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Why Lambeau Field is bad for the Packers

The NFL playoff structure rewards efficient play in the regular season. Lambeau rewards old-timey football in January.

Divisional Playoffs - New York Giants v Green Bay Packers

The 2007 Green Bay Packers were a great team, seemingly destined for a Super Bowl showdown with the undefeated New England Patriots. While the Pats were off-the-charts good, destroying the league with a +315 point differential and leading in every major or minor statistical category, Green Bay was the class of the NFC with a +144 PD. They outscored every other NFC team except the Cowboys, who, like the Packers, also went 13-3. The Packers were 5th in offensive DVOA, and Brett Favre had one of his most efficient seasons ever, finishing 3rd in DYAR behind only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and 4th in DVOA (David Garrard had a sneaky-efficient year, landing in the number 2 spot behind Brady.)

The Packers ran a modern, pass-heavy offense, as we’ve come to expect during the Favre-Rodgers era that continues to this day. While the Packers were outstanding when passing, they ranked only 13th running the ball. Ryan Grant actually had a very nice season for them, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, but they were dragged down by 125 combined carried from Brandon Jackson (3.6) and DeShawn Wynn (4.1), plus Grant’s lackluster success rate (47%, 16th among qualifying backs). Defensively, this was a very standard Packer team which finished 16th overall by DVOA and was trending downward as the season ended, with a 19th-ranked weighted DVOA.

We’ve seen some iteration of this Packer team many times before, relying on a stellar quarterback as well as great receivers (in this case, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, and James Jones) to simply blow the doors off of their opponents, play with a lead, and get just enough out of the defense to win. It worked, and it worked well. They would earn the two seed and a first round bye in the playoffs. If the Dallas Cowboys happened to suffer an upset, the road to the Super Bowl would go through Lambeau Field.

That’s exactly what happened as, in the divisional round, the Cowboys would be knocked off by their division rival New York Giants. The Giants managed to secure the 5-seed and a 10-6 record by playing what can only be described as old-school football. They finished last in a competitive NFC East in point differential at +22, and surprisingly allowed the most points in the division. Their offense seemed designed to hide their young quarterback, who led the NFL in interceptions with 20 against just 23 touchdowns in addition to fumbling 13 times. Eli Manning finished the season 27th in DVOA at -16.4%, just behind Baltimore’s Kyle Boller.

But what the Giants could do was run the ball. While their passing attack finished 23rd in DVOA, their rushing DVOA was 4th, trailing only the Eagles (Brian Westbrook would lead all RBs in DYAR), and the Colts and Pats, who ran efficiently primarily because of their scary passing offenses. Brandon Jacobs was 5th in DVOA and 3rd in DYAR, bringing a rare breed of power and speed. Derrick Ward contributed a solid season as the primary backup, but the Giants also featured another lurking monster named Ahmad Bradshaw, who had just 23 regular season carries, but averaged 8.3 yards on them.

The Giants also started to round into form defensively just as the season wound down. They were a pedestrian 14th overall in defensive DVOA, but shot up to 6th when weighting late games more heavily, and that weighting included a high-scoring affair against the Patriots in which the Giants almost ended their perfect season, losing 38-35.

The Packers also beat the Giants in New York in Week 2, winning 35-13 in perfect, 63-degree weather. Brett Favre threw for three scores against just one pick and DeShawn Wynn took in two more scores on the ground. The Packers’ defense picked Eli once and forced a fumble and the Giants’ run game, without Brandon Jacobs, was unable to get going. It was a typical Packer win, dominated by a great passing attack led by a Hall of Famer.

Dumb Old Football and Selection Bias

In the modern game of football, basing your team philosophy around running the ball, in addition to playing stout defense, rarely works. Rushing is simply less effective than passing, and defense varies so much from year to year just based on randomness, strength of schedule, injuries, and a host of other factors that you can’t really count on it as the basis of successful football. If you do run this type of offense, the best you can realistically hope for is a Wild Card and a long journey on the road if you hope to reach the Super Bowl.

The Packers, during the Favre/Rodgers era, have played nerd-friendly efficient football based on passing. When they’ve been backed by average-to-above-average defense, those defenses have excelled at slowing down passing attacks and the team has been great. The Dom Capers philosophy essentially dared you to run and created turnovers (when it worked) through forcing quarterbacks to make as many throws as possible to effectively move the ball. This all makes perfect sense, and was, analytically speaking, close to the ideal way to run a team. The results saw the Packers frequently garnering playoff bye weeks and some degree of home field advantage, while their less sophisticated opponents kept on running.

