The Panthers and observers have blamed a lot of factors for the team's stagnant offense this season: The line is not playing well, Jake Delhomme is declining, Jonathan Stewart was injured. But another reason for the unit's struggles has been the lack of productivity from Carolina's starting wide receivers, Mushin Muhammad and Steve Smith.
In fact, when you look at how much the Panthers' passing game has depended on Smith and Muhammad, and how much they have produced, they rate as one of the least efficient wide receiver tandems in the NFL.
CSR examined the top two wide receivers on each NFL team -- studying how often they were targeted for passes, how many balls they caught, and for how many yards and scores. Adjustments were made to averages in some cases to account for the Panthers' bye week because not every NFL team had had its bye yet. Here is how Smith and Muhammad stack up:
Smith and Muhammad have been the targets of a combined 77 passes from Panthers quarterbacks, and have caught only 39 of those passes. That's roughly one-half. Neither has scored a touchdown in four games and they have accounted for a combined 433 yards, or 108.3 yards per game, even though they have been the targets for a staggering 57.9 percent of all Carolina passes. Here are their individual numbers:
- Smith has caught 20 of the 42 passes thrown his way, for 255 yards. He has been the target for 31.6 percent of Carolina passes.
- Muhammad has caught 19 of 35 passes for 178 yards. He has been the target 26.3 percent of the time.
You don't need to be Jeff Davidson to know that's not efficient. Compare their production to other top NFL receiving tandems, and the numbers look worse. Only one other duo has been the target for as many of its team's passes (57.9 percent) when they are healthy: Randy Moss and Wes Welker of the Patriots. But Welker and Moss have been far more productive.
- Moss has caught 30 of 48 passes for 367 yards and a score -- albeit in five games, to four for the Panthers' tandem. Welker, however, is 26-of-41 for 227 yards and a score in only three games.
Between them they have played a combined eight games -- the same as Smith and Muhammad -- and accounted for many more yards (594-433) on only 12 more passes (89-77). They have also caught 63 percent of passes thrown their way, to 51 percent for Smith-Muhammad.
Some other figures to chew on:
- Despite their limited production, Smith and Muhammad are both in the top 10 of all NFL receivers in percentage of their team's passes thrown to them. No other team has a pair of receivers in the top 10. This suggests that the Panthers are relying too much on Smith and Muhammad at the wide receiver position.
- The other Steve Smith, of the Giants, by himself has accounted for more receiving yards (481-433) and touchdowns (4-0) than Smith-Muhammad despite being targeted far less often (49-77).
- Smith 20-42 receptions-targeted ratio is the second-lowest among the 25 NFL receivers who are their teams' most popular targets. The only one who's worse: The Raiders' Louis Murphy (12-33). And he plays with Jamarcus "I miss the whole table when I play beerpong" Russell.
Despite playing opposite a veteran receiver, Smith has been far less productive than the NFL receiver he is most often compared to: Washington's Santana Moss. Moss is similar in stature, speed and experience to Smith. He plays in an offense worse than Carolina's, lining up opposite the unestablished Devin Thomas or Malcolm Kelly. Yet Moss is 21-of-35 for 337 yards and two scores.
- Besides Welker-Moss and Smith-Muhammad, six other healthy tandems of NFL receivers have been targeted for at least 43 percent of their team's passes: The Giants' Smith-Mario Manningham (55), Seattle's T.J. Houshmandzadeh-Nate Burleson (48), Pittsburgh's Hines Ward-Santonio Holmes (47), Jacksonville's Torry Holt-Mike Sims-Walker (45), Denver's Brandon Marshall-Eddie Royal (45) and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald-Anquan Boldin (43).
All six tandems, like Welker-Moss, have been more efficient and productive than Smith-Muhammad.
- Smith and Muhammad are well off their pace of last season. In the 2008 regular season combined they were targeted for an even higher percentage of Panther passes (62.3) than thus far in 2009. But they corralled 60.3 percent of the 237 passes thrown their way, accounted for an average of 146.3 yards per game and caught 11 touchdown passes.
This report is not meant as a referendum against Smith and Muhammad. A passing game depends of course on the quarterback, linemen and offensive coordinator, as well. They are all responsible for the lack of production from the wide receiver position; the numbers don't tell us how many times Smith got open but Delhomme was sacked or misread the play, for example. I'm not a coach or a scout; I have no idea how much of a factor Smith and Muhammad alone have been in their lack of production.
But here's what the numbers do tell us: The Panthers vertical passing game has been anemic through four games. Until something changes -- Delhomme's play, the development of Kenny Moore or Dwayne Jarrett, more playing time for Dante Rosario, whatever -- defenses will likely continue to stack the box and attack the running game. They will dare the Panthers' passing game to move the ball and score, because so far it has not done much of either efficiently.