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Receivers, not Rodgers, deserve blame for Packers’ poor passing game in 2015

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Football Outsiders digs deep to find out why Green Bay had trouble through the air last year, and finds that the receivers’ hands were a bigger issue than we might have realized.

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Once in a while, somebody writes something so eloquent, so persuasive, that you are compelled to stand up and shout "READ THIS NOW!" That is how I feel about the piece that Cian Fahey wrote for Football Outsiders today about Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Before you do anything else, please go read that piece and then rejoin us as we dig a little deeper into one of the points that he brought to light.

Rodgers has for some reason been thrust in the media spotlight this week by one Colin M. Cowherd, hot-take master and heir to the throne of Skip Bayless. Fahey notes that Cowherd's recent criticisms of Rodgers are limited to silly intangible things that cannot be proven and thus cannot be disproven, making for the perfect sports-radio opinion:

(Cowherd’s) only specific criticisms of Rodgers the individual are “he holds the ball too long,” “he's not the greatest leader,” and “he can be moody and cocky.” Save for holding the ball too long, none of those criticisms can be explored in on-field analysis.

Fahey, however, does look at on-field analysis to discuss Rodgers, and one area he examines in particular is the performance of the Packers’ receivers in doing their fundamental job: catching the football. What he found in that area for the 2015 season is a bit astounding.

First, let's look at Rodgers' overall numbers last year over 18 games including the playoffs:

  • 392-652 (60.1%), 4,292 yards (238.4 per game), 35 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 91.8 passer rating

Now remember that this was Rodgers' worst statistical season since 2010 (in some categories) and in most estimations the worst since his rookie year of 2008. But conventional stats don't do this player justice.

Fahey looks at what he calls failed receptions, which he describes as "accurate passes that fell incomplete or were intercepted because of a receiver's mistake." Here are the differences in the numbers between 2014 and 2015 in that analysis:

  • 2014: 48 receptions, 445 yards, 5 TDs
  • 2015: 64 receptions, 635 yards, 10 TDs
  • Difference: 16 receptions, 190 yards, 5 TDs

Now let's say the Packers' receivers caught the ball at approximately the same rate that they did in 2014. That would have added 16 completions, a minimum of 190 yards, and a minimum of 5 TDs on to Rodgers' numbers in 2015. That alone would have brought him back up to the following line:

  • 408-652 (62.6%), 4,482 yards (249 per game), 40 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 97.6 passer rating

Sure, that's still not Rodgers' MVP pace from 2011 or 2014, but it does look quite a bit closer to what we’ve come to expect. Add in the fact that yards after the catch cannot be factored in here and the effect of drives that should have continued but which instead failed due to poor receiver play, and you can see that just a consistent performance catching the football by the receivers would have made Rodgers' numbers - and the offense's overall production - much better.

Fahey also notes how prevalent those receiver failures were on third downs:

All told, 21 of Rodgers' 64 failed receptions in 2015 killed drives. Five quarterbacks who threw at least 223 passes had 21 or fewer failed receptions in 2015, including Andy Dalton, who had only 18 on 386 pass attempts for the whole season. Rodgers only threw 166 passes on third and fourth downs.

In other words, Rodgers had 12.7% of his passes on third or fourth down fall incomplete solely because of errors by his receivers. That in particular is stunning, especially when you compare that to a rate of 8.8% on first and second downs or Dalton's incredible 4.7% rate for the entire season. By comparison, if they only failed to catch the ball on 9% of throws on third and fourth down, that would have been another six completions, likely accounting for five or six drives that would have been allowed to continue.

Ultimately, this difference should regress towards the mean. The failure rate in 2014 was about 8%, so that should be the realistic expectation, especially with Jordy Nelson back on the field.

What does this prove? Ultimately, it proves that Rodgers simply can't make the offense elite all by himself, no matter what we think of his talents. He needs help from the players catching the football, and he got very little of that last season. Hopefully a healthy receiving corps will give him that help in 2016.