In 2011, a swaggering Aaron Rodgers set the NFL ablaze, putting together one of the all-time best seasons under center en route to a new single-season passer rating record. Last year alone, three players surpassed his 122.5 mark. Not for the season, however, but in a very specific situation: on play-action.
Think about that for a second: Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Russell Wilson were so good last year off run fakes, they were “Aaron Rodgers in 2011” killers. And 2018 isn’t an outlier in that regard. Using Pro Football Focus’ numbers, at least one quarterback every year going back through 2012 posted a play-action passer rating better than Rodgers’ record-setting mark.
Nearly every quarterback in football is better with a run fake to set up the routes, keep the pass rush at bay, and make the linebackers second guess what they’re seeing. But this part of the Packers offense stagnated more drastically than perhaps any other facet of the offense under Mike McCarthy.
Among QBs with at least 50 play-action drops in 2018, Aaron Rodgers finished 20th in passer rating, just ahead of Eli Manning and behind Lamar Jackson. He was also one of the few quarterbacks to see his efficiency drop when using play-action, with his rating and per attempt numbers better in drop back situations.
In fact, on a per-attempt basis, the only quarterbacks to average fewer yards off play-action in 2019 were Josh Rosen, Nick Foles, and Ben Roethlisberger by a fraction. That’s brutal.
The reasons were myriad. Rodgers missed a number of open throws on shot plays, passes he routinely makes. His injury limited his mobility, a key element to many play-action concepts. Teams often move the pocket, rolling the quarterback away from the run action on one side. That requires two working legs, something Rodgers lacked last season.
We wrote about the reasons for some of the struggles under McCarthy last month.
But that doesn’t explain the precipitous drop that began even before the injury last year. The Packers also used play-action at a rate near the bottom of the league in 2018. Rodgers was 28th out of 35 quarterbacks in drop backs off play-action, but he was 27th out of 34 in 2017 by rate and 25th even in his virtuoso 2016 campaign.
One example stands out as emblematic of the struggles this offense had in a facet where most teams thrive. Against the Cardinals, fittingly the game that cost Mike McCarthy his job, everything went the way it should have gone. Rodgers executed his fake, the defense bit, and Equanimeous St. Brown is running wide open down the field. A bad throw leads to an incompletion.
Seemingly every week, I see WR St. Brown open on play action schemes and for some reason Rodgers just cannot get it to him cleanly.— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) December 5, 2018
Beautiful 3-level stretch concept... Rodgers play action boot left... Everything looked good - except... https://t.co/3IIVeEkSvN pic.twitter.com/jAKZ8LqBlH
This concept should be a staple of the Packers. They should kill teams with it. It’s well-designed and well-executed right up until Rodgers lets the ball go. For whatever reason, whether it’s lack of faith in a rookie receiver or his injured leg, he couldn’t pull the trigger and make stick throws.
Calling these plays more often won’t lead to better effectiveness if the quarterback can’t make the throws consistently. We believe Rodgers can when healthy, but he made plenty of unbelievable throws last season on that tibial plateau fracture. Why did seemingly easy pitch-and-catch plays escape him so often last season?
Here’s another example where EQ gets wide open off play-action and Rodgers can’t find him:
#Patriots CBs recovering to make plays on the ball in man coverage another theme. J-Mac is beat here by St. Brown off the line coming across. Rodgers throws the ball too far inside which gives J-Mac a chance, but you see the recovery speed to catch back up and get the PBU. pic.twitter.com/1mNHKSHGia— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 6, 2018
If Matt LaFleur was brought in to “fix” Rodgers and the offense, this is where we should see the biggest change in effectiveness. The pedigree of his offense comes from outside zone godfather Mike Shanahan, passed down to his son Kyle and Sean McVay. As LaFleur has emphasized over the course of his first six months as coach, this passing game will be predicated on the run game, which means a heavy dose of play-action.
Even before the Packers had a run game with Eddie Lacy or Aaron Jones, Rodgers killed teams on play-action. It was a signature of those world-beating offenses. Green Bay would line up with heavy personnel, fake the handoff, and hit Jordy Nelson or Greg Jennings on a deep post for a 75-yard touchdown.
There’s convincing data to suggest it doesn’t take an efficient run game to create a successful play action game, and the Packers can say they contributed to it with such a robust 2011 season off play-action despite no threatening ground attack.
The play design and execution of the fake, along with the playcalling situation, tend to dictate success, to the point Rodgers has said he’s practiced his ball fakes to become more deceptive.
It goes without saying the Packers would prefer to field a ground attack teams fear. Despite other problem stymieing the offense in years past, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams provide a potent 1-2 punch. Yet poor execution and timing have consistently prevented Green Bay from having play-action success lately. Clearly these issues run deeper than just the run game.
When Rodgers was the league MVP in 2014, his play-action rating was a robust 119.2, second in the league. He also completed 71% of his throws (third) and averaged 9.8 yards per attempt (tied for fourth). And although the Packers didn’t lead the league by any means (they finished 11th in play action usage), it was the most frequently McCarthy dialed up play-action for the time period PFF has data (2012-2018).
In Tennessee with LaFleur as offensive coordinator in 2018, Marcus Mariota threw off play-action on 31.3% of his drop backs, good for 5th in the league. Jared Goff in Sean McVay’s offense finished 2nd, and Nick Mullens was 12th for Kyle Shanahan.
Goff finished 2nd in play-action usage in 2017 when Matt LaFleur was the Rams OC (Hoyer was 9th with Shanahan) and Matt Ryan was 1st in 2016 the season he won the MVP with Shanahan as OC and LaFleur as QB coach.
Teams like the Rams, who destroy defenses with play-action, may even be seeing a benefit in their run game because linebackers and safeties hesitate to ensure the back actually gets the hand off, creating larger lanes for runners. And there’s no evidence to suggest a team can “overuse” play-action, or at least no team has gone to such extremes.
We should expect LaFleur to call a much higher percentage of play-action throws relative to what Rodgers is used to. Let’s say Rodgers matches Mariota’s 2018 play-action rate. That would mean roughly 213 throws, 76 more than Rodgers attempted last season, which comes out to an increase of more than 50%.
Play-action is, by NFL standards, far more efficient than drop back passing. If Rodgers is attempting four more throws per game from play-action, NFL averages say he should be more efficient overall. What we know about Rodgers is that “average” isn’t a word that belongs anywhere near him.
Calling more of these plays doesn’t guarantee a more successful facet of the game, but given the quality of the above offenses and the scheme in question, but all Rodgers has to do is meet statistical league norms to improve the play-action game. If he’s as efficient as we’ve seen him at his best, or even close, then 2019 could look more like vintage Rodgers with shot plays.
Play-action also channels Rodgers’ propensity to want to extend and create plays. If he’s on the move to begin with, he’s not necessarily throwing the rhythm of the offense off by using his legs to extend the play. If this also scratches his itch to play some backyard football, perhaps Rodgers will be more patient from within the pocket than we’ve seen in years past.
Green Bay has the offensive line to protect Rodgers and open up holes for the run games. It has backs who can create on the ground, and the speed with pass catchers to create on play-action shot plays. Now they have a coach willing to emphasize this part of the offense, to call these plays, and give Rodgers a chance to return to the glory days of his play-action past.