The 2021 Green Bay Packers are good, but not great. Before you go off and yell at me on twitter for this statement, please note that the 2021 Packers currently rank 10th in DVOA, and they’re kind of lucky by point differential.
The Packers are also on the second tier of Ben Baldwin’s “Team Tiers” by offensive and defensive EPA:
In short, even though they currently hold the NFC’s #1 seed and, due in part to Kirk “Unvaccinated” Cousins, will likely finish with it, there isn’t a great argument that they’re the best team in the NFC. Not even close, really. Analytics nerds have spent the last two weeks pointing this out, and as a result we have Packer fans yelling at analytics people yet again.
Looking forward to Packers fans acting like total jerks when their team beats Kellen Mond by two points.— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) December 31, 2021
This writer still can’t believe the Vikings are starting Mannion over Mond, but that’s a different argument.
Anyway, here’s the thing. Not being elite in DVOA or EPA/play can be a problem once the playoffs roll around because, not surprisingly, the best teams tend to make it to and win the Super Bowl. Just last season, the Bucs won it all as the #2 team by DVOA. The Saints were the #1 team, but Drew Brees’ arm degradation throughout the year destroyed their chances come playoff time. The Packers were actually 3rd in DVOA last season on the strength of their #1 offense, but their 17th ranked defense doomed them.
The Packers, as previously stated, are not 3rd this season; they’re 10th, and 10th is frankly a tough spot to be in. In 2020, the 10th ranked team was the Colts, who lost in their first playoff game to the Bills (who ranked 4th in DVOA). In 2019 it was the Titans, who did get hot and knocked off the #1 Ravens before running into the Chiefs, who ranked 4th in DVOA and would win the Super Bowl over the #5 49ers.
Admittedly, rankings do us a bit of a disservice here because there are some clear tiers in DVOA. The Chiefs were 4th, but they had a DVOA of 30.1%. The Titans down at 10th had a DVOA of just 7.6%, being just behind the 2019 Packers at 7.7%. That the Titans beat the Ravens was an example of just how unpredictable football can be, and the Titans deserve credit for pulling it off. The problem for a double-digit ranked DVOA team though, is that you have to score that upset several times in a row in order to win the Super Bowl, and it’s very difficult to do so.
Looking back a bit, you may be thinking about the 2010 Packers and how they barely squeaked into the playoffs and still won it all. Well, the 2010 Packers were 3rd in DVOA, with the 7th ranked offense, and 2nd overall defense. They would eventually face and defeat the #2 DVOA Steelers in the Super Bowl. Going back a bit further, the 1996 Packers were far and away the best team in football with a 43% DVOA. They would defeat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, who ranked 10th with an 8.8% DVOA. The bottom line is that winning the Super Bowl from outside of the top 5 in DVOA is REALLY difficult. In the DVOA era, 12 of 36 Super Bowl winners ranked first in DVOA, and 27 of 36 ranked in the top 5. Some of this is obviously just selection bias as better teams are more likely to make the playoffs in the first place, but, well, take a look at this chart of how many teams of various DVOA ranks has won the Super Bowl.
Poking Holes In DVOA
One mistake fans often make is the assume that their team is special, and that past trends don’t apply to them — that if the media really understood the team, they would know that injuries, and luck, and blah blah blah. Look, the Packers are special in their history, public ownership, and passionate nationwide fanbase, but they are unfortunately not immune from numbers. The Packers are 10th in DVOA at 12%. That is likely a pretty good estimate of their rank as it always has been in the past. The current best team by DVOA is the Cowboys at 30%, followed by the Bucs at 29.5%. In the NFC the Packers also find themselves behind the Rams, Cardinals, and 49ers.
And now you’re probably wondering how Green Bay can be behind several teams they’ve beaten. That’s a good question, and to answer it let’s look back at the game against the Cardinals in week 8. To refresh your memory, the Packers won this game 24-21 on what was essentially a walk-off interception by Rasul Douglas when AJ Green and Kyler Murray had a miscommunication on a pass at the goal line. Arizona had the ball on 2nd and goal at the Packer 5 with 15 seconds left, and before the snap, were favorites to win the game given that even a field goal would have sent things to overtime.
