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Will the Packers Send Off Aaron Rodgers With a Trophy or a Frown?

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: August 20, 2021, 1:32 pm ET

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In a perfect storm of a 2021 season, Aaron Rodgers’s performance rocketed out of Green Bay’s atmosphere, and was almost never to return. 

The leap that Rodgers made from 2019 to 2020 was so massive it alone sent the Packers back to the NFC Championship game. 

This team had all the markers that screamed regression in 2020, save for the fact that they had Rodgers at quarterback.

Look at what this team did in 2019 first – they improved from 6-10 to 13-3. Over the last 30 years, there were 52 teams that improved by 6+ wins from one year to the next. Zero had won at least 12 games or more the following year.

Did the 2019 Packers improve in their performance or in the record book? Because they are two different things. From an efficiency standpoint, there was not much improvement in 2019 on offense. The key difference was performance in metrics that tend to have poor year-over-year correlation:

The Packers went 8-1 in one-score games. They improved their turnover margin to +12. They were the 14th healthiest team in the NFL. Their defensive schedule was littered with backup quarterbacks, rookie quarterbacks, and mediocre quarterbacks. 

For these reasons, a lot of people were on the Packers regression bandwagon for 2020. I thought the NFC North would take a step back, but I didn’t join the cries to fade the Packers. Instead, I faded the Vikings. 

There were two key reasons I wasn’t on board with the fade, although I didn’t anticipate them winning 13 games again:

First, it was already priced into the number. Linesmakers hung a 9-win total on the Packers for 2020, anticipating them regressing. There was no value in betting under that, and regardless of what you conclude from a review of all your pre-season work, if it’s already priced into the number, there isn’t value and you have to pass.

Second, I actually saw a lot of upside for Matt LaFleur’s offense to grow, because I saw a lot of efficiency being left on the table.

So first, you had zero value in fading the Packers in 2020. While you had a number of markers that should regress to the mean against the Packers (turnover margin, one-score results, etc) you should have a number of passing game factors which would go in their favor. 

But with a nearly identical roster in 2020, against a projected tougher schedule, I absolutely did not think the Packers would deliver a 13-3 season.

Let’s examine two of the things that I identified that regressed in 2020 and I expected to rebound.

First, Rodgers on first down.

Rodgers bounded back huge on first down in 2020, which made everything for the Packers offense go so much smoother. 

2019: 0.12 EPA/att, 6.3 YPA, 50% success
2020: 0.21 EPA/att, 7.5 YPA, 63% success

What did LaFleur and Rodgers do to improve so much on first down? 

Much of it hinged on a more aggressive game from shotgun. First, examine the shotgun splits for Rodgers on first down, by year:

2019 shotgun first down attempts: 0.05 EPA/att, 5.2 YPA, 48% success (163 att)
2020 shotgun first down attempts: 0.22 EPA/att, 7.8 YPA, 63% success (166 att)

Rodgers was much better in the gun. Specifically, look at his splits when throwing over 10 yards downfield:

2019: -0.45 EPA/att, 3.1 YPA, 13% success (39 att)
2020: 0.29 EPA/att, 13.9 YPA, 41% success (44 att)

Rodgers simply was not connecting on these passes to Davante Adams or Marquez Valdes-Scantling in 2019. And they were dominant in 2020. Look at this comparison:

Rodgers threw three touchdowns to Adams/MVS on shotgun first downs in 2020. On shotgun first downs in 2019, Rodgers threw one on-target ball to both of them combined.

Then, there were the RPOs. Our Dan Pizzuta studied these in 2019 and found the anomaly in their lack of success, despite LaFleur ramping up the usage of it in his first season as Packers coach.

But they absolutely perfected their use in the offseason after LaFleur and Rodgers made adjustments, because look at the splits from 2019 to 2020:

2019: -0.03 EPA/att, 4.1 YPA, 45% success (49 att)
2020: 0.13 EPA/att, 6.0 YPA, 61% success (61 att)

No quarterback attempted more RPOs in 2020 than Rodgers. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes still got the most efficiency out of it, but the improvement shown by the Packers offense from 2019 was considerable.

