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Why the Packers are doomed

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Doomed is a relative term

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Are there luckier fans in all of professional sports than those of the Green Bay Packers? Sixteen years of Hall-of-Fame QB play from Brett Favre immediately followed by snagging some guy who is arguably the greatest of all time. As for this season, the Packers are going to be a good team. The doom that faces them is not the same that faces teams like the Rams or Niners, rather it will be the doom with which Seahawks’ fans are all too acquainted.

The doom of unmet expectations.

Where They Were

Last season, Green Bay was out for blood. Their All-World QB was coming off of probably the worst season of his career, when his TD% was lower than any seasons since his rookie year and his yards/attempt and passer rating were worse than his rookie season. They went 10-6 in 2015 and fallen out of first place in the NFCN for the first time since Beastquake and after furiously battling to force overtime against Arizona in the divisional round, they gave up a 75-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald on the first play of overtime. In 2016, they rebounded with a much better offense and a much worse defense for the exact same record and virtually the same point differential (Side note: a point differential the terribly disappointing 2016 Seahawks exceeded). To the chart!

Packers 2016

Stat Result
Stat Result
Point Differential 44
Pythag win/loss 9.0-7.0
Total DVOA (Rank) 12.1% (7)
Off. DVOA (Rank) 16.4% (4)
Def. DVOA 2.4% (20)
S.T. DVOA -1.8% (20)

Great offense, lousy defense. It’s been the story of the Packers since their last Super Bowl appearance in 2010. Since then, Green Bay has never ranked in the top 10 in points allowed. Since that Super Bowl run, they have gone 5-6, including just 3-2 at home. The Pete Carroll Seahawks have never lost a playoff game at home. So much for that great Packers’ home field advantage.

What They Gained

One of the seven seals must have broken this last year because Ted Thompson signed a free agent to a multi-year contract with non-trivial guarantees. The beneficiary was one Martellus Bennett, elder but inferior brother to Seattle’s very own Michael Bennett. Martellus is a useful player and an absolutely incredible personality. Getting that much personality for $21 million and $7 mill guaranteed is a steal. But in terms of actual football value, it’s pretty much the exact right price. When Rob Gronkowski went down for the season, Bennett had an opportunity to step up as a receiving threat, but he was never much more than average in that regard. As for his blocking, I’m not sure it is all its cracked up to be. The Patriots’ rush offense was virtually identical in terms of efficiency from last year to this year. Martellus is just one player, but he clearly did not make much of a difference. The rest of the FA signings were cheap deals for depth and included former Seahawks legend, Jahri Evans. Evans, at 34 years old, is in the mix for a starting guard spot.

Following the draft, it was eerie to see how much Green Bay seems to mirror Seattle. It isn’t surprising considering John Schneider came up through the ranks under Ron Wolf together. Like Schneider, Thompson loves to accumulate picks. Since 2012, he has drafted an average of nearly nine players a year and never made fewer than seven selections. In the 2017 draft, Thompson got a little SPARQ-crazy. Out of his ten draftees, five of them are at or over the 80th percentile for NFL athleticism at their position. First among these was UW CB Kevin King, a 99th percentile NFL athlete. Thompson also grabbed FS Josh Jones (86th percentile) and RB Aaron Jones (88th percentile). Adding these sorts of athletes to the team will hopefully make them less reliant on the wizardry of Aaron Rodgers going forward.

What They Lost

I was somewhat surprised to see that the Packers had lost four free agents who got $10 million or more on their new deals. Seahawks fans are sure to remember T.J. Lang, who signed with Detroit for $28.5 million over three years, but Green Bay also lost versatile safety Micah Hyde. Hyde had played all over their secondary and, according to profootballreference, also defensive end? I’m not sure that his loss opens a gaping hole in the GB defense so much as it weakens the depth at several different spaces in the back four. Other large contracts that are heading out are center J.C. Tretter and TE Jared Cook. J.C. has been an oft-injured backup center who has fewer than 1000 snaps over the past three years. Cook is a former Titan and Ram who put up pretty poor numbers for the Packers, only snagging 30 catches for 377 yards and 1 TD in 10 games.

After the double-digit contracts, the next biggest contract was Eddie Lacy’s one year deal for $4.25 million. The big back had supposedly dealt with weight issues that limited his effectiveness, but before going down to injury, he averaged 5.1 yards a carry in 2016.

