Down I-43 from Green Bay, the Milwaukee Bucks had a motto with new coach Mike Budenholzer last season: Let it fly. Unshackled from the antiquated systems run by Jason Kidd, the Bucks unleashed a barrage of three-pointers on the league to become a highly efficient offense. Despite being one of the most three-heavy teams in the NBA, the Bucks were a below-average shooting team by percentage. Their one big advantage was Giannis, who could get to the rim at will with all the added space.
Two hours north, the Packers played the numbers in a similar kind of way: throw on first down and when that doesn’t work, throw again on second down, especially second-and-long. The analytics community should have bee proud, except Green Bay didn’t have their version of Giannis with Aaron Rodgers gimpy all season. Even a healthy all-world quarterback can only do so much.
It would have been like still running Kidd’s offense, but shooting those threes just the same. Without the right context, the effectiveness gets blunted. To wit, the Packers were 5th in the league last season throwing after an incompletion, again, the desired playcall in those situations. The only teams who did it more? The Chiefs, Rams, Patriots and Steelers. In other words, with apologies to the Saints, four of the best offenses in football.
This is what a team should want its offense to be doing, but without play design and execution, just calling the right run vs. pass balance isn’t enough.
Mike McCarthy’s offense increasingly became a conglomeration of plays rather than a cohesive offensive structure. They rarely seemed to call one play to set up a counter, and then show the counter off that. Or if they did, it would happen once and they’d never go back to it. Beautiful play design litters the tape from Green Bay’s season despite the struggles, but McCarthy rarely found a way to make each play work in concert without one another. How much of that fell on his shoulders and how much came from Rodgers changing plays at the line? We have no way of knowing. It’s something we must set aside for the moment.
How can Matt LaFleur change this? For starters, balance should be better for the Packers, which actually runs counter to what the data suggests about playcalling game theory from a 30,000 foot view. For example, on 2nd-and-8 or more, the Packers threw it 74% of the time, third-most in the league. Theoretically, that’s good. But Green Bay was below league average in success rate.
Matt LaFluer’s Titans threw just 53% of the time in those situations, the least often in the NFL, but were above average in success rate. Considering the players involved with Rodgers, Aaron Jones, and one of the best offensive lines in the league, this simply shouldn’t be the case. It hints at a distinct different in play design and playcalling.
Tennessee’s limited offensive personnel, with injuries to Marcus Mariota and Delanie Walker, certainly contributed to this rate of calls. LaFleur’s mentor in Los Angeles Sean McVay, called passes on second-and-long 71% of the time while Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco did so 69% of the time. We should expect LaFleur’s offense to more closely resemble those numbers in 2019 if for no other reason than he has Rodgers, Davante Adams and the best pass-blocking offensive line in football.
Success on first down plays an enormous factor here as well. The Packers did the thing they’re supposed to do and throw it a bunch on first down, but were below average in success rate and one of the worst teams in the league on a per attempt basis. Meanwhile, the Titans threw the ball just 41% of the time compared to 61% for Green Bay, yet found more efficiency. Tennessee passers averaged a robust 8.5 yards per attempt on first-down passes compared to 6.8 for the Packers.
The only teams worse by YPA on first-down passes were Jacksonville and Detroit. Yikes.
Running more on first down would play to Green Bay’s strengths. The only team with more success running on first down last season than the Packers was the Rams with LaFleur’s old boss, yet no team ran it less often. That’s not happening again in 2019.
Playing with a little more balance may swing away from what the Platonic ideal is from the numbers crowd, but there is intrinsic value in playing to a team’s strengths. We saw it last year when LaFleur essentially abandoned his preferred offense, let Derrick Henry cook, and Tennessee regained its offensive identity. Of course that doesn’t mean less Aaron Rodgers, but rather finding more efficient ways to use Rodgers. LaFleur’s preferred style of offense stems from play action, another favorite of the analytic community.
Analytics tell us a team doesn’t need to be a good running team to have a good play action game, but they do have to actually be willing to call run plays. Too often it was obvious the Packers simply weren’t going to do that, potentially blunting the effects of the play action game.
Game theory isn’t as simple as “Throw more on first down, and on second-and-long.” Truisms like “Run out of pass formations and throw out of run personnel” work because teams have to be able to do the opposite at times as well. The Patriots understand this at its core better than anyone: run against teams who can’t stop the run, and pass against the teams who can’t stop the pass. Sometimes it really is that simple.
They’re not afraid to shelve one of the all-time great QBs in the interest of team success and efficiency and he’s not too ego-driven to buck that game plan. We have reason to believe Matt LaFleur will follow a similar path, play to the Packers’ strengths, and run the ball more to make life easier on Rodgers. He has to be adaptive, as does his all-time great quarterback.
If LaFleur can run an offense that actually has packages of plays, doing work for the players rather than relying solely on their talent, that provides an upgrade for Green Bay’s offense. His preferred way of playing marries a strength of the team with efficiency. If they can also follow a more modern game script, balanced with more efficient use of the run game and Rodgers stays healthy, there’s potential here for greatness. Those are a group of critical “ifs” and we are a long way from getting answers on them.
Budenholzer’s Bucks gave away a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals because those shots suddenly stopped falling and they kept shooting rather than adapt to find ways to get Giannis or Brook Lopez to the rim. It’s the balance they have to strike. LaFleur must find his own equilibrium with the modern game and the foundation of his offense. In each case, striking that balance would result in maximizing superstar, MVP talent, and could lead to championship hardware.