This time last year, Chicago Bears optimism peaked at modern highs. Coach and GM weren’t just celebrated, they were award-winning, with a defense mauling opponents, suffocating them into submission, and wresting the NFC North crown away from the long-time kings. They would reign the NFL’s version of 1,000 years with a young quarterback sure to improve, arguably the best defensive player in football, and a virtuoso head coach.
Until they didn’t.
History in the NFL tells these stories every season and it offers a cautionary tale for the 2020 Green Bay Packers. First, a team stays extremely healthy, thrives on turnovers and defensive splash plays, and wins some games it would lose six times if ten games had been played. Then, after winning in a slew of unsustainable ways, that team regresses the following season. Mitchell Trubisky’s trophy season was fool’s gold, with turnover-worthy throws not turned into picks and receivers making catches at an unsustainable rate. Even when a team has Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack, sometimes there’s no stopping math.
Though Matt LaFleur and Brian Gutekunst didn’t garner awards for their 2019 performance, they engineered an equally quick and efficient turn around in Year 1 with an unproven coach. Is “winning ugly” code for “winning undeservedly”? While that question makes for good talk radio fodder, the more appropriate question for the Packers this offseason is how do they avoid the same fate? And that starts with recognizing the possibility of regression and taking steps to mitigate those risks moving forward.
Critics called the Packers a weak 13-3, with some (mostly opposing fans on Twitter) insisting they were the worst 13-3 team of all time. Thankfully for them, the Saints lost on Wild Card weekend as a 13-3 squad, which put to bed those takez, but Green Bay wasn’t what their record says it was. LaFleur’s team prided itself on coming up big in big moments, but close-game wins are volatile over time, even for well-coached teams who have already “figured out how to win.”
The Packers were likely to improve from its dreadful 2018 close-game performance, which they did in ‘19, finishing 8-1 in one-score games, 9-1 if you include playoffs. The pendulum likely swings back for 2020, particularly given the nature of some of Green Bay’s wins last year. A penalty in the Lions game, or the literal bounce of the ball on a last-second Cal band play from the Bears goes the other way and the season looks very different. Either one of those wins turning to losses would have been enough to have the Packers playing on Wild Card weekend rather than enjoying some time off.
To wit, the Packers’ expected win total based on their point differential last season was a mere 9.8 wins. That tracks. An easy schedule with a few breaks elevated a 10-win team to 13 wins. On the other hand, Green Bay only played three true coin flip games, according to FiveThirtyEight, and did lose one of them. In other words, even the games that looked close on the scoreboard weren’t nearly as in doubt as the score indicated.
Health, along with in-game luck factors, contribute to those close wins. The Bears were 3rd in adjusted games lost in 2018 and while Football Outsiders hasn’t published their AGL stats for 2019, the Packers were among the most fortunate teams in football in terms of both quantity and quality of their injuries last season. Davante Adams was the only meaningful impact player to deal with a significant injury, and Lane Taylor’s season-ending malady paved the way for Elgton Jenkins to shine at left guard.
Meanwhile, Rodgers, Aaron Jones, the Smith Bros, Jaire Alexander, and even oft-injured players like Kevin King and Bryan Bulaga managed to stay on the field. Building a more complete roster, as Gutekunst has done over the last two seasons, provides a longer runway before injuries take a toll on winning. Hiring a coach willing to adapt to his personnel, for example finding ways to get Jones involved with the passing game while Adams is out, subverts the deleterious effects injuries have on a roster in a given season.
At positions where successful NFL teams require multiple impact players, Gutekunst devoted massive resources each of the last two offseasons with cornerback and edge rush undergoing overhauls.
The Packers don’t necessarily face the kind of likely regression the Bears did defensively due in part to the fact they weren’t nearly as good. That may seem counter-intuitive, but the Bears’ defensive DVOA came in at -26% in 2018, and while you don’t need to understand what the numbers mean, that was almost twice the second-best defense in football. They were historically good and it played an enormous role in winning. Last year, they fell to -6.7% in 2019, still 8th best but not No. 1 by a mile.
As Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight often points out, defense in general is highly variable and reliant on splash plays to produce good outcomes. This is good news and bad news for the Packers who used turnovers, particularly in the red zone, to get stops, a model that likely won’t sustain next season.
However, there’s a case for Packers pass rush to go the other way in 2020 after finishing just 12th in adjusted sack rate, despite being a top-5 defense all season in pressure rate. The 49ers, for example, were the other way around. Converting pressures into sacks represents another area with significant variance, which explains why Kyler Fackrell likely won’t return to the Packers despite throwing up 10.5 sacks two years ago. He converted pressures into sacks at a wildly unsustainable rate.
The Packers, with two monsters on the edge, could see their sack totals increase in 2020 if they keep up the pressure.
The one position left for Gutekunst to address, the one remaining where the Packers might not have multiple impact players where the league demands it, comes opposite Adams at receiver. While it may be uncharitable to compare Rodgers to Trubisky, quarterbacks his age can fall off a cliff without warning and as it is, the ‘19 season was rocky for Rodgers. Adding weapons to his arsenal, picking up the tempo, and ramping up the aggressiveness overall would combine to stave off a step backward.
And don’t underestimate the last part. The Packers were third-most aggressive team in the NFL passing on early downs (good) but 13th in aggressiveness going on fourth down. Above average is where a team wants to be, but the Ravens mined an enormous advantage with their aggressiveness last season, one potential factor in helping them stave off regression from being the NFL’s healthiest team in 2018.
Of course, having the league MVP helps, but Baltimore hit in the draft on Marquise Brown, traded for Marcus Peters, and signed Earl Thomas. Adding roster talent mitigates the eternal match of time toward its inevitable end (eat at Arby’s). Time, like math, is undefeated and Rodgers only has so much of it left.
Think of what happened to the Bears last offseason: they traded Vic Fangio for Chuck Pagano, Adrian Amos for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jordan Howard for David Montgomery, and made no meaningful additions to the team’s core aside from those replacements. Regression was inevitable because they didn’t prepare for its inevitability. Hubris cost the Bears a season of cost-controlled quarterback play in a potential championship window.
Green Bay can’t view this offseason the same way. Add at receiver, attempt to upgrade at linebacker, and find places to bolster on the margins, from mindset to personnel. Gutekunst has demonstrated his ability to supplement and re-engineer needy position groups, and his success or failure this offseason to execute once again will very likely be the difference between a team once again jockeying for a first-round bye and fighting for its playoff lives late into December.