In short, the Packers frequently net themselves the big bonus of home field in the playoffs by brilliantly passing in a stadium that, for 9/10ths of the year isn’t much different than any other stadium. But come January, that stadium turns into a frozen hell-hole of old-school football nonsense.

This all started with the Michael Vick Falcons, who came into Lambeau in 2003 on a cold, but not terribly cold 31-degree day. Atlanta ran for 192 yards on 44 carries, much of that from Michael Vick scrambling (which would also become a theme of sorts). The Packers, so reliant on their passing game, were only able to grind out 56 yards on the ground, and Brett Favre had a “bad Brett” game, throwing 2 picks against a single touchdown.

Back to the Giants

In the 2007 playoffs, the Giants managed to scrape by in a bunch of one-score games all the way to a title. This involved quite a bit of luck, but part of that luck manifested in hitting the Packers in Lambeau for one of the coldest games in history, measuring -1 degree at kickoff, with blustery winds, and a -23 degree wind chill. While Donald Driver had a nice statistical game with 141 yards and a touchdown, no other Packer receiver was able to do anything and by halftime Brett Favre looked like he just wanted to go home. Eli Manning didn’t play particularly well, completing 21/40 passes for 251 yards and no touchdowns, but he didn’t turn the ball over, while Brett Favre threw two picks including a crucial game-killer in overtime. Jacobs and Bradshaw weren’t efficient, but they were good enough, combining for 130 yards and 2 scores on the ground.

The weather didn’t just serve to make the game a run-fest, it also kept the teams artificially close, which allowed randomness to eliminate any advantage the Packers have have enjoyed. Bad weather games are often slop-fests, and with that additional randomness comes opportunity for the worse team. In this game, no punter was able to punt the ball over 40 yards. That lack of field position swings played a major role in this game, but mostly, the Giants were just better equipped to run offense in frigid weather with Jacobs and Bradshaw, while playing shutdown defense.

It would happen all over again in 2011 on a warmer (31 degrees) but windier day in Lambeau. Eli played well as the Packers were completely unable to stop Hakeem Nicks and Aaron Rodgers threw two picks. Ultimately the Giants were able to sit on a lead and finish off the game on a 24-yard run from Bradshaw, and a 14-yard touchdown from Jacobs.

It happened again in 2014 (in the 2013 playoffs) on a 5-degree day, as Colin Kaepernick rushed for 98 yards, while Aaron Rodgers completed just 17 passes for 177 yards, and Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones were all held in check.

I don’t think the weather played as much of a factor in their loss to the Brady Bucs to conclude the 2020 season, as the weather wasn’t that bad, but I do wonder if the game may have looked different on a faster track in a controlled environment. What I am sure of is that the weather played a huge factor again at the end of this past season against San Francisco, where again, the Packers were unable to pass effectively or, after AJ Dillon was injured, run effectively. The weather kept the game close, and allowed for the blocked punt to be decisive.

Lambeau as Coors Field

I don’t really think this is a problem the Packers can solve. If you build a team for Lambeau in January, it’s unlikely you will ever get to play in Lambeau in January, because your run-first, defense-first team likely won’t be that good in the regular season. Some might argue that they should just build the team to be good at everything, but that’s not realistic, especially once you start paying veteran quarterback prices. Every team has to make choices about how to allocate capital within the constraints of the salary cap, and shoring up your defense will negatively impact your offense. Shoring up your run game will negatively impact something else. Every addition comes at a cost.

This is similar to the problems the Colorado Rockies face in baseball playing at altitude, where crafting their roster to excel in one environment comes with tradeoffs when playing in any other environment. It’s a difficult problem to solve, especially when the NFL selects “less efficient teams” as playoff road teams, who suddenly become much more optimal when it’s 0 degrees. The LaFleur/Shanahan heavy sets may actually be the best way to middle this problem, and perhaps the Packers would have solved it already had Dillon and the entire offensive line not been injured last January. Now, without Davante Adams but with an improving defense, we’ll see if they can be good enough in the regular season to test the theory.