If you played video games in the era before you could just Google how to beat a boss or solve a puzzle, you surely remember the controller-smashing frustration of running into an end boss or something that you just couldn’t crack the code to.
Remember M. Bison in Street Fighter II? Playing against Michael Vick in Madden '04? That Ninja Turtles SNES game with that impossible underwater level? Rainbow Road in Mario Kart 64?
This is a really long-winded and nerdy analogy for the New England Patriots and their infamously difficult offensive playbook that’s both made and broken superstar receivers over the years. It’s heavy on audibles, heavy on option routes, heavy on making changes based on defensive coverages, and heavy on perfect route-running.
Assuming all that goes as planned, the last part of the job of a Patriots wideout is pretty simple – as Tom Brady so eloquently phrased it to Aaron Dobson in 2013, "Catch the (expletive) ball!"
The Patriots have a whole bunch of guys competing for wide receiver roster spots this year, but there’s one big old glaring reason why it’s tough to see Nate Washington making the cut. And it’s not that he’s 32 years old.
When you compare his pass targets and his receptions to the receivers that have actually succeeded in New England, Washington isn’t going to cut it unless he gets better at hanging on to the ball.
Here’s Nate’s target-to-reception percentages from 2006 to 2015, according to Pro Football Reference (we’re excluding 2005, when he was a rookie and had zero receptions on one target):
2006: 69 targets, 35 receptions (50.7%)
2007: 55 targets, 29 receptions (52.7%)
2008: 78 targets, 40 receptions (51.3%)
2009: 95 targets, 47 receptions (49.5%)
2010: 94 targets, 42 receptions (44.7%)
2011: 121 targets, 74 receptions (61.2%)
2012: 89 targets, 46 receptions (51.7%)
2013: 105 targets, 58 receptions (55.2%)
2014: 72 targets, 40 receptions (55.6%
2015: 94 targets, 47 receptions (50.0%)
Noticing a pattern here? You’d think Nate had turned a corner in 2011, but he came right back down to earth after that and went right back to catching barely half of the passes thrown his way.
Now stack that up next to the target-to-reception ratios of some Patriots that Brady slings the rock to these days.
Julian Edelman’s career percentage? 67.8%.
Danny Amendola? 62.7%
Dion Lewis? 73.5%
Aaron Dobson and Keyshawn Martin are eyebrow-raisingly lower, at 54% and 52.9%, respectively.
And the two big names New England picked up this offseason:
Martellus Bennett – 66.7%
Chris Hogan – 63.5%
And then check out a few ex-Patriots:
Brandon LaFell – 57%
Brandon Lloyd – 48%
Donte’ Stallworth – 54%
Jabar Gaffney – 59.2%
David Patten – 52.4%
That’s admittedly cherry-picking a little bit, but hey, we all can’t measure up to Randy Moss or Wes Welker or Kevin Faulk.
Nate Washington fits right in with the latter group, and that, as some people might say, no bueno. But it’s not all bad! There is one thing, aside from a decade of NFL experience, that Nate has going for him.
Washington’s average yards per reception smokes almost everyone on the Patriots right now.
Nate’s career yards per reception is 15.2. Julian Edelman checks in at 10.5, Amendola’s is 9.4, Gronk’s at 14.6, Martellus Bennett is 10.3, and Chris Hogan notches a clean 11.0 yards per reception. Nate Washington’s longest receptions of the season also tend to be deep-bomb type stuff, with a 71 yard reception in 2010, another 71-yard grab in 2012, a 77-yarder in 2013, and an 80-yard catch in 2014.
You can look at that a couple ways. Optimists would say New England lives and dies by the short passing game, and Washington’s been asked to run deeper routes, and those are inherently lower-completion throws. If you’ve got a case of the Mondays, running harder routes doesn’t mean a whole lot if you can’t hang on to the ball when it comes your way.
For the first time in what seems like forever (it hasn’t been, but whatever), the Patriots have a logjam of talent at wide receiver, and deciding who gets cut is going to be tough stuff. The best-case situation looks like Nate will be duking it out with Aaron Dobson, Keshawn Martin, Chris Harper, and rookie Devin Lucien for one roster spot.
Competing with a bunch of young guns that have all flashed talent and having a 10-year history of butterfingers isn’t going to be easy.