A few days ago, the NFL announced their official list of 1,500 players who aren't good enough to be on the roster for the poorly named "Pro" Bowl. Our duty as fans is to give a quick smile and nod for those who did make the roster, then get down to the serious business of complaining about snubs.
Five Seahawk players were selected to play, and eight more were named as alternates. But short of making a convoluted anagram, the name "Sidney Rice" appears on neither list.
Big Numbers and their Dubious Causes
The chosen wide receivers accumulated good total stats, be it receptions, yards, touchdowns, or name recognition. The chart below has Pro-bowl selections highlighted in green, with the top four in each category shown in bold:
Football Outsiders. DPI = defensive pass interference).
Rice doesn't have the same big numbers, but there's a reason for this that should be obvious even to the balloting masses: He's been catching passes from a 3rd-round rookie quarterback. Of the four quarterbacks who are throwing to the selected Pro Bowl receivers, three are Pro Bowl veterans themselves (Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, and Jay Cutler) and the fourth (Matthew Stafford) is a 4th-year veteran and #1 overall pick who should have gone to the Pro Bowl last year.
Somewhat less obvious is the fact that Rice doesn't catch as many passes because Seattle has been so capable of protecting big leads without having to run many pass plays:
Margin of victory 10+ points (6 games) = 35% pass plays
Margin of victory or defeat 1-7 points (9 games) = 49% pass plays
Sidney Rice played an important role in the early part of those blowout wins, when the games were still in doubt. But like a quarterback who retires to the bench, he stopped racking up the numbers as a result of his own efficiency. On the flip side, Seattle has accumulated zero yards of garbage time offense versus prevent defenses, having been within seven points in each of their losses.
And with their clock-killing drives, Seattle has ran just 59.1 offensive plays per game, compared to a league average of 64.4. Merely extrapolating Rice's numbers to that league-average would take him up to 57 receptions, 847 yards, and 8 touchdowns. Adjusting his numbers based on the dearth of passing plays in blowout wins would increase his statistics even more.
Efficiency as a Measure of Player Quality
Another way to compare receivers is to look at how well they do on a play-by-play basis. I pulled up stats for the above player list and produced an "adjusted yards" statistic, something that should give an even comparison that includes all touchdowns, fumbles, and defensive pass interference draws. It works much like the quarterback's adjusted net yards per attempt:
Total receiving yards + DPI yards + (20 X touchdowns) - (20 x fumbles)
(Note that players are only docked half as many yards for fumbles as for interceptions, because half of fumbles are recovered by the offense. This may actually be a little generous, because receivers still get receiving yardage credit if they fumble after a catch.)
So who are the best receivers in the NFC when measuring adjusted yards per reception?
Golden Tate and Sidney Rice.
But to make sure we aren't cherry-picking statistics here, I also calculated the adjusted yards per target. This includes all passes thrown toward the receiver, even those that are not considered catchable. Tate and Rice still came out in the top four.
Finally, I mitigated each of these numbers further with a contribution adjustment (more fully explained here). This gives a player more credit if he is targeted more frequently, so that a rarely-used deep threat receiver isn't overvalued based on his yards-per-catch average; and so that an often-targeted receiver gets credit for drawing more defensive attention. The contribution adjustment knocked Tate down significantly and vaulted Brandon Marshall to the top of the list. Sidney Rice remained at #3 and #4 (depending on whether you count per-target or per-reception).
Pro Bowl selections are highlighted in green, the top four in each category are shown in bold, and possible snub indicators in orange:
Playing Style and Quarterback-Receiver Synergy
Seattle fans are falling over themselves to profess their undying love for Russell Wilson, and rightly so. But he depends on receivers with complementary skills.
A Tom Brady or Peyton Manning will stand tall in the pocket, find the open man, and zip the ball in. They move the ball downfield by completing lots of passes. Russell Wilson has fewer throwing lanes, but he does have outstanding accuracy and range. He's less likely to hit a wide open receiver but perfectly capable of hitting that "NFL-sized-window" for a big play.
And Sidney Rice excels at making those big-time catches. If you don't already have it etched into your brain (and can tolerate the Internet's worst video service), check out the Week One Seattle-Arizona highlights from NFL.com. At 0:37, Rice shows his groundskeeper skills with a difficult low catch. He goes the other way at 1:30, scoring a touchdown by snatching from the air a ball that looked to be headed for the cheap seats.
At 0:22 in the Seahawks-Panthers highlight video, he shows his ability to go high in the middle of the field against tight coverage.
Most frequently, Rice provides his quarterback with an extended window by controlling the ball-- and his feet-- at the sideline.
The one-knee grab against the 49ers last Sunday should still be fresh in your mind. He made highlights with a 26-yard sideline grab against the Dolphins, and a foot-dragging touchdown against the Lions.
Interceptions count against a quarterback's performance, and so too should fumbles count against a receiver. The sure-handed Rice has only one career fumble (and it did not come this year).
Wide receiver drop rates are notoriously difficult to find, but Rice was 5th best in the NFC from 2009-2011, dropping just 5.67% of catchable balls. I don't think he's dropped more than three this year, but if we pencil him in at four drops (we know for sure he hasn't had more than five) for a drop rate of 7.4%, that's still better than Brandon Marshall (8.1%), Calvin Johnson (7.9%), Dez Bryant (9.3%), Julio Jones (9.5%), Randall Cobb (10.1%), and Victor Cruz (10.9%).
Rice has started all 15 games for Seattle this year. He's demonstrated his resilience by playing through a knee injury, holding onto the ball after a brutal hit on a meaningless play (late game against Arizona), and coming back after being knocked in the head while scoring the season-defining game-winner against Chicago.
Seattle has played the second toughest schedule of opposing defenses in the NFL, and only the DVOA stat in the above chart (for which Rice leads the NFC, naturally) accounts for strength of opposing defenses.
Advanced NFL Stats' Wide Receiver Rankings gives Rice an "expected points added per play" of 0.53, 3rd best among NFC wide receivers, and better than any of the selected Pro Bowlers. His WPA (win probability added) is even more impressive-- and it's important to note that this is neither defense-adjusted nor is it an efficiency stat. It measures total contribution to the team. Rice has a WPA of 2.19, second among NFC receivers to Calvin Johnson (2.70).
Snubbed? Homerism aside, an objective look at the numbers says that Dez Bryant belongs in the Pro Bowl. Roddy White is at least as deserving as Julio Jones, 'though either one could be considered on the fringe, and Victor Cruz is clearly riding on the strength of New York's superior voting numbers and not his own performance.
Sidney Rice would not be out of place in the NFC's top four. Failing that, his lack of inclusion among the alternates is a first-class snub.