Don’t tell Bill Parcells, but teams aren’t always what their records say they are. There are mountains of empirical data that says that old football is apocryphal, not a truism. Green Bay Packers fans understand, intuitively, this team is much more talented than 4-6-1, otherwise the disappointment in Mike McCarthy would be unwarranted. If this were a dog team, fans would be less likely to blame McCarthy for failing to win with it.
And even much of the important data we prize as indicative of quality in the NFL says Green Bay is much better than its record indicates.
Adjusting for schedule, Football Outsiders puts the Packers 10th in the NFL by DVOA, including 10th weighting for recency. They’re behind only the Rams, Saints and Bears in the NFC by those figures. They’re also fifth in offense adjusting for opponent, and fifth in adjusted sack rate. That sounds like a pretty good team, not one struggling to find an identity and fire a coach.
On a per play basis, this is not just a good team, they’re a great team, tied for fifth in net yards per play. The importance of this stat should be obvious: how good is a team at moving the ball play-to-play relative to how effective they are at stopping teams. Of the top 10 teams in net yards per play, only the Packers and Panthers sit outside the current playoff picture with the Saints sitting at 11th.
And unlike teams like the Rams and Chiefs, it’s not just one side of the ball or the other. Green Bay’s offense sits 8th offensively on a per play basis and 12th on defense. Those are indicators of a good team.
When it comes to today’s league, nothing is more important than passing efficiency. While net passer rating used to be a gold standard for team success, ANY/A (Standing for adjusted net yards per attempt) correlates even stronger with winning. The Packers are 11th in team ANY/A, sixth in the NFC. In other words, a playoff team, though just barely.
And for all the think pieces and talk radio segments about Aaron Rodgers, he’s sixth in individual ANY/A and on his way to setting an NFL record for attempts without an interception. His 7.9 yards per pass is his highest figure since he won MVP in 2014.
So to quote a football deity, “What the hell’s going on out there?”
The specific reasons for the losses range from a terrible penalty call, to a costly fumble, a kicker temporarily losing his powers like the NBA players in Space Jam, and an overly-conservative decision to kick on 4th-and-2.
Rodgers believes the team has to be better at giving itself more opportunities drive to drive, not just play to play.
“The problem has been the play production,” Rodgers says. “Our yardage per play has been up, we’re just getting high 40s and 50s amounts of plays. And when you’re having that many plays in a game, you’re not going to have the type of overall yardage production.”
Big problem right? The fewer plays a team runs, the fewer chances it has to score and the more efficient it has to be. Except they’re averaging nearly 63 plays per game this season, more than in 2011 when Rodgers re-wrote the quarterback record books. It’s not that they’re not running enough plays, it’s a true lack of possession.
“A lot of it is our third down production,” Rodgers explains noting how poor the team has been on the money down. “If you’re able to improve in that, everything else goes up. Production goes up. First downs, obviously, goes up. Plays go up.”
Early this week Mike McCarthy put it even more plainly: “If our third down improves, we’re clearly a touchdown better a game.” A touchdown better a game would put the Packers around fourth in the league in scoring offense, behind only the Saints, Chiefs and Rams.
McCarthy may be overstating it, but when the offensive indicators look like Green Bay’s do, maybe he’s not wrong. Third down has not been kind to the Packers, who convert at the 24th-best rate in football. Rodgers’ accuracy has been part of the problem, along with protection issues, receiver inconsistency and playcalling.
Rodgers leads the league in yards per attempt on third down and chunk plays (25 yards or more) but he’s completing less than 58% of his throws on that down, which is 22nd in the NFL and a big reason this team struggles to convert. Those problems are similar in the red zone, where he’s been one of the least accurate quarterbacks in football by completion percentage.
Surely there are elements of scheme that could help this problem, and the lack of continuity with his receivers isn’t helping. That’s a failure of coaching, of playmaking, and of execution. More red zone runs, where Aaron Jones has been among the most efficient backs in football, would help, as would more first-down runs.
As odd as it is to say, there’s truly just one game where the finger can be pointed at the defense for the loss and that was an ultra-bizarre Week 3 loss to Washington where the defense staked their opponent a big lead, then completely shut them down in the second half. A Randall Cobb brain fart day ruined any chance to come back and steal that.
And that’s what makes this season so spectacularly frustrating for fans. Despite the third down issues, this team has had a chance to win every game it has played and has, for stretches, looked like a very good team. But a handful of plays here and there, some unlucky breaks, some sloppy turnovers, have doomed this team this season.
If they can get healthy, particularly in the secondary, there’s still a chance to make a late-season run. Getting Randall Cobb back could help them better attack the middle of the field where they’re the least aggressive team in the league. The underlying numbers show a team capable of breaking out. Play-to-play this is a playoff team, they just have to make one or two more clutch plays a game and they’ll see those tough losses turn into gritty wins.