Packers-49ers II: Offensive improvement

Time for a quick quiz. Can you guess the pass-happiest game in the five-year history of the Aaron Rodgers Era?

Tick, tock.

Tick, tock.


It came in Week 1 of this season, the Green Bay Packers' 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. As the chart shows, Rodgers dropped back on 85 percent of the Packers' plays in that game (52 of 61). More than half of those plays (31 of 61) came without a running back on the field. The approach has come to symbolize the worst of the Packers' occasionally imbalanced offense under Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy, and it's an appropriate starting point for extending the conversation on how the team has changed over the ensuing 17 weeks.

To spur that discussion, I've circled back on two posts from the early part of the season. One documented the Packers' failure rate whenever they push past a dropback rate of 70 percent. The other illustrated the decline of their downfield passing success.

With the help of John McTigue from ESPN Stats & Information, I can tell you a couple things:

  1. The Packers dropped back at a significantly lower rate over the final two-thirds of their season.

  2. Over roughly the same time period, their downfield success improved, even if it didn't approach the heights of their record-setting 2011 season.

On the first point, the Packers averaged 44.6 dropbacks over their first five games, which was the third-highest in the NFL at the time. It was part of the reason they were 2-3 at the time, and it left them 2-8 in games they've dropped back at least 70 percent of the time in the Rodgers Era.

Thereafter, the Packers had only one 70-percent dropback rate: Their Week 17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Even with that game, the Packers' dropback average dropped to 38 per game over their final 11.

With a less imbalanced offense since then, as the second chart shows, Rodgers has had more success as a downfield passer. His QBR on throws that traveled at least 15 yards in the air has been 98.5 (on a scale of 0 to 100).

The Packers' offense still fell short of its explosive 2011 season. Its 40-yard completions dropped by 44 percent (from 16 to 9) and its 20-yard completions dropped by 21 percent (70 to 55) over the course of 16 games. Rodgers averaged 7.83 air yards per throw, ranking No. 27 in the NFL, after averaging the league's 10th-highest mark (8.97) in 2011.

What's more important, however, is the Packers made a steady climb since hitting that early road block. Why has that happened? Conventional wisdom suggests their balance has helped. But in in a conference call this week, ESPN analyst Steve Young discounted that theory and suggested Rodgers simply raised his performance level amid an incompletely formed offense.

"Defenses are predatory," Young said. "They smell trouble and then they go after it. And throughout this year, I think defenses smelled that there was really no threat from the [Packers'] run. You can talk about it. You can even have some success. You know the truth. [But] it creates a lot of problems for quarterbacks.

"And that's why I think Aaron had one of the great years ever, because he pulled this team along without all the weapons, without his full arsenal. You give him a running game and the ability to put the ball in the belly of running back and pull it back out, and have reaction from safeties and linebackers … you won’t stop him.

"I don't believe there's enough of a threat to change the predatory nature of how defenses look at the Packers. They haven't been straightened up to that fact. … I don't think they’ve done enough to change the perception from the kind of defense he’s going to be facing."

We'll leave it to people with deeper football knowledge than me to understand why this shift has occurred. Was it more balanced play-calling? Simply a yeoman effort from Rodgers? That debate can continue. What we can conclude is that there has been a notable shift. The Packers are a more balanced and more explosive offense than they were in Week 1, and it sure won't hurt them in Saturday night's rematch.