What was the impact of the significant improvement on first down?

First, it was bypassing third downs. 

In 2019, the Packers gained only 320 first downs but attempted 203 third downs. In 2020, the Packers gained 358 first downs and attempted only 180 third downs. That’s a significant shift.

Second, it was facing more makeable third downs.

In 2019, the Packers faced an average of 7.9 yards-to-go on third down. That was third-highest in the NFL. In 2020, the Packers faced an average of 6.5 yards-to-go on third down. That was seventh-lowest in the NFL.

Fewer yards to go on third down allowed for a higher conversion rate. The Packers led the NFL in third down conversion rate if you include the playoffs, converting 51% of third downs into first downs. 

In 2019? With considerably longer to go on average, the Packers ranked 19th, converting only 37.6% of third downs into first downs.

So when you ask “what is the big deal with being better on first downs?” you have your answer. By improving on first downs, the Packers:

-    Avoided third downs more often
-    When they did infrequently face third downs, the yards-to-go was much shorter
-    Their third down conversion rate was much better as a result

The shift in all three of those metrics were the best improvements of any team in the NFL last year. And at the center, was the Packers’ improved first down passing.

When we talk specifically about third downs, Rodgers was dynamite deep in 2020, and this unfortunately is more likely to regress.

How good was he in 2020?

Rodgers was the best of any quarterback in the NFL over the last five years. Remember how insane Carson Wentz was in 2017 when he led the Eagles to their Super Bowl? That was the fourth-best mark of any quarterback over the last five years. 

No. 3 was Mahomes in 2020. No. 2 was Rodgers back in 2016. No. 1 was Rodgers in 2020.

He was absolutely operating with laser-like precision. 80% of his throws were catchable, the highest rate of any quarterback over the last five years with at least 25 of these 20+ yard third down attempts.

Just compare year-over-year for Rodgers on third down throws 20+ air yards:

2019: +0.22 EPA/att, 9.3 YPA, 30% success, 61% catchable rate
2020: 1.23 EPA/att, 19.8 YPA, 50% success, 80% catchable rate

He was operating last year on another planet when trying to go deep on third downs. While first down and early down efficiency is less likely to regress, this type of third down performance is likely to.

Speaking of regression, what ended up happening with the 2020 Packers in all of the low-hanging fruit metrics that everyone who faded them latched onto?

Their record in one-score games dropped from 8-1 in 2019 to 4-2 in 2020. Their record in games decided by a field goal dropped from 2-0 in 2019 to 0-1 in 2020. Turnover margin dropped from +12 in 2019 to +7 in 2020. Injury rate dropped from 14th best in 2019 to 15th best in 2020. Their defensive schedule of opposing quarterbacks stayed at 14th, identical to 2019.

So while most of these metrics did regress some, the net effect of the efficiency boosts coupled with the overall stellar season from Rodgers kept this team at 13 wins. 

It was also aided by a ridiculously easy schedule of opposing defenses — particularly against the pass. 

Last year, the Packers faced the seventh easiest schedule of opposing pass defense. They faced seven teams that ranked bottom-10 in pass defense and swept those teams. Of the eight teams they faced that ranked top-half in pass defense, they lost three (their only losses of the season).

This year, the story will be different. The Packers will play 12 games against pass defenses that ranked in the top-half of the league last season, including eight that ranked top-10. They only play four games against teams that ranked bottom-10 last year. Time will tell how these pass defenses look this year, but on the surface, the schedule looks daunting.

Out are the weaker NFC South defenses like the Falcons and Panthers, and all of the soft AFC South defenses (save for the Colts, who beat the Packers last year). In are the stingy AFC North defenses, the NFC West defenses, plus top-10 defenses of Washington and New Orleans. 

How do you improve on an offense that neared perfection last year? (You’ve noticed I haven’t discussed the elephant in the room, but I promise I will later.) You build off of what worked so well last year. Two things that were incredibly productive were efficiency on first down passing and passing out of heavier sets, specifically, 12 personnel.

