Monday, March 16, 2009

Which Season is the Aberration?

You often hear the debate going on, when it comes to the success of the Thompson/McCarthy regime, that 2008 was an aberration in the direction of the team. A misstep, if you will. Others point out that perhaps 2007 was the season out of character for the Packers, that in all actuality, the Packers were never and are not that great of a team…certainly not one that should regularly be going deep into the playoffs.

So, I thought I would invite some discussion in these lean weeks between Fan Fest and the draft…what year is the most likely aberration of the Thompson regime?

2005: Thompson’s record without 2005: 27-21

There are many folks who would definitely say that the 2005 season was a skewed poor year in the middle of a lot of success by the Packers. Face it…the Packers went 10-6 in 2004 and 8-8 in 2006. That 4-12 record in the middle does appear out of place.

And there was a lot of reasons for it. The decision to keep Mike Sherman on as coach was an ill-devised one, and likely set up a season of divisiveness. Sherman already had his legs cut out from under him when he was demoted, and was kept on as a lame duck until August. By most accounts, Sherman was pretty peeved by how he was treated, and contributed to the chasm between the coach and GM.

And, the year was a cap-clearing year, with what Ron Wolf called “NFL-E talent and stumblebums” brought in off the street to fill roster spots vacated by high-priced free agents allowed to leave. The slate was being cleared for the new regime to come in and essentially start with a skeleton crew from the old regime.

I remember doing a study of number of games missed by starters due to injury, and while that data is lost due to a server crash, 2005 was historic in the number of players who ended up on the IR.

If 2005 is the aberration, the Thompson tenure looks pretty good…a winning record over the remaining three years, all of which are the ones coached by Mike McCarthy.

2007: Thompson’s record without 2007: 18-30

As the 2008 season rolled along, it is quite possible that this 13-3 season that brought so many accolades to the team might have just been a blessing of staying healthy, a string of good luck and momentum, and strong leadership from a veteran quarterback in his swan song.

Thompson, by his own admission, suggested that the team may have over-performed that year, and that they had overestimated the talent on that squad.

The packers sent five players to the Pro Bowl that season, all of them holdovers from the Sherman regime, and led by quarterback Brett Favre, who had one of his most productive seasons of his long and storied career. And around him, all the pieces seemed to fall into place. But there were issues all along that season. In the beginning of the 2007, the Packers couldn’t find a running back, and relied excessively on the pass. The offensive line continued to struggle. Defensive gaffes were commonplace, and yet the Packers still managed to start out with a 10-1 record.

It was around that time, however, that Ryan Grant emerged as a running threat and the defense seemed to stiffen. Despite what would be considered improvements to an already very good team, the Packers finished 3-2, then went 1-1 in the playoffs.

Some might say that the wins the Packers had early on were meeting good teams at opportune times. The win over the eventual 11-5 Chargers was in the middle of their 0-3 road slump. The win over the eventual Super Bowl winning New York Giants was a far different team than the one they faced in the playoffs. The only other team the Packers faced all season that finished with a winning record was the Dallas Cowboys, who beat them.

After Game 10 of 2007, Brett Favre was on pace to throw over 625 passing attempts for the season, a rate that would have broken his own personal record and been the fourth highest in NFL history…and the Packers were winning. Following that game, Ryan Grant found his footing and became a feature back. But as the offense became more balanced, so did the win-loss record.

So, was the 2007 season a Favre-led sugar high that fizzled out at the end? Was the 4-3 record to finish the season more indicative of the talent of the team than the 10-1 start?

If so, the Packers may be little more than a mediocre team. Take out 2007, and this team has never finished with a winning season under Thompson’s watch.

2008: Thompson’s record without 2008: 25-23

Considering 2008 as the aberration has a much different feel to it than 2005 or 2007, because we’re not just dropping the lowest or highest number from a set of data. But if we do remove 2008, it does make us look harder at the trends from 2005-1007.

And in those years, you will see a very definite trend of improvement. 4 wins to 8 wins to 13 wins. Even if that 13-win season was slightly inflated, it still demonstrates that was a team on the rise.

