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The Drive: On Jordy Nelson, Tricenarian

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In Week 14 of last season the Oakland Raiders upset the Pittsburgh Steelers. This reduced the chance the Steelers would make the playoffs from 70% to 56%. The major factor in Pittsburgh losing was an injury sustained by Ben Roethlisberger. The full extent of this injury did not manifest until halftime. Roethlisberger completed a touchdown pass to Juju Smith-Schuster with 10 seconds remaining in the first half but did not initially take the field after halftime. This injury did not stop Roethlisberger from returning eventually and did not cost Roethlisberger any more regular season snaps.

He returned at a most particular time: when the Steelers fell behind Oakland 17-14 with 5:20 remaining in the fourth quarter. He then led a seven-play touchdown scoring drive to put Pittsburgh ahead 21-17 with 2:55 remaining. He attempted and completed a pass in all seven plays.

Oakland was tanking but despite this, I formed the subjective impression at the time that Raiders coach Jon Gruden decided it was one thing to lose and quite another thing to be shown up. Oakland drove 75 yards to score a touchdown and pulled ahead 24-21 with 25 seconds remaining, effectively ending the game. The Raiders had been 17-point underdogs.

I mention all this because (I believe) it is the unrecognized cause of Antonio Brown’s eventual split from Pittsburgh—or at least the catalyst. And I mention that because Brown forced a trade, he was acquired for peanuts by Oakland, and Brown and eventually Tyrell Williams displaced Jordy Nelson, making Nelson a free agent. The Seahawks (and I want to write “John Schneider” but that would be a guess) have something of an amour fou with players from the NFC North, and Nelson has become the newest target of that obsessive and predictably fatal love.

Which does not tell us if Nelson is any good. One way to ... guess, if I were to be honest, but guess from some rationally sourced information, is to construct a ~season~ out of games from Nelson’s last two seasons which satisfy two criteria: he was receiving from a competent quarterback, either Rodgers or Derek Carr, and he was not buried behind another starter, specifically Amari Cooper.

Cooper was traded October 22, 2018. Rodgers was knocked out for nearly all of the remaining 2017 season early in Week 6. He returned for one game in December but stunk. Combining those two stretches creates this hybrid game-log which hopefully represents the last 14 games Nelson had a decent chance to perform well.

Here for the sake of comparison is Tyrell Williams’ game log from 2018.

I do not have access to week-by-week DYAR, but Nelson finished just ahead of Williams in 2018, 160 to 158, and substantially behind Williams in 2017, 58 to 150. Recent wanton waste of draft capital, Brett Hundley, finished 2017 with -397 DYAR, ahead of only Deshone Kizer’s -756.

(For the record: Seahawks transactions which signed or traded-for a player from the NFC North concluded during the Pete Carroll-John Schneider Era have acquired: Allen Barbre, Tarvaris Jackson, Sidney Rice, Matt Flynn, Percy Harvin, Breno Giacomini, Cliff Avril (!!!), Kellen Davis, Kevin Williams (!), Blair Walsh, Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen and Hundley.)

Hundley’s incompetence should be factored into how we perceive Nelson’s efficiency in 2017. Passes targeting Nelson were worth -5.0% DVOA. That season, Rodgers averaged 7.8% DVOA per pass attempt. Hundley averaged -28.3%. Carr averaged -0.6% in 2018. Philip Rivers averaged 26.1% DVOA in 2017, fourth in the NFL, and 27.3%, third in the NFL, in 2018. Determining who is responsible for which exact outcome creates a chicken-or-egg kind of paradox, but needless to say, Hundley was a drag on Nelson’s perceived efficiency. Nelson could not throw himself the ball, after all.

Two seasons ago, Nelson finished in the top three in DYAR, with 382. That happened to be Williams’ top season as well. He finished with 214, good for 17th.

Why is it then that Williams signed the largest contract among free agent wide outs this offseason while Nelson is waiting to see who will offer him any job at all? Ageism, probably. Nelson’s a little more dead than Williams, and absent more reliable information, that fact feels very important. If we look at the career comps provided by Pro Football Reference, not one of Otis Taylor, Gene Washington, Herman Moore, Homer Jones, Derrick Alexander, Chad Johnson, Brett Perriman or Mark Duper even had an age-34 season, but one guy did. Joe Horn, and Joe Horn was quietly excellent in 2006, amassing 189 DYAR at a rate of 25.1% DVOA a target, fifth in the NFL. Horn finished the season on IR, played one more season after signing with the Falcons in 2007, and retired. Father Time is undefeated and all that.

Ageism is a rational bias which may be applied irrationally. It is rational not simply because data back up the hypothesis that athletic performance declines as a player ages out of his or her peak, but also because underlying factors, specifically the nascent senescence which in part defines the 30s, makes that hypothesis rational. But it becomes irrational when a player of Nelson’s ability, who most recently was still producing at a high level, and whose cost in the free agent market accounts for his age, is further punished through neglect. Teams seem—for lack of a better word—afraid of Nelson’s age, as if it’s contagious. A few teams are rumored to be interested in him, and he is said to have visited Seattle on Tuesday. That summarizes his market.

Nelson is old, and he’s worse for it, but how much worse is very hard to know. I have spent most of my most recent stint with Field Gulls washed up. Not because I am too old to write, or because my brain is shot through with CTE (God forbid), but because I do not have the same passion I once had for this work, do not see a reasonable means of achieving anything close to a living wage working in sports writing, and thus undermine my full ability by devoting less time to my work, and exercising less discipline in ensuring that I am fully able to write my best. We conflate age with deleterious even debilitating experience, but years lived is only the budget for bad choices. And because we conflate age with deleterious even debilitating experience, we often overly generalize. Grouping together players who declined because, essentially, they became washed up, with players who never endured the injuries of experience and rarely if ever committed those little crimes of indulgence which sacrifice talent for happiness.

Jordy Nelson says he considers himself more farmer than football player. That’s endearing. It also might matter; how often Nelson gets a full night’s sleep, matter, and how much he drinks alcohol and what food he eats, matter, and how often he stretches and what kind of exercise he gets and how often, matter. Whether he’s washed up or just not what he once was, matters a lot. His age matters too, but not so much that we should disqualify Nelson from consideration. An awful lot of great wide receivers had great seasons well into their thirties. Given Seattle’s long history of drinking the hemlock when scouting the NFC North, I hope this season Seattle doesn’t pass over a cup it assumes poisoned which in fact contains an antidote.

That’s stupid. Oh well.

Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. C’mon let’s go.

Let us arise and go now.