We know how incredible the Packers were when passing the ball on first downs last year. They could lean into that even more. The Packers were 52% pass on first down in the game’s first three quarters last year. That was consistent with 2019, LaFleur’s first year. While the first down run game has been productive in both seasons, the Packers could lean a little more into the pass. Their 52% pass rate tied with the Cowboys and Falcons for seventh highest in the NFL. The three teams directly above them were the Eagles, Dolphins, and Washington.

When you lay out those quarterbacks from last year, it’s fair to think the Packers should be looking to increase their pass rate. When Aaron Rodgers’s pass rate is identical or less frequent than Tua Tagovailola, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan, it may be possible to squeeze more juice from that stellar pass efficiency.

Additionally, the Packers saw tremendous efficiency out of 12 personnel when passing the ball. They upped the usage of 12 when calling pass plays, from 14% in 2019 to 20% in 2020. And why not? It’s not as if the Packers have a stacked wide receiving corps behind Davante Adams. We’ll touch on the injuries momentarily, but even when healthy, I think the Packers would be an awesome 12 personnel pass team if they leaned into it more.

Look at the 2020 splits by personnel for the only three groupings they really used to pass from:

11 personnel: 0.21 EPA/att, 8.1 YPA, 52% success (397 att)
12 personnel: 0.30 EPA/att, 8.0 YPA, 68% success (126 att)
21 personnel: 0.18 EPA/att, 7.8 YPA, 53% success (86 att)

With the emergence of Robert Tonyan and the lack of wide receiver depth, passing out of 12 has benefits other than just the efficiency witnessed in 2020. Rodgers was pressured and sacked much less frequently when the Packers passed out of 12.

Even if you strip out third downs, when the Packers are more likely to use 11 personnel, look at early down pressure rate:

11 personnel: 27% pressure, 11 sacks (4.5% sack rate)
12 personnel: 23% pressure, 1 sack (0.8% sack rate)

And the splits on early downs from 12 are even larger than all three downs:

11 personnel early downs: 0.13 EPA/att, 7.0 YPA, 54% success
12 personnel early downs: 0.34 EPA/att, 8.1 YPA, 69% success

LaFleur could lean into more first down passing and more 12 personnel and see if that further raises the ceiling of this 2021 Packers offense.

In terms of the Packers’ wide receiver depth, what makes things even more remarkable for Rodgers in his 2020 season was the fact that, no, the Packers haven’t really focused on enhancing his receiver depth and yes, this receiving corps is always one of the most injured in the NFL.

It’s not enough that the Packers haven’t brought on talent at the wide receiver position… what they have at the position hasn’t been healthy. The last three seasons in games lost to injury, the Packers receivers ranked:

2020: 29th
2019: 26th
2018: 26th

They’ve had the most injured wide receiver corps in the NFL. Watching Rodgers deliver that MVP performance last season with the fourth-most injured wide receiver corps was just extraordinary.

It’s absolutely insane how well Rodgers takes care of the ball.

Of quarterbacks to throw at least 1,000 attempts the last three years, Rodgers’s 0.65% interception rate is far and away the best. Drew Brees was 1.19% at No. 2, Patrick Mahomes was 1.39% at No. 3, and Wilson was 1.67% at No. 4. 

Let’s add historical context. Only seven times in NFL history has a quarterback thrown 500+ attempts with five or fewer interceptions. Aaron Rodgers is the only quarterback to do it more than once. He owns FOUR of those seven seasons!

Even more insane: he’s done it THREE YEARS IN A ROW, 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Right now, the Green Bay Packers are expected to win 10 games at PointsBet, , -175 to win the NFC North and -275 to make the playoffs.  So long as they avoid injuries, the only thing derailing this team in 2021 will be a far more difficult schedule of pass defense.  

Stay tuned over the next eight weeks as we preview all 32 teams with daily articles and videos right here at the preview hub.  For complete team chapters featuring dozens of visualizations and 462 pages, pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book.

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Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.