The easy passes have vanished from Missouri's offense, and while part of the reason for that has been beyond the Tigers' control (opposing defenses have been great, and the injuries have added up), it's time to rectify that.
For reasons both in and (mostly) out of its control, the Missouri offense has lost the plot this season. That's what happens when...
a) You lose four different starting offensive linemen (and a top backup) for sustained periods of time. (Not in Mizzou's control.)
b) You oscillate between two quarterbacks (with very different levels of throwing velocity) because of injury issues. (Not in Mizzou's control.)
c) You face two elite defenses (Alabama, South Carolina) and four good to very good ones (Georgia, Arizona State, UCF, Vanderbilt) among your first seven opponents, with only one cupcake. (Not in Mizzou's control.)
d) Your receivers are dropping too many passes. (Very much in Mizzou's control.)
With a bye week, followed by the easiest game remaining on the schedule (Kentucky on Homecoming), now is the time for Mizzou's offense to pull it together, if it is ever going to be able to pull it together in 2012. That starts with the passing game. The run game hasn't actually been too bad -- Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy have combined to average 5.6 yards per carry over 16 carries per game, and according to line yardage Mizzou's line was on a nice upward trajectory before predictably struggling versus Alabama -- but the running game will work a lot better if or when Missouri opponents are given any reason to fear the pass.
We've talked about it before, but one of the primary goals of any spread offense is to get the ball to playmakers in space that allows them to make plays. Typically, that means a lot of quick passing, either from sideline to sideline, on screens, or on quick slants or "go camp out in that hole in the zone right there and turn around" routes. Playmakers tend to step up (or not) on passing downs, but part of the draw of Missouri's spread is the efficiency it brings to the table. That efficiency has completely and totally vanished this season.
Starting with 2006, Chase Daniel's first season as Missouri's starting quarterback, let's take a look at Missouri's top six targets on standard downs and their standard downs statistics:
Chase Coffman (434 yards, 68% catch rate, 7.6 yards per target)
Will Franklin (419 yards, 58% catch rate, 9.7 yards per target)
Martin Rucker (294 yards, 76% catch rate, 7.7 yards per target)
Jared Perry (231 yards, 71% catch rate, 6.6 yards per target)
Brad Ekwerekwu (222 yards, 66% catch rate, 7.7 yards per target)
Tommy Saunders (211 yards, 87% catch rate, 9.2 yards per target)
Martin Rucker (523 yards, 76% catch rate, 7.3 yards per target)
Jeremy Maclin (598 yards, 68% catch rate, 8.4 yards per target)
Will Franklin (416 yards, 54% catch rate, 9.7 yards per target)
Tommy Saunders (262 yards, 74% catch rate, 6.2 yards per target)
Chase Coffman (285 yards, 81% catch rate, 7.7 yards per target)
Danario Alexander (113 yards, 67% catch rate, 5.4 yards per target)
Jeremy Maclin (925 yards, 80% catch rate, 9.9 yards per target)
Chase Coffman (528 yards, 89% catch rate, 8.4 yards per target)
Tommy Saunders (524 yards, 79% catch rate, 9.0 yards per target)
Jared Perry (420 yards, 70% catch rate, 8.9 yards per target)
Derrick Washington (227 yards, 83% catch rate, 7.6 yards per target)
Danario Alexander (203 yards, 68% catch rate, 8.1 yards per target)
Danario Alexander (1,336 yards, 75% catch rate, 12.6 yards per target)
Jared Perry (415 yards, 56% catch rate, 8.6 yards per target)
Jerrell Jackson (371 yards, 71% catch rate, 9.0 yards per target)
Derrick Washington (135 yards, 68% catch rate, 5.4 yards per target)
Wes Kemp (265 yards, 57% catch rate, 11.5 yards per target)
Andrew Jones (32 yards, 70% catch rate, 3.2 yards per target)
T.J. Moe (695 yards, 76% catch rate, 8.5 yards per target)
Michael Egnew (493 yards, 75% catch rate, 6.4 yards per target)
Jerrell Jackson (333 yards, 63% catch rate, 7.7 yards per target)
Wes Kemp (337 yards, 76% catch rate, 8.2 yards per target)
Rolandis Woodland (83 yards, 43% catch rate, 11.9 yards per target)
Brandon Gerau (70 yards, 57% catch rate, 10.0 yards per target)
T.J. Moe (439 yards, 74% catch rate, 8.8 yards per target)
Michael Egnew (364 yards, 78% catch rate, 7.9 yards per target)
Wes Kemp (243 yards, 68% catch rate, 9.7 yards per target)
Marcus Lucas (253 yards, 59% catch rate, 11.5 yards per target)
Jerrell Jackson (161 yards, 58% catch rate, 8.5 yards per target)
L'Damian Washington (232 yards, 72% catch rate, 12.9 yards per target)
In four of these six seasons, at least five of the year's top six had catch rates of at least 60 percent. In five of the six seasons, the most frequently targeted receiver had a catch rate of at least 74 percent, and in all six seasons the No. 1 man averaged at least 7.3 yards per target. Even in 2009, with what was really a pretty mediocre offense outside of the transcendent Danario Alexander, four of the top six averaged at least 8.6 yards per target. So often, Mizzou's offense has been based around this efficiency, and even with a lack of true play-making ability in recent years, the Tigers have moved the ball rather effectively.
