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Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The Big Board: Distributing the ball

By David M. Hale

Among the myriad talking points entering the season that offered heaps of optimism for the 2012 Seminoles was the deep and diverse group of receivers and the potential damage Florida State's aerial assault might inflict on opposing defenses.

The case for FSU's receivers was air tight: Rashad Greene would be a year older and healthy for a full season after missing four games in 2012; Kelvin Benjamin would be on the field and his size would make him a huge weapon; Willie Haulstead would finally return from a concussion that kept him out all of 2011 after being the team's leading receiver in 2010; juniors Kenny Shaw, Jarred Haggins and Greg Dent were ready to come into their own.

Really, the only question was how EJ Manuel would manage to find enough footballs to ensure all these weapons were given sufficient opportunities to make plays.

Now that it's over -- well, except for the Orange Bowl -- that question wasn't exactly answered quite so emphatically, but the explanation has more of a chicken-or-the-egg quality than anyone might have thought.

Here's how Florida State's wide receiver production broke down this season compared to 2011:

It's startlingly similar, given the impressive depth of talent in the unit, the fact that the team's No. 1 quarterback stayed healthy all year and the defenses around the ACC were fairly atrocious, particularly against the pass (seven of FSU's 11 FBS opponents ranked in the bottom half of the national standings in pass defense). Moreover, the meme throughout the season was that Greene simply wasn't a breakout star because he had to share the ball so much, but he actually received a much bigger slice of the pie this year than last.

Rashad Greene
Rashad Greene made 29 percent of Florida State's receptions in the regular season.
Yes, Greene's production went up with a full, healthy season -- but not by as much as might have been expected given a full four extra games on the field. Benjamin wasn't a star, though he did step in and provide roughly the same production as Bert Reed offered in 2011. Meanwhile, Shaw, Dent, Haggins and senior Rodney Smith ended up with similar numbers to what they mustered in 2011, and Christian Green and Haulstead were virtually nonexistent.

Part of the issue, of course, was the improvement of FSU's running game, which improved its per-carry average by nearly 2.5 yards. Still, FSU threw just seven fewer passes in 2012 than it did in 2011.

Another reason the receiving corps didn't exactly live up to those big expectations was that the tailbacks actually served as pretty good receivers themselves, with Chris Thompson, James Wilder Jr. and Lonnie Pryor all accounting for more than 100 receiving yards, while tight end Nick O'Leary chipped in with 223 of his own -- up just 64 last year (another story of preseason hype not entirely matching reality). But even that explanation doesn't entirely add up.

Early in the season, Manuel managed to distribute footballs pretty well, with at least eight different players catching a pass in each of FSU's first eight games. In the final five contests, however, Manuel completed passes to at least eight players just once.

That lack of diversity culminated with an ACC championship game in which Greene's impact was huge (nine catches, 82 yards) but the other wideouts contributed just three catches for 16 yards.

Here's a quick breakdown of Manuel's receiver distribution by week:

The wideouts actually caught plenty of balls later in the season -- but a huge chunk were by Greene. In all, Greene was responsible for just 21 percent of the receiving yards by FSU wide receivers in the first eight games, but 46 percent in the final five.

The Duke game was something of an anomaly because Manuel had a big day passing while completing just eight throws -- seven of which went for 20-plus yards. But in the final four games, FSU posted four of its five worst offensive performances of the year. In those final four games, Manuel had just 10 completions of 20 yards or more, and six went to Greene.

So did the receivers simply fail to reach expectations, with production dipping as the season progressed? Or did Manuel grow a bit too comfortable with his top receiver at the expense of both diversity and, in some cases, production?

The answer is probably a little of both.

For one, FSU's final four opponents were also the four best pass defenses it saw all season. But the other issue might have been a matter of time. In the Seminoles' first nine games (through the bye) just 27 percent of Manuel's throws came against the blitz. In those final four games (after the bye), nearly 40 percent of attempts were against the blitz. Similarly, 25 percent of Manuel's completions came against the blitz in the first nine games, while 37 percent came vs. the blitz in those last four. In other words, defenses blitzed more, and Manuel had less time to look to second, third and fourth options on most plays, choosing instead to go to his first read or keep the ball himself.

Still, FSU saw fewer blitzes against Florida and Georgia Tech than it did against Virginia Tech or Maryland, and the passing game still managed to get worse, and Smith figured to be a No. 1 receiver most of the season but managed just 48 yards receiving total in the final four games, all of which gets us back to that chicken-or-egg -- or in this case, receiver-or-QB -- debate.

Unlike most of those debates, however, there might be an actual solution a year from now. FSU loses just one receiver from that supposedly deep corps this offseason, while a new group (including speedster Marvin Bracy) will step in. Manuel, on the other hand, will be gone, and a new quarterback will get his shot to see how many toys he can play with in the passing game. If the numbers look pretty similar again, it'll be tough to blame Manuel for the toys gathering dust.