By now, I’m sure that most of you have heard the damning statistic that nine- or ten, depending on whether you favor ESPN or the Pro Football Focus- of Josh Freeman’s interceptions were thrown to Kellen Winslow Jr. last season. While some of the blame has to be put on Winslow for that, it’s a bit ridiculous to think that Winslow was the main one to blame for this happening.
Winslow was targeted an astounding 121 times for a completion percentage of 62 (or 64, depending on if you use ESPN or Advanced NFL Stats) and an average of 6.5 yards per attempt. The completion percentage was down from his sky-high total of 78% the previous year, but it was still average, and Freeman was just as accurate throwing it to him as he was to anyone else. The QB averaged 6.5 yards per attempt as well, which is as many yards per attempt as he averaged while passing it to Winslow.
The rise of the interceptions were meteoric, as Freeman was only picked off once the year before whilst throwing it in the TE’s direction.
The problem with looking at interceptions and saying that it is Winslow’s fault is misleading, since it is rarely the receiver’s fault that a pass was picked off. This is especially true when the rate statistics (Y/A and Cmp%) match up and the INT ratios are way off.
Sample size is a major issue, because 120 or so targets does little to show how the player affects a quarterback’s interception rate directly. However, there are indirect effects that are worth mentioning and can explain this.
First off, Freeman was poor last season and threw 22 interceptions. He threw about 40% of his picks to Winslow, but struggling young quarterbacks often times throw to their tight end. Freeman’s protection from the line was subpar last season, so he was often rushed into decisions and had to throw an inaccurate pass to Winslow, which led to rash decisions and interceptions thrown to the tight end.
It is extremely unlikely for a player to have an incredible season one year and then fall flat the next year, but that is exactly what happened to both Freeman and Winslow. However, most of it falls on Freeman, because it starts from the quarterback. While Winslow was visibly worse last season, so was Freeman and a receiver cannot dictate what type of pass he gets from the QB. Winslow should have done a better job and had a poor year, but he wasn’t that bad and certainly didn’t hurt the team as a pass-catcher, contrary to popular belief.
Some people are going as far as saying that the Bucs would have been better getting rid of Winslow, which is true in that he is a poor blocker and is getting old, but they are also saying that he is a poor pass catcher due to these numbers. That simply isn’t true, because they are twisting the stats.
Numbers can only tell you what you want them to tell you, because, without doing due diligence, you can come up to vastly wrong conclusions. The Bucs are better off without Kellen Winslow Jr. due to factors such as poor blocking and decreasing morale, but those who are criticizing him due to these stats are basically saying that they would rather have a replacement-level TE (like Jeff King) than Winslow. That’s crazy talk, because Winslow is still one of the best pass-catching TEs in the NFL. The Bucs are better off platooning Luke Stocker and Dallas Clark, but it isn’t like Winslow is to blame for Freeman’s struggles. After all, Freeman was just as innaccurate an inefficient while throwing to Winslow as he was while throwing it to everyone else.
Again, young QBs love throwing it to tight ends, especially when they are in doubt. He was facing double teams as a result, because teams knew that Freeman would target him. The quarterback was under stress in the pocket and had to make a quick decision to the TE on a medium or short route, but it wasn’t always the right one.
Even so, it must be said that Kellen Winslow had a poor year and needed to go; it’s just that his fortunes went as Freeman’s did which is south. The stats do show that Winslow was bad, but he wasn’t the main reason for Freeman’s struggles and he is much better than a replacement level TE. I would rather have him than Clark or Stocker alone, but I would rather have both Clark and Stocker sharing snaps and platooning to take advantage of Clark’s pass-catching and Stocker’s run blocking (Clark can’t block and Stocker can’t catch well). There is also the matter of him falling out of favor with the fans and new regime, and that is warranted. However, Winslow is still one of the better pass-catching TEs in the league.
He honestly did a decent job as a pass catcher, but Nathan Jahnke of PFF noted that he was much worse at breaking tackles. Winslow was poor overall despite above-average pass-catching, because he was a poor blocker and didn’t do the “little things”. He had a down year as a pass-catcher especially when comparing it to his amazing 2010 season, but he was undoubtedly more decent than poor.
So yes, Winslow is partially to blame for last season’s poor performance and Freeman’s negative statistics, but most of it falls on Freeman’s struggles and Winslow being the not-so-safe safety net. It isn’t completely Freeman’s fault either, and the statistics show that (the ones that aren’t privy to SSS like Y/A) it didn’t matter who Freeman was throwing to; he still had a below-average year.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.