I actually think Mike McCarthy has gotten a bit of a raw deal this year. Sure, his style is stale and you probably can’t win a Super Bowl with him any more, but around two-thirds of NFL coaches are still hilariously incompetent. It’s kind of sad because the Green Bay Packers’ offense has actually shown some innovation of late, and it has served to expose some of the problems with Aaron Rodgers — which is disconcerting in its own right.
I used to complain of receivers never being schemed open. This season, Mac has schemed guys open. I’ve complained of his run/pass balance and his aggressiveness. He’s actually very aggressive, and he passes more than just about anyone. I complained about Aaron Jones, and he started playing Aaron Jones. No one can say Mac hasn’t put in the effort.
Mac has a problem that he can’t overcome. Mac can’t help but tell the defense what he’s doing. Yes, he has schemed guys open, with cool crossing routes, tight formations, and even some pre-snap motion. That’s great. But, when we run into a high-stakes situation, it’s the same old Mac. So it was this past weekend on 4th and short when Mac called a power run into the teeth of a power run defense. It didn’t work.
Predictability undermines any attempt at deception, and one of the key areas where you need deception is during play-action. Play-action is a funny thing because it’s been a part of football since the forward pass was invented, but no one really understood why it worked until pretty recently.
Most coaches and analysts were wrong about play action for like a century, and when you think about that fact, it’s kind of mind-boggling. In the old days of football, deception was the rule, not the exception, and play action is, at its heart, a very old kind of deception.
Paul Johnson retired recently. Johnson was the coach of Georgia Tech, one of, if not, the last major conference team to run some kind of option as their primary offense. I don’t watch much college football, but I gravitate towards weird offenses, and I love watching option football. It’s great, and you should watch it too while you still can. Option football was at one point very common at all levels, and option football is premised on deception. The quarterback is responsible for reading a defense, selecting the proper ball-carrier, and carrying out the play as if he has the ball, whether he does or not. Option football is premised, fundamentally, on the idea the it will be difficult for the defense to diagnose who has the ball, and it’s success is based largely on proper reads, and that deception.
More importantly, that deception is not based on anything that has happened on previous plays. On any play, an option quarterback could give the ball to any back, or keep it himself based on his diagnosis of the defense. If a defender believes the quarterback handed the ball off, he’ll chase the ball-carrier. It’s really as simple as that. The defender doesn’t care if that back was the ball-carrier last play, or if they were successful. The only important fact, in the moment, is the belief that a specific player has the ball.
This may all sound stupidly obvious except for the fact that the popular opinion on play action is that the ability to run play-action is predicated on the ability to run the ball successfully. The theory holds that defenders will be fooled more easily if the offense has established that running is a threat. That sounds like a good theory until you think about it a little more in the context of how defenses react to deception. A defender, after all, isn’t going to just ignore a back who might have the ball because that back hasn’t succeeded yet. A defender will chase, and hit that back if they believe he has the ball.
Play action is just like an option in this way. The only thing you have to do is trick a few defenders into thinking the ball is somewhere else, and plenty of research has shown that “establishing the run” doesn’t matter a lick.
This brings us back to the Packers and their predictable, predictable ways. You see, the Packers are one of the worst play-action teams in football, despite the fact that they are the second-best running team in football, and despite the fact that they feature an all-world quarterback.
Offenses that do worse with play-action than without (yards per play):— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) November 28, 2018
And there is only one reason that a team is poor on a “deception play:” They are lousy at deceiving people, or, in other words, predictable. What do I mean? Well, when they run play-action, they…
The Rams run play action on 37% of passing plays, and they’re great when doing so, averaging 9.8 yards per play. For the Rams, that is two yards better than a normal play. The Packers run play action 22% of the time, and actually average .9 yards less per play when doing so.
The Rams use this tactic as a staple of their under-center passes, whereas for the Packers, it’s a predictable play they run in certain predictable scenarios, used to set up predictable passes. With a different philosophy, perhaps with a focus on YAC over bombs, play action could (and should) be a real weapon for Green Bay, but while they meet every old-school qualification for a good play-action team, the fact of the matter is they’re lousy at actually deceiving anyone.