Previewing the Packers offense in 2014
This story appears in the September 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Trying to decipher the One True Difference between a win and loss in the NFL can be as easy or difficult as you want it to be. Let’s think of some examples. Say one team has two more turnovers than the other, and they lost? Welp, that’s what probably did it, right there. Or maybe one team has 250 more yards of total offense than the other, and won? Hey, come on, how could they not? And if one team allows only six points? Unless this is the fourth-string Big Ten game at 11 in the morning, some grisly Iowa-Minnesota glacier melt, well that’ll usually mean victory too!
And sometimes it is as easy as that. As seeing the glaring category on the stat sheet, remembering how that number had an impact on the field, and going into next week content with some understanding of what happened.
Of course, a football game is more like the gnarled orange extension cord in your garage. A seemingly endlessly interconnected event tied by cause and effect, actions, reactions, by an offense and their defense and the opposition, by God-ordered flukes and chance, by decisions made by those playing and others coaching. It is true: there can be one difference reigning above others that contributes more to a game’s result. It could tell the biggest part of the story. It could explain the conclusion well enough. But one thing cannot totally explain a whole game. A game has knots you don’t see until you un-twist those other ones on top, which are right underneath the first snarl, and so on and so forth.
I’m bringing this up because in previewing the Green Bay Packers offense for 2014, I thought about focusing on the offensive line, or the wide receivers, maybe the idea of what could be their most balanced approach to scoring points we’ve seen yet in the Mike McCarthy/Aaron Rodgers era.
Those are all important factors, of course. But I was trying to think about what I think about during and after a game. That’s how I landed on drives – the paths to points, or field position, or not much of anything – that the Packers embark on during a game. I thought about drives like the final one in Chicago, Week 17. Or the crazy difference between them in the first and second halves in Dallas. I thought about drives because I remember feeling that sometimes, in certain games, Green Bay’s offense would burn through a few too quickly, go three-and-out a couple of times before getting warmed up to game temperature.
After a training camp practice in August, Jordy Nelson alluded to this.
“I think I’ve said for years now that we get better as the more plays we get,” he says. “We need that first down and we get rolling a little bit, and that’s when our offense gets to its best.”
It feels pretty simplistic to talk about, as this is true for any offense, but it does feel especially important at times in this case. The first first down the Packers get can be the safety seal separating a productive trek down the field from three plays you’ll never think about ever again.
So, using some tailor-made statistics from very smart people, I wanted to dive into drives, and try to figure out how productive the Packers actually were as a whole. I wanted to keep my research as current as possible. Since personnel changes so much in Green Bay, I looked at 2013 but because of it being a very disjointed season offensively, I also went back to 2012 for the sake of looking at a full season with Rodgers under center. I wanted to see what Green Bay’s drives accomplished compared to what I thought, while considering all the factors potentially impacting the numbers.
The Packers had 186 drives in 2013, ranking 23rd in the league. (Eerily, they also had 186 in 2012, ranking 18th then.) Right away it’s important to remember this doesn’t have to be viewed strictly as a good or bad thing. For one, more drives mean your defense might be allowing more points. More drives can also mean maybe you’re playing and scoring faster than most, thus gaining more chances through the course of a game.
Despite the lower number of drives, the Packers came away with points on 40.9 percent of their possessions in ‘13, third-best in the league. A stat that considering the quarterback changes is rather surprising.
The Broncos and Patriots, for example, each had just over 200 drives apiece. Each scored a lot, clearly, and also played with a tempo often conducive to high-scoring affairs. Denver and New England came away with points on 47.5 and 40.8 percent of their possessions in ‘13, respectively, good for first and fourth in the NFL. They had a lot of chances and converted many of them.
To go one step further, the Buffalo Bills had the most drives, 214, in the NFL last season. Your Super Bowl champion Seahawks tied for the fifth-least with 182. Seattle made the most of their chances too, scoring right around the same percentage of time as the Packers. The more drives you have the better, but in the end it’s what you do with them that counts.
As weird as it might be to remember Green Bay as a consistently-scoring offensive unit, the numbers support that last season, with or without Rodgers, the Packers were getting points. Their average of around 2.2 points per drive was among the league’s top 10. It was their average points allowed per drive being about a tenth higher than that which was the problem.
When Rodgers couldn’t go, the defense didn’t exactly raise their level of play. Going into reserve mode at quarterback, the offense wasn’t built for shootouts then – though a wild tie against Minnesota and comeback win in Dallas were certainly season-savers – and going about even on points per drive and points allowed per drive doesn’t function as a trustworthy formula.
