Green Bay Packers Eye Shift in Offensive Philosophy with Aaron Rodgers' Return

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Green Bay Packers Eye Shift in Offensive Philosophy with Aaron Rodgers' Return
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Mike McCarthy has had to make adjustments to his play-calling without Rodgers in the lineup. How has that affected the Packers' performance in those games?

As of Friday morning, it isn't known if Aaron Rodgers will return to play against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, per comments made by Head Coach Mike McCarthy in a press conference on Thursday.

What is known, however, is that the offensive game plan and Mike McCarthy's play-calling will look different if he does play. 

There has been widespread, vocal criticism of McCarthy's play-calling decisions since Rodgers was injured, and of the coaching staff in general. This article is an in-depth breakdown of the Packers' game plans in the seven games before Rodgers' injury, and the five games since (note that the Week 9 Chicago game, in which Rodgers played one drive before breaking his collarbone, is included in the latter five games).

How much has McCarthy's game plan and thus play-calling changed in Rodgers' absence? How could the Packers have been more successful? How will the game plan and play-calling look if Rodgers returns this season, be it this week, next or after?

All stats were calculated using ESPN.com play-by-play information. While the data is being used to illustrate play-calling, it is of course possible that some plays were the results of audibles at the line of scrimmage, not designed. 

First of all, a breakdown of how many plays the Packers ran before and after Rodgers' injury, what kinds of plays they were and how much of the offensive production each play comprised:

Packers Play-Calling in Games Before & After Aaron Rodgers' Injury
7 Games Before Injury 5 Games Since Injury
Total Plays 473 315
Average Plays Per Game 68 63
Passing Plays 249 172
% of Plays Passing 53% 55%
Rushing Plays 224 143
% of Plays Rushing 47% 45%

Calculated using data from ESPN.com

Nothing too earth-shattering here. What stands out is the amount of the offense that the passing game has comprised has increased in Rodgers' absence, not decreased. It may seem counter-intuitive, but there are two likely reasons for this. 

The first reason is that without Rodgers, and by extension a feared passing attack, defenses made it a priority to shut down the Packers run game. Green Bay saw seven or more defenders in the box twice as much, according to ESPN Stats & Information, in the games Rodgers didn't start than the ones he did. With an extra, unblocked safety brought down to stack the box, Eddie Lacy and the run game in general has faltered.

That means that even with a backup quarterback, the Packers have passed more often than McCarthy would have liked—and even more than when Rodgers was under center. 

Second, simply, teams that are playing from behind pass the ball, and teams that are up run it. Football Outsiders has done fantastic work debunking the theory which holds teams that "establish the run" early on win football games. The truth is, teams that are winning football games run the ball, for security and to eat up the clock—and in games without Rodgers, the Packers have rarely been ahead in the second half. 

Box score data from ESPN.com finds that the Packers were ahead (or tied, in the case of the 49ers game in Week 1) entering the second half of every game before Rodgers' injury.

In the five games since his injury, Green Bay has been down at the start of the third quarter in every single game. 

Playing from behind forces a team to pass the ball, whether they have an experienced quarterback under center or not. McCarthy has undoubtedly called some passes where he would have liked to have called runs, but the fact of the matter is you can't continue to run the ball if you're down by two scores in the third quarter. 

But what about McCarthy's situational play-calling? There have been more than a few headscratchers, including passes on 3rd-and-short and rushes on 3rd-and-long. The table below breaks down which plays have been called in which situations. 

Packers Situational Play-Calling Before & After Rodgers' Injury
7 Games Before Injury 5 Games Since Injury
Total First Downs 161 93
Passing First Downs 93 63
% of First Downs Passing 58% 68%
Rushing First Downs 68 30
% of First Downs Rushing 42% 32%
Total Third Downs 97 64
Third Down Conversion Rate 46% 23%
Passing Third Downs 75 46
% of Third Downs Passing 77% 72%
Rushing Third Downs 22 18
% of Third Downs Rushing 23% 28%

Calculated using data from ESPN.com

A few things of note to break down here. The first is that the play-calling on first downs and third downs has essentially flip-flopped; with Rodgers, the Packers were throwing the ball less on first down and more on third down, but now they are passing more on first down and less on third down.

One explanation for this situation is, again, the problem of playing from behind. McCarthy has come out attacking through the air on first down more frequently because the team simply has needed yards and to score points quickly to have any chance of staging a comeback. 

While it's not always an ideal play call to pass on first down, that's at least understandable—running doesn't get very far when you're facing an eight-man box and 75 yards to go.

But where McCarthy has drawn some real ire is in his third-down play-calling in relation to distance, as shown in the table below. 

