But again, I'm not talking about base stats. I'm talking about efficiency. Which means we need to start talking about targets.
(Looong side note; targets are a funny figure. ESPN keeps track of them, but after going back and tracking their target counts in a couple of games I figured something out; ESPN calls any throw in the vicinity of a WR a "target," even if it's clearly a throwaway out of bounds. I'm not going to call that a target, because it's ridiculous. After tracking target counts and comparing my observations to the numbers listed with Pro Football Focus, I've found they account for passes that are clearly thrown away. So I'll be using their numbers. OK, back to the article)
So far Bowe has had 33 passes thrown his way with him being actually targeted. In case you've forgotten already, that number is extremely close to the number of actual receptions (25) Bowe has so far this year. In fact, he's catching passes thrown his way at a rate of 75.8 percent, far and away the highest of his career.
Use the Rams game as an example. Yes, Bowe only had six catches for 64 yards. However, he caught all six passes thrown his way. That means that Bowe averaged over 10 yards per TARGET, which is a whole separate gig from "per catch."
Pass Catching Offensive Efficiency
I noticed recently that Bowe has been making the most of the limited targets he's receiving. That got me wondering; how does Bowe's actual contribution per play stack up against his "superior" 2010 and 2011 seasons?
Remember, when a receiver is targeted and doesn't make the reception (for whatever reason), it's a lost down. It's a highly inefficient play to gain zero yards (duh). Additionally, the more targets a receiver gets, the more chances he gets to increase his base stats (catches and yards). Again, this might seem like "duh" territory ... but is it? How often do you see a receiver's targets referenced? It's always catches, yards, and touchdowns.
To maybe demonstrate my point better, let's take it to an extreme. Receiver X has eight catches for 110 yards in a game. Receiver Y has four catches for 75 yards. At the base level, anyone would say that Receiver X had the far superior game. more catches, more yards, more "impact." right?
Well, what if Receiver X was targeted 17 times by his quarterback while Receiver Y was targeted a mere five times? Now you have to take into account that nine plays to Receiver X netted you exactly jack and squat, while only one play to Receiver Y was unsuccessful. Sure, Receiver X had a better game by base statistics, but it took him almost four times as many opportunities. For a basketball analogy, it's a player scoring 30 points but needing 26 shots to do it.
A more accurate way to gauge a receiver's efficiency are catches and yards per target. This removes the problem of bias in favor of receivers who are getting big numbers but only at the cost of multiple "lost" downs.
And here's where things get kinda interesting for Bowe: Catches Per Target = CPT and Yards Per Target = YPT
Bowe's 2010- .576 CPT, 9.3 YPT
Bowe's 2011- .623 CPT, 8.91 YPT
Bowe's 2014- .76 CPT, 10.39 YPT
Bowe had bigger numbers in 2010 and 2011, but in large part it was due to a large number of targets (125 in 2010, 130 in 2011). This year, Bowe is on a pace to at least come within spitting distance of those numbers with way, way fewer targets.
In plain English, what this all means is that in 2014 the Chiefs are significantly more likely to get a catch when Bowe is targeted and are averaging a full extra yard every time they throw the ball his way. Maybe a single yard doesn't sound significant, but think about the difference between a 4.4 YPC average for a running back and a 5.4 YPC average. It's significant.
Where am I going with all this this gobbly-gook? It's simple; Bowe, on a per-target basis, is actually having the best season of his career in a year when many (and I'm not really an exception here) are screaming about how mediocre he's been.
Let me shoot down a couple of arguments to that paragraph before they're even brought up in the comments.
"But MN, Bowe doesn't even have a touchdown! Players are paid to score! That shows how mediocre he's been!"
I remember a couple of years ago when people who think like this thought Jamaal Charles wasn't quite elite because he didn't "have a nose for the end zone." Then boom, Andy Reid arrives to town and Jamaal leads the league in touchdowns!
