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Loss Reveals the Packers are True Contenders Again

Nov. 1, 2016
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When the Packers struggle for extended periods the big question is always whether the slump is just a slump, or the new normal. We have all gotten so accustomed to an offense that simply lacked explosion or creativity that “the new normal” seemed quite likely, but faced with a few important injuries, and a few lackluster opposing defenses, the Packer brain trust decided to (or more accurately, was forced to) get creative, and the offense responded beautifully. Two weeks ago  it was Ty Montgomery catching passes out of the backfield, but an illness sidelined Montgomery this week, and Randall Cobb missed the game with a hamstring injury. The rest of the bench kept everything rolling in their absence, producing an excellent offensive performance yet again. Keeping up with the Falcons in Atlanta is a tall task, even for fully healthy offenses, and while the Packers lost the game, I now feel better about them as a team than at any point this season. Why? 

1. The offense can function, and function well. 

I’m now convinced more than ever that many of the early offensive struggles can be blamed on play-calling, and offensive philosophy. When the Packers have gone with their standard offense and relied purely on execution, they have looked as bad as anyone in the league, but given some motivation to innovate. Davante Adams pushed his season catch percentage above 70% for the season over the last two weeks in which he has hauled in 25 of 30 targets. Jordy Nelson, working out of the slot in place of Cobb hauled in the longest pass play of the season, a 56-yard bomb Rodgers that was exactly on target. 

Forced to make use of their bench, Jeff Janis and Trevor Davis contributed touchdowns, as did the newly activated Geronimo Allison. The Packers used multiple formations effectively and 7 different receivers caught a pass. As it turns out, if you run an offense that offers some level of deception (or just unscouted looks), and you have Aaron Rodgers running that offense, it is very difficult to stop. 

2. The defense is hurt, but when fully healthy it will be outstanding. 

This may sound like a bold statement given that this defense just allowed 33 points and was the single biggest reason they lost. It’s also true that at no point this season have they looked like a dominant defense, but all of the individual parts of a dominant defense do exist. They have an excellent pass rush led by contract year-driven Nick Perry, they are getting good work from their inside linebackers, and Mike Daniels has been a force, as usual. The disappointment has come almost exclusively from the secondary, and having seen Ladarius Gunter perform at a high level yet again, the combination of Quinten Rollins, Ladarius Gunter, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Morgan Burnett should be among the league’s best units. 

This assumes that everyone at some point gets healthy, which may never happen, but before Atlanta I did not think this team could make a late season push to become a true contender as they did in 2010. Ladarius Gunter shut down (a slightly hobbled) Julio Jones and rather than challenge him, Matt Ryan and the Falcons instead targeted Demetri Goodson and the coverage linebackers, to good effect. Atlanta is well-coached and they have made a habit of picking on weaknesses, but even if they went away from Gunter intentionally, that still says a lot about his level of play. He’s a keeper. 

If the Packers can get this entire unit on the field late in the season (and still make the playoffs) they can be a real force.Their run defense and line play are excellent. They stuff backs like no one else while still ranking 4th in Adjusted Sack Rate: 
If not for some high profile burns of Damarious Randall and a fluke game against Dallas where everyone was hurt, the secondary would look much better. The talent is there. 

3. Mike McCarthy may be stubborn, but if a play works he will run it again. 

I don’t expect a huge philosophical change from McCarthy, and seeing his players actually succeed  when given new, and better concepts and formations leads me to believe he is more culpable for their struggles that is commonly understood, but sometimes necessity is the mother of invention, and having witnessed Ty Montgomery dominate out of the backfield, and Jordy Nelson excel in the slot, and Janis, Allison, and Davis actually contribute, I doubt he goes back entirely to his old ineffective methods. Everything we have seen will become a viable piece of the playbook. 

If everything comes together at some point, and everyone gets reasonably healthy, this is still a Super Bowl contender. It’s not a given, as health is a serious issue and may continue to be, but it is at least possible for this team to put together a late season surge like we saw in 2010. 

The Colts 

Packer fans should thank their lucky stars everyday that they are not fans of the Indianapolis Colts. During the Peyton Manning era the front office was at least competent and managed to put together a few dominant teams, but post-Manning they have been left in the dust by more sophisticated organizations. The only reason they aren’t worse than the Browns is that they happened to be awful in a year when even an idiot knew to select Andrew Luck, and so they did. Outside of Luck, they have been completely unable to build a true contender and continue to survive exclusively on luck, Luck, and what is consistently the most putrid division in football. 

How bad is it? Luck has been sacked a league high 31 times this season for 197 yards. His previous career high was 41 in his rookie season, and if he were to be sacked 62 times this year (which is his current pace) he would join some rare company. Since 2000, only 3 other quarterbacks have taken as many hits in a season, and none managed to accomplish much. Poor David Carr was sacked 76 times in 2002 and 68 times in 2005 for the newly created Texans. Jon Kitna was sacked 63 times in 2006 for a 3-13 Lions team. And Steve Beuerlein was sacked 62 times in leading the 2000 Panthers to a 7-9 record. 

Not protecting their most valuable asset is only part of the problem for the Colts as they also regularly put out one of the worst defensive unit in the league. Only an injury-plagued Lion defense has been worse this season per DVOA, with their only saving grace being that there are 3 teams with an inferior pass defense. No team is worse at stopping the run, and as weak as Atlanta is at defending the middle of the field, Indianapolis is weaker. They can be run on, they cannot stop tight ends (32nd in the league against), and they cannot stop receiving running backs (32nd in the league against).

Luck often gives them a shot, and if anyone in their receiving corps is actually healthy they can muster a decent offense, but in general they are one of the worst teams in the league, and one of the worst run franchises in football. 

A quick word on Aaron Rodgers, and clutch play…  

There are some pundits and fans blaming Aaron for failing to rally the team for a score in the final 31 seconds of the game. I think we sometimes underestimate just how difficult it is to drive for a score in such a limited time frame. Pro-Football-Reference.com lists the current win probability in their drive charts. You can see it here is you scroll all the way to the right. 

According to their model, the Packers had a 24.5% chance of winning the game when they took possession. The biggest hit to their odds of winning actually occurred when they were forced to take a timeout after the injury to Jordy Nelson. Doing so, which was in no way Rodgers’ fault, left them with just a 9% chance of winning the game. The situation was dire any way you slice it, but if you don’t believe in this model, we also have historical data available (and thank you to @jasonakramer for providing some of this research). Per the Pro Football Reference Play Index, since 2000, NFL teams have found themselves trailing by between 1-3 points on a final drive with between 20-41 second left 90 times. (I chose 20 seconds because that is when teams actually start succeeding occasionally). Teams have converted 16 times in that scenario, or about 18% of the time.

Their win probability model is a bit optimistic when compared to actual data, as it turns out. Field position also matters a great deal as well. The average failed attempt began at the 24 yard line while successes, on average, began at the 32. Given Rodgers’s starting field position, the odds of him getting them into field goal range and Crosby succeeding on his kick were probably around 15% at best. It is also worth noting, 1 of those 16 successful drives was last season’s Rodgers-to-Rodgers Hail Mary against the Lions, certainly more of a “luck” moment than a “clutch” moment. 

The fact of the matter is that the drive previous to this one showed us what we need to know about Rodgers. For a team with a healthier, better defense, his touchdown pass to Jeff Janis would have capped an exciting comeback win. The defense robbed Rodgers of a comeback victory, as it has so many times before, and he should not carry the blame because he came up short in a situation where 82% of the NFL comes up short. 

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