As has become an annual tradition at Acme Packing Company and around SB Nation's NFL blogs, we had the opportunity to sit down with a writer from Football Outsiders, one of the premier football analytics websites, to break down the Green Bay Packers.
This year, we discuss the team with the great Tom Gower, who provides us with some unbiased insight into a variety of topics relating to the 2015 Packers.
If you are interested in the analysis Tom provided below, there's much more from him and the rest of the Football Outsiders staff available in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, which is available online here.
Note: these questions were asked and answered prior to Sunday's preseason game, in which Jordy Nelson was lost for the year with a torn ACL. As such, you may see a few
APC: The Packers' prolific passing offense has plenty of weapons for Aaron Rodgers, and one player targeted as a breakout candidate is second-year wideout Davante Adams. However, as the third or fourth option, what is Adams' ceiling in 2015?
It depends on what you mean. As long as Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are around, they'll catch plenty of passes. The backs and tight ends will catch some. As of this writing, our fantasy football projections have him with 58 catches, which I think is about right. One area I think he could help is in the red zone on those isolation routes. Players of Cobb's stature as rarely as successful as Randall was in 2014, and Nelson didn't do as well there in 2014. Adams could really help there.
APC: With the run defense improving drastically in 2014 once Clay Matthews began to play some inside linebacker, how do you think he can be best put to use in Dom Capers' defense this season?
I expect this to be an evolving area not just over the course of the season but from week to week depending on matchups and how comfortable Capers is with the depth players at inside linebacker, outside linebacker, and the rookie corners. At some point, I just have to get over my hangup about playing your best pass rusher at a non-pass rushing spot when pass rushers are at such a premium.
APC: One area where the Packers broke with recent history in 2014 was with injuries, going from among the highest Adjusted Games Lost in past years to among the fewest last season. That change also coincided with a new team focus on hydration, diet, and practice habits. Did the Packers just get lucky, or is there any data that suggests that teams can avoid major injuries with any consistency?
Um, maybe. Some teams teams tend to do better on AGL than others, for a combination of nutrition and training (and player management) reasons. Even teams that tend to be smart about it tend to regress to the mean. It seems like San Francisco, a team known to be big into analytics, had figured something out when they finished in the top three in defensive AGL from 2010 to 2012. They've finished 27th and 31st the past two seasons (and 17th and 15th on offense). Chip Kelly, ditto, but they had average health on offense last year and he inherited a defense with great health.
One factor that seems like it matters is player acquisition philosophies. The Bill Polian-era Colts took injury risks on seemingly an annual basis, and Indianapolis has fared poorly for about as well as AGL has been around. You'll know Ted Thompson's track record in that area better than I do.
On the whole, I'd expect Green Bay's AGL to regress toward the mean.
APC: Aaron Rodgers is incredible, and we love it, but is there a good way to put his numbers from today's pass-happy NFL in context with the other great QBs in NFL history? Where do you think he'll rank among the NFL's best when his career wraps up?
To judge the entire history of the NFL, I like Pro-Football-Reference's + stat, particularly ANY/A+, which is indexed based on results compared to the league average. By that metric, Rodgers' 2011 season is the third-best since 1960 (as long as we have the data to calculate ANY/A), behind Peyton Manning in 2004 and Dan Marino in 1984, and 2014 comes out 13th.
Rodgers doesn't do quite as well in Football Outsiders' stats, which currently go back to 1989. His DVOA tends to be dinged a little for easier schedules, and his DYAR takes a slight hit because that's a "totals" stat and Rodgers hasn't passed as much as Brees, Brady, and Manning in their top seasons. Rodgers' 2011 season had 46.6% DVOA, fifth highest since 1989 (min. 500 passes). The top four are Manning 2004, Beady 2007, Manning 2006, and Brady 2010. Rodgers' 2014 season is 26th at 32.2%. In DYAR, the 2011 season is 6th, while 2014 and 2012 are lower down in the top 50. Rodgers also has very strong rushing value pretty much every year -- he's a smart scrambler, not just a mobile one -- although that doesn't make up the difference in passing value at the top of those listings.
Coming up with a ranking of the best quarterbacks in NFL history is as much a philosophical exercise as anything else, comparing peak value, value over multiple seasons, playoff versus regular season performance, and era adjustments. How do you compare Rodgers to a player like Otto Graham or Sammy Baugh, who played when the NFL was vastly different? When those discussions do happen, one thing that will hurt Rodgers is not playing his first three seasons when players like Peyton and Marino were already among the league's best in their second season. Those discussions basically are what they are. It doesn't affect my enjoyment or analysis of watching Rodgers that he's the third, seventh, or 17th best quarterback of pick your era.
APC: With Mike McCarthy's decision to give up playcalling being one of the biggest storylines surrounding the Packers this offseason, we are torn: was this a good move or not, and are there any other examples of teams that switched playcallers (but not necessarily changed coaches) after a run of success like the Packers have had in recent years?
I wanted to come up with something really interesting to say about this in the chapter, spent some time researching the subject, and failed to come up with much of note. We've seen teams, especially teams with great quarterbacks, lose play-callers and not miss a beat many times. Most of those changes are associated with coaching departures, like the Patriots losing Josh McDaniels. Peyton Manning played extremely well with Tom Moore in Indianapolis and first Mike McCoy and then Adam Gase in Denver. Bill Walsh retired and the 49ers were great on offense with Joe Montana and Steve Young for another decade. Everybody's back on offense, and if anything goes wrong, McCarthy will just go back to calling plays again.
Where it might make a difference is (a) McCarthy's game-day decision-making and overall strategic management, an area I think has been a weakness of his over the years and (b) something like special teams, a huge weakness last year and something he's said he wanted to focus on. I'd love to read a retrospective next offseason of how McCarthy's gameday was or was not different in 2015 compared to 2014.
Our thanks go out to Tom for his great responses and to the entire Football Outsiders staff for their diligent work in breaking down this sport that we love.