We are now entering the seventh week of the 2013 college football season and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion still leads the entire country with 2,018 passing yards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his primary receiving target, Brandin Cooks, also leads the nation with 807 receiving yards. The two athletes have developed a relationship that has been nothing short of breathtaking through five games. Many times, Mannion has threaded passes through the outstretched arms of defenders to find Cooks on a crossing pattern for a long gain. Yet, on many other occasions, he has thrown long floater passes that seem like guaranteed interceptions until the five-foot-ten Cooks leaps into the air and somehow comes down with the ball.
So, who owes their success to the other? Has Mannion’s improvement as a passer caused Cooks to shine, or has Cooks’ ability to act as an emergency parachute inflated his quarterback’s passing yard totals? Are the two merely mutual benefactors of each other’s talents? To answer these questions, I decided to delve into the numbers of the nation’s top ten quarterbacks to see if other leading quarterbacks were as reliant on their primary receiver as Mannion.
I looked at the top ten quarterbacks, ranked by passing yards, and calculated what percentage of their yards have been gained by their best receiver. In Sean Mannion’s case, the 807 yards gained by Brandin Cooks accounts for 40 percent (rounded to nearest whole number) of his 2,018 passing yards. This is, by a decent margin, the highest share of yardage that any receiver has for a quarterback in the top ten. In fact, if we re-rank the top ten quarterbacks using this number, the second and third place quarterback as it relates to percentage of yards gained by one receiver are Ball State’s Keith Wenning and Southern Methodist’s Garrett Gilbert. These two owe only 36 percent of their passing yards to their primary target. Furthermore, four of the ten quarterbacks in question owe less than 28 percent of their passing yards total to their number one target.
The fact that Mannion has hooked up with Cooks for so much of his yardage might indicate that he does not spread the ball around very much to his other receivers. This could also indicate that much of his yards can be owed more to his receiver’s ability to produce rather than his arm doing the heavy lifting. Then again, this measurement might not be completely fair because it does not account for yards gained by the receiver after the catch. If Mannion throws for 320 yards, and Cooks has two ten yard catches that he turns into 80 yard touchdowns, why should we fault Mannion for being “reliant” on his primary receiver?
In an effort to be fair to Mannion and the other quarterbacks in question, I also looked at how reliant a quarterback is to his primary target as it relates to catches. Of Mannion’s 160 completions, Brandin Cooks has 52 catches, which works out to roughly 33 percent. Every time the Beavers throw the ball and it is caught, there is a one in three chance that Cooks was the man with his hands on the ball. How does this compare to the rest of the leading quarterbacks? Only Zach Mettenberger of LSU, with 39 percent of his completions going to receiver Jarvis Landry, has completed a higher ratio of passes to his primary receiver than Sean Mannion. Every other quarterback in the top ten owes less than 30 percent of their completions to one receiver.
It is hard not to be a Sean Mannion fan this season. As a junior who entered the season unsure if he would start over senior Cody Vaz, he has played lights out and left no question that he was the best choice to start for Oregon State. The numbers that he is piling up have him on pace to break multiple school records and possibly some NCAA records. The team voted him as a captain before the season began, despite having spent the offseason listening to rumors about who the starter would be. After the Colorado game, Brandin Cooks was asked about Mannion’s performance. He responded by saying, “He better be in the Heisman talk now.”
With all of that said, the numbers don’t lie. Brandin Cooks is solely responsible for the greatest percentage of any top ten quarterback’s passing yards. Additionally, he is more responsible for a greater percentage of his quarterback’s completions than all but one receiver in the country. Without Brandin Cooks and his ability to play much larger than his five-foot-ten inches and 186 pounds, Mannion would not be enjoying the sort of season that may catapult him into the early rounds of the NFL draft. While Mannion’s name has started to show up at the bottom of the Heisman list in recent weeks, viewers of Sportscenter and College Gameday are still hearing names like USC’s Marquise Lee and Clemson’s Sammy Watkins when discussing the nation’s best wide receivers. Sure, those guys have the physical tools to be destined for the NFL, but it would be nice to see a major sports outlet tip their hat to the undersized and rarely mentioned receiver from Oregon State that is the biggest reason why Sean Mannion has played his way into the Heisman talk.
In the meantime, Beaver Nation will remain glued to the games, waiting for the next highlight catch by Brandin Cooks.