INSIDE THE NUMBERS: Balance In The Passing Game

Posted Oct 18, 2013

At this pace, the Dolphins will have four receivers finish with at least 70 receptions and with at least 899 yards.

This is what is called spreading the ball around.

As the Dolphins return from their bye with a game against the Buffalo Bills scheduled for Sunday, their top four receivers — Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Charles Clay and Mike Wallace — all have between 22 and 25 catches and between 281 and 332 receiving yards.

At this pace, all of them will finish with at least 70 receptions and with at least 899 yards.

The last time the Dolphins had two — not four, not three, but two — players finish with at least 850 yards receiving in the same season was 1993 when Irving Fryar had 1,010 and Terry Kirby had 974. The Dolphins have never had three receivers reach that plateau in the same season, not even during Dan Marino’s 5,084-yard season in 1984 — although the Marks Brothers did both top 1,300 yards that year.

In terms of receptions, the most receivers the Dolphins have ever had with at least 70 catches in a season is two. That happened in 2010 (Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess), 1991 (Mark Duper, Mark Clayton), 1985 (Tony Nathan, Clayton) and 1984 (Duper, Clayton).

From one game to the next this season, we don’t know which receiver will step up to have a big outing.

In the first five games, the Dolphins had three different leaders in receptions (Hartline vs. Cleveland; Wallace vs. Indy and Baltimore; Gibson vs. Atlanta and New Orleans). Hartline, Wallace and Gibson all have led the team in receiving yards at least once.

And when it comes to big plays, there’s been balance there, too. In fact, the longest pass play has been recorded by four different players — Hartline vs. Cleveland; Clay vs. Indy and Atlanta; running back Marcus Thigpen vs. New Orleans; Wallace vs. Baltimore.

This is the kind of balance the Dolphins have shown when it comes to producing big plays in the passing game: Miami has nine explosive passing plays (25 yards or more) this season. They have been produced by five different players and no one has more than two.

Here’s the rundown:

67 yards, Charles Clay at Indianapolis
50 yards, Marcus Thigpen at New Orleans
49 yards, Mike Wallace vs. Baltimore
46 yards, Brandon Gibson vs. Baltimore
45 yards, Charles Clay vs. Baltimore
34 yards, Brian Hartline at Cleveland
34 yards, Mike Wallace at Indianapolis
30 yards, Brian Hartline vs. Baltimore
28 yards, Brandon Gibson at New Orleans

As you can see, the Baltimore game was the epitome of balance when it comes to the deep ball. Four pass plays of 30 yards or more, four different receivers.

Taking the big-play stat a little deeper, the Dolphins have had four different receivers already this season produce a gain of 45 yards or longer. Last season, they had one. It was Hartline, who had an 80-yard touchdown catch at Arizona plus a 57-yard gain in that same game.

In fact, it’s been eight years since the Dolphins had at least four different receivers produce a 45-yard play in the same season. It last happened in 2005 with Chris Chambers, Marty Booker, Wes Welker and David Boston.

The team record in that category occurred in 1985 when six different Dolphins players produced a 45-yard pass play — Tony Nathan, Mark Clayton, Nat Moore, Mark Duper, Dan Johnson and Vince Heflin.

Given offensive coordinator Mike Sherman’s background, we shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of balance.

With Sherman as head coach, Texas A&M University’s top four receivers in 2008 finished between 37 and 55 catches, with one Ryan Tannehill leading the way. There was even more balance the following year, with the top four receivers finishing between 35 and 46 catches — again with Tannehill leading the way.

It was the same when Sherman was assistant head coach and offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans in 2006 and the team’s three leading receivers — Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels and Andre Johnson — all finished between 60 and 65 receptions. Finally, there was the 2002 season, Sherman’s third of six as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, when Donald Driver, Ahman Green, Terry Glenn and Bubba Franks all finished between 54 and 70 catches.

Dolphins Head Coach Joe Philbin continued that kind of balanced approach in Green Bay when he took over as offensive coordinator in 2006. The 2009 Packers had five different receivers produce a play longer than 50 yards; the 2011 team had five receivers finish with 37 to 68 receptions.

The Dolphins’ differential of three catches between their first- and fourth-leading receivers is tied for lowest in the NFL with two other teams. One is the New York Jets, the other is Sunday’s opponent, the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo’s leading receiver is Fred Jackson with 21, followed by Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler with 20, and then Robert Woods with 18.

In terms of yards, the Dolphins’ differential of 51 between first and fourth — Hartline (332) and Wallace (281) — is the lowest in the league. Carolina is second at 72, and Detroit is the only other team under 100 at 98. Atlanta is at the other end, with a whopping 446 yards separating its leader in receiving yardage (Julio Jones, 580) and its fourth-place receiver (Jason Snelling, 134).

So in their second year together in Miami, Philbin and Sherman have produced the kind of balance both have favored as coaches. It’s the most balance the Dolphins have ever had in their passing game, and it’s the most balance in the entire NFL.
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