What happened? Did JC suddenly transform into a touchdown machine overnight? Did he finally climb the mysterious mountain and learn from a Touchdown Shaman how to cross an invisible barrier signified by paint?
Of course not. What really changed were the circumstances. The offense as a whole improved significantly, leading to more chances in the red zone. And even more importantly, Charles got a coach who felt comfortable using him in goal line and other short yardage situations. And in the touchdowns poured.
The bottom line is that while it sounds great on the surface to call touchdowns the ultimate production (or whatever), the fact is they're very much determined by surrounding circumstances. Look no further than the subject of this column for an example. Bowe scored 15 touchdowns in 2010 and became a guy with a reputation for finding the end zone. Then that number dropped to five the next season. Again, situation and opportunity play a huge role in touchdowns.
In other words, touchdowns scored is about as silly a way of determining a receiver's level of play as interceptions are to determine a cornerback's level of play. It kinda / sorta tells you something, but not really.
"MN, you're just manipulating the stats until they say something good about Bowe. You've always been a Bowe homer!"
Well ... OK.
In all actuality, I was pretty surprised by all this. I've been right there next to everyone else calling Bowe's 2014 season subpar. It was only after this most recent game I started to wonder about Bowe's efficiency as compared to prior years.
So where to go from here?
Well, in all honesty, I'm not sure. I'm not really drawing any conclusions from all of this.
Efficiency stats are well and good, but the flip side of them is that smaller numbers of targets can lead to increased efficiency. Efficiency almost always drops as usage rate goes up. So my point isn't that Bowe is having some incredible season. it's just that he may not be as irrelevant or mediocre as we're all thinking.
In all actuality Bowe is making an impact on games, and doing it almost every time Alex Smith looks his way. Which leads me to a final question; with Bowe producing so efficiently, will he start getting more targets?
I don't know, but I sure hope so. There are two things we need to see more of before Bowe goes from "efficiently producing" to "big-time production."
The first thing we need to see is more of Bowe in the slot running slant routes. The man is just about impossible to stop in those quick slants. He made Darrelle Revis (one of the best cover corners in the game) look foolish more than once just by basically being more of a man than Revis is. It also seems (though this is mere speculation on my part) that having Bowe run physical routes where he has to battle keeps him engaged and focused.
The second thing we need isn't on Bowe, it's on Smith. We need more throws like these.
What do all three of those throws have in common?
It's pretty simple. In each of those plays, Bowe has a defender right on him (or, in the case of the first picture, holding the living crap out of him) and Alex Smith makes the throw anyway.
One constant (and in my opinion, perfectly legitimate) complaint people have had about the Smith / Bowe pairing is that the pair's style of play don't complement each other. Smith is renowned (or vilified, whatever way you slice it) for always taking the safe throw. He's not a guy who is going to throw it up to a receiver unless there's good separation. Bowe, for his part, is not now and never has been a player who gets a great deal of separation from defenders. He outmuscles them for the ball with his superior strength.
Of all the complaints about Smith, this one resonates the most with me. As I've said in past columns, the safest throw is not always the best throw. And if you're waiting for Bowe to get enough separation for it to be a "safe" throw, you're going to be waiting a long time.
But what if that's changing? The three above screenshots came from the last two games. Is there any shot that Bowe is slowly (SO. SLOWLY.) turning into Smith's go-to guy?
I don't know, but I know that when the Chiefs desperately needed yards against San Diego, Smith went to Bowe several times (as well as Travis Kelce, who should absolutely be a go-to guy). The same thing happened in the drive to end the 1st half against the Rams (remember when that game was close? Good times...).
I usually like to answer questions when I write an article, but this one leaves me with more questions than anything else. I do believe that the answer to those questions regarding Smith and Bowe will be one of the biggest factors in whether the Chiefs make it to the postseason, and how far they go once they get there.
In the meantime, let's enjoy what's already happening; the new, uber-efficient Dwayne Bowe. Coming to a secondary near you.