On Tuesday, Grantland’s NFL writing cyborg, Bill Barnwell, wondered if the Packers, a buzz saw of a team going back to the end of 2010, have suddenly become average. In getting to the “true cause” of the Packers struggles in 2012, Barnwell asks us to notice “what’s changed” by pointing out the team’s DVOA, their diametric shift in points per drive, yards per play, sack rate and 3rd down conversion percentage, as well as the ubiquitous drop in quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ numbers.
While all this is true, it’s also another case of statistics not telling the whole story.
What Barnwell is missing here isn’t so much what’s changed. But more, what hasn’t changed. Specifically, coach Mike McCarthy’s offensive system. And even more specifically, how Aaron Rodgers, one of the league’s smartest, most gifted quarterbacks, is being asked to execute the same system despite a vastly different landscape both within Green Bay’s locker room, and the NFL as a whole.
Now, the term “system quarterback” gets thrown around a lot as way of saying a QB isn’t truly as good as he seems. But let’s get one thing straight — every quarterback is a system quarterback. Every one must play within the system put in place by the coach. The thing people don’t realize is that these systems — particularly on offense — aren’t especially innovative or different from one another. Much like the triangle offense the Bulls and Lakers ran under Phil Jackson, their success wasn’t predicated so much on the complexity of the system, but in the execution of the concepts within that system. Likewise in the NFL, coaches don’t study film for 12 hours a day only to get to game day and say, “Whoa shit, didn’t see that one coming.” Instead, coaches earn their paychecks by implementing strategies to counter what the other team is doing, by making adjustments week-to-week and within game, and knowing how to maximize their own players’ potential by creating a game plan conducive to their team’s strengths.
But what happens when your team’s strengths aren’t so strong anymore? Then you have the things that Barnwell points out: Individual numbers decline, team numbers get affected, and everyone starts pointing fingers at these microcosmic examples of why their team suddenly blows. But what about when your coach refuses to adapt? When there’s little to no flexibility in those strategies?
Then you have what I’m talking about.
Last year, when the Packers were in the middle of tea bagging the NFL through the regular season, Deadspin ran a great piece by Barry Petchesky breaking down the offensive philosophy that made the Packers and in particular, Aaron Rodgers, so effective. In short, the Packers under the McCarthy regime, have run fewer timing pass plays, relying instead on Rodgers’ ability to buy time in the pocket and deliver the ball to Wide Receivers once they get open.
The benefit here is obvious: Fewer turnovers. And when you have a Quarterback like Rodgers with the ability to throw the ball hard and accurately, the result is an offense that’s nearly impossible to stop.
It’s also an offense that Petchesky admits, “requires the right personnel.” A power running game to keep the defense honest. An offensive line that can hold their blocks longer. And wide receivers that can consistently get open and don’t give up on routes. Right now, they’re not getting any of those things. And its caused opposing coaches to say, “You know what? These guys can’t run the ball worth a shit. Let’s drop two deep safeties and take away the homerun ball and we’ll have a shot.” As the Deadspin article pointed out, the key to the Packers success is, “deceptively simple.”
And as I pointed out, coaches in the NFL don’t get paid millions of dollars and sacrifice their personal and family lives to stay deceived for long.
You’d think this realization would cause Mike McCarthy to change a few things. Instead, he’s stayed the course.
Whether it’s a lack of imagination, sheer stubbornness, or a little of both, McCarthy’s refusal to adapt has caused the Packers offense to go from high-powered and dynamic, to pedestrian and predictable. So either the players themselves have regressed substantially (not likely given the average age an injury history of their current roster) or, the coach hasn’t made the necessary adjustments. When Bill Belichick had Randy Moss, the Patriots were the closest thing the NFL had to the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams teams since the early 2000’s. That air-it-out style, much like the Packers had last year, was both elegantly breathtaking, and devastating at the same time.
But things change.
Defenses catch up. An offensive linemen loses a step and if you’re the Patriots, Randy Moss goes batshit crazy and you have to swindle Brad Childress into giving you a 2nd round draft pick for him. So what did Belichick do? He completely reconfigured their scheme built around two super-human, tight end wunderkinds that shreds defenses by attacking the seams and finding space.
And yes, last week I wrote an article about how NFL coaches and GM’s don’t succeed by making rash decisions. But at some point, McCarthy has to realize that the personnel that he currently has, can’t run the offense in the same fashion as they did last year. Defenses are either dropping heavy into coverage and making it more difficult for receivers to get open (causing Rodgers to hold onto the ball longer). Or they’re teeing off and bringing the house on blitzes because they know the running back is just there for show.
At some point, you have to make the defense pay with something else. Put a new wrinkle in. Find a new strategy. Retool shit and realize that those seven step drops when you can’t run a believable play-action, 3rd and 1 bomb, or wide receiver screen AREN’T FOOLING ANYONE. If this were Tecmo Bowl, defenses would be guessing the play half the time.
And perhaps the most frustrating part about McCarthy’s bullheadedness is that having a quarterback as capable as Rodgers should have the opposite effect. It should enable more creativity, not less. Rodgers can place the ball nearly anywhere, has a big arm, can move in the pocket and most important of all, has the intelligence to know how and when to use his godlike physical tools. Whether you think Tom Brady is a better leader or Brees a better thrower, it’s hard to argue that Rodgers isn’t the most versatile quarterback in the league. And yet, he’s shackled with a narrow-minded offensive philosophy seemingly fixated on “explosive plays” only.
Today on the Bill Michaels radio show in Milwaukee, Tony Dungy was a guest and said of the Packers offense: “There’s the tendency when you have a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers to think he can do it all…that you can just put the ball in his hands and he can make up for any other shortcomings you have.”
Dungy is spot on. If the Packers locker room were a garage, Rodgers would be the prized Ferrari. But you need more than that to keep your team humming the way the Packers were. And until McCarthy figures out a way to create new opportunities, adjust the scheme, and be willing to change the offense to suit what his current crop of players are capable of, he’ll just be a guy with a Ferrari who doesn’t know how to drive stick.