But even when they weren’t ending in points, Packers drives were still some of the more effective in the league, based on stats by Jim Armstrong at Football Outsiders. Armstrong’s Drive Success Rate (DSR) looks at the percentage of series that turn into a first down or touchdown for a team.
In 2013 the Packers posted a DSR of 71.6 percent, seventh in the league. This helps a bit in quelling the notion I had that the Packers wasted too many possessions in 2013. (But, as we’ll get to later, doesn’t always paint the memorable pictures, either.) Again, it was often the defense, which allowed a virtually identical Drive Success Rate to opponents (71.7 percent; 27th) that not surprisingly had Green Bay hovering right around .500.
On average Green Bay’s offense gained just under 36 yards per drive, the NFL’s fourth-highest average. Couple that with an average starting field position on the 28-yard line, and it’d seem the Packers at least generally moved the ball somewhere out of harm’s way. In theory this should have aided the defense. But since it allowed roughly 34 yards per opponent drive (28th in the league), any advantage was again balanced out. Green Bay’s defense allowed teams to score on 38.9 percent of drives, per Football Outsiders, fifth-worst in the league. Remember that the Packers scored on just under 41 percent of theirs. Based on these numbers, 8-7-1 feels about right.
For comparison’s sake, the 2012 NFL regular season had a near-identical league-wide scoring average to last year, with teams scoring on just under 34 percent of their drives. Green Bay scored on 37.6 percent of their drives that year, according to Pro Football Reference, good for ninth in the league. They scored roughly the same amount of points per drive, and had a top 10 Drive Success Rate of 72.2 percent.
On the other side, Green Bay’s 2012 defense was better in every major drive category, including a 4.2 percent dip in opponent DSR. Unfortunately for them, one night in San Francisco where everything went completely off the rails changed that team’s perception, especially defensively, forever.
The interesting point, at least from the offense’s perspective, is that drive success didn’t take too much of a dive, if any, from ‘12 to ‘13. In fact it was in some cases better. Would you ever have bet on something like that? I don’t think I would have even considered it. Everything just felt more difficult last season. Wasn’t everything? How could it not have been? The fact that drives stayed relatively productive amidst all the on-the-fly changes is quite a testament to Mike McCarthy’s offensive system, isn’t it? It’s also a good reminder that the difference between perception and reality stays strange.
As we all know, though, context matters a whole lot. When are teams being productive on drives? In what situations? The three-and-outs I remember were still bothering me. So, just to get a glimpse, I looked at an extremely small – yet arguably 2013’s most critical – sample size: Week 17 in Chicago and the Wild Card game against the 49ers. I did this because Aaron Rodgers was back, Randall Cobb was back, Eddie Lacy was dinged up but still more than effective, and it was as close the defense was going to get to being healthy.
Against the Bears in that NFC North winner-take-all classic, the Packers had one three-and-out and one drive that ended in a punt after four plays. Other than two interceptions thrown in Chicago territory and an end-of-half kneel down, Green Bay not only was productive, but scored on every possession. And they likely would’ve came away with at least two field goal attempts without the interceptions. Considering the stakes or not, that’s pretty great, and not easily doable on the road. The Packers were 9-of-18 on third down and, of course, converted all three of those terrifying fourth downs.
It’s funny, because it’s probably the least-remembered of the fourth downs, but if John Kuhn wouldn’t have barely pounded ahead on fourth down from the Packers’ own 22, the game-winning drive would’ve ended essentially as a three-and-out.
Three-and-out drives were tracked for 2013 by SportingCharts.com. The Packers came in ninth-best in the league last year, going three-and-out on only 20.4 percent of their 186 drives.
(The Chargers led the league, only going three-and-out on 13.8 percent of 167 drives. The truly ridiculous number, however, comes from second-best Denver, which went three-and-out on 15.4 percent of their 202 total drives.)
I don’t know why I expected to see a larger percentage next to the Packers, but I did, which only speaks to the mind’s eye not always being the most effective tool to judge these things on. Or maybe it’s just mine.
But as Jordy Nelson says, that first first down is just so critical for the Packers in getting tempo established. For this offense it might not be the number of three-and-outs we should be watching, but when they happen. For this I don’t have numbers, but: If you ever remember Green Bay appearing awkward and disjointed offensively, if you ever think to yourself or out loud, how can this unit with all these weapons look so weirdly out-of-sync, I’d bet many of those times come during the first series of a drive.