Close games are often statistical coin flips, and while the Packers won, it’s hard to make the case that they played significantly better than Arizona. Football Outsiders had the Cardinals with a 27.1% DVOA for the game, which is very good. Most of that was concentrated in their defense (-26.4%) and Special Teams (4.4%). They had a below average offensive performance. The Packers, on the other hand, only had a -0.1% DVOA, with only their defense putting up a good performance at -8.5%. Breaking it down even further is even more interesting because of opponent adjustments. In a vacuum, the Packers and Cardinals didn’t play that much differently from each other, but the Cardinal defense gets a huge boost from slowing down the highly ranked Packer offense. The Packer defense, which played quite well, doesn’t get the same boost because the Cardinal’s offense is only 16th by DVOA.
From a high level, DVOA sees the Packers amazing offense struggling, and while it sees their defense playing well, given the opponent, it isn’t that impressed. (It also sees the special teams as awful, but we all see that.) And that is sort of a microcosm for the season for Green Bay. They’ve played a lot of good teams close, often winning despite not really outplaying their opponent. They’ve played a lot of bad-to-mediocre teams closer than they should, like their 45-30 win over a Bears team that hasn’t approached 30 points in any other game this season, or their recent narrow win over the Browns.
But that’s not the end of the story. There are some legitimate caveats that the Packers can point to that perhaps that their current DVOA isn’t the end-all be-all.
First, DVOA measures how you have played to this point in the season on a per play basis, and to the extent it predicts the future, the assumption it makes is that circumstances won’t change that much. This is not always the case. The most obvious example would something like the 2013 season where Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone. The Packers were 23rd in DVOA that season, and barely made the playoffs at 8-7-1, but getting Rodgers back obviously made them a much more formidable team, not reflective of their DVOA. This season, the Packers have a trio of impact players (and several other important players on the offensive line) who could theoretically return from injury before the playoffs. While David Bakhtiari and Za’Darius Smith remain question marks, it now looks likely that Jaire Alexander will return to action soon, perhaps for the week 18 matchup with Detroit. The Packers rank 14th in pass defense DVOA, and the addition of their best corner into the mix with Rasul Douglas and Eric Stokes should make the secondary much more formidable. Every team deals with injuries, but getting people back at the correct time can provide a real boost.
Second, the Packers are dragged down by their special teams, and while we shouldn’t ignore poor special teams, it’s also an extremely volatile part of the game that doesn’t always show up. Special teams opportunities don’t even necessarily arise in every game, and a conservative plan can limit mistakes to a certain extent. More starters in the mix could also shore this up once the post-season begins. And on top of all of that, special teams issues are the most likely to just disappear into noise randomly. Special teams can help a team immensely, as they did for the 1996 Super Bowl Packers, or kill a team, as they did in the 2014 NFC Championship game, but usually they don’t matter that much.
There is also some “bad information” in the Packers’ DVOA in the form of Jordan Love’s start against Kansas City. The Packers did put up a positive 13.6% DVOA overall for this game, but most of that was concentrated in the defense (-36%), while the offense was unusually below average at -2.8%. Special teams was, of course, atrocious at -19.6%. Anyway, a good offensive performance from Rodgers instead of an awful performance from Love would provide a significant DVOA boost.
Finally, Football Outsiders also understands that more recent games often provide better context than those that took place earlier in the season, and have “Weighted DVOA” to account for it. There, the Packers rank 8th, and should ascend further as the season winds down.
There are caveats to the caveats of course. Yes, the Packers had their “Love” game, but there is also the Sean Mannion instead of Kirk Cousins Vikings game to account for. These things do tend to balance out to some extent.
In the end, the Packers find themselves in need of improvement before the season ends. They’ve shown flashes of it, and most importantly they could get one or more additional important pieces back.
One more note on Green Bay. Despite their record, the Packers are very clearly not the best team in the NFL this regular season.— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) December 26, 2021
But with the injured guys they may get back, they may be the best team going into the playoffs.
They may also be helped by significant injuries to teams ranked above them, in particular Tampa, who were ravaged by injuries to Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Leonard Fournette over the last two weeks. But if Green Bay limps in as a double digit DVOA team, their season is likely to end earlier than most people think.