In 2011, Williams had nowhere near the level of production he had as a rook. The only measurable statistic where there was an marked improvement was he cut the number of fumbles he had from 3 in 2010 to 2 in 2011. It's especially easy to compare and contrast the two seasons on paper pretty easily as he had 65 receptions in both years, allowing people to easily point that, with the same number of catches, he had 193 less yards (which breaks down to 2.9 yards per reception, or 12.1 yards per game, fewer), and even more notably, 8 less touchdowns. So what explains the slump?
The answer cannot be found in stats, but in game film. I've given as accurate a report as I can of what the game film shows of Mike Williams, and have already shared on Twitter what I think some of the major contributing factors to his slump have been, but will repeat and elaborate on them here.
Now, 2011 is a tricky season to fairly evaluate, since, as we all know, a large majority of the team had visibly quit on the season, and their coach, throughout the last few weeks of the season - if I had to point out a specific point, from what I've seen, the Titans game was the last one I can say that the team as a whole still showed any desire to play (though there were certainly some individuals who kept fighting to the bitter end). In large part, I would include Mike Williams with the quitters rather than the fighters - but I don't think it's necessarily fair to hold that against him particularly, as it probably applied to 90% of the locker room. Indeed, Williams' quit towards the end is more understandable - though still absolutely inexcusable in a professional athlete - than many of the others on the team. Why? Because of how his season had gone up to the point where the whole team rolled over.
So why was his season bad even well before the Panthers home game, the first week where you can see the team giving up on the game? I put it down to three main factors:
1) A deficiency in Williams' strength, and technique in dealing with press, and bump and run coverage
2) Poor offensive co-ordinating that called for Williams to mostly run routes that were a complete mismatch for his skillset
3) Josh Freeman
Now, we had heard throughout pretty much all of the 2011 season that Mike Williams had regressed, and his seemingly constant inability to get separation from defenders was often pointed to as being one of the clearest proofs of that regression. I would challenge this strongly; not that his inability to get separation was in anyway inaccurately misrepresented, but rather, I would challenge that this was in a 'regression'. Regression implies that Mike Williams was not doing something in 2011 that he was doing in 2010 (i.e. getting open). To me, this is too simplistic and narrow a view of Williams career in the NFL. The lack of separation he got was not because of regression between 2010 and 2011, but (if this were a scientific experiment) the result of far greater exposure to a variable - namely, press coverage. Simply put, Williams saw far, far more press coverage in 2011 than in 2010 - a coverage that took huge advantage of Williams' lack of upper body strength. I cannot call it a regression when it's simply something that Williams saw far more often in his second season - or else we'd be saying he dealt with press coverage better in 2010 than in 2011, something I do not believe is true at all.
So, should we forgive Williams for his lack of production and separation in 2011 - after all, it's not his fault that teams switched up the way they covered him last year, right? Absolutely not. God damn, the man is professional athlete, was the team's no.1 receiver in 2010, and was given that position straight off in 2011. A true professional should respond to the faith the team have place in him by doing everything he can to become as a useful a weapon as possible. Williams should have spent his offseason in the weight room, building on his upper body strength, and in the film room, seeing how he can improve his techniques to deal with any type of coverage he might face the next season. He quite clearly did not do that. What's worse, every defensive co-ordinator in the league now has tape on Williams' inability to deal with press coverage. The acquisition of Vincent Jackson will do nothing to help Williams, as many hope, if he does not pick his game up. The theory is sound: VJax should automatically draw a safety towards him, leaving Williams one-on-one - meaning that as soon as Williams' beats his man, he should be wide open to catch passes. The problem is that Williams has to beat his man. From what I saw in 2011, it really only takes one CB to completely take Williams out of a play. The only way that VJax will help Williams, if things stay as they are, is that Williams is likely to be matched up with teams' second best corners rather than their best, who, in theory, might be not quite as good as the no.1 guy when it comes to press, meaning Williams might have a little bit more success. Is that good enough for you? Because it's certainly not for me. Williams has to build on his upper body strength and has to develop techniques for dealing with press, or his career trajectory is in serious risk of following Michael Clayton's - though, thanks to the weak upper body strength, with nowhere near the blocking ability Clayton has.