The next week against San Francisco, Green Bay wasn’t as effective in avoiding the potholes. They went three-and-out on the first three possessions of the game, unable to get the engine running. Meanwhile, the defense held the 49ers to six points and forced a turnover in that span, but had been on the field for 29 plays in the first quarter. An already-rickety Packers defense was responsible for many of their own failures last year, but here in the playoffs they were holding on early while the offense came out with a frozen thud. Those early plays on a frigid night mattered then and later on in the game.
And obviously, the postseason was simply a bad time for the offense to veer away from what their drive averages would suggest they’d do. The playoffs are tiny sample sizes and also the most crucial. Add in the fact that the 49ers defense is a beast – Chicago’s, on other hand, was not – and drives are more difficult to turn successful against San Francisco in the conditions they were in. But the Packers, again, just timed a relative off-day poorly. That’s really it.
The playoffs are not always most suited for following the trends of a regular season. If those trends are good you can hope to replicate them, the bad you can hope to overcome. But either way you’re hoping to live through the whims and breaks of one game to get to one more. The numbers help now, in figuring out what happened then. In the moment, though, in that tight of a game, it’s about something closer to survive-and-advance.
Anyway in the third quarter the defense forced two more punts, one of them a three-and-out. Green Bay’s offense sputtered with another three-and-out, then a five-play drive ending in a punt, before putting together their second long touchdown drive. In the end the box score is sickeningly close. San Francisco converted on 6-of-12 of their third downs; Green Bay 3-of-11, with four three-and-outs.
That’s a big difference. It’s not the only one, but it does magnify how much drives matter, the size and outcome and sustainability of each of them. To put it in a way that you could cross-stitch and hang on a wall: A scoring drive is better than a sustained drive is better than no drive at all. Drives are everything because they’re progress. You move forward or you don’t. The other side doesn’t always wait up.
Okay, so we’ve established that the postseason is a feral animal in the wild, sure, great. But what can be taken from Green Bay’s drive statistics from the last two seasons going forward? It is not hard to imagine their drive numbers improving as the offense does this season, especially if they can maintain some stability. The Packers were more effective and productive than I’d have ever guessed in ‘13, but still: Rodgers is back now, there should be receiving options aplenty, the running game looks bruising already, and the offensive line is gelling into a cohesive unit.
And as we’ve heard in the offseason and saw emphasized in training camp, the Packers are focused on upping their offensive tempo. They want to have more plays, in turn more possessions, per game. This opens the door for more three-and-outs, on one hand, but also the chance to bump their time of possession (averaged at 30:28 minutes last year, 12th in the league) or rack up first downs. In 2013 they averaged 21.7 first downs per game, seventh-best in the NFL. That average was only two tenths off that of the fast-paced Philadelphia Eagles.
If the Packers find their offensive rhythm quickly in a game – which once more could be one of the more important triggers for the whole team – while operating with a faster tempo in place, I could see them potentially having – and this is an advanced metric term so bear with me – a boatload of possessions in 2014. Based on their productivity in past seasons this is a scary thought. Not for me, mind you, but I’d imagine so for other defensive coordinators and the like.
The last major factor for the offense is one I mentioned before. The offensive line, should they manage to stay relatively healthy after the sad injury to Don Barclay, could start as fortified and strong as they have for awhile here. A quicker tempo is of course about Rodgers’ ability to control the offense on the fly, but for it to work the offensive line needs to be just as prepared to hustle up, read defenses, and set up protections. The Packers’ cohesion up front relative to other recent examples of the group should, with that being the operative word, allow them to start as fast as they’d like.
Due to the odd similarities of 2012 and ‘13 – while also being such comparatively unique seasons with a healthy Rodgers throughout, then without; without then with Lacy, who changes everything – and adding in the tempo changes we think are coming behind a prepared offensive line, Green Bay looks to be starting a season where moving the ball is as prominent as ever, the difference being they want more chances. It’s not about how fast they’re scoring, necessarily. It’s about whether or not they’re the ones in control.
In a game that depends so much on things happening outside of anyone’s control, then dealing with them, that’s an inherently radical way of thinking. I don’t mean to suggest that every other team is not doing this, but on a basic level it goes against the nature of the beast itself, doesn’t it?
The understanding and appreciation for what a drive, any drive, can mean to a game makes the most simple, practical sense for the Packers. With it comes the desire to make sure every opportunity leaves an impact, to maximize all of them. To force control as best as possible. Predicting the big differences in any game is untying a knot before it’s been twisted. Amidst