The Green Bay Packers entered their tenth game of the season poised to make a run for the playoffs. They were coming off of a convincing win against the Miami Dolphins, and, prior to that, had suffered two close losses to the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams. While those losses were unfortunate, they also seemed to indicate that the team could compete with the NFL’s elite. The Packers were facing the Seahawks in Seattle, which is always a tough task, but a win would put them over .500 with a seemingly easy schedule remaining.
Late in the game, the Seahawks went ahead by three points on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Ed Dickson, but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense had five minutes and eight seconds to respond. A nice 8-yard gain to Marquez Valdes-Scantling set up 3rd and two, but unfortunately Aaron Rodgers did this:
Rather than go for it on fourth and two at their own 33-yard line with 4:20 remaining, Mike McCarthy decided to punt. The Packers would never see the ball again, largely because they only had one timeout remaining. As was so often the case this season, the Packers only had one timeout remaining because they had a bad habit of wasting timeouts to prevent delay-of-game penalties.
In the 3rd quarter, with about five minutes remaining, the Packers faced third-andthree after a nice seven-yard run by Aaron Jones. However, due to a late substitution and some confusion between Jones and backup running back Jamaal Williams, Aaron Rodgers made one of the most annoyed-looking timeout calls of the year.
Mike McCarthy had plenty of time to come up with the perfect play during the timeout, but instead the Packers decided to run whatever this is:
Rodgers was sacked for a six-yard loss, and Green Bay would punt. On their next drive, with about ten minutes remaining, Aaron Rodgers would hit Davante Adams deep down the field for 57 yards, putting the team in great position, but the team was unable to get set quickly enough, and just like that, timeout number two was no more.
Given a few minutes to come up with the perfect play, Green Bay ran this...thing.
After a pointless running play on second-and-nine, Rodgers was sacked again on third down and the Packers were forced to settle for a field goal. After Seattle’s go-ahead touchdown and the Packers’ subsequent three-and-out, it only took the Seahawks seven plays (three of which were kneel downs) to run 4:20 off the clock and end the game.
It’s not just that the Packers seemed to waste timeouts in 2018, it that they also seemed to garner almost no benefit from those timeouts. There could theoretically be an advantage to taking some time to pick the perfect play for a high leverage situation, but more often than not, Green Bay seemed to fail miserably on the play following a timeout.
In mid-October I wrote a piece on “wasted” timeouts in which I combed through NFL play-by-play data to determine how often teams called timeouts in what I called “early” vs. “late” periods of a game. I defined “early” as any time outside of the final two minutes of the first half, and any time outside of the final five minutes of the game. Early timeouts are typically used to avoid procedure penalties, saving the team five yards, but research by Brian Burke at Advanced Football Analytics (among others) has shown that the relative value of using a timeout to avoid a procedure penalty is minuscule compared to using a timeout at the end of the game (or half) to regain possession
My analysis supported the idea that the Packers waste a ton of timeouts as they led the league in early timeouts in the first half of the season, and almost certainly failed to beat the Vikings in their first meeting because of it, but that analysis was also inconclusive. The Los Angeles Rams, hardly an example of dysfunction, also seemed to “waste” plenty of timeouts, and the Jaguars, who are in fact a model of dysfunction, were a model of judicious timeout use. Maybe a team like the Rams did benefit from calling those timeouts to save five yards and come up with the perfect play. Maybe the Packers did too, and I was just seeing all the negative plays while missing the positive.
Once again, using these handy instructions, I pulled all of the 2018 NFL play-by-play data. My focus this time was to count early and late timeouts, but also to capture the Expected Points Added (EPA) of each play following a timeout. For those unfamiliar with EPA, this is a useful primer on the subject, but in short, EPA quantifies how much more or less likely you are to score after a given play. My ultimate goal was to show which teams use the most early timeouts, whether they use them on offense or on defense, and how much benefit they derive (or cost they incur) from doing so.
One thing I did not do, but would like to do in the future, is compare the EPA of the subsequent play plus the retained timeout to the EPA of losing five yards on a delay of game, but that’s a longer term project. For the moment it’s enough to understand that generally speaking, a timeout is most valuable when used to create an extra possession, and least valuable when used to save five yards.
I did make one important change since my last post, which affects the Packers quite a bit. Now, the cutoff for early timeouts in the first half is 3:00 instead of 2:00. When looking at the larger data set it was clear that most of the time a timeout in the last three minutes was indeed being used in an attempt to get the ball back and not to save five yards. The Packers had quite a few of these, and their raw early timeout total isn’t nearly as bad as a result.
I also eliminated timeouts before punts and field goals. I do have a separate dataset that leaves them in, and in many cases these timeouts were “wasted” without question. However, punts and field goals really skew EPA analysis. For instance, Mike McCarthy called a timeout directly before a missed Vikings field goal. That missed field goal was a huge EPA swing, but the timeout itself had nothing to do with that miss, and there is no reason to view it as a positive. For anyone who is curious, I’ll provide a link to the data with special teams plays included at the end of the post. I broke down the data into timeouts used on offense, defense, and in total, and I also have those same breakdowns for total EPA and average EPA per play.
