Friday, November 5, 2010

What’s Wrong with the Packers’ Offense?

If I hear this question one more time, I’m going to throw my mouse at someone.  Half way through the Packers’ season, this question (complaint?) is a favorite hook of the sports media.  From the Green Bay Press Gazette to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, every sports writer who covers the Packers is “perplexed” by their “inconsistent offense.”

Unlike these other guys, I don’t make my living by covering the Packers… yet.  But is it really that complicated?  Or are they just trying to sell newspapers?  “What’s wrong with the Packers’ offense?”  Really???  Let me break it down for you.

First, in case you missed it, the offense has suffered two key, season-ending injuries in Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley.  Donald Driver will be sitting this week as well.  I know we’d all like to just gloss over that.  Pretend it didn’t happen.  But losing a multi-year 1,200+-yard rusher and a tight end who was emerging as a Pro Bowler is going to affect your offensive production.  The loss of both a running back and a tight end is particularly detrimental because it allows safeties to move into double coverage, cornerbacks to cheat slant routes, and linebackers to blitz.  Everything else the Packers like to do – short passes, screens, draws, etc. – stems from their talent at the RB and TE positions, and both the starters at those positions are gone for the season.  With those personnel changes, it just simply isn't the same offense it was last year.

Second, is the offense really struggling that much?  I know we all expect 50-point performances every week, and the Packers expect that of themselves.  But the offense right now ranks 7th in the NFL in total points at 176.  Not bad.  And Rodgers is 5th in the league in passing yards at 2,011 – putting him on pace for another 4,000-yard season.  The statistics that are the most “off” from last year are in three areas:

  1. Interceptions – Rodgers has thrown 9 already this year, compared to only 7 all of last season
  2. Lack of big plays – the Packers only have 4 plays of 40+ yards this year
  3. Poor 3rd-down conversion – the Packers rank 26th in 3rd-down conversions at just 35%

From my perspective, however, all these stats stem from the lack of a credible threat at running back and tight end.  When a defense can drop 8 into coverage without worrying about a run threat, they are going to come up with interceptions, shut down long gains, and stop you on third down.  These are consequences, not causes.

Third, the Packers have played some pretty solid defenses.  The Jets and the Bears, in particular, are the #2 and #3 defenses in the league, respectively, in fewest points allowed.  Of the eight teams the Packers have faced so far this season, three are top-10 defenses – the Bears (#6), Jets (#7), and Dolphins (#8) – and two are top-15 – the Vikings (#12) and Eagles (#13).  The only below-average defenses they have played are the Lions (#21), Bills (#29), and Redskins (#31), and they won two out of three of those games.  If you look at how many points the Packers have scored against each opponent and compare it to that team’s average points given up per game (see chart below), you can see they’ve performed better than average against pretty much every team except the Redskins, who they lost to in overtime, and the Jets, who they beat.

There was a time at the mid-point last season, after the loss to the Buccaneers in week 9, when everyone was asking the same question: “What’s wrong with the Packers’ offense?”  They gave up six sacks and three interceptions that day.  It felt unlikely, if not impossible, that they would beat the visiting Cowboys the next weekend.  Not only did they win that game, but they proceeded to go 7-1 for the second half of the season.

I’m not prepared to predict they will repeat that performance the second half of this season.  There are certainly tough games ahead – including 4 out of 5 games on the road after their bye, and contests against the Vikings, Falcons, Patriots, Giants, and Bears.  Not to mention a Dallas team this week that was predicted by many to be a Super Bowl contender.  But I hope they can replicate the mindset that got them those wins last year.  Quit the counter-productive self-doubt of asking “what’s wrong with us?” for underperforming the lofty expectations placed on them by fans and the media, and just play.  Despite the injuries, they still have the talent to answer the question decisively: "Nothing is wrong with us."

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