One thing that drives a certain segment of Green Bay Packers fandom insane (this writer included) is how Aaron Rodgers seemingly takes the play clock down to the bitter end every single time. There is a school of thought that this is fine — that using all of the clock allows the team as much time as needed to complete pre-snap motion, and that it lets Rodgers get a proper read on the defense.
Critics, on the other had, will point to four key factors:
- No one else does this, including those who run pre-snap motion.
- It causes a lot of wasted timeouts/delay-of-game penalties.
- It makes it easier for the defense to know exactly when the ball is going to be snapped, and subsequently, to sack Rodgers.
- It limits the total possessions/plays in a game, and an elite offense should be running more plays to increase sample size, not fewer.
Issue number three popped up in the NFC Championship Game in the 4th quarter, just after Jaire Alexander picked off Tom Brady for the second time. On first and ten, Rodgers waited until the very last possible fraction of a second to snap the ball. Shaq Barrett fired off the line, timing the snap perfectly, blowing by Rick Wagner, and sacking Rodgers.
Two incompletions later, the Packers’ last best chance to take the lead was gone.
Now, it may seem like this happens a lot, but in reality, do we have any numbers to back it up? Thanks to NFL statistician Michael Lopez, we do now:
Another play clock chart, inspired by @owenlhjphillips— Michael Lopez (@StatsbyLopez) February 9, 2021
- The Packers ran about 50% of plays in last 5 seconds of the play clock
- The Cardinals ran 28% of their plays with 16 seconds or more on the play clock
- Rams somehow rank in top 4 in both snapping early and late pic.twitter.com/6QtKB4BfRV
Half of the Packers’ snaps in 2020 (not including the fourth quarter) occurred in the final 5 second of the play clock. That is incredible, and the only other team that was even close is the Eagles. Just as strikingly, the Packers almost never snap the ball with 16+ seconds remaining. When they are attempting comebacks, this tendency is just as glaring.
You may be thinking that although Shaq Barrett got to Rodgers here, that it’s probably pretty rare for defensive players to actually pull this off. While it’s true we tend not to see extreme examples like this, it’s still helpful for pass-rushers to know that the snap will be coming in a smaller window. Football is a game built on deception, and the less an opponent has to guess, the more successful they will be. You don’t have to take my word for it though, because again, Mr. Lopez has helpfully provided us with the numbers:
A loyal follower asked if play clock was related to sack rate. One could make that argument pic.twitter.com/FYVAxJUamO— Michael Lopez (@StatsbyLopez) February 9, 2021
Rodgers’ sack rate was actually down quite a bit this year, which is good, but that is mostly a function of the quantity of “safe throws” built into the offense. Quick shots to Davante Adams or designed short throws to Robert Tonyan run no risk of a sack because the ball is out immediately. The play-clock tendency is still a big problem on more conventional passing plays, when they are behind and trying to catch up, and especially when David Bakhtiari isn’t around to clean up messes.
It’s a small issue, but the Packers should take steps to increase their snap-timing diversity. It would help keep defenses honest, it would probably help Rodgers to draw more people offsides, and above all, it’s a fairly simple fix. It’s also not great that they really don’t seem to be able to run up-tempo at all, even in those rare instances when they need to come from behind. I don’t expect the Packers to turn into a high-tempo team overnight, but when you’re this much of an outlier, you probably have room to improve.