As this article deals heavily with football personnel groupings, here is a brief explainer on what 11, 12, 21, etc. actually mean.
There are 5 eligible receivers on every play. The first digit is the number of running backs on the field. The second digit is the number of tight ends on the field. There is a third, unspoken number composed of the number of wide receivers on the field, which is 5 - (a+b) where 5 is the total number of eligible receivers, a = number of RBs, and B = number of TEs. 11 personnel includes 3 WRs, 12 (one RB/two TEs) and 21 (two RBs/one TE) personnel groups include only 2 wideouts.
Remember when Sean McVay was all the rage and everyone he ever had coffee with got a head coaching job, and then his team went 9-7 and only ranked 11th in points scored? McVay is probably most famous for running almost exclusively out of “11” personnel.
In the 2017 season, the Los Angeles Rams used 11 personnel on over 92% of their plays. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense as the 3-WR set is ideal for passing and the light boxes it creates also help to create efficient rushing plays. The Rams hummed along for quite a bit on this formula and the league followed. Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was almost a proto-McVay in his love for 11, and soon, everyone was doing it.
11 personnel also frequently ranks as the “most efficient” personnel grouping. In 2019, teams averaged a +6% DVOA out of 11 personnel, which teams ran on 64% of total offensive plays. The second-most-efficient personnel group was 21 at 4.3% DVOA (if we ignore the small sample size success in 22 personnel, which did slightly outdo 11 with a 6.3% DVOA).
Then something interesting happened. You may have noticed that Sean McVay is no longer all the rage, having been supplanted by Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers were using 11 on fewer than half of their plays way back in 2017 and continue to do so. Slowly but surely, bigger formations have caught on. In 2019, five teams used 11 on fewer than half of their plays, and all five were very good offenses (Vikings, Ravens, Eagles, Cardinals, and 49ers). But if 11 personnel is the most efficient grouping, why have teams succeeded by going away from it, why is there a league-wide trend against it, and what does this mean for the Matt LaFleur and the Packers?
Matt Goes Heavy
Matt LaFleur was frequently mentioned in the same vein as McVay when he was hired, but as we frequently point out on this site, and as the most recent Packer draft suggests, he has much more in common with Kyle Shanahan. In the debut of the LaFleur offense is 2019, the Packers saw a 15% drop in 11 personnel usage, the 5th largest drop in the league. Given the additions of Josiah Deguara and AJ Dillon in the draft as well as the projected development of Jace Sternberger, you can expect the team’s use of 11 personnel to plummet again in 2020.
You may be thinking that all of this big personnel is a waste of Aaron Rodgers. After all, it’s not like the Packers have Lamar Jackson back there, and surely it makes sense to have actual wide receivers on the field to throw to. You might think that since the Packers have a passer, and 11 personnel is made for passing, and it makes no sense to have Aaron Rodgers handing the ball off and throwing to lumbering tight ends out of power formations. You might think it’s counterproductive to use the most efficient grouping in the league less. You would be wrong.
Aaron and Efficiency
Aaron Rodgers needs an efficiency boost badly. His lack of efficiency has been an issue for a few years now, and he most recently finished 2019 ranked 13th in DVOA and 20th in QBR. We don’t like QBR around here, but it’s still worth pointing out that EPA-based stats are really not fans of #12. When you take volume into account, Rodgers was still reasonably productive and ranked 8th in DYAR, but this is not what you want out of a player who was once the best in football.
And this is where heavy personnel can drastically change things. This piece relies heavily on Bryan Knowles’ work on personnel grouping at Football Outsiders. I had a theory that the primary reason 11 personnel was more efficient overall was simply that teams passed more out of 11 personnel, and passing is more efficient than running. I asked Bryan if there was any merit to this theory on twitter, and he was kind enough to answer:
Good question, and a little complicated to answer -- it'll take a couple tweets. Short answer is "I think so, yes"— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) July 21, 2020
By DVOA, 11 personnel is actually the least efficient of the big three formations at passing:
11: 11.1% DVOA
12: 18.3% DVOA
21: 13.3% DVOA
Indeed, as Bryan says, of the three major personnel groups, 11 is actually the least efficient for passing. There are a lot of reasons for this. The league has adjusted defensively to 11 as the default, and defenses have gotten smaller as a result. Football is largely about deception, and because passing out of 12 and 21 is less frequent, it is more surprising (and indeed, Bryan speculates that upping the volume of passing in heavy formations would hit diminishing returns at some point). Perhaps most importantly, play action passing is among the most efficient things you can do on a football field, and teams run play action far more frequently in heavy formations.
In terms of raw numbers, there's more play action out of 11, of course, but yeah -- teams use play action about 43% of the time in 12/21, and about 17% of the time in 11.— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) July 21, 2020
In 2019 play action provided the biggest DVOA gains for 12, then 11, then 21, but small sample size caveats.
Assuming Rodgers is on board, this should be cause for optimism. Rodgers doesn’t like to make tight window throws, and using a more deception-based attack out of heavy formations should lead to more frequent and easier big plays. The Packers will also likely ramp up their use of play-action, which grew from a significant weakness in 2018 into a strength in 2019.
The cost comes in coaches choosing to run the ball more. Running is still less efficient than passing, and too much running will quickly undo any gains. However, given Rodgers’ specific issues, adding a few more carries to the mix may well be worth it.
The Packers will obviously still use 11 as well, but greater diversity of personnel groupings can only benefit the team. The less predictable you are in the NFL, the better you will be. If you’re looking for a bounce back year from Rodgers, this is exactly why you might get it.