A challenge. During a training camp interview, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers used those words to describe the task of directing a star-studded offense. It was fun to think about the possibilities for a group that included five high-quality wide receivers and one of the NFL's best pass-catching tight ends. But Rodgers also knew there would be a high degree of difficulty in orchestrating the division of labor.
At issue was the return of two veterans -- tight end Jermichael Finley and tailback Ryan Grant -- to an offense that coalesced into a championship-caliber group after their season-ending injuries in 2010. Who would get the ball? For that matter, who would get on the field? How would each player's skills be best utilized? How would defenses prioritize?
To be clear, every NFL team dreams of facing this kind of "problem." But with the Packers almost at the halfway point of 2011, I thought it would be interesting to address how they have navigated the challenge.
John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Information mined a huge vat of data to give us the three charts that accompany this post. The charts give us play counts for Finley, the Packers' top five receivers and their top two running backs this season. They also reveal the six most popular groupings of personnel the Packers have used, and the production of each.
I'll give you a few moments to review them before we move on.
I would like to say the numbers speak for themselves, but that pretty much negates any influence and significance for your resident blogger. So allow me to babble on a bit to offer a few thoughts. I'm sure you'll weigh in with yours as well.
It might sound simple, but the Packers have done a really nice job of keeping their two most important pass-catchers on the field as often as possible. Finley and receiver Greg Jennings have each been on the field for about 78 percent of the Packers' total plays. Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver and James Jones are all within 46 plays of each other. I'm not sure if we could have predicted the decline in Driver's playing time, but we can't argue the results given the seven touchdowns Nelson and Jones have accounted for.
While Grant has started six of seven games, backup James Starks has been on the field for more than twice as many plays as Grant. I would call that a fair and productive compromise for both players.
What stood out most about the top six personnel groupings is that they totaled less than 40 percent of the Packers' plays. That speaks to how many personnel variations the Packers have available to them and have used.
The most common combination has included Jennings, Driver and Nelson at receiver, with Starks in the backfield and Finley at tight end. The most productive on a per-play basis has been the same group with Grant in place of Starks, but the sample size (14) is too small to draw any grand conclusions there.
Rookie Randall Cobb hasn't seen much action on offense, getting on the field for about 20 percent of the plays. But that makes perfect sense considering he is a rookie who is also the Packers' full-time kickoff and punt returner. When teams talk about easing in a rookie, that's pretty much what they mean.
It is worth noting that 30 of Cobb's 86 offensive plays have come in one grouping, alongside Jennings, Jones and Finley. That group, which also includes Starks, has averaged nearly 10 yards per play.
I'll be the first to admit that having access to this kind of information is half the fun here. We should be careful about drawing too many conclusions on what has or hasn't worked.
I think we can authoritatively say the Packers have handled their challenge fairly and effectively, based on their 7-0 record and the even-handed distribution of playing time. Beyond that, however, this information simply gives us context and background on the first half of the season, along with a structure with which to follow their second-half adjustments.