Can we remove 2008 from consideration? Time will answer that better than me. It’s easier to look back on 2005 as a cap-busting year filled with inner conflict, but it wasn’t so easy at the time. In fact, if you were posting on any forums in those days, much discussion was had over whether or not 2005 was a season committed to winning or a season committed to gain draft position.

But, there are some similarities that 2008 and 2005 share that give cause for consternation. Winston Moss implied at Fan Fest (hattip: CHTV) that the Sanders defensive coaching staff was having a lot of their own inner turmoil that may have spilled over onto the field. And certainly, the injury bug hadn’t hit the Packers this hard since the 2005 season, when it seemed nearly everyone was on the IR by the end of the year. 2008 wasn’t as bad as 2005 when it comes to injuries, but it was far worse than the charmed year of 2007.

So, if 2007 may have been slightly inflated, it is just as easy to hypothesize that 2008 was deflated, and that a healthy team charged up by a coaching staff free of infighting will put this team right back into double digit wins in 2009…back on track with what we saw the previous three seasons.

No aberration at all: Thompson’s overall record: 31-33

Obviously, the idea that any season is an aberration is abhorrent to those who worship at the Altar of Statistics. After all, stats are facts, and facts never lie.

But if there were no such things as aberrations, there would be no need for such concepts as standard deviations to communicate how inconsistent the data set is, nor would be ever talk about how data could be skewed.

And when it comes to skewing data, the NFL has a system in effect that is designed to create parity. As a side effect, there are often “rags to riches” stories each year, as well as “penthouse to outhouse” sagas.

The draft, in place for decades, was designed to reward poorer teams and penalize the powerful teams. However, it was a slow, methodical process that created decades of dynasties and lovable losers.

The advent of free agency and salary caps, however, sent that process into overdrive. Not only did the best teams draft late, but their best players would be pillaged by teams flashing money at them. Poor teams could buy their way back into respectability. It no longer took years and years to build a winner or gradually decline…it began happening from season to season.

So, the Packers’ Cinderella season could be just as legitimate as last year’s dramatic disappointment. After all, the design is to create parity, which I don’t think any other league in the world has created as effectively as the NFL.

While many of the Statistic Idolaters will accept this willingly, it does pose an uncomfortable feeling for next season: if we had three years of improvement, does that mean we are in for three years of decline before we rise again?

2009 is already somewhat of a watershed year for the Packers. New defensive schemes, the “five-year plan” typical of NFL leadership should be coming to fruition,and several draft classes are able to be legitimately evaluated. The idea of finding what direction this team is heading from this point out is also under the microscope, and if last year was the aberration in the plan...the small detour on the way to the promised land.

Or, we'll find out if two seasons ago was merely a lucky strike, and 6-10 wins is what we should be expecting from here on out.


Anonymous said...

Nice work as always LA

Since the end of 2004, Green Bay has changed GM,Head Coach,President (2), QB, OC, DC and many many more.

Trying to spot a trend under those circumstances represents quite an impressive challenge.

I think all of those folks,( the most important positions on every NFL team) are growing into their roles, and I am betting 2009 will be proof of that; and that the 2008 W/L record was the aberration.

Anonymous said...

I actually think that both 2007 and 2008 were slight aberrations. I think they were essentially the same team, and demonstrated how much "breaks" make a difference in the game -- injuries, close calls, long field goals as time expires, games that could go either way, etc. In 2007, just about everything went GB's way, and they win 13. In 2008, almost nothing goes GB's way, and they only win 6.

In 2007, if a few injuries happen, or a few close games go the other way (how many close games did they win in 2007?), they don't get close to 13 wins.

In 2008, if a few fewer injuries happen, or is a few close games go the other way (how many close games did they lose in 2008?), they easily exceed 6 wins.

Both years, they're essentially a 9-7 or 10-6 team. They weren't as good as 13-3, but they weren't as bad as 6-10 either.

Both years were the aberration. Or you could say neither year was the aberration, and just reflected how "lucky" you have to get to have a really good record, and how being equally "unlucky" works the other way.