We’ve all heard the analysis before… Coach X is a great fit for Player X. Playing in Coach X’s system, Player X will thrive. Coach X’s wide receivers typically break out in their third year.
Fantasy football enthusiasts can imagine themselves in the general manager’s chair. Fantasy gamers can see themselves roaming the sideline shouting plays into a headset. Actually conceptualizing playing football at the NFL level, on the other hand, is infinity more difficult. For this reason, attributing team and individual success to management and coaches, as well as empathizing with management and coaches during a team’s struggles comes easy to us, the passionate observers.
For this reason, offensive coordinators and head coaches from Mike Martz to Mike Shanahan to Norv Turner to Chip Kelly to Hue Jackson receive an inordinate amount of praise when their offenses are scoring lots of points. Yet, when players like Robert Griffin III, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Nick Foles struggle, we criticize the player’s leadership qualities, practice habits, and/or skill set. The guys wearing the polo shirts have a sweetheart deal with us.
Aware of this inherent bias, when Jeremy Hill and Mohamed Sanu erupted for the Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday, I made a concerted effort to not lapse into coach worship-mode. Hue Jackson is an above average offensive coordinator who recently helped make the Raiders competitive offensively — a major accomplishment. However, Hue Jackson’s contribution to the Jeremy Hill and Mohamed Sanu performances was nominal compared to the work of Jeremy Hill and Mohamed Sanu. Jackson’s contribution was also nominal compared to the work of Andy Dalton, Russell Bodine (center), Andrew Whitworth (tackle), Andre Smith (tackle), Clint Boling (guard), Kevin Zeitler (guard), and Jermaine Gresham (tight end). These players really really matter.
Now look at Jeremy Hill’s workout metrics and college productivity on PlayerProfiler.com. While prospect-related every metric is below average, his 6.9 yards per carry at LSU in 2013 and his 4.7 yards per carry with the Bengals in 2014 indicates that his on-field ability is more than the sum of his athleticism metrics. Working behind Giovani Bernard through eight weeks of the season, Jeremy Hill demonstrated a nimbleness and field vision, as well as pass catching and pass blocking ability that did not show up strongly on his college resume.
Heading into Cincinnati’s week 9 game against Jacksonville, Jeremy Hill was the most talked-about player in fantasy football, and it made perfect sense. Take a efficient player with an every-down skill set, put him behind PlayerProfiler‘s No. 1 ranked run blocking offensive line and match him up against a below average run defense (from a fantasy points allowed standpoint), and RB1 fantasy numbers will surely rain. On Sunday, it poured to the tune of 163 total yards and two touchdowns.
The top-3 reasons for Hill’s success were:
1. Jeremy Hill
2. Bengals’ offensive line
3. Jacksonville’s just-ok run defense
What about Hue Jackson? His schemes and play calling check in at distant fourth on the post-game credits hierarchy. While the guy wearing the headset and polo shirt is easy to identify with, his role in the outcome was minor compared to the actual competitors. Before running to anoint Hue Jackson the next genius offensive coordinator, remember that Kyle Shanahan’s system was responsible for Ben Tate’s 124-yard performance at Tennessee, then coincidentally, the moment Alex Mack was injured, Kyle Shanahan’s run plays stopped working. Blame the Cleveland offensive line! Fire Ben Tate! Sign Shanahan to an extension. Rinse and repeat.
What about Hue Jackson’s role in Mohamed Sanu’s 95 yards and a touchdown on Sunday? Nominal.
Unlike Jeremy Hill, Mohamed Sanu’s breakout was easier to predict. Sanu’s PlayerProfiler page checks all but one of the key boxes (SPOILER ALERT: he’s slow):
40-time: 4.67 (9th percentile)
Agility Score: 11.10 (57th percentile)
Burst Score: 124.2 (66th percentile)
College Dominator Rating: 35.9% (64th percentile)
Breakout Age: 20.0 (56th percentile)
Athleticism Score: 102.5 (67th percentile)
On the field, Mohamed Sanu has been one of the most efficiency players in the NFL. His 16.1 yards per reception and 1.76 fantasy points per target are buoyed by his throwing ability (he did throw a touchdown pass to Andy Dalton this year) and his contested catch conversion rate. The RotoUnderworld Game Analyst Team, which charts every NFL game, pegs Mohamed Sanu to a 50-percent Contested Catch conversion rate, which is one of the highest percentages by any starting NFL wide receiver.
Mohamed Sanu emphatically demonstrated this efficient playmaking after A.J. Green suffered a foot injury. Sanu become the Bengal’s defacto No. 1 wide receiver in week 6 and responded with 18 receptions, 199 yards, and a touchdown over a three game period — solid fantasy WR2 numbers. His size (6-foot-2, 211-pounds), athletic profile and on-field efficiency suggest that Sanu could be a No. 1 WR for a NFL franchise, but alas, he is no A.J. Green and would be a long-shot to ever achieve fantasy WR1 status given his lack of breakaway speed.
With Andy Dalton playing the role of prototypical average quarterback, Sanu’s uber-efficiency can be attributed to one person — Mohamed Sanu. Hue Jackson is not freezing time, running out onto the field, and moving the football into Sanu’s hands in contested situations. Hue Jackson is calling pass plays with route combinations that other NFL teams run. There are no “secret route trees” at the NFL level. Sanu is running. Sanu is jumping. Sanu is catching. Sanu is scoring.
Jeremy Hill and Mohamed Sanu were not number one options when the season started, but due to injury, they rose to become fantasy difference makers at various points this season. The athletes themselves, and to a lesser extent their teammates, are the responsible for their respective breakouts.
And Hue Jackson is loving every minute of it.
Matt Kelley (@fantasy_mansion) is an XN Sports contributor and founder of RotoUnderworld (@rotounderworld) and PlayerProfiler.com, which distills a wide range of advanced metrics into a single player snapshot.