T.J. Lang

Saving the Packers

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It seemed reasonable to expect the Green Bay Packers to have one of the best offenses in the NFL this year. Jordy Nelson‘s August ACL tear hurt their prospects, but they still had Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Eddie Lacy, and one of the league’s better offensive lines. Instead, they have been shockingly mediocre. What do the numbers suggest, and is there any reason to expect the Packers to be better in Week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings and in their playoff game the following week?

The Trend Is Discouraging

There is no doubt their Week 16 offensive performance against the Arizona Cardinals was miserable. By DVOA, Football Outsiders’ play-by-play metric that adjusts for game situation and opponent quality, it was the second-worst of Rodgers’ tenure as the Packers’ starter. Only his three-interception performance in Tampa back in 2008, in his first season as a starter, is worse, and just barely (minus-56.2 percent versus minus-55.2 percent).

If that was just a one-off, we could write it off. It was not. The Packers have posted a below-average DVOA on offense in four of their past five games. Coach Mike McCarthy taking the play-calling reins back from offensive coordinator Tom Clements worked against Dallas, but not against Oakland and certainly not last week.

Some week-to-week variation is to be expected, but Green Bay’s three best offensive performances of the season by DVOA came in Weeks 1, 2, and 3. Since then, they are 21st in DVOA, just ahead of the Browns (minus-6.3 percent compared to minus-7.2 percent). This is not the company the Packers expected to be keeping.

Offensive Line Issues Are Part of the Problem

In 2014, the Packers had an excellent, consistent offensive line. From left to right, David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Corey LinsleyT.J. Lang, and Bryan Bulaga started 79 of 80 games. All five returned, but not for every game. Sitton is the only one with 15 starts, and he has been worse than his near-flawless performance last year (0.0 blown pass blocks per Football Outsiders’ charting). The others have all missed time, and Green Bay’s offensive line depth has not been up to the challenge.

The line issues have shown up in both the run and pass games. It seemed like Rodgers turned a corner in 2014, going from a quarterback sacked more than most to one adept at avoiding sacks. His adjusted sack rate, which accounts for down and distance and opponent was just 5.3 percent last year and is 7.3 percent this year. By offensive line yards, which attempt to account for the distribution of yards between the back and the line, they went from a top-eight unit the past two seasons to 22nd. That includes fifth-worst in stuffs, those runs for no gain or a loss.

Receiving Depth Was Tested and Flunked

The loss of Nelson was potentially devastating because Rodgers was extraordinarily reliant on just two receivers last year, both by volume and for big plays. Both Nelson and Cobb caught over 90 passes and did so with great efficiency. Cobb ranked first in DVOA last year, while Nelson was eighth. No other Packers receiver or tight end came out better than average.

The story is similar this year. James Jones, reunited with Rodgers after the Giants cut him, is the only Packers wide receiver or tight end with a DVOA better than 0.0 percent on 25 or more targets. Green Bay’s young players have not developed the same rapport with Rodgers as Cobb and Nelson.

Davante Adams, praised to the skies by Rodgers in the offseason, ranks next-to-last in DVOA among qualifying receivers. The other young player who saw a big uptick in his role, tight end Richard Rodgers, is merely below average.

The more puzzling case is Cobb, who is below average by DVOA after he topped the league last year. His yards per catch have fallen from 14.1 to 10.8. Some decline in his YAC was expected; he had a number of long touchdowns last year, more than was sustainable. But Rodgers has found him more than 20 yards downfield on just six targets this year, even on one of his customary extended plays.

Cobb has seen his usage change. In 2014, he was largely a short-area receiver, with 38 percent of his targets between one and five yards downfield and was rarely targeted at or behind the line of scrimmage. This year, his distribution is much more even, with between 23 and 32 targets at or behind the line of scrimmage, from 1-5, 6-10, and 11-15 yards downfield. That looks a lot more like how Nelson was targeted last year. But as good as Cobb is, he is not Nelson, and trying to force him to be him has not worked and might have taken Cobb away from what he does best.

What Can Be Done?

McCarthy took back play-calling duties because he wanted the offense to work differently. The Packers have tried to run the ball more since, but they haven’t had much success outside of the Dallas game. Yes, Lacy and James Starks have been part of the problem, or at least not the answer. Both have been efficient receivers this year, though, and a pass game oriented more towards the backs and short passes could be more successful than the receiver-driven offense McCarthy has preferred. It is too late to make major changes, though, so only incremental modifications are likely. Green Bay’s best chance to realize the promise of their 6-0 start is to rely on Rodgers’ improvisational ability and a defense that outside of the Broncos game has played at least reasonably well.