EAST HARTFORD, CT - NOVEMBER 26: Brandon Coleman #17 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights makes the catch as Sio Moore #3 of the Connecticut Huskies defends on November 26, 2011 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. The Connecticut Huskies defeated the Rutgers Scarlet Knights 40-22. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Bill Connelly from Football Study Hall made a comment on Twitter the other day - given Brandon Coleman's low catch percentage, why does Rutgers target him so much in their offense? That comment was spurred by the USF game, but it's really applicable to broader trends in offensive strategy. If Coleman is catching X percentage of his passes, and say, Tim Wright is catching X+Y, why not have Gary Nova throw the ball more to Wright and less to Coleman? (Note: the argument is NOT about using the horrible offense from the Tulane/Howard games. Those are plays you call when you want to keep everything under wraps and don't remotely care about winning ugly; or if you're coaching BC and don't have a single skill position player who can run faster than a 4.7 forty yard dash or so.)
Specifically with the USF game, Coleman indeed had a few drops (along with a few errant throws that were not his fault.) In game, that seems to be his weakness up to this point (he reportedly dazzles in practice, so it's anyone's guess as to why this seems to be a continuing mental block.) If he catches the ball, there's a pretty good chance that he's going to score, or at least generate a big play. The problem is that more often than not, he isn't catching it. In fact, this is a problem with the overall offense. How often does Rutgers seemingly throw away a down with a gigantic overthrow in a long go route bomb down the sideline? Those plays require timing, precision, practice, and rhythm - think of how them not connecting doomed Rutgers early in 2008, and then suddenly Kenny Britt was getting everything and beating the tar out of teams almost single-handedly. Part of the problem is just that it's a lot harder to catch a 50-yard pass on multiple levels than it is to catch a 15-yard pass.
I think there's merit in this criticism to a point. Research from Football Outsiders and similar advanced metrics have shown that in terms of a raw regression analysis, short passing games correlate more with winning than vertical passing games. Even if everything goes right on a given play, it is still a very difficult throw to connect with due to a variety of variables that can be difficult to account for in full. This makes sense of you think about it; let's use baseball as an example. On base percentage is a great stat that correlates with winning, and it offered excellent arbitrage for a while because the market severely undervalued it. However, the purpose of offensive baseball, even more so than getting on base, is in not making outs. In theory, if you had a batter who was able to reach base on 50% of at bats due to fielding errors, that player would likely be the most valuable hitter in baseball. Analogously, the concepts of keeping drives alive, draining the clock (which in turn wears down opposing defenses, and rests yours), and not turning the ball over probably should be valued more in general than they are.
However, a bit of context is needed here. Short passes are probably better in terms of expected value than long passes in an environment where defenses expect long passes Z percentage of the time. If they sub in a linebacker to play intermediate coverage for a corner who would have helped double a top receiver, everything in the seam goes down in expected value, and those throws downfield would be more effective to a greater extent. Not only is this the case in purely playing the percentages, but the market for various types of personnel changes as well. Suddenly, there's more competition for a slot wizard with sure hands and route-running skills, and perhaps less competition for a blazer who can clear out room for the slot guy by luring coverage downfield.
There are diminishing returns after a point - it may be better for any given team to switch to more of a west coast or spread offense (the REAL spread, not the 7-step drop, vertical Kirk Ciarrocca horror show), and there might be logistical points about there also being some breakdown in coverage. If every team suddenly switched overnight however, there would be a fair bit of relative decline. Basically, it's a rat race. The West Coast offense defeated the 3-4 in the late 80s NFL, then the zone-happy Tampa-2 was in vogue a decade later, and it all cycles ad nauseum in an endless quest to stay one step ahead of the competition. Given the trend in college football away from the pro-style offense over the past decade, there's real value in being counter-cyclical here. After all, it works for Nick Saban.
As for Brandon Coleman and his role in the Rutgers offense, as the team's #1 receiver (listed at 6'6 and reportedly running a 4.4 forty yard dash), he has a qualitative effect on the rest of the offense in theory by frequently drawing double coverage, as was the case on Thursday night. If you asked Rutgers offensive coordinator Dave Brock, or previous play callers like Frank Cignetti or John McNulty, they would probably defend the deep strikes until they were blue in the face. At some point, they'd argue, those passes will connect. Even when they don't, they have a cumulative effect on the rest of the field, opening things up in the short and intermediate range (it would be great to see some sort of value-added, time series study to try to see if this is valid and/or quantifiable in some respect) according to this line of thinking.
Perhaps one could claim that it would be worth seeing if another deep threat like Miles Shuler or Jeremy Deering could do better in the role, but for now it's fair to say that Coleman and Nova are still young, and need more repetitions to build chemistry. They're working out the kinks as we speak towards the end of this November and beyond. That's as fair of a case as any. If the game keeps being on the line though, and Nova continues to sling the ball down the sideline on second down, leaving the team in a deep hole on third and long, that's another story entirely. USF's repeated breakdowns last week are likely not sustainable, and Rutgers is likely to face this exact dilemma head-on at some point in the near future this season. How the trio of Nova, Brock, and Flood react when the time comes is likely to have a strong influence on whether RU is able to finally get over the hump this year, so this specific issue is worth going over now when everything is still wine and roses if the team can get through this weekend in one piece.