We need to talk about pace. The Green Bay Packers have the league’s best offense, and when you have the league’s best offense, you should be trying to create as many possessions as possible. The reason for this is quite simple: the more plays/possessions the offense has in a game, the more likely they are to score more than their opponent during the game. Any Packer opponent with a worse offense than Green Bay (which is, again, all of them except maybe the Chiefs) would be wise to slow the game down to limit possessions.
This concept is often explained both poorly and incorrectly by announcers as “keeping Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines,” but the real reason is that making the sample size smaller adds additional chaos and can keep an inferior team in the game. Let’s imagine that the Packers are playing the atrocious New York Jets in two exhibition games with weird rules. In the first game, each team will get 30 offensive possessions. In the second game, each team will get one offensive possession. Which game are the Jets more likely to win?
Obviously, the Jets’ best chance is in the one-possession game, because Green Bay may very well fail to score on a single possession just based on bad luck, a fumbled snap, a bad bounce, or some other nonsense. Over 30 possessions, that luck is going to even out, and the Packers’ superiority will assert itself. So, it makes sense for the better team generally (and especially on offense) to play with some pace.
Do you remember the first half of the Packers’ loss against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field on a blustery day? Each team had two possessions total, and each team scored on both. It remains one of the weirdest halves of football I’ve ever seen. The Vikings came out and scored on their first possession of the second half, the Packers failed to convert a fourth down on their next drive, and that was basically the ball game. There were a few weird sequences involving penalties on Green Bay (specifically on Marcedes Lewis) and multiple failed fourth down conversions, and all of those things mattered more because possessions in this game were scarce. Since possessions mattered more, failing on each possession hurt them more as a result.
The Packers’ slow pace isn’t just anecdotal. No team is slower from play to play than Green Bay, averaging 30.89 seconds per play. That’s dead last by an enormous amount, and it’s not simply because they’re often trying to run out the clock to protect a lead. Even in neutral situations they rank 30th and average 32.63 seconds per play, behind only spiritual siblings San Francisco, and Baltimore. The five best offenses in football per Football Outsiders are the Packers, Chiefs, Titans, Seahawks, and Bucs. Only the Packers and Seahawks rank outside of the top 10 in neutral pace of play, and Pete Carroll is justifiably ridiculed for his offensive philosophy. This slowness is seemingly built into the Packers’ DNA, as they remain the second-slowest team even when trailing by 7+ points at 28.85 seconds per play. When the Packers are attempting a comeback, they basically run at the speed of the Chiefs’ standard offense.
You may be tempted to argue that the lack of pace is necessary for their success, and there is some truth to that. The 49ers and Packers are undoubtedly both lumped together because of their similar styles, and pre-snap motion adds time to every play, but that slowdown recently is also the result of more running plays in neutral situations. I have no problem with running to protect a lead, but since that Vikings game in week 8 we’ve seen an alarming trend in the Packers’ play-calling. In weeks 1-7 the Packers passed in neutral situations about 60% of the time (59.3% to be precise, 4th highest in football.) They were effective, with a .262 EPA per play passing (8th) and a .067 EPA per play running (3rd).
From week 8 on, they’ve only been passing 54% of the time in neutral situations, and while their passing efficiency has improved (.440, second only to Kansas City), their rushing has plummeted to minus-0.167 EPA per play, which ranks 25th. You could argue that the gain in passing efficiency offsets the loss in rushing, except they are running more, not just worse. Those extra rushing plays serve to shorten the game, and because they are running more often and succeeding less often, they find themselves in more dangerous 3rd down situations as a result.
None of this is helped by the fact that the Packers’ defense is prone to giving up extended drives to opponents. Pettine’s philosophy of attempting to limit big plays doesn’t mesh well with the LaFleur’s chosen offensive style, as it also serves to shorten games. I would argue that the Packers would be better served by a more aggressive defense that created more pressure and gambled on more turnovers (or simply gambled more on make-or-break 3rd down plays versus playing off and allowing conversions), at the expense of perhaps allowing a few more quick strike touchdowns.
This tendency almost came back to bite them against Detroit on Sunday, where a few long drives, including a 9-minute drive to open the second half, effectively shortened the game and nearly allowed the Detroit special teams to get them back in the game.
While Green Bay does run the Shanahan-style offense, they also have a quarterback who is ever-so-slightly better than Jimmy Garoppolo, and a defense that’s ever-so-slightly worse than your standard 49ers defense. That’s a recipe for disaster if they continue to run this slowly. Announcers frequently praise ball control and lopsided time-of-possession stats, but it is actively harmful to Green Bay to dominate time of possession unless they have an enormous lead in hand already. Matt and Aaron need to pick up the pace as we get closer to the playoffs, or lady luck and Shawn Mennenga are going to bite them.