We’ve come full circle with Sean McVay. First, he was an unknown, then a discovered, celebrated genius. Shortly after that, everyone told the same joke for about a year, the one about any McVay acquaintance getting impetuously interviewed or hired. Not long after the jokes died down, the Rams offense started to wilt, too.
All of a sudden, it was trendy to take shots at McVay.
But perhaps McVay’s genius tag was justified all along. Maybe we’re just seeing the 2.0 or 3.0 version of the coach, one who’s forced to adjust and adapt, change on the fly.
Case in point, I give you Tyler Higbee. He went from fantasy forgotten to fantasy god in the final month of 2019.
Higbee was off the radar for his first three seasons. The Rams offense was routed through Todd Gurley and their talented receivers. Even when Higbee climbed over a 70-percent snap share in his second and third seasons, nothing much was happening downfield. His career line sat at 60-672-4 entering Year 4.
The Rams got a tight end moving in the middle of 2019, but it wasn’t Higbee — it was teammate Gerald Everett. The third-year Everett had three double-digit target games in that period, splashed a few times. He threw 7-136-0 at the Seahawks. But there were down weeks, too, and then Everett got hurt at the end of November.
And the result was a historic run:
• 7-107-1 at Arizona, Week 13. Okay, everyone does that against Arizona, last year’s tight-end sieve.
• 7-116-0 against Seattle. Okay, Everett got the Seahawks, too.
• 12-111-0 at Dallas. Fourteen targets!
• 9-105-0 at San Francisco. You know, the eventual NFC Champions.
• 8-84-1 vs. Arizona. Man, I already miss the 2019 Cardinals.
How do we unpack all that? Two cherry draws against Arizona, sure, but it still was a five-game explosion. And Higbee won in a variety of ways; downfield, at the goal line, in the screen game. He moves like a hybrid wide receiver.
Understand that four straight 100-yard games is a fairly rare feat. Only three players did it last year — Higbee, Michael Thomas (five games), and Cooper Kupp. And only four tight ends have pulled it off since the merger — Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham (twice), Travis Kelce and Higbee. Look at the full list of 4/100 guys post-merger; almost everyone is at least Hall of Very Good, and there are plenty of Hall of Famers on the list.
A month might not seem like a large sample, but maybe it’s enough. The Rams have plenty of other weapons for opponents to focus on, so Higbee should have some protection in this offense. And McVay is fond of 12 personnel, which would play Higbee and Everett together. A healthy Everett shouldn’t push Higbee off the field.
Bill James is the godfather of modern sports statistics, making his bones in baseball. But his work has overlap in other sports (and for that matter, in life). One of my favorite James theories is the concept of Signature Significance; the idea that an occurrence in a small sample can still carry notable worth if the magnitude of the performance is notable. If a pitcher throws a no-hitter and strikes out 17, it’s probably proof on its own that he’s something special — those things don’t happen accidentally.
Does Higbee’s 2019 finish qualify for Signature Significance? When I look at the shortlist of tight ends who have done what Higbee just did, I give out the checkmark. I grant you, it’s an especially fun year at tight end. You can do well at almost any price point. I see several lottery tickets I want to invest in.
Nonetheless, I am happy to throw Higbee on the proactive pick list, and I have him ranked at TE6, three slots higher than his current Yahoo ADP. I have already rostered him a few times in Best Ball formats, and I expect that will carry over into my seasonal schedule.
I believe in McVay. Maybe Jared Goff isn’t a star, but he’s good enough. And the Higbee genie might be out of the bottle for good.