Therefore, the first, and biggest, factor in Williams' slump in production in 2011 is squarely on his own shoulders; but, as said above, there are others who must share some of the blame. Firstly, Greg Olson. In 2011, Olson had Williams running a much higher proportion of downfield routes than he had in 2010, where he appeared to mostly run slants, ins, drags and outs. The problem is that, to be able to beat coverage on downfield routes, you either need to have true burner straight-line speed - which Williams has never had - or, in press coverage, the strength and technique to separate from your man. In contrast, on the underneath routes that Olson mostly had Williams running as a rookie, footwork and good 'change-of-direction' speed - something that Williams definitely possesses. Now, again, a large part of this factor again goes back to Williams' failure to deal with press coverage; but surely, the role of an offensive co-ordinator is to put your players in the best possible situation to succeed on the football field? Regardless of Williams not living up to Olson's expectation of him, once the reality was clear, you have to be able to adjust your expectation to meet to the reality. Olson refused to do this for a huge part of the season, instead continue to follow his expectation that Williams was able of running those routes, rather than the reality that he cannot. Now, towards the very end of the season, Olson did appear to change his tune in the dying weeks of the season, but by then, it was too little too late, as Williams, along with almost all of the rest of the Bucs, had given up by then.
But there is a third factor, and the factor that, more than the other two, for me is the biggest reason I say that Williams' quitting was more understandable than the others'. That factor was Josh Freeman. We've heard it said multiple times that Freeman, tired of losing, would often force passes just to "make things happen" - resulting in his hugely increased interception total last season. This line implies that it was a trend that started at least mid-way through the season, after the team was already on a clear losing streak. That is simply not true. The fact is, right from week one, you could see Freeman choosing to throw to covered receivers who were deeper downfield, or in better position for a touchdown, rather than throwing to clearly open receivers. This isn't forcing passes when you're on a losing streak - that's simply wanting to rack up the stats and the accolades. If it wasn't greedy, then it was at the very least, supreme arrogance - a belief that he can make any throw in any situation, regardless of whether that receiver was open or covered or in the right position. There were many times when Freeman chose to make a 'glory' throw, while Williams was actually open underneath. In this factor, it was not down to Williams that his production dipped, but rather Freeman's. There were certainly times when Freeman threw to Williams when Williams was the 'glory' option - and often too-well covered to make the catch. Continuing through the season, it does appear that, more and more often, Freeman never threw to Williams at all. I have a feeling that this was because Freeman was expecting early in the year for Williams to be open as consistently as he was in 2010. As discussed above, Williams did struggle getting separation vs. press coverage. Because of this, Freeman appeared to stop looking at Williams, as if he was just expecting Williams to be covered. Still, we can very well make the argument that, by Williams being so covered on the 'glory' routes, it opened up receivers underneath, in the same way we hope VJax will do this year. The problem was, in my opinion, Freeman would throw to Williams despite the coverage on these 'glory' routes, eschewing the open options underneath, and seeing Williams unable to make the catch. This resulted in Freeman's confidence in Williams waning, until he stopped looking at Williams at all on maybe 4 passes out of 5. Not helped is the fact that Freeman appeared to truly suffer from paranoia once he got hit once or twice. If he got hit a few times early on in the game, he would then revert to "Captain Checkdown", getting nervous, apparently feeling phantom pressure, and increasingly throwing checkdowns rather than waiting for routes to develop downfield as the season went on. This was not helped by the very much subpar pass protection from his offensive line - as I've stated on twitter repeatedly, since I've started this in-depth film study process, I've gone from being pretty damn high on Penn to believing he is incredibly over rated, and unquestionably a liability long-term when it comes to protecting Freeman. Carl Nicks will help a hell of a lot - Bushrod made the Pro Bowl in 2011 more off of the back of Nicks' play than his own - and, if Penn can lose a hell of a lot of weight, he does show potential of being a true lock-down left tackle. It's why if, for some ridiculously stupid reason, Matt Kalil did fall to #5 on Thursday, if I were Mark Dominik I wouldn't hesitate in handing in the draft card for him. But, I digress - Penn's play was suspicious enough for me that he'll be the feature of his own series of film studies down the line. The point is that Freeman's protection was so inadequate that he would get increasingly paranoid and start throwing checkdowns rather than wait for receivers to break open downfield - another way how the Freeman factor was a major contribution to Williams' lack of production last season.
Where does Williams go from here? A new coaching staff, better protection and (hopefully) better decision making by Freeman, and a true number one receiver on the other side to open up the rest of the field, all should mean that there is nothing stopping Williams having 2010-levels of production for the rest of his career - if he wants it. If he does, then he will be spending this offseason building his strength and developing his techniques so that he will become a true all-round receiver, playing as well against press as he does against zone and off-man coverage. If not, then he will again be a non-factor against teams, who only need to devote a single defender to completely take him out the play - and we should look to trade him next offseason, when he still has one year left on his contract and we can get something back for him.
Next up: a study in LeGarrette Blount in 2011