Mike McCarthy’s play-calling, along with his relationship with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, ultimately ended his 13-year run as the Green Bay Packers’ head coach. The offense moved away from high-efficiency tactics in favor of ones that forced Rodgers to make exceptional individual plays. When the two-time MVP couldn’t deliver, the team’s fortunes nosedived.
Much has changed since McCarthy’s departure, and many of the issues that plagued the Packers in recent years have improved. Still, the team has a play-calling problem, even if it differs from the one that ended the Mike McCarthy era. New head coach and play-caller Matt LaFleur employs a more varied and creative offense, but decisions on fourth down and in the red zone have stymied progress early in his tenure.
The issue popped up multiple times during the team’s 34-27 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles Thursday night. Faced with fourth-and-2 from the Philadelphia 13-yard line, the Packers elected to take a field goal to extend a three-point lead to six.
The decision raises red flags for strategy. By settling for the field goal, the Packers took a one-possession game and transformed it … into a one-possession game. Mason Crosby’s field goal decreased his team’s win probability by 0.88 percentage points, according to Number Fire. Though that might seem counterintuitive, the kick came at an opportunity cost of going for a touchdown and extending the lead to two possessions, a scenario far more favorable than a six-point lead in the first half. Compare that to the touchdown Green Bay scored earlier, which boosted the team’s win probability by 2.32 percentage points.
Perhaps one can defend that approach when facing a difficult down and distance, but the Packers needed only 2 yards for the first down. On plays with no more than 2 yards to go, NFL offenses have converted first downs 54.5 percent of the time since 2017. Only four teams converted less than half of those plays, and the top half of the league made the first down on 58.1 percent of their attempts. On a night when the Green Bay offense finally found its rhythm, Matt LaFleur had no reason to take the conservative path and leave points on the field.
Unfortunately for the Packers, poor process would again cost them later in the game. During the fourth quarter, the offense reached the Philadelphia 1-yard line with a new set of downs. The Packers called three pass plays and a run-pass option, which Rodgers elected to throw. Each attempt resulted in an incompletion and led to a turnover on downs.
LaFleur’s approach made life much harder for his offense. According to Warren Sharp, run plays inside the 5-yard line have a success rate of 57 percent since 2016 while passes succeed only 47 percent of the time, a difference of 10 percentage points. Consider also that Davante Adams, the Packers’ top red-zone receiver, left the game with a toe injury earlier in the drive. LaFleur had every reason to call run plays, specifically a QB sneak given the proximity to the goal line. Instead, he worked against the numbers and his available personnel. contributing to a blown scoring opportunity.
Through four games, LaFleur’s offense has made important strides. The Packers have converted more plays downfield than in recent years, and the scripted portion of the game plan has produced a flurry of points in the games since the opener. However, for the offense to reach its potential, LaFleur has to make better decisions on fourth down and near the goal line.