How Will Percy Harvin Fare as a Buffalo Bill?

The three-ring Percy Harvin circus follows Rex Ryan to Buffalo.

I fail a lot. Failure is a huge part of my day-to-day life, as it is with all of ours. Especially as a teacher, I have to encourage my students that failing is not a loss; it’s a learning tool. I teach them that in the world of the clown (like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin), failure actually is productive and funny. The clown slips on a banana peel and falls. The clown gets up, looks at the banana peel, steps on it again, and slips and falls. But finally, the clown realizes that stubbornly insisting on stepping on the banana peel causes her or him to fall and then steps over it. Trial and error.

I don’t think either Percy Harvin or Rex Ryan has ever seen Steamboat Bill, Jr. or The Kid.

Wide receiver Harvin signed with the Buffalo Bills, proving clearly that neither has learned the error of their ways. The Harvin experiment failed in Seattle. It failed in New York with Ryan the last time around. Why does anyone think it will go differently now? Mediocre quarterbacks and gimmicky play calling have been the bane of Harvin’s career thus far. Can he rise above it now?

The Goat

The good news is that, although it seems like Percy Harvin has been in the league forever, he is only 27 years old this May. He should not be nearly out of gas yet as a receiver, based simply on age. The bad news is that he’s been broken ever since he arrived in the league. Only one season saw Harvin play 16 games -- his 2011 campaign with Minnesota -- and his defenders have been thriving off of that ever since. Out of a possible 96 games in his six years so far, Harvin has played in a grand total of 68 of them. That’s just more than 70%, and this is a player who is perennially thought of as an NFL game-changer.

Injuries have disrupted a career that seemed to be so promising for this electric playmaker -- that’s clear -- but I wonder when the last time he was truly effective in the NFL was. To figure this out, we will look through the lens of Net Expected Points (NEP), a metric that seeks to explain and value not only what a player did on the field but also how and when. By accumulating expected points -- each play is valued based on its effect on the team’s probability of scoring -- we can see just how valuable an NFL player truly is.

Harvin’s career numbers are charted below, using both Reception NEP and Target NEP, as well as his annual ranks at the wide receiver position (minimum of 45 targets). What do we find in here?

YearRec NEPRankRec NEP/PRankTarget NEPRank

Although not as atrocious as the two most recent years, even 2012 was disappointing for Percy Harvin, who ranked at the bottom half of the top-50 at the wide receiver position in Reception NEP this year. To find a truly quality season that lives up to the name, we have to return to 2011, his best statistical season. Before that, his 2010 was lackluster as well, but he had a rookie campaign that dazzled us with what could be.

So let’s take a head count: two absolutely atrocious seasons, two fairly lackluster ones, and two exceptional ones. Perhaps he’s not the surefire stud everyone thinks he is. The even more damning tale is told by looking at the arc of his career. Since 2011, he’s trended downward dramatically and gotten injured more and more frequently.

Is there any saving grace for him?

The Circus

The upside with Harvin is that he’s an all-purpose playmaker, right? One can’t simply consider him a receiver because he is so dynamic that he can be used as a running back and returner as well! Let’s see how his rushing ability adds to his value. The chart below shows Harvin’s Total NEP (Reception and Rushing NEP) during his career, as well as his rank among receivers and running backs combined.

YearTotal NEPRank

2014 looks mildly better with this lens on, but it’s not much. Between torn menisci, torn ligaments, and lingering concussion symptoms, is it possible that Percy Harvin simply has lost any elite playmaking ability he once had. Even at his peak, he wasn’t an outstanding receiver or a fantastic runner; he was a very good offensive weapon. Now, possibly worn down by repeated wear-and-tear, he’s merely a gimmick player, useful for reverses and running the triple-option (which seems weirdly likely between he, LeSean McCoy, and E.J. Manuel).

Fortunately for Bills fans, this is a one-year, “prove it” deal. Harvin won’t be hanging over their heads, and whoever is under center in Buffalo -- be it Manuel or Matt Cassel -- needs dynamic weapons. I’m just not sure that’s what Harvin is anymore, if he ever was. In a logical world, he should slot in at fourth on the depth chart, behind Sammy Watkins (89.99 Reception NEP in 2014), Robert Woods (58.48 Reception NEP), and even Chris Hogan (35.25 Reception NEP).

All of this is without even considering that Harvin has been traded or released three times in two years for being corrosive to the locker room culture and a general prima donna. Rex Ryan needs to remember that he got fired from the Jets or else this mirror-image charade is going to continue, and the Bills will be the ones with pies on their faces.