The clips inevitably go viral on Green Bay Packers Twitter. Aaron Rodgers gets to the top of his drop, doesn’t like what he sees, fires the ball to Aaron Jones who scampers for a first down. Why didn’t Mike McCarthy employ Jones more as a receiver? Why was Rodgers so reluctant to check the ball down instead of throwing it away or taking the sack?
Such questions plague this offense under the previous administration, ones purportedly answered by play-action disciple Matt LaFleur. His former boss Kyle Shanahan is one of the most effective designers in the league at getting his backs big plays in the passing game. Problem solved right?
Even after signing Dion Lewis and making him a major part of the offense however, the Titans rarely involved the running backs in the passing game on early downs. In fact, only two teams did it less often, the Texans and the 49ers, the second of which happens to be the brainchild of the aforementioned Shanahan (h/t to The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin for the stats).
Using Estimated Points Added, or EPA for short, the 49ers were fourth in the league when they threw to backs on first and second down despite not doing it particularly often. The Texans were 29th and the Titans were 24th. In other words, despite being high efficient when the 49ers threw to their backs, they didn’t do it very often. This is both by design—shot plays to backs can’t be called that often—and necessity.
Despite San Francisco’s relative efficiency here, throwing to running backs simply isn’t as efficient as throwing to receivers or tight ends. In fact, only two teams were able to match the average NFL EPA for receivers and tight ends when they were throwing to their backs. This may seem intuitive, but the numbers bear it out: If you’re going to throw it to someone, throw it to someone whose primary job it is to catch and run with it.
The Packers under LaFleur will certainly throw it to Jones and Jamaal Williams on checkdowns and screens. There will also be some Shanahan wrinkles with running back seam routes and leak plays designed to create confusion on defense, leaving the back wide open for a big play. But it shouldn’t be the staple of the offense and, based on what we know about LaFleur along with his coaching pedigree, it’s also unlikely to be.
Whether those are related isn’t relative to the outcome, though it’s an interesting question worth asking. Does a team like Green Bay, who employs in-house analytics staff, look at these numbers, ones that show throwing to the running back is simply less efficient than throwing to receivers and tight ends, and take that information and use it to create game plans? They should, but do they? This question becomes even more interesting considering the Patriots throw to their backs more than any other team in the league on early downs, yet they are one of the teams on the forefront of analytic usage.
Here’s the fundamental truth of this conversation: what so many have called for, this author included, is not necessarily to incorporate Jones or Williams more into the passing game in a dedicated fashion. What they really want is for Rodgers to be willing to take his medicine went the deep shot isn’t there, check it down, and live to fight another down. There will be schemed plays to get the running back involved, potentially even shot plays. But don’t expect this offense to suddenly resemble the Steelers with Le’Veon Bell or the Andy Reid Eagles with Brian Westbrook.
Based on what we know about running backs in the passing game, that’s the smart way to build this or any offense.