This is Matt LaFleur’s 2nd year as a head coach in the NFL, and while he showed plenty of promise to go with some growing pains last season, he’s off to a rip-roaring start this season. There are many successful ways to be an NFL coach, and it’s often as much about motivating your team properly and dealing with personalities as it is calling the correct plays.
I want all of that of course, but I also want a coach who has taken at least a few of the most widely accepted analytics lessons we know of to heart. In the Green Bay Packers’ 43-34 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, LaFleur passed this test with flying colors in two major respects.
One thing we know for sure is that most coaches don’t go for it enough on 4th down, particularly in the middle of the field and near the goal line. This has started to change recently and it’s a good way to pick out the “advanced” coaches from the rest. Encouraging more risk-taking on 4th down also requires organizational buy-in because coaches have to know they won’t be punished for those attempts that don’t succeed. Going for it on fourth down is an odds play, we shouldn’t judge the merits of going for it based on whether or not the team in question converts.
On Monday, I had a discussion about this with our good friend Owen Riese, who cited the Packers’ decision to go for it on 4th and 1 from the Minnesota 1-yard line as a mistake. But the reason it wasn’t a mistake has as much to do with what happens when you don’t succeed.
That sequence is a perfect example of this. While they could have had an easy 3 points by kicking the field goal, they instead buried Minnesota in the shadow of their own goal line. A safety is one of several potential outcomes that favor Green Bay in that situation, and you would obviously rather have 2 points plus the ball in good field position than a measly field goal. But even if the Packers just force a mundane 3-and-out, it’s still a positive outcome. The Packers would still wind up with excellent field position after a punt.
Far from being a failure, the Packer proved why going for it on 4th and goal from the 1 should be the default option over kicking a field goal. If you score, you’ve added 4 points that you otherwise wouldn’t have had, but even if you fail, you’re still likely to outscore those 3 points over the course of the next few drives just on the value of the field position shift. The Packers netted a safety and a field goal, and it easily could have worked out even better than that.
The Packers had a second 4th-down conversion from the Minnesota 39 with 2:56 left in the first half. This is the perfect spot to go for it as it’s too long for a field goal, and punting is likely to only net you a handful of yards. This was deemed the third-best 4th-down coaching decision of the week in the NFL by EdjSports’ win probability calculations, which take into account only the decision rather than the result of the play.
But the decision itself wasn’t the only smart call by LaFleur. I can’t remember the last time the Packers ran a quarterback sneak, but it’s nice to see its return as it is one of the most effective short yardage plays in football, converting on almost 90% of attempts. Rodgers was stuffed originally, but he was able to roll to an exposed part of the line and fall forward for the first down. The Packers would capitalize later in the drive as Rodgers hit Davante Adams for a 24-yard touchdown.
LaFLeur’s aggressiveness paid off big on Sunday, and hopefully he keeps it up as the season progresses. The math on this is rock solid, and all it takes is a team having a solid understanding of odds and some balls.
LaFleur also continued to use play-action to great effect, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling should continue to be the primary beneficiary. By my count the Packers ran play-action 7 times, with a handful of additional plays that I would put in the RPO family. Not all of these plays succeeded for Green Bay, but the play design on almost all of them worked. MVS’s first big drop on an absolute dime from Rodgers was open due to play-action, and Rodgers overshot Davante Adams for an easy score later in the game. The Packers had plenty of big gains in conventional passing formations as well, but teams that use play-action frequently tend to be the most efficient passing teams in football, and if the Packers maintain this usage rate going forward, they will be among the most play-action heavy teams in football.
Contrast that with the Vikings under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Last season Kevin Stefanski called a play-action pass on 30% of passing plays, among the highest rates in the NFL. It’s a good thing he did because play-action turns Kirk Cousins from an average passer into a great one. Kubiak, on the other hand, did this yesterday:
Kirk Cousins with play-action in Week 1: 1 for 1 for 37 yards and a touchdown.— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) September 15, 2020
Kirk Cousins without play-action in Week 1: 18 of 24 for 228 yards, one touchdowns, and one interception.
Kirk Cousins with play-action in 2019: A league-leading 13 TD passes.
Yo, Gary Kubiak... https://t.co/9Q1y9FVNBY
It’s worth noting that there was one other play-action attempt by Minnesota, on the safety of Cousins by Jaire Alexander, but it’s also worth noting that basically every Minnesota wide receiver was wide open on that play and it’s no exaggeration to say that Alexander may have saved a 97-yard touchdown. If Kubiak continues to shy away from play-action, the Vikings will likely take a major step back on offense.