Packers Third Down Play-Calling Before & After Rodgers' Injury
7 Games Before Injury 5 Games Since Injury
Total Third Downs 97 64
Passes on 3rd-and-short 23 8
Passing % on 3rd-and-short 64% 62%
Passes on 3rd-and-long 40 29
Passing % on 3rd-and-long 98% 94%
Rushes on 3rd-and-short 13 5
Rushing % on 3rd-and-short 36% 38%
Rushes on 3rd-and-long 1 2
Rushing % on 3rd-and-long 2% 6%

Calculated using stats from ESPN.com

The most interesting takeaway from this table involves the decision to throw the ball on 3rd-and-short. This is probably the single play call that frustrates Packers fans the most, and though of course some of those decisions are audibles at the line, especially when Rodgers is in the game, most are called by McCarthy.

But here's the thing: McCarthy calls for a pass on third-and-short more frequently with Rodgers in the game than without him. The reason to ever throw the ball on 3rd-and-1 or 3rd-and-3 is seeing a defensive look that indicates a big steal.

When Rodgers is in the game and defenders stack the box on 3rd-and-short, expecting a run by Lacy, it's a pretty nice risk to have him air the ball out with only one safety downfield, the reward being a significant gain.

With Green Bay's backup quarterbacks in the game, defenders are loading up the box on almost every play, not just 3rd-and-short. But McCarthy doesn't use the same "potential big play" mentality of trying to exploit the one-high safety with a pass on third-and-short. In those cases, he's preferring to hand the ball to Lacy, who is currently averaging four yards per carry, trusting him more to rush for three yards or less than Scott Tolzien or Matt Flynn to complete a pass in that situation.

On 3rd-and-long as well, we're seeing McCarthy go with the more-expected pass less often since Rodgers was injured. This makes sense when again considering the lack of reliability of one of the backups to complete a long pass and their propensity for interceptions.

Unfortunately for McCarthy, sometimes he has to put the ball in the quarterback's hands and trust him to make the play, rather than try and gain 10-plus yards on a rush.

Tom Lynn/Getty Images
Another aspect to consider, which Aaron Rodgers has addressed on his weekly radio show, is how many of the plays he himself has called from the sideline since he has been injured.

The area that's really not effective and should be decreasing without Rodgers (and in general) is the 3rd-and-long rushes. 

The lone 3rd-and-long rush when Rodgers was healthy was against the Vikings in Week 8, when Lacy ran on a 3rd-and-10 late in the fourth quarter...and gained one yard. Strike one.

The next 3rd-and-long was in the second Vikings game in Week 12, when Flynn took off running on 3rd-and-10 and gained nine yards. McCarthy clearly can't be blamed for that one, which almost worked...and the Packers got the first down in the end, off a Jared Allen penalty. Strike one-and-a-half.

The final one was the play heard 'round the world, at least for a day. On Thanksgiving against the Lions, John Kuhn ran on a a 3rd-and-20 and promptly gained two yards and a chorus of boos. That call is enough to earn strike three—let's halt those plays for good.

In terms of how McCarthy is doing on fourth-down decisions, namely whether or not to go for it or punt, we can check in with the New York Times' "4th Down Bot," which analyzes coaches' fourth-down calls against more than 10 years of data to determine whether a team would have been better off had it made a different call.  

What does the bot think of McCarthy's play-calling on fourth down? It has agreed with every one of his decisions in two games: Week 2 against Washington and Week 8 against Minnesota.

Otherwise, it's interesting to note that generally, the bot has disagreed with McCarthy on fourth down more frequently in the five games since Rodgers' injury.

To supplement the changes in play-calling before and after Rodgers' injury, the below table compares offensive production in the seven games before and five games since. No one really needs to see the numbers to understand what's been happening, but they paint a more complete picture. 

Offensive Production Before & After Rodgers' Injury
7 Games Before Injury 5 Games Since Injury
Total Yards 3,072 1,722
Yards per Game 438.9 344.4
Passing Yards 2,082 1,149
Passing Yards per Game 297.4 229.8
Rushing Yards 990 573
Rushing Yards per Game 141.4 114.6
Points per Game 30.3 16.4

Pro-Football-Reference.com

Overall, there have been some quantifiable changes to Mike McCarthy's play-calling since Rodgers was injured, mainly in terms of running the ball (which is happening less frequently) and third-down decisions (which are inverted).

It's important to note that much of the game plan in the last five weeks has been necessitated by defensive adjustments...but it's also important to give McCarthy his share of criticism for calling plays that aren't designed well. 

Rodgers' return, whenever it happens, will improve many areas of the game, including play-calling. His presence on the field, along with the newfound running game, gives McCarthy almost unlimited possibilities in game-planning.

 

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