Going from a fantasy superstar to a question mark takes, oh, about four bad games. Ask Braylon Edwards, whose performance for both fantasy teams and the Cleveland Browns has been severely lacking through his first four games of the season. Edwards has all of 11 catches for the season, with the dynamic downfield threat yet to break 100 yards … on the season.
Of course, you can make the argument both ways. Is it Anderson's inaccuracy that's causing Edwards to put up poor numbers, or is Edwards struggling to catch the ball and run solid routes, lowering Anderson's completion percentage and ending drives?
That's where the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project comes in. We have compared Edwards' performance in 2008 to the first four games of the 2007 season, when he started to emerge as a national star with a huge game against the Bengals in Week 2. We'll also look at his performance in the rest of the 2007 season, analyzing how the blame for his 2008 performance -- and the credit for his 2007 campaign -- should be split between Edwards and his quarterback.
The table breaks down every throw from Anderson to Edwards into different categories, separated by time frame. In addition to attempts, completions and percentage, "Inc" lists all incompletions in which Edwards was the targeted or closest receiver, while "Int" represents interceptions in which Edwards was the intended receiver.
From there, we break the incompletions down into three groups. The column marked "Anderson's Fault" are the percentage of passes in which a mistake from Anderson was the primary cause of the incompletion. That includes everything from overthrows to underthrows, passes thrown ahead or behind Edwards' route or passes tipped at the line. Edwards' drops are passes in which Edwards was hit in the hands and/or in stride and didn't hold onto the ball. Edwards' 12 drops in 2007 were the second-most in the league. The other category includes plays like Hail Mary passes, passes thrown away because of pressure when Edwards was the theoretical receiver of an uncatchable ball, plays resulting in a pass interference penalty, and passes knocked away or otherwise defended well enough to prevent Edwards from catching the pass.
What we see is an interesting trend revolving around Anderson's performance that goes against the common opinion that the league has "figured him out." When it comes to throws he has made toward Edwards, Anderson has been more accurate thus far in 2008 than he was in '07. The analytics show a quarterback improving and making more accurate throws, not one who's effectively wild at best. Instead, it's Edwards who has dropped five passes in four games already this year -- only Chad Johnson has dropped more. If we're partitioning the blame for this failing relationship after the first four weeks, we can't put it solely on Anderson.
The quality of defenses Edwards has faced through the first four games isn't much different than what he saw last year. The Browns have faced Pittsburgh, Baltimore (albeit a superior Ravens pass defense from a year ago), Cincinnati and Dallas. So that's also not an excuse.
Before you officially declare Edwards a disappointment, remember the one change Cleveland made in its receiving corps this offseason. After gritting his way through a full year in 2007, Joe Jurevicius admitted that his body couldn't hold up to the grind of being a starting wideout. "Joe had come up at the end of the year and said he felt like being the Number 2 receiver had taken somewhat of a toll on him as the season developed, so he would appreciate if we could go find a legitimate Number 2," general manager Phil Savage told The Associated Press.
That No. 2 was Donte' Stallworth, who signed a seven-year, $35 million deal with the Browns after a year in New England. While Stallworth had shown flashes of brilliance in his previous stops around the league, it's hard to think of a receiver less like Jurevicius and more like Edwards. Stallworth is an excellent downfield target, but he doesn't run the intermediate route with the level of effectiveness that Jurevicius does. Like Jurevicius, Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow, Stallworth is injury-prone. If you're wondering why Stallworth hasn't been part of the discussion yet, well, it's because he hasn't played a regular-season game in a Browns uniform, due to injury. Jurevicius is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after offseason surgery was complicated with yet another staph infection.
The result has led the Browns to change their offensive scheme totally, particularly around Winslow. While Winslow occasionally would split out and serve as a wide receiver in 2007, he's split out much more frequently in 2008. That has caused him to be matched up against corners who can handle his speed while keeping his blocking abilities away from the action. It also allows safeties to focus their attention on Edwards. If we run the same chart for Winslow as we did for Edwards, we find that the same trends come up.
Just like with Edwards, we're seeing Anderson make fewer mistakes and more of those "other" plays popping up, with more passes defensed or plays in which Anderson's being forced to throw the ball away from pressure.
That points to a schematic issue, likely caused by the makeup of the Browns' receiving corps. Defenses are having an easier time handling the Browns' attack because of the lack of an underneath receiver; with Edwards trying to fill that role, there's no one to attack deep, and Edwards isn't particularly suited for that job, anyway. This team misses Jurevicius desperately, and unless Stallworth can create space deep for Edwards to operate as an effective midrange target, the Browns' offense isn't going to get significantly better. They may not return to their 2007 heights until Jurevicius comes back, and by then, it'll likely be too late.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.