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Aaron Rodgers’ upside down splits illustrate Packers’ third-down issues

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Every metric seems to tell the same story: The Packer offense is outdated.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at New England Patriots Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve ripped on Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers plenty around here this season, and there is good reason for that. Under every bit of film, every out-of-the-ordinary stat, there is a story of a coach, quarterback, and organization that has fallen behind the times.

A few weeks ago, Kevin Clark wrote an excellent piece for The Ringer on the subject of the influence of analytics in football. There are several great nuggets, but for my money the key takeaway was this:

I have to plead guilty to thinking second-and-1 was a good time to take a shot downfield, but if any team should convince you of just how unwise this is, it’s the 2018 Packers. This is because converting third-and-short is hardly a sure thing, and more importantly, not converting can result in a punt. Avoiding third downs is a very good idea, and most of the best offenses of 2018 have done just that.

The old-school NFL philosophy — gaining some yardage on first and second down to make third down easier to convert — involves a lot of risk. It’s not just that third down is inherently risky, it’s also that you sacrifice potential upside on early downs by calling conservative plays to set up third down.

As the Ringer piece mentions, the Rams are 26th in total number of third down attempts. If they were adhering to Clark’s proposed strategy, we would expect to see Jared Goff attempting longer passes on first and second down while doing what he needs to do to move the sticks on 3rd down. Indeed, this appears to be the case:

Goff’s average yards per attempt are highest on first down, as the Rams attempt to move the sticks every time. That Y/A number declines on second and third downs as Goff makes shorter throws as the focus is simply to pick up a first down before they get into a troubling third down situation. The Saints seem smart, and we would expect a similar split from Brees, and indeed we do:

But, when we get to Aaron Rodgers, we see a very different story:

It’s upside down. Rodgers is conservative on first and second down, while consistently gaining the most yardage on third down. There’s nothing wrong with throwing longer passes, except that third downs are risky downs, and long passes tend to come with lower completion percentages. As every third down incomplete pass is essentially a turnover, and defenses are more than happy to trade a few yards for a few additional incompletions.

This isn’t a new problem either, as Rodgers showed similar splits in his last full season back in 2016:

The Packers conservatism on first and second down isn’t efficient, and until they change it they will be at a consistent disadvantage against smarter teams.

During baseball’s first great analytics revolution, the primary focus was on the value of outs, and how old-school thinking was too cavalier about wasting them. Football teams are still getting their heads around the analogous idea that first downs are paramount, and anything that threatens possession — including turnovers, punts, fumbles, third downs, and sacks — are to be avoided. Most teams have taken steps to minimize turnovers as interception numbers have declined substantially over the last decade, but that is only a part of the puzzle. The Chiefs, Rams, Pats, and Saints (and likely a few others) are playing a smarter, better game than everyone else. Here’s hoping the next Packer coach or offensive coordinator allows them to catch up.