Sunday, December 5, 2010

Over-reliance on Rodgers Hurts Packers in Long Run

I came out of the Falcons game with a pretty good feeling overall about the Green Bay Packers.  Yes, it was a tough loss, but in the end, I came to a pretty comforting conclusion:  all things being equal, the Packers were the better team.

Seriously.  The Packers should have, and would have won that game, all things being equal..."all things equal" being not making mistakes.  For the most part, the Packers played a pretty good game:  but the two critical mistakes...Rodgers' fumble in the end zone and McCarthy's failure to challenge Gonzalez's catch...directly resulted in a 14-point swing.  Think about that: if not for those two missed opportunities, the score would have been Packers 31, Falcons 13.  That's a huge victory on the road against a pretty good team.

But, it didn't happen, because all things weren't equal.  The Falcons didn't make any critical errors in that game.  They played safe and didn't make the big mistake.  They played to their strengths and in the end, it was enough to defeat what I believe was the superior team.

And, therein lies the issue with the Packers.  Too many times, the Packers commit those costly errors, especially in close games.  Fair or not, even though Rodgers led a game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter, our quarterback is still gaining the reputation as a non-clutch quarterback, while Matt Ryan is becoming "Matty Ice" for leading comebacks and preserving leads.

While I wouldn't trade our defense for anyone else's right now, comparing our offense to what the Falcons have is certainly worth a look.  While the Packers, even without Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley, still have more marquee names on that side of the ball than the Falcons, it is Atlanta who I believe is built for the playoffs.

And the reason is simple: the Packers simply have built this offense completely around Aaron Rodgers.  On every play, Rodgers is expected to deliver, in some way, on his own.  On the other hand, Matt Ryan has been placed in a position to allow the players around him to make plays for him.

Now, let's get two knee-jerk reactions out of the way.  Yes, every NFL offense is "built around the quarterback", as he obviously is the one who has to handle every snap outside of a wildcat formation.  The quarterback is the lynchpin, and no other position on the offense compares when you have poor quarterback play.  However, the Packers don't have to put Rodgers in the position to make every play himself, and the Falcons proved that last Sunday. 

Secondly, yes, Rodgers is a special talent, just as you might consider Adrian Peterson of the Vikings or Michael Turner of the Falcons.  Because Peterson and Turner are special talents, their offenses feature them.  It makes sense to "feature" Aaron Rodgers.  Look, I love Aaron Rodgers.  There is no hate for him whatsoever, and I love watching him play.  But the Packers are centralizing everything on him, in part because of their inability to run the ball.  Obviously, this is the aspect of the team that is hurting them the most.

Statistically, let's take a look at both quarterbacks last week, and see if the numbers help back up my point.

Matt Ryan had an ultra-efficient day passing, going 24-28 for 197 yards: certainly not an air attack worthy of Marino, but hearkening back to another efficient quarterback, Troy Aikman.  Now the Falcons added 117 yards on the ground, and not one rushing yard came from Matt Ryan.  This means that the Ryan's arm was responsible for about 62% of the Falcons' offense yardage (discounting the sack yardage).

But, let's take into account how much Ryan's receivers helped him out.  We didn't see Ryan toss it downfield too many times, choosing to use the short, safe passing game to methodically help out his running game.  While I don't have official YAC stats for the game, I did review the DVR and estimated that out of Ryan's 197 passing yards, 83 were based on what the receivers gained after catching the ball.  If you subtract that from his totals, Ryan was only responsible for 114 yards of offense purely with his arm or legs, or 36% of the offense.

Conversely, Aaron Rodgers went 26-25 for 344 yards, a prolific day to be sure.  The Packers' "rushing game" added 77 yards, but 51 of those yards came on Rodgers' sneaks and scrambles.  This means that a staggering 94% of the Packers' offensive yardage came directly from what Aaron Rodgers' did with his legs and arm.

To be fair, I also charted the YAC for Packers' receivers, which was a little higher than I had expected.  Rodgers has made more use out of screens the past few weeks, and helped put his receivers in position to snag a couple more yards after catching the ball.  In all, the Packers' receivers gained 164 YAC last Sunday, reducing Rodgers' ownership to 55% of the offense.

It's a testament to the Packers' receivers, to be sure, but the percentage of YAC-to-total-passing-yards is pretty consistent for both teams: 42% for the Falcons, 47% for the Packers.  But in the end, those YAC yards are still dependent on the quarterback delivering the ball, and that still rides on Rodgers' shoulders.

Having 94% of your offense coming directly from your quarterback may be enough to beat the Lions, Vikings, Cowboys, and hopefully, the 49ers.  But it isn't going to win you playoff games, as we saw last year against the Cardinals, when Rodgers was responsible for 85% of the Packers' offensive yardage.

In the end, the Falcons may not be the better team.  But they are built better for the playoffs, in part because they have a running game they can depend on.  I'm guessing "Matty Ice" would melt down pretty quickly if he had to be responsible for 90% of the offense in a critical game.

Now, Brandon Jackson is not Michael Turner, but it's pretty clear to see that when you are changing direction five yards deep in your own backfield to avoid tacklers, the problem is less with your running back than with the effectiveness of your run blocking.  The Packers have been married to the Zone Blocking Scheme for almost five years now, and we've never seen a full season of 1990's-Denver-Bronco's-style rushing attacks.  Despite having the personnel to deliver a power blocking game (Quinn Johnson, Tom Crabtree, and Korey Hall come to mind), the Packers continue to eschew such a scheme for five-wide sets with an empty backfield.

Against good teams, depending totally on your quarterback to win games for you is simply not going to be good enough.  Heck, the Cardinals depended on Kurt Warner for most of their offensive attack against the Packers, too, and then got shellacked by the Saints the following week. 

As good as Aaron Rodgers is, and he is mightily good, the Packers are doing him and the team a disservice by making excuses for the running game instead of fixing it.  Continually abandoning the run and going empty backfield will get you through the plodding regular season games against spiritless opponents, but against the best, it just isn't going to be enough.  Eventually, the defense is going to figure out a way to neutralize the quarterback...and it doesn't have to be at the end of the game, it can be just enough times during the course of a game ...because there isn't another legitimate option.

James Starks, the 6th round pick who hasn't played since George W. Bush was still in office, is being touted as the answer to the running game.  I don't believe it is going to happen unless the Packers make other adjustments, too.  The problem has to be not only along the offensive line, but in the focus of the offense.  Starks isn't going to farE any better than Jackson until the Packers change their approach and find a more balanced attack.   No running back is going to get into a groove getting five rushes in the first half, than perhaps one rush in each of the other three quarters.

If Starks and the rest of the running backs continue to account for less than 20% of the offense, they're not built for the playoffs. 


Jersey Al said...

Nice work, C.D. Be prepared for more "Air McCarthy" today...

PWC said...

Nice Post. I agree completely. If the team doesn't find more balance, it's going to be another disappointing year. No one man can carryba team into the playoffs himself, and that's what Rodgers is being made to do at this point.