Do Wide Receivers Really Need Good Quarterbacks to Excel?

It stands to reason that receivers benefit from successful quarterbacks, but how true is it?

Quarterbacks need receivers to target, and receivers need quarterbacks to throw the ball near them.

It's science.

It's not uncommon, though, to hear that Quarterback X struggled because he doesn't have playmakers, or that a stellar receiver would be even better if he had a better quarterback (cough, cough Larry Fitzgerald).

Is it really true though? Do wide receivers really need good quarterbacks to excel?

Hey! That sounds like a good research question.

The Process

At numberFire, we have a signature metric called Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a qualitative measure that indicates how well a player performs above expectation and indicates how many points a team earned (or lost) as a result of that player's performance.

For example, assume Calvin Johnson catches a 10-yard pass. According to the raw stats, Johnson is awarded 10 yards and a reception whether that catch leads to a punt or to a first-down conversion inside the red zone. In terms of NEP, since one helps to extend the expected point outcome of the drive and the other doesn't, the two catches aren't weighed evenly.

It is by this measure that I'll be defining "good" wide receivers and "good" quarterback play.

I dug back into the annals and compiled the top 30 receivers in terms of Reception NEP during the 10 most recent NFL seasons (2005 to 2014). I then found correlations between those 300 unique Reception NEP scores and the Adjusted Passing NEP and Adjusted Passing NEP per play marks of their teams. Adjusted NEP scores are adjusted for schedule strength.

A correlation of 1 would indicate that as Reception NEP rises or falls, the Adjusted Passing NEP of the team also rises or falls along with it. A correlation of -1 would indicate that as one went up, the other went down. Zero indicates no correlation between the data.

The Results

The data yielded a correlation between Reception NEP and Adjusted Passing NEP of 0.31. Reception NEP and Adjusted Passing NEP per play also had a correlation of 0.31.

A fair question to ask is whether or not considering the top 30 receivers per year was ideal, as this would include a player such as Jordan Matthews from this year. So I went ahead and ran the numbers for both the top 50 Reception NEP scores as well as the top 150 to see if the lower-end receivers and passing attacks skew things. I also included the NEP and Rushing NEP numbers for comparison.

Correlation with Rec NEPTop 50Top 150All 300
Adj NEP/P0.360.350.26
Adj NEP0.370.350.26
Adj PNEP/P0.310.370.31
Adj PNEP0.350.380.31
Adj RNEP/P0.200.100.04
Adj RNEP0.200.100.04

What does it all mean?


A correlation of 0.31 indicates that there is, in fact, some relationship between wide receiver production and effective quarterback play, which was to be expected. However, a correlation of 0.31 isn't extremely strong.

The higher end of things, the top 50 scores, aren't necessarily more strongly correlated with elite passing attacks than the top 300 overall.

At times like this, it's best to turn to modern day philosopher Philip J. Fry and ask, "Well, why is...those things?

A good example rests at the top of the list: Calvin Johnson's 2012. Johnson's Reception NEP (162.56) is the highest mark in the past 10 years. The team's Adjusted Passing NEP (104.15) ranked eighth in 2012, so the top Reception NEP score came from a top-10 passing offense -- but far from an elite one.

Similarly, Larry Fitzgerald has long been plagued by bad quarterback play, but he has two top-10 Reception NEP finishes in years with passing attacks at or worse than 22nd (2010 and 2011). Josh Gordon in 2013 had the 13th-best Reception NEP (138.64) in the group despite the Browns' Adjusted Passing NEP of -29.92.


There are a few takeaways that I think we can reasonably conclude.

Notably, Adjusted NEP was more strongly correlated with the top 50 Reception NEP scores than with the top half or the whole group, and efficient rushing attacks (Adjusted Rushing NEP and Adjusted Rushing NEP per play) were also most strongly correlated with top-50 seasons. So, the most productive receivers come from good offenses.

However, those top 50 don't necessarily come specifically from elite passing offenses. The top 50 and the whole group both had a correlation of 0.31 with Adjusted Passing NEP per play). Even with tertiary options on great passing offenses taken out of the equation -- for example, Wes Welker and his 81.03 Reception NEP in 2013 alongside Denver's Adjusted Passing NEP of 251.54 -- the best passing teams don't always generate the best receivers (i.e. those with the highest Reception NEP scores).

Ultimately, there is undoubtedly a positive correlation between good passing and good receiving (naturally), but top-end receivers can come from good and bad passing teams alike.

It's certainly no blessing to play with a bad passing offense, but I think it's safe to say that it's not exactly a curse, either.