The 2020 Green Bay Packers have sprinted out to a blistering start to the season. Green Bay’s offense is achieving historic levels through the first four games of the year, and the team’s 4-0 record is something the franchise has accomplished just three other times in the last 15 years.
However, the other three seasons that saw the Packers rip off an undefeated first quarter all looked very different from each other and from 2020. In one case, the start was a mirage that fell apart a few weeks later. Another was actually a slower start than it seemed, with the team actually improving by midseason. The third past hot start was sustained — at least on offense — through the entire regular season.
So what is in store for the 2020 team? If we can learn anything from these previous examples, this team looks to be in good shape to keep its offensive successes rolling. Here’s a look at how this year’s start compares to those other three recent years.
En route to the NFC Championship Game in Brett Favre’s final season in green and gold, the Packers got off to a 4-0 start. It was hardly a pretty one, though, as it started with an ugly 16-13 victory over the Eagles that saw the Packers’ only touchdown come via special teams, with Tracy White recovering a muffed punt in the end zone.
After that game, Favre started to heat up, throwing eight touchdowns in wins over the Giants, Chargers, and Vikings. But the Packers’ rushing attack was a mess early on, averaging fewer than 60 yards per game on the ground at fewer than three yards per carry. The team was also just okay on third downs, converting at about a 44% clip. This team looked like a bit of a fradulent 4-0, but the rushing attack picked it up significantly once Ryan Grant took over as the starter around midseason.
The 2007 team ended the regular season 13-3 and as the NFC’s second seed. Unfortunately, it would end at home in the NFC Championship Game with the offense bogging down against a surging Giants defense.
We all remember the thrill of 2011, when the Packers’ offense was at the peak of its Aaron Rodgers-Mike McCarthy powers. The team’s success offensively was very similar to that of the 2020 team here, with comparable numbers in terms of points, yards, third downs, and red zone success.
The balance was very different, however. In 2011, Rodgers was doing most of the heavy lifting, though the team still had managed to average over 100 rushing yards per game. Aaron’s yards per attempt number was better in 2011 than it is this fall, but his ANY/A takes a hit due to more sacks and a pair of interceptions. Zero picks actually gives 2020 Rodgers a better passer rating as well. The other notable item is that the Packers turned the ball over five times in total through four games of 2011, with Matt Flynn throwing a pick in garbage time against Denver (which is excluded from the total passing stats below) and the team also losing a pair of fumbles.
Importantly, the 2011 team maintained its strong early showing throughout the year. That year, the Packers finished with a 48.1% third down conversion rate, good for third in the NFL, while the 65.2% red zone touchdown rate also put them third. Of course, the team would lead the NFL in points scored and ranked third in total yards, but met an unfortunate demise at the hands of the Giants in the Divisional playoffs.
Shockingly, Rodgers had a better passer rating through four games of 2015 than he did in 2011 — that’s truly remarkable and looking at his full stat line from that year illustrates just how poorly the rest of that season went. The reasons for this include no turnovers and a 333-yard, 5-touchdown game against the Chiefs — the famous game that put Pro Football Focus’ grading squarely in Packers fans’ crosshairs.
The running game was reasonably effective as well, with Eddie Lacy and James Starks proving to be an effective if unspectacular tandem early on. The two would trade prominent games through much of the season, finishing with identical 4.1 yards per carry averages as they both hit 600 yards rushing.
Interestingly, though, some ancillary numbers from these four games showed reasons for serious concern. The team hit on just 40% of third downs, the lowest mark of any of these 4-0 starts. It also represented Rodgers’ lowest Y/A and ANY/A in the three seasons when he was in charge, as the Packers tended to use a heavier dose of the short passing game with Jordy Nelson out for the season.
Indeed, the 2015 team fell off a cliff overall and in particular on both third down and red zone conversions, finishing at 33.7% and 53.8%, respectively. That third-down rate ranked just 28th in the NFL as the Packers were held under 17 points five times in the season’s final ten games. After starting 6-0, the Packers would finish just 10-6 and in second place in the division, eventually losing to Arizona in the Divisional Playoffs in the Jeff Janis Hail Mary game.
This season, Rodgers has returned to the closest thing to his 2011 form we have seen since then — and that includes 2014. He’s back over 70% completions, but his yards per attempt is close to 9 and his ANY/A is an incredible 10.13. Part of the credit for that last number speaks to the fact that he has been sacked just three times, the lowest mark by far through four games of any of these seasons.
Equally encouraging is the fact that the third-down conversion rate, which is back over 50 percent so far.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism, however, comes in the balance that this offense provides and its ability to win in myriad different ways. The Packers are averaging more than 150 rushing yards per game and over five yards per carry. Much of that was due to a 259-yard outburst against Detroit, but that illustrates Matt LaFleur’s game planning ability. He and his staff have been indentifying the opposition’s greatest weaknesses on defense and exploiting them, whether that’s by focusing on the running game, play-action deep shots, or the tight ends and running backs as receivers.
Now let’s take a look at many of the key offensive numbers for comparison.
Offense During 4-0 Starts
|3rd Down Conversions||51.1% (23/45)||40.4% (19/47)||54.0% (27/50)||44.4% (24/54)|
|4th Down Conversions||57.1% (4/7)||75.0% (3/4)||0.0% (0/2)||33.3% (1/3)|
|Red Zone TD rate||65.0% (13/20)||64.7% (11/17)||68.4% (13/19)||61.5% (8/13)|
In looking at several key offensive metrics for these four 4-0 starts, we can see that the Packers of 2020 are running ahead of the past teams in most of them. All of the rushing numbers favor the 2020 team, as do time of possession and the turnover battle. The 2020 squad will certainly need to work hard to keep up their early results to keep pace with the 2011 offense, which only got stronger as the year went along. However, this year’s Packers do not show some of the early red flags that the 2015 squad displayed — namely third down struggles and a lower yards per attempt.
All of that suggests that the 2020 Packers are well-positioned to sustain their early successes, provided that the key players on offense can remain healthy.