What Comes Next

In the past five years, the Packers have amassed the league’s 4th best record and gone to two conference championships. Undoubtedly impressive accomplishments, but one has to wonder if it is enough, considering they have the best QB in the NFL. They have gone 12-4, 10-6, and 10-6 over the past three years, which is virtually identical to the Seahawks records of 12-4, 10-6, and 10-5-1 over the same span. And yet there seems to be a sense that Green Bay is on the rise while Seattle is declining. In the Packers’ quest to establish NFC dominance the three most important factors are Rodgers, Dom Capers, and Kenny Clark.

Rodgers is the best QB in the NFL. He might be the best QB in NFL history. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 100 QBs have thrown over 2500 passes. Rodgers is the only one to have a TD/INT ratio greater than 4.0. For reference, Wilson is a bit more than 200 passes shy of meeting the threshold, but his TD/INT ratio would slot in at 3rd on that leaderboard with 2.83. It’s incredible how good Rodgers is at protecting the ball and throwing TDs. However, something has been a bit off about Rodgers’ production over the past two years. His Y/A had been excellent (~25% than league average) since his debut, but over the past two years his Y/A has fallen to slightly below league average. Y/A isn’t a perfect stat by any means, but it is bizarre to me that Rodgers went from the top of the NFL leaderboards in Y/A to the middle of the pack at the relatively young age of 32 without an obvious injury. And yes, he did throw 40 TDs last year to lead the league, and a respectable 31 the year before, but these deserve a bit more careful scrutiny. For his first six seasons in the league, the Packers ran and passed the ball essentially half the time (47.4% and 52.6%, respectively) when within 5 yards of the endzone. However, in the past two years that has shifted to 40% rushing and 60% passing. Unsurprisingly, Rodgers’ TDs from less than 5 yards have also skyrocketed. From 2009 to 2014, just over 20% of his nearly 200 TDs were from within 5 yards. But in 2015 and 2016, over 28% of his TDs have come from the doorstep of the goal line. This disparity grows when looking at passes from within 10 yards of the endzone. In 2015-2016, nearly 55% of his TDs came from within 10 yards of the endzone, a increase of over 11 points from 2009-2014. Ultimately, I am not sure that this means that Rodgers is a bad QB. I’ll leave it the commentariat to determine whether an increased reliance on short yardage TDs is a testament to or indictment of his quality.

I was expecting to write about Dom Capers in the ‘Who they Lost’ section, but, mystifyingly, the Packers have decided to retain him. I asked the folks at Acme Packing Company for their thoughts on Capers and it was surprisingly positive for a defense that hasn’t cracked the top ten in points allowed since the Packers’ Super Bowl victory in the 2010 season, when they had the 2nd best defense in the league. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that his defense got wrecked in the playoffs by a second-year Colin Kaepernick to the tune of nearly 450 yards from Kaep alone. The very next season, they contained him a bit better, but still let him march 80 yards down the field to allow Phillip Dawson to kick the game winning FG as time expired. Over the last six years, they have allowed almost exactly a league average amount of points per season. Capers is getting an influx of drafted talent this season, as three of the first four Green Bay draftees were on the defensive side of the ball, but will that be enough for him to craft a top 10 defense?

Kenny Clark may seem like an odd choice for an impact player, but he represents a disturbing trend in Ted Thompson’s drafting. He has been struggling to draft defensive front seven talent. Since 2012, the Packers have drafted six front seven players in the first three rounds of the draft. While the jury is still out on Clark, two of those six players played less than two seasons in the green and gold. One of them, Khyri Thornton, didn’t even make it out of camp as a 3rd round pick. The only pick to make a name for himself was OLB Nick Perry, and he didn’t break out until his 5th year. Clark is young and has ample time to develop, but his first season was far from an unqualified success. Jarran Reed, drafted 22 spots after Clark, had slightly more production (1.5 more sacks, identical tackles, 13 more assisted tackles) with a bit more playing time (477 defensive snaps compared to 335). I also realize that DTs are not generally big producers. Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 grades are publicly available and Charles McDonald (@FourVerts on twitter) graded Reed and Clark as essentially identical. In the spirit of completeness, I also sussed out PFF grades for both players. Clark earned a 76.4 (ranked 36th) and Reed earned a 44.2 (rank unknown). Its way too early to tell if Reed or Clark is the better player, but given Thompson’s recent drafting history, I wouldn’t bet the house on Clark.

Prediction

Green Bay played like a 9-7 team last year and ended up with a 10-6 record. And even with all my pontificating about how Rodgers’ might be slowing down, they still have probably the best QB in the league. For the season to go off the rails, there would have to be a significant number of injuries and an incredible improvement from the rest of the teams in the division. I see the Packers going 12-4, but being bounced from the playoffs in the divisional round, hopefully by the Seahawks.