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What happened to Jermaine Kearse in the middle of last season?

A 33-percent catch rate in the second half of the year sunk his numbers and killed Seattle in the red zone

NFL: Preseason-Oakland Raiders at Seattle Seahawks
Kearse in 2015
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Following up on my Jermaine Kearse article from yesterday in which we finally talk about the possibility that he’ll be around for awhile, there has been something bothering me about Kearse’s 2016 season. Everyone here knows his stats for the season (41 receptions, 510 yards, 12.4 yards per catch, 1 TD and a 46.1% catch rate) so I’m not going to rehash all the little details and go over individual plays like Coleman Crawford did in his write up a while back. My goal here is to put one big piece of factual evidence out there, ask a couple of questions and then let you guys decide for yourselves if there is any merit to any of these ideas.

In any case, the big question has been, what happened to Kearse that his 2016 season went so poorly? What happened after he signed his contract that made his 2016 so bad? Worst catch rate since his rookie season. Lowest yards per catch since his rookie season. Fewer yards since 2013 when he entered camp as the number five guy at best behind.

Was it simply a season-long slump or was it a couple of bad games along the way that dragged his numbers down? Or was there something that happened along the way that impacted his performance. In looking into this, what I found was this:

Jermaine Kearse 2016 gamelog
Pro Football Reference

Looking at those numbers (courtesy of Pro Football Reference), the divide between Kearse’s first half and second half jumps right off the screen.

Kearse basically had two different 2016 seasons - the first half was not bad, and the second half was awful. During the first eight games of the season, Kearse had 24 catches on 38 targets for 281 yards (11.7 yards per catch), which is a 63% catch rate. While not All-Pro numbers by any stretch, they are at least respectable. During the second half of the season however, Kearse had 17 catches on 51 targets for 229 yards (13.5 yards per catch), which is an atrocious 33% catch rate.

I don’t know what happened at the midpoint of the season and it is something that has bothered me for some time. Was it an injury that he or the team never disclosed? I certainly hope not because there was enough yammering about Richard Sherman’s undisclosed injury that I don’t want to hear about any more inquiries or investigations. But if it wasn’t an injury, is that even worse?

The next thing I wanted to look at was whether his catch rate was higher in games where the Hawks ran the ball consistently. Thinking that perhaps Kearse needed to contribute as a blocker in the running game to get warmed up to catch the ball, I looked at Kearse’s catch rate across the season as it compared to rushing attempts by the offense. This held up through the first five weeks of the season, and accounted for the poor showing in L.A. in Week 2, but quickly broke down in Week 6. There is no need to do any statistical testing for a correlation between these two, because the team did run the ball consistently in certain games during the second half, but Kearse still couldn’t catch a damned thing.

My next thought was that perhaps Kearse had poor numbers when he was filling in for an injured Tyler Lockett, and was therefore facing off against better corners against whom he couldn’t generate separation. However, Lockett’s two lowest snap counts on the year came in games 3 and 4 against San Francisco and New York, and those were Kearse’s two best games of the year in terms of catch rate; though I will be the first to admit that as bad as those two teams were in 2016, it’s highly possible the CB2 playing across from Kearse in those games is potentially a practice squad guy on many other teams.

I quickly crossed this off my list.

Next, I started looking for news surrounding the team roughly around the time that Kearse lost his ability to catch the ball. The big news for the week between the Buffalo and New England games was Christian Michael being benched in favor or C.J. Prosise, so I wondered if Kearse and CMike might be close friends and that potentially Kearse took CMike’s benching, and subsequent release, very hard. Obviously, there is no true way to test that, but I decided to take a look at Kearse’s numbers from 2015 after CMike re-signed with Seattle to see if Kearse played well during that time.

Michael returned in December, immediately suiting up for the Cleveland game, and in the five games CMike was on the team (counting playoffs) Kearse had 27 catches on 35 targets (77% catch rate) for 310 yards, including the only two 100-yard games of his career. Now, that’s a small sample size and while it was interesting to find that Kearse’s numbers did improve in 2015 when CMike returned and declined in 2016 after CMike was cut, unless Kearse calls me to discuss this, I can’t really shed any further light on something that is more than likely simply a coincidence (I’ll be sure to keep you guys posted on whether Kearse calls me to discuss this, but I won’t be expecting my phone to ring).

After I stumbled across this during the spring, I thought perhaps there was some friendship between the two, so I did a quick search of their social media to see if there were any mentions of each other. I didn’t find a lot, but interestingly immediately upon CMike’s return to the Hawks, Jermaine featured Michael on his Saturday night “Kearse Words” show just days after the resigning and before CMike had even taken the field for the Hawks. For a while, I thought this may have been the best thing I could find that would explain what had happened to Kearse during the second half of 2016.

Still, this rabbit hole connecting Kearse and Michael was always a pretty thin straw to grasp at and more importantly, impossible to prove. Even if you had the testimony of Kearse himself for or against the hypothesis, he’d still only be speculating. Then came another idea — one that is relatable not just to football players or athletes, but to anyone who knows what it’s like to bring another life into this world.

On June 14th Kearse sent out a single, simple tweet that was like a lightning bolt of a possible explanation.

Jermaine Kearse tweet

For those who are unaware, that was the tweet Kearse sent upon the birth of his first child, and to me, that could easily explain his struggles in the second half of 2016. Count back nine months (40 weeks, whatever, I’m not looking to get technical, a ballpark estimate is all that is needed), and you end up with mid-September as the conception date. I’m not going to dig too deep or dwell on this, because it is nothing but speculation on my part, but any readers who have had the opportunity to experience firsthand both the joys and pitfalls of pregnancy will likely understand well. And more importantly they would understand how the lack of sleep and myriad of other distractions during pregnancy could cause him to be just so slightly less focused on football late last season.

Thus, while I can only speculate what caused the second half of 2016 to be so horribly bad for Kearse, I can assume that if indeed Kearse was distracted off the field, by say the impending arrival of a child, then I would fully expect him to bounce back strong in 2017. Regardless of whether or not his wife’s pregnancy had any effect on his 2016 season, I don’t know, but either way I hope his little one is healthy and he and his wife are enjoying every moment of the recent expansion of his family.

Selfishly, I hope he prepares properly for the 2017 season and beyond because it doesn’t take long at all before an adorable little worm of a baby that can’t do anything for itself is running around the house full speed wreaking havoc and physically exhausting everyone in sight. Trust me. It was less than two years ago that I was holding my son for the first time, and now I come home each evening to a ball of energy that goes nonstop from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to bed, which, I assure you, is far later than either I or his mother would prefer on a daily basis.