Why Green Bay Packers Don't Need to Worry About Red-Zone Efficiency

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Why Green Bay Packers Don't Need to Worry About Red-Zone Efficiency
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
The Packers have converted 45 percent of their red zone attempts this season.

Despite the Green Bay Packers having the No. 2 offense in the league, per CBSSports.com, their red-zone touchdown conversion efficiency through four games in 2013 has dramatically fallen off from their 2012 production.

The Packers are converting only 45 percent of their trips to the red zone this season, as compared to their league-leading 68.5 percent last year.

So far in 2013, there are 27 teams in the league who are more efficient at scoring touchdowns within 20 yards than the Packers.

But that statistic doesn't really matter.

The Packers converted 100 percent of their red-zone trips in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers, and they lost 34-28. Conversely, they produced on zero percent of their red-zone attempts in both Week 5 against the Detroit Lions, winning 22-9, and last Sunday in Baltimore, a game they won 19-17.

In fact, this season, the Packers' red-zone efficiency has been inversely correlated with their victories. As the table below shows, the Packers began the season converting a relatively high percentage of their red-zone attempts.

Packers Red Zone Scoring Percentage Through Week 3
Week Red Zone Made Red Zone Attempts Percent Result
Week 1 @49ers 4 4 100% L, 28-34
Week 2 vs. Redskins 3 6 50% W, 38-20
Week 3 @Bengals 2 4 50% L, 34-30

ESPN

In their last two games combined, however, they have gone 0-6 on scores from within 20 yards. But their offense sits at its highest mark, No. 2 overall, all year.

Packers Red Zone Scoring Percentage Through Week 6
Week Red Zone Made Red Zone Attempts Percent Result
Week 5 vs. Lions 0 2 0% W, 22-9
Week 6 @Ravens 0 4 0% W, 19-17

ESPN

Though this pattern is simply that—a pattern—and does not necessarily imply causation, it nonetheless illustrates that six points on the board are six points on the board.

Whether those points come from ten yards out, forty yards out or even from two field goals doesn't matter.

Wins are what matter. Wins are what get a team to the postseason—and from there, regular-season red-zone efficiency goes out the window.

The Pittsburgh Steelers only had a 56 percent red-zone scoring percentage when they won Super Bowl XLIII after the 2008 season. After only a 54 percent conversion rate in the red zone in the 2010 season, the New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI.

Of course, this is not to say that the Packers can convert zero percent of the rest of their red-zone trips through Week 17 and make the playoffs.

Rather, the hand-wringing about the decline in the statistic from last season is unnecessary.

Rodgers played his best game of the season in Week 2 against the Washington Redskins, in which he threw for four touchdowns and almost 500 yards. Green Bay had a red-zone efficiency in that game of 50 percent, not far from their current rate this season.

Converting half their attempts in the red zone would seem to be the sweet spot for the Packers offense this season. More than that would be great, but less is certainly not dooming.

In fact, Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz (via ESPN) has posited that the idea of red-zone efficiency as a whole may be a myth, citing research Football Outsiders has compiled over multiple seasons showing that there is little to no correlation between overall offense efficiency and red-zone efficiency. 

That's clearly demonstrated by the fact that two of the league's three winless teams rank ahead of the Packers in red-zone efficiency.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Rodgers has thrown zero touchdowns in his last six attempts in the red zone over two games. The Packers have won both those games.

Moreover, the statistic itself is misleading.

In his Tuesdays with Aaron podcast with ESPN Wisconsin's Jason Wilde last week, Aaron Rodgers noted that the calculation of red-zone efficiency itself is flawed.

"That stat sometimes get skewed a little bit, because if you end a possession in the red zone at the end of a game, that counts as an 0-fer, you didn't score," Rodgers said. "So I feel like we've had a couple of those, and, you know, you've got to give credit to the defense from time to time."

We can use ESPN play-by-play data from both the Week 2 matchup against the Redskins and the Week 6 game against the Baltimore Ravens to remove two instances of that happening at the end of the fourth quarter.

In so doing, the Packers' red-zone efficiency percentage though six weeks instantly rises to 50 percent, or 9-of-18 rather than 9-of-20.

It's easy to see, then, why that statistic frustrates Rodgers.

Here's another way to think about it.

Green Bay ranked in the top 10 in the league in red-zone success in each of Rodgers' first five years as a starter. In none of his seasons at the helm has the Packers offense gone through such a marked period of transition as this past offseason.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Eddie Lacy rushed for one TD in Week 1 against the 49ers. Each of Green Bay's three running backs has rushed for one touchdown this season.

When Green Bay lost wideouts Greg Jennings and Donald Driver and invested in the run game by drafting two high-profile running backs in Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, it was clear that the Packers offense would be evolving in 2013.

That process has played out over six weeks, and it has certainly had its awkward moments.

Questionable play-calling by Mike McCarthy (and audibles by Rodgers) on 3rd-and-shorts, including passes downfield without Lacy in the backfield to give a convincing indication of a run play, has no doubt had an impact on play in the red zone.

While McCarthy acknowledged in a press conference last Monday that Green Bay's red-zone effectiveness has been "disappointing," he did not seem to think it was a pervasive problem.

Via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "We had a couple plays that we just didn't convert. It's football. I don't think it's anything we're doing. Sometimes we're extremely effective down there. As long as we keep getting our attempts."

Working through the issues the Packers have had on third downs—which now include dealing with the losses of Randall Cobb (knee) and James Jones (knee) to injuries last Sunday in addition to incorporating the developing run game more—will most likely increase production in the red zone, as well.

Especially with the news from Ty Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Cobb will be sidelined for at least 6-8 weeks, the role that Lacy, Franklin and James Starks need to play in the offense increases dramatically.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
The Packers will miss their best slot receiver, Randall Cobb, as he sits out for 6-8 weeks. Jarrett Boykin, who demonstrated against the Ravens that he is most comfortable with the screen pass, will step up.

It all comes with the territory of transitioning an offense accustomed to lots of passing yards and big plays to a more precise and balanced unit, focused on the run and short gains in the slot. That applies to the red zone, as well.

"I think we need to run the ball a little more effectively down there," Rodgers said in his podcast.

As Jordy Nelson told Packers.com's Mike Spofford, "When we get down there, the focus has to go up, the urgency has to go up. The windows are a lot smaller because you’re working with a short field."

Improving on third down plays is essential for the Packers. But those plays don't have to be in the red zone.

Applying that "short field" urgency mindset to converting third downs and eating up clock could be a highly effective strategy for the Packers to get into scoring position. But where exactly on the field they score from doesn't matter—outscoring opponents does.

If they can continue to do that, there's no need to get overworked about a flawed statistic.
 

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