Wide receivers are pretty widely recognized as the divas of the NFL. There are certain workload guarantees in the NFL, a quarterback will likely attempt at least 30 passes, a starting running back will get a minimum of 15 carries. Most wide receivers are extremely talented athletes, yet their production is almost entirely dependent on the play calling and their quarterback’s ability to get them the ball. There are no guarantees that a wide receiver will see a certain number of targets (passes to them) in any given game. And sometimes they don’t like that situation and decide to run their mouth about it to the media.
Yes, if you are a football fan you have heard wide receivers complaining about a lack of targets. Sometimes this is done very diplomatically, with the wide receiver simply pining to contribute more to the team. Sometimes they just throw the team or coaches under the bus. Here’s a typical example of a wide receiver griping about lack of targets, courtesy of Kendall Wright in 2015:
“I don’t feel like I’m being able to do what I can do until late in games. I feel like I’m a good receiver and I feel like I’ve been open and I can beat the DBs or whoever is (covering) me, but I haven’t really been given the opportunity I’ve been looking for.”
So Kendall sets up the question that we are interested in: he asked for the ball more… did he get it? In other words, when wide receivers whine about targets, does it work?
To explore this question we scoured the internet for cases of wide receivers (and pass oriented tight ends) complaining about not getting the ball enough using search terms like “wide receiver complains” or “wide receiver not getting ball enough”. We found 12 cases from the last 3 seasons that we could include in our analyses, though there are certainly more. Here’s our list of whiners and when they did their whining:
You’ll notice that it’s mostly big names on this list. Even in the ego driven NFL, #4 wide receivers don’t have the stones to start whining to the media about lack of targets. We typically see star players venting during periods when their production dipped. Also, whining is more common when a player’s team is losing a lot, though that’s not always the case. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders both (politely) groused to the media about not getting the ball much earlier this season, despite their team being 2-0. And the ridiculousness of that situation was not lost on Sanders, but he still couldn’t help himself from talking about wanting the ball more:
“There’s some frustration, but it’s hard to be frustrated when you’re sitting here 2-0,” Sanders said. “I can sit up here and make it all about me and Demaryius, how we’re used to having 100-yard games, we’re used to scoring touchdowns and we’re used to doing this. But we’re sitting here 2-0 … Individually, I would like to have my highlights on ESPN, yeah, I would like to have 100-yard games, be ranked top five, but we’re sitting here 2-0 …”
So what happens after a wide receiver whines? Does he get the ball thrown his way more? Here’s a comparison of the average stats of the receivers and tight ends from the above list both before (4 week average) and after they complained publicly about targets. The “after” statistics are broken into two groups: 1 week after, to measure the immediate effect of whining, and the average stats of the 4 weeks after to see if there’s a sustained effect. We’ll start with targets:
As a group, our 12 whining wideouts from averaged 7.1 targets per game in the four weeks leading up to when they complained to the media. After that… well, they generally got their way. Targets increased by an average of 1.5 per game, though there are some really crazy individual cases. Emmanuel Sanders went from an 8 target average to seeing the ball 13 times the week after he made the comments featured above. In 2014, Doug Baldwin was seeing 4.3 targets per game on average before he griped about it. The week after he got 11. But Golden Tate takes the cake for most effective whining. In 2015, Tate’s Detroit Lions were out to an 0-4 start with Tate seeing a respectable 7.25 targets per game in that stretch. But Tate was not satisfied and felt that him getting the ball more was a winning formula. The next week they hucked the ball in his direction 18 times. And they still lost.
There does appear to be an effect of bigger stars getting more targets if they complain compared to other wide receivers. From our list above, Antonio Brown, Jimmy Graham, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, Demaryius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders all saw an uptick in their targets. Less ‘established’, shall we say politely, wide receivers like Michael Crabtree, Chris Givens, and Kendall Wright actually saw decreases in targets. In their cases, the squeaky wheel got even less grease than before.
Are there any fantasy implications when a wide receiver starts to complain? We looked at that too, using the same methods from above but comparing fantasy production (standard scoring, non-PPR) before and after whining about targets. Here’s the comparison for that:
Before whining the players on our list averaged 7.2 points per game. After whining that jumped up to an average of 10.7, which isn’t huge, but it’s something. And that increase in points was sustained with the 4-week post whining average being 10.3 points per game.
So what have we learned? Well, if you’re a big-name NFL wide receiver and you complain about not getting enough targets, there’s a reasonable chance it’s going to work. Apparently most, NFL offensive coordinators, coaches, and quarterbacks have never raised toddlers, because they are really reinforcing what many would consider bad behavior. And if you have one of these guys on your fantasy team, it’s not unreasonable to expect a little bump after they make a stink.