Now, here are this year's standard downs stats:
Marcus Lucas (207 yards, 51% catch rate, 5.6 yards per target)
T.J. Moe (120 yards, 64% catch rate, 5.5 yards per target)
Gahn McGaffie (68 yards, 64% catch rate, 4.9 yards per target)
Kendial Lawrence (68 yards, 91% catch rate, 6.2 yards per target)
Dorial Green-Beckham (90 yards, 56% catch rate, 10.0 yards per target)
L'Damian Washington (60 yards, 44% catch rate, 6.7 yards per target)
One guy above 6.7 yards per target, three with better than a 60 percent catch rate. The top four targets have combined to average 5.5 yards per target. If you were to rank all 42 players from these seven years in order of their per-target averages, 2012 would have five of the 10 worst averages. No, none of the players from previous years had to go against the Alabama defense. But these numbers were terrible well before Alabama; heading into the 'Bama game, Lucas was still averaging just 6.1 yards per target, Moe 5.9, McGaffie 5.2 and Washington 5.2.
The SEC has better defenses than any other conference; of that, there is no doubt. But even adjusting for opponent, these numbers are simply hideous. Last season Mizzou ranked 56th in Passing Success Rate+ and 25th in overall Success Rate+ (my opponent-adjusted efficiency measure). In 2010: 10th and 10th, respectively. In 2009: 46th and 28th. In 2008: eighth and ninth. In 2007: second and fourth. In 2006: 17th and 36th. This season: 58th and 83rd.
Now, the fact that Mizzou ranked about the same in terms of pass efficiency last year does suggest that the mentality of this Missouri team has shifted. Last year, Mizzou leaned much more heavily on a great ground game and was more likely to go downfield to players like Lucas and Washington. Moe and Egnew were still frequently used, but not as frequently. This year, Mizzou seems to have sacrificed efficiency again in search of a big play that has barely made an appearance since the Georgia game.
If a bye week is about getting back to basics to some degree, then the "basics" of the Mizzou offense include having a quarterback make quick, easy passes to targets not far from the line of scrimmage. Whether that means doubling down on the quick, play-action slants that worked well against South Carolina (and very much did not against Vanderbilt), then so be it. If that means completely rearranging the depth chart with a starting receiver trio of Bud Sasser, Gahn McGaffie and Dorial Green-Beckham, go for it. If that means tearing off Sean Culkin's redshirt in the eighth game of the year, I'm willing to look the other way. If that means throwing 17 flares to Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy ... hey, if it gains five yards a pop, let's do it.
Let's look back at how I started the post.
a) You lose four different starting offensive linemen (and a top backup) for sustained periods of time. In theory, the line is getting healthier. Mitch Morse and Jack Meiners could both be back by November, and honestly, the line as is didn't embarrass itself versus Alabama. What was an almost completely inexperienced line at the beginning of the season has now begun to rack up the career starts. Line play has been improving and should continue to do so.
b) You oscillate between two quarterbacks (with very different levels of throwing velocity) because of injury issues. James Franklin could be back by the Kentucky game and, I assume, will definitely be back by the week after that. If Mizzou has to start Corbin Berkstresser in one game, then go back to Franklin, this issue won't really have been solved, but in theory Franklin could be back soon. And in theory, when he gets back, he won't immediately suffer some other freak injury. In theory.
c) You face two elite defenses and four good to very good ones among your first seven opponents, with only one cupcake. Among Mizzou's five remaining opponents, only one (Florida) has an elite defense. Florida ranks 10th in Def. F/+, Texas A&M is 23rd, Syracuse is 40th, Tennessee is 53rd, and Kentucky is 117th. We'll call that one elite D, two good ones, a mediocre one, and the worst one Mizzou has faced since SE Louisiana. Even changing nothing, Mizzou's output should begin to improve simply because of a lower resistance level from opponents.
d) Your receivers are dropping too many passes. If Mizzou is going to make it to six wins, this one has to -- has to -- get rectified. One way you do that is by playing different receivers. (You know who I'm going to advocate for here -- DGB, Jimmie Hunt, DGB, Jimmie Hunt, DGB and Jimmie Hunt -- but I don't care who plays as long as they catch catchable passes.)
Another way you do that is by throwing easier, more catchable passes in general. Mizzou has abandoned the screen game, and there has been almost no quick passing. I don't completely understand this; even if a quick pass is stopped for no gain, how is that different than an incomplete pass downfield, of which Berkstresser has thrown many in the last two weeks? But via flares, screens, swings, sidelines, slants, camp-outs, etc., Mizzou simply has to be giving its rotating quarterback and less-than-confident receivers easier opportunities to make plays. As we have seen this year, both with our eyes and the stats above, the Tiger offense has been completely lacking in this regard, and to say the least, it is not helping the cause.