Formulating a Sports Argument: Larry Fitzgerald’s 2012 Campaign

Larry Fitzgerald's 2012 campaign is nothing like Josh Gordon's 2013.

I’m a University of Pittsburgh graduate, and perhaps I’m just fired up after Pitt’s Little Caesar Bowl victory last night. But Larry Fitzgerald is arguably the greatest thing that happened to the school’s football program since the Marino days, and like Kevin McCallister with his house, I have to defend him.

You see, I’ve been reading – multiple times on Twitter and references in articles on the Internet – that Josh Gordon’s 2013 fantasy season is removing the “bad quarterback play” excuse given to Cardinals’ wideout Larry Fitzgerald last year. In other words, because Josh Gordon is playing at the level he has all season long with miserable quarterback play, why couldn’t Larry Fitzgerald?

I hate it. I hate it so much. I hate it because Larry Fitzgerald means a lot to my sports fandom, sure, but I hate it even more because the argument is flawed. And it's not so much because Josh Gordon is bad, or because Larry Fitzgerald is better than we think. It's flawed because football fans often use adjectives - ones like "bad" - to compare player situations, when these situations are never so much alike to be described at such a high level.

Especially the circumstances surrounding Larry Fitzgerald in 2012 and Josh Gordon in 2013.

Fitz’s 2012 Season

Before I dig into the metrics, I want to note that I’m not arguing that Larry Fitzgerald is better than Josh Gordon. That’s a premature case to make. Instead, I’m pointing out that Larry Fitzgerald was in one of the most special situations of any wide receiver in the game last year, and comparing that to Josh Gordon’s 2013 season isn’t a fair thing to do. Especially when you – the fake opponent in this disagreement – are now saying that Larry Fitzgerald shouldn’t have gotten the pass that he did in 2012.

Alright, let’s get into the metrics now.

The statistics – both raw and advanced – show two very different stories. On one hand, you’ve got a young second-year receiver, playing with a carousel of quarterbacks yet still on the verge of breaking records. On the other you’ve got a veteran wideout, having made multiple Pro Bowls throughout his career, struggling to get anything going with the same type of quarterback rotation.

Larry Fitzgerald’s 2012 season and Josh Gordon’s 2013 campaign are vastly different. And I won’t – I can’t – deny that. Just take a look at their difference in numbers during each of these seasons (and mind you, this is only considering 13 games from Gordon).

Rec.YardsTDsRec. NEPTarget NEP
Larry Fitzgerald (2012)71798467.35-42.76
Josh Gordon (2013)801,5649131.2866.43

Instead of digging into Gordon’s numbers – the ones that are clearly better and fresh in our minds – let’s just take a look at Fitzgerald’s. Last season, Fitzgerald compiled a 66.43 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) total, coming in at 45th among all receivers under the metric. To put this another way, on receptions only, Larry Fitzgerald contributed more points for the Cardinals than all but 44 wide receivers did for theirs.

It’s nothing spectacular, but I mention this because of what happens when you move to Fitz’s Target NEP from 2012. The -42.76 total was the worst in the entire NFL, which is bad news when you consider this metric looks at how many points a team was adding or losing on all targets that went in that particular player’s direction. In 2012, Arizona lost nearly 43 points when they threw it Fitz’s way. The difference between this number and the Reception NEP one, of course, is that the Reception NEP statistic looks at receptions only.

This is important to note because it’s not as though Larry Fitzgerald was utterly worthless in 2012 when he actually did catch the ball. It’s just that he was targeted so many times, and the ball, so many times, was either incomplete (from a bad pass), intercepted (from a bad pass) or, in some cases, dropped.

In fact, the difference in Larry Fitzgerald’s Reception NEP to Target NEP in 2012 was the highest from any wide receiver ever. Ever. Because Reception NEP looks at points added on receptions only, and Target NEP looks at the points added on all targets, a subtraction – difference – between the two effectively yields the amount of points lost when a player doesn’t catch the football. And Larry Fitzgerald’s difference was the highest ever.

Why bring this up? Well, I think it’s telling – it’s showing us just how bad Fitz had it in 2012. It’s showing us that he needed to catch the football more than any other wide receiver in the history of the game in order for his team to score points. It’s showing us that, when he didn’t actually catch the pigskin, his team suffered dramatically.

