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The Packers run too often on 2nd- or 3rd-and-long

Old school teams are happy to waste plays on 2nd and long, but the smart ones now value every possession.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Green Bay Packers beat the Buffalo Bills badly on Sunday, but no one was happy with the offense and with good reason. Six of those 22 points came on long field goals, and McCarthy seemed to settle for another long field goal attempt on the first drive, though Jamaal Williams was unable to gain sufficient yardage on a third-down play to try it.

McCarthy settles a lot, and that’s becoming big problem because it costs the team possessions. There are two major philosophies about picking up first downs. The first, older philosophy captures the NFL standard for most of the 1980s and 90s, which holds that first and second downs are to be used to make 3rd down easier. A few four-yards runs on the early downs will give the team flexibility to either run or pass on 3rd and short, making for an easy conversion. The new philosophy holds that offenses are now so good (and defenses so restrained) that it’s more efficient to give yourself as many opportunities as possible to gain ten yards on an individual passing play, and that the vast majority of the time, any quarterback will complete a 10-yard pass before they are forced to punt.

While you do need to run sometimes, just to prove that you might, the latter philosophy is far closer to optimal. We know that, on first down, a successful play must pick up at least 4 yards, and in reality that number is probably closer to 5. Your subsequent 2nd and 3rd down plays are really only successful if they pick up the first down, which means that if your first down play fails and leaves you with six yards to go or more, running is almost always a bad idea because runs don’t generally pick up big yardage. Smart teams know this.

For instance, let’s look at the Rams, who are currently the cream of the crop in terms of football smarts. On 2nd or 3rd down, with 6 yards or more to go, and when the game is within one score, the Rams have passed 87% of the time. They have only run in this situation four times all season. It’s just not something they do. In the aggregate, their plays have been successful 52% of the time, while their passing plays have been successful 60% of the time.

The Packers, on the other hand, still strive for balance in these scenarios. They have passed only 68% of the time and run 32% of the time. Those runs have only succeeded 1/3 of the time, and overall in these situations, the Packers only succeed 38% of the time. We tend to focus on 3rd down efficiency, but the Packers are basically pissing away plays and drives every time they do this. Despite the fact that the Packers have an all-time great quarterback, only seven teams pass less than the Packers in this situation, which is insane.

On their first drive against the Bills, the Packers faced 2nd and 10 from the Buffalo 40-yard line. Either McCarthy or Rodgers called a run to Jamaal Williams, the worst Packer runner, that lost a yard. Incredibly, on 3rd and 11, they went back to the same well, and Williams was stoned for no gain.

Even if Williams hadn’t been completely stuffed, the best case scenario for those play calls was a slightly shorter but still long field goal attempt, which is hardly an ideal outcome. It is these pointless plays and drives that seems designed specifically to not score, which cause the offense such problems. The Packers then did this again in the 3rd quarter when up 19-0. The team faced 3rd and 10 and called a run to Ty Montgomery, which was stuffed for a loss of one. The Packers were forced to punt from their own 18, and the defense was fortunate to preserve the shutout.

The fact of the matter is that smart teams don’t operate this way. They pass more frequently and with more success when a first down is still in doubt. The actual plays that were called against the Bills were not half bad, and the second drive of the game — which resulted in a touchdown — was a thing of beauty. But the problems with the offense are deeper than individual play design. They show a fundamental lack of football understanding. McCarthy’s focus on execution has always been about the trees, but much of the rest of the NFL now runs a hyper-efficient forest, and Mike just doesn’t see it.