Arizona Cardinals
Photo Credit: USA Today

A player’s statistics often do not adequately represent how well they performed on a given day. You rarely see such an extreme example as Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s Week 4 performance against the Seattle Seahawks.

Fitzgerald didn’t have eye-popping numbers, with just five receptions for 47 yards and zero touchdowns. Most of the time, that sort of stat line would get lost among the myriad of other receivers who were minor contributors to their team’s offensive production. When you look deeper, however, and examine Fitzgerald’s advanced metrics, it rapidly becomes clear that his performance was far from average.

PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) uses the NFL’s Next Gen Stats to determine how responsible a player was for their own production. Despite his relatively pedestrian statistics in Week 4, Fitzgerald’s performance was one of the best recorded so far this year. His OSM Grade of 57.0 was not only the highest of the week; it was the second-highest grade produced by a player all season. The only player who has done better was Lamar Jackson, who had a grade of 58.62 against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1. Fitzgerald’s high grade implies that, despite limited involvement in the offense overall, he accomplished everything that he could with the opportunities that he was given.

Why Fitzgerald’s OSM grade was so high

One of the primary factors affecting Fitzgerald’s grade was his catch percentage. He has always had great hands, and last Sunday was no exception. His five receptions came on just five targets, giving him a catch percentage of 100%. On its own, this is already an impressive statistic. Of the 74 other receivers and tight ends who received five or more targets during Week 4 (thus qualifying them for Next Gen Stats), only four caught 100% of the passes thrown their way. With Fitzgerald included, that means just 6.67% of all qualifying players accomplished this feat.

Of course, that 100% catch percentage doesn’t occur in a vacuum. In Fitzgerald’s case, he was aided by the fact that most of his catches were largely uncontested (although plenty of players drop uncontested passes all the time). Across his five targets, Fitzgerald averaged 5.4 yards of separation, the most in the NFL among receivers and tight ends in Week 4. In other words, on each reception, Fitzgerald had approximately five yards of space between himself and the nearest defender. All that space led to him averaging 7.8 yards after catch (YAC) per reception, sixth-best among wide receivers and tight ends in Week 4.

While that number is in large part a product of how open he was on each reception, Fitzgerald contributed a significant amount on his own as well. Based on numerous factors, NFL Next Gen Stats calculates the YAC a player should have on each reception. Fitzgerald’s actual YAC per reception was 1.8 yards higher than expected, the 14th best differential last week. That is a solid performance from any player, let alone a 36-year-old wide receiver in his 16th season.

In short, on his five targets, Fitzgerald was wide open, caught the ball, and then gained significant yardage after the catch. He may not have broken any 50-yard gains, or stiff-armed a linebacker into the ground. However, it would be difficult for him to do more with what he was given than he did. Which brings up the obvious question: why didn’t Arizona target him more? Considering how effective he was, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that the Cardinals should have given Fitzgerald more opportunities.

What the Cardinals could have done, and what Fitzgerald accomplished anyway

Arizona’s offense failed to accomplish much against a tough Seahawks’ defense. That said, the game was still closer than it looked; Seattle scored a defensive touchdown, and Arizona missed two field goals. If you remove those mistakes, Arizona ends up losing 20-16 instead of 27-10. If they had made Fitzgerald a more significant part of the game plan, getting him more involved in the offense earlier in the game, they might even have had a chance to get their first win of the season. Instead, they wasted what could have been a great day for their veteran wide receiver.

Fortunately for Fitzgerald, team success isn’t everything. In Week 4, just as it has been during most of his recent career, he excelled despite team failures. Those five receptions against the Seahawks moved Fitzgerald into second place for the most receptions of all time, behind only the great Jerry Rice.

It is perhaps emblematic of the Cardinals’ recent history that Fitzgerald achieved this milestone in a game where he was underutilized by a losing team. He is one of the best, most consistent receivers of all time, and he is still performing at a high level in his 16 seasons into his career. It’s incredible to witness. You have to wonder how long he can keep it up, but for now, the best thing to do is sit back and watch while we still can.

Lucas Ellinas is a writer for the Pro Football Network covering the PFN Data Lab. You can follow him @Lucas_Ellinas on Twitter.

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