Could a lack of catch on a target be a direct result of poor route running, bad hands or the inability to separate? Of course. And I’d probably blame that low of a Target NEP and that large of a difference between Target and Reception NEP to those very things. But when you’re talking about Larry Fitzgerald, one of the greatest receivers – biases aside – of this decade, you have to smell something fishy.

The Quarterback Play

The previous section could have honestly been omitted and I still could have gotten my point across with just this one. But I wanted to show the fact that, despite his raw numbers being so low, Larry Fitzgerald still contributed at times when he was able to catch the ball a season ago. And as you’ll see to strengthen this, if not for his incompetent quarterback play, Fitz would have been an even stronger receiver.

I say incompetent because that’s what Fitz experienced last season. It was as if someone chopped off the throwing arms of all Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks, and forced the passers to throw with their non-throwing ones. Seriously, it’s that bad.

Take a look at the advanced metrics from Cardinals quarterbacks in 2012:

QuarterbackDrop BacksPassing NEPPassing NEP/DBSuccessesSuccess Rate
Brian Hoyer57-11.76-0.212238.60%
John Skelton216-55.23-0.268137.50%
Kevin Kolb209-8.83-0.049043.06%
Ryan Lindley183-77.42-0.426032.79%

Maybe this is your first time on, so let’s walk through these columns. The first is drop backs, which, of course, looks at the number of times a quarterback dropped back to pass in a given season.

The next column looks at Passing Net Expected Points, which, like the Reception and Target NEPs above, measures how many points a quarterback added or lost for his team over the course of the season.

This is followed by the Passing NEP per Pass, which shows efficiency, and the number of “successes”, which looks at the number of quarterback drop backs that actually translated into a positive NEP gain. The Success Rate then shows the percentage of passes that contributed positively to a player – or team’s – Net Expected Points total.

The 2012 Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks were bad. Very bad (wasn't I supposed to not use adjectives?). They lost 153.25 points on 665 drop backs, coming through with just a 38.05 Success Rate.

And actually, the Cardinals’ quarterbacking group’s Passing NEP total, if it had come from just one quarterback instead of four, would be rated as the absolute worst in recent (pre-year 2000) NFL history.

That’s not a typo: You could make the argument that Larry Fitzgerald, in 2012, played with the worst quarterback performances ever.

And yet, because we’re seeing one instance where a wide receiver is playing at a high level with “bad” quarterbacks, we want to dismiss this?

For some comparison, here are the quarterback numbers from Josh Gordon’s squad this season through Week 16:

QuarterbackDrop BacksPassing NEPPassing NEP/DBSuccessesSuccess Rate
Brian Hoyer1022.910.034443.14%
Jason Campbell290-17.47-0.0611640.00%
Brandon Weeden294-27.81-0.0911338.44%

Is it bad? Yes. Is it atrocious and historically awful? Not at all.

Let me give it to you this way: The total Passing NEP of the quarterback’s played in Cleveland this season is along the same lines as throwing a 2007 Eli Manning (pre playoffs) under center there. And, during that season, receiver Plaxico Burress caught 70 balls for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns. In other words, it’s not as though a wideout can’t have a top year with that poor of quarterbacking.

But Fitzgerald? It’s a little difficult to even compare any wide receiver to his situation, as his quarterback’s Passing NEP is over 30 points worse than any single quarterback to drop back to pass 500 or more times in a season.

Larry Fitzgerald’s 2012 campaign and the situation surrounding is, quite honestly, uncomparable.

Why Do This?

As I mentioned in the intro, the main reason for this exercise really wasn’t to show that Larry Fitzgerald is good or that Josh Gordon is overrated. I think Fitz is one of the greatest some of us will ever see, and that Josh Gordon has an opportunity to be that and more.

But I wanted to go through these metrics because they help tell a deeper story, one that isn’t filled with sweeping generalizations.

This isn’t just about Josh Gordon and Larry Fitzgerald. This is about any argument made with a very general basis. This is about using adjectives like “bad” without turning them into numbers. Because adjectives lie, and, of course, numbers do not.