Prior to this season, my expectations for Green Bay were mildly optimistic. I thought they would be around 10-ish wins, win the NFC North, and probably lose in the Divisional Round to a better team on the road. A solid, yet unspectacular season. I expected the team to basically be about what they were last year, face a tougher schedule, get a little less fortunate, and end up being a solid side. Then week one happened. Then week two happened. Then week three happened.
We’re still less than a quarter of the way through the regular season, so all of this has the “small sample size” hedge, as well as the “who have you played” hedge, but I don’t think we need to hedge. If this is close to the “real” 2020 Green Bay Packers, the 2020 Green Bay Packers are tier-one Super Bowl contenders.
Ben Baldwin and Packers Twitter have a fraught relationship, but his site rbsdm.com has some phenomenal information. His tiered graphs are some of my favorite things to get an idea for how teams across the league look because it adds extra value to offensive performance over defensive performance (because offense is more stable and predictive going forward than defense). As you can see here, Green Bay is quite good:
September 28, 2020
The thing is, though, Green Bay is actually BETTER than this graph shows. The Packers have played a brand of prevent defense that has leaked points, but hasn’t actually impacted their ability to win the game. So if we remove garbage time (one team has less than 5% chance of winning the game) and focus on the important times in the game, how does Green Bay stack up?
September 28, 2020
They’re fully entrenched within tier one. When you adjust for garbage-time, the Packers defense moves up from 20th in EPA per play to 10th. And the offense — oh, the offense. The Packers offense is absolutely rolling. The Packers are #1 in the NFL in EPA per play on offense, at a staggering .306. They lead the league in passing EPA per play at .418 and are #3 in rushing EPA per play at .149.
The Packers offense isn’t just good, it’s elite. It’s actually not even elite; it has been the best offense in the NFL. Not only has it been the best offense in the NFL, but it didn’t have its best wide receiver for 1.5 games. How have they maintained this production without the All-Pro, Davante Adams? Aaron Rodgers. The Solution is back to being the solution again.
The level of joy I have typing these sentences shows little to no bounds. Aaron Rodgers ranks #2 in the NFL in QBR. Rodgers is #2 in adjusted-EPA per play. He is #1 in unadjusted-EPA per play. He is 6th in Next Gen Stats’ CPOE. Rodgers ranks 3rd in passing DVOA and 4th in rushing DVOA at quarterback.
This isn’t just Rodgers feasting on teams in small samples either. Much talk was about how Seattle needed to let Russell Wilson cook. Green Bay is letting Aaron Rodgers cook.
It's...it's beautiful pic.twitter.com/Px5QckbIgN— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 28, 2020
The Packers are not the “ground and pound” team that they were jokingly classified as all off-season. They are letting their MVP-candidate QB drive their offense and complementing that with an elite running attack.
The defense still presents some concerns, particularly with Mike Pettine’s inability to cater his gameplan to specialized opponents. We saw this in the NFC Championship Game when San Francisco did what was always painfully obvious to everyone but the Packers’ defensive coordinator, and we did see it on Sunday night against New Orleans as well. Drew Brees can’t throw the ball down the field anymore, but the Packers let him dink and dunk and YAC his way down the field for much of the night. Hidden within that though is that once you take out garbage time, Green Bay’s pass defense actually ranks 6th best in EPA per play in the NFL at -.050 (remember, negatives are good for the defense). The run defense is still a problem, but not an unmitigated disaster. The run defense ranks 25th in EPA per play at .071. A problem, but one that shouldn’t sink the ship against most teams.
Mike Pettine’s inability to gameplan for obvious opponents, such as San Francisco’s running attack, and Drew Brees’ inability to push the ball downfield, is a real problem for good opponents, but there may be enough talent on the defense to make up for that.
Even with the defense being a little shaky, it’s actually been pretty good. And with an offense that is hitting on all cylinders, we don’t need to hedge or protect ourselves anymore. Aaron Rodgers is tier one. Green Bay is tier one. Green Bay is a true Super Bowl contender so long as their Hall of Famer plays like a Hall of Famer.