The Washington Times - September 26, 2008, 06:34PM

I’ve heard this from other reporters. I heard it from an ill-informed loudmouth on the radio (proving again why I swear off sports talk shows almost all the time). I’ve heard it from fans, especially the message-board-posting sorts.

Their message: Darrius Heyward-Bey doesn’t touch the ball enough for Maryland.


My inclination is to disagree, but I’m not really good at arguing unless I have two things: A boatload of information, and an audience that is willing to consider a position to counter to their own. Bickering with someone who won’t change their mind (or who bickers just for the sake of bickering) really isn’t that fun, even if some sportswriters have discovered this decade it can line their wallets quite nicely.

Fact is, such conflicts —- real or contrived —- aren’t all that appealing.

Anyway, back to Hey-Bey and the size of his role in the offense. One argument presented to me this week centered on how often Florida’s Percy Harvin and Missouri’s Jeremy Maclin touch the ball in their respective offenses (please note, I’m leaving special teams out of this). But do they really? It seemed like a worthwhile little project, even if I was forced to ignore for a moment the INHERENT DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A SPREAD OFFENSE AND A MORE CONVENTIONAL ONE. While I was at it, I also looked up the work of Texas Tech wideout Michael Crabtree (the only receiver who received TONS of Heisman buzz).

Then I added in a player I felt was a good comparison to Heyward-Bey, in terms of talent, scheme and surrounding cast: North Carolina’s Hakeem Nicks.

Let’s start with a few ground rules. I only included Florida’s last two games for Harvin, since he sat out the opener against Hawaii. And because I used the play-by-plays available on each school’s website, the total passing targets for everyone but Heyward-Bey might be slightly (by one or two) depressed because intended receivers on interceptions aren’t listed. I’ve tracked each of Hey-Bey’s times targeted all season, including when a quarterback threw an interception.

In addition, I made an assumption that any time a receiver made a tackle on an interception, he was the intended target. More often than not, that’s fair.

Anyway, let’s start with a basic chart (the first of four I’ll deploy in this entry): The total number of touches as a percentage of a team’s plays.

Player Touches  Plays  Pct.
Harvin 14 116 12.1
Maclin 34 290 11.7 
Crabtree 30 301 10.0
Nicks 16 174 9.2
Heyward-Bey 17 246 6.9

Well, that’s a start —- at least for the “Told-you-so” crowd. Harvin, who is much more of a hybrid than the other four guys, predictably touches the ball more frequently.

But what about intent? Shouldn’t a team get credit for trying to get the ball to a player, even if those attempts land incomplete or in the hands of a guy wearing the wrong color? Probably so.

So here’s a look factoring in all the times each of these guys has been targeted on a play, so the second column becomes “rushes + targets” (R+T):

Player R+T  Plays  Pct.
Harvin 19 116 16.4
Crabtree 47 301 15.6
Nicks 26 174 14.9
Maclin 41 290 14.1 
Heyward-Bey 28 246 11.3

Heyward-Bey still lags behind. And while this might be the time to point out Harvin (Tim Tebow), Crabtree (Graham Harrell) and Maclin (Chase Daniel) all have quarterbacks who are Heisman Trophy possibilities, it’s an even better time time to point out how pass-happy both Texas Tech (50.5 throws a game) and Missouri (42.3) are this season.

So if there’s that many pass plays (as compared to the 25 a game for Florida and North Carolina and the 23.8 for Maryland), then of course receivers will account for a greater percentage of R+T in an offense.

To adjust for that difference, let’s look exclusively at pass targets as a percentage of a team’s total throws. Psst! This is where things change a bit:

Player Targets  Passes  Pct.
Nicks 26 75 34.7
Heyward-Bey 23 95 24.2
Crabtree 46 202 22.8
Maclin 33 169 19.5 
Harvin 8 50 16.0

More than a bit, actually. At the very least, it’s close to impossible to say Maryland isn’t throwing to Heyward-Bey enough this season as a percentage of the team’s targets.

Maclin has eight runs to Heyward-Bey’s five; Crabtree (one) barely registers and Nicks doesn’t have a carry at all. So while, yes, Heyward-Bey probably could be used as a rusher more, the only one of these comparisons that he badly trails is Harvin, who takes direct snaps and might be a more dangerous runner from a backfield spot than any of Florida’s full-time tailbacks.

Is the same true of Heyward-Bey vis-a-vis Da’Rel Scott? That’s very questionable.

Deep down, this argument really isn’t about fans squawking “Get the playmakers the ball.” (This will be the last reference to “playmaker” on the blog, since it is earning a secure spot in the Big Bag of Sportswriters’ Cliches. After all, does anyone try to go out and find people who won’t make plays? Is anyone designated a “non-playmaker.” Highly, highly doubtful, says I.)

This discussion really revolves around this chart right here (which includes the season stats for every team, including Florida):

Team Passes 
Plays  Pass Pct.
Texas Tech 202 301 67.1
Missouri 169 290 58.3
North Carolina 75 174 43.1
Florida 67 171 39.2 
Maryland 95 246 38.6

The Terps have a potential first-round pick at wideout and they still throw less than two times out of five. But if you had a tailback averaging 7.3 yards a carry (as Scott did in the first three games), wouldn’t it seem smart to make sure he got his share of the touches, too?

If Scott severely falls off (no one expects him to maintain his current average, so some decline should be anticipated), then there will be plenty of incentive to throw. And since he’s already attracting nearly one in four pass targets, Heyward-Bey will probably receive a boost in touches if that happens.

And if Scott remains an ultra-effective back? Then Maryland will find itself in the enviable position of possessing two potent stars on offense (and probably winning plenty as well). And as long as one of them gets the ball most of the time at that point, no one will complain.

Well, except for those folks who won’t be persuaded by any sort of opposing argument, anyway.

—- Patrick Stevens