So, what does this all tell us?
The Packers Find New Ways to Waste Timeouts
|Team||TO Count||O-TO Count||D-TO Count||Total EPA||O-Total EPA||D Total EPA||Total EPA Avg||O EPA Avg||D EPA Avg|
|Team||TO Count||O-TO Count||D-TO Count||Total EPA||O-Total EPA||D Total EPA||Total EPA Avg||O EPA Avg||D EPA Avg|
The Packers may not have wasted as many timeouts as I previously thought, but they were absolutely horrible on plays after early timeouts generally, and especially on offense. You would think that plays after timeouts would be likely to work as designed, capitalizing on the defensive tendencies the team has observed and not suffering from any confusion of miscommunication.
You would be wrong, as the vast majority of successful plays after timeouts for Green Bay were scrambles by Aaron Rodgers. Scrambles are, of course, what happens when a passing play breaks down, and while the Packers had technically successful plays on Rodgers’ three scrambles (for 18 total yards and 3.38 EPA), they can hardly be viewed as successes of playcalling.
When Rodgers did actually attempt to pass, it was a disaster. He was just 4-of-7 for 21 total yards. In addition, he took two sacks which cost the team 16 yards, and on one play Jimmy Graham committed offensive pass interference, which cost the team another ten yards. Their combined EPA when attempting a pass after a timeout was -7.5.
Running fared no better, as Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones combined to lose one yard on their 3 runs for a combined EPA of -5.9. It’s hard to argue that the team would not have been better served to simply continue to play in rhythm, but the utter failure of Packer play-calling when actually given time to do it is inexcusable. The league’s best offenses all excelled after timeouts, and even the Bears, who are hardly offensive juggernauts, were pretty good under Matt Nagy’s playcalling. The Packers compatriots near the bottom are filled with washed up quarterbacks, bad offenses, rookie quarterbacks, and other things no one wants to emulate.
The Packers were 26th in efficiency on plays after early timeouts, and considering that not a single one of those plays resulted in a turnover (as was the case with almost every team below them), they were amazingly, consistently bad. Overall, the Packers called 16 early timeouts on offense, and lost 9 total points of EPA on the subsequent play. Down the stretch they didn’t call quite as many early timeouts as they did in the first half of the season, and they went from first overall to tied for 12th, but they were completely ineffective at generating offense after a timeout.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Rams led the league in early timeouts with 29 total, but as it turns out, Sean McVay is no dummy. The Rams averaged .346 EPA on offensive plays following a timeout and over half a point added following a defensive timeout. They were, overall, the 6th most efficient team in football after a timeout, and unsurprisingly, the teams you think of as dominant on offense tended to be dominant after timeouts. Kansas City was the most impressive team, as they frequently attacked downfield after taking an early timeout (17 total, 16 on offense), adding nearly a point of EPA (.808) per play to lead the league. New Orleans and the Los Angeles Chargers were right behind at .635 and .504 respectively. Miami is the big surprise in the top five, but their success after timeouts was driven mostly by small sample size (only 12 early timeouts on offense) and a few big plays. It’s hard to say conclusively that the Chiefs, for instance, made the correct decision when taking timeouts since five yards barely seems to matter to them, but it’s also hard to argue with their success.
It’s not hard to argue with the success of the teams at the bottom of this chart. Denver is officially last, but they also only called one early timeout on offense all season, so a rate stat isn’t really applicable with them. Arizona, Dallas, and the Giants all appear near the bottom, partially because they were generally poor offensive teams, and partially because each team’s quarterback, at some point, threw an interception on the play after a timeout. Interceptions and fumbles cause enormous EPA swings, and throwing one was the fastest way to get to the bottom of this metric.
Most teams did not spend many timeouts on defense, but for some reason, the Atlanta Falcons spent 10 early defensive timeouts, three more than the next highest team. They actually did help a bit as the Falcons gained about half a point per subsequent play, but the need to call that many timeouts on defense does not reflect well on Atlanta’s coaching staff.
The Doug Pederson coaching tree seems to be stingy with timeouts generally. The Eagles were 27th with 11 total early timeouts, and they were joined near the bottom by teams employing former Pederson assistants to run their offenses: John DeFilippo’s Vikings (5) and Frank Reich’s Colts (4).
New Orleans, Kansas City, and the Rams all added double digit EPA on plays after early timeouts. No other team added more than 5.7.
The Dallas Cowboys were by far the worst overall team on plays after early timeouts, losing 6 points on defense and 12 on offense. If any team should have conserved their timeouts for extra possessions, it was them. Arizona was nearly as bad.
For all of the teams in the middle, it’s very unlikely that calling an early timeout was an efficient play. While it can occasionally lead to a beneficial outcome, it seems like most teams are still too cavalier with timeouts and lose out on opportunities for extra possessions because of it. The fact that the Packers can’t run a play out of a timeout to save their lives is simply terrible icing on awful, sub-Hostess cake.