Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
09 Oct 2012
by Rivers McCown
There comes a time in every writer's life where he has to admit that he was wrong. That he misjudged a situation, that he didn't see what was to be, or that he wrote something that made no sense.
This is my Reggie Wayne comment from Football Outsiders Almanac 2012:
The end of a wide receiver’s career is a very fickle thing to judge. How many years did Derrick Mason and Jimmy Smith defy the odds to keep putting up big seasons? Wayne slipped a bit statistically last season, but it’s almost impossible to tell how much because of the confines of the Indianapolis offense. You are probably going to get more short balls thrown at you when your quarterback crew is Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky. Either Andrew Luck’s arm talent opens up his deep throws again, or Wayne has truly lost something and will find himself out of the league in a couple of years.
I shrouded this comment in couched language, because I learned my lesson in writing off Steve Smith in Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, but my sense was that Wayne was on the downside of his career. The fact that the Colts wanted to keep him seemed more like a marriage of necessity than one of thoughtful thinking from either side. The Colts looked destined to need a rebuilding year. Wayne, in his mid-30's, looked like a player who needed to find a contender to land on. Even if he rebounded, he probably wouldn't be a part of Indy's next playoff-contending team.
But, with Indianapolis letting Pierre Garcon and Jacob Tamme walk, and returning no other receivers of any value, they needed Wayne. Wayne didn't need Indianapolis, and didn't owe them anything, but he was loyal to the end.
Quick Reads went over the statistics from this game, but take a second look: 13 catches on 20 attempts, 212 yards, and the game-clinching touchdown. Everyone was in a tizzy about how Mr. Luck performed in this game -- and don't get me wrong, he was stellar under a lot of pressure -- but Wayne was the player that broke the Packers secondary. Charles Woodson couldn't check him. Sam Shields couldn't check him. Zones couldn't stop him. The single biggest reason that Indianapolis won this game was that Wayne was the best player on the field.
And don't look now, but at 2-2, aren't they right in the thick of the playoff race? The AFC is wide-open outside of Houston, Baltimore, and New England. The Bills have played historically-bad levels of defense the last two weeks, the Bengals have defensive issues of their own, the Chargers just dropped a game to a team that was 0-4, and the Jets are sinking without Darrelle Revis. Why couldn't the Colts use their three remaining games against Tennessee and Jacksonville to get up to nine wins or so?
If they do get there, Wayne won't just be a piece of the puzzle -- he'll probably be the main reason.
Can we make it five-for-five on Dewey games? We can indeed.
|Dewey Defeats Colts|
|Team||OFF VOA||DEF VOA||ST VOA||TOTAL VOA|
Obviously, this gap is much smaller in DVOA because of opponent adjustments. On a play-by-play basis, these teams were very similar on Sunday. The Packers gained 5.8 yards per play compared to the Colts' 5.2, and almost all of that advantage was in the ground game. The biggest difference was that the Colts possessed the ball 35 minutes of the game -- and it wasn't a case of them running out the clock, since they stormed back with a second-half comeback. This was a very weird game statistically, because Green Bay scored a pair of quick touchdowns (two and four plays), along with four three-and-outs and a third-down pick on another third play of a drive. It's rare to see a team get so many more plays than another when they are both performing roughly the same by average yards per play.
This game didn't really have a ballsy decision or particularly noteworthy mistake by a coach, unless you count the Packers having the play clock expire with 13 seconds left in regulation, forcing them to use their last timeout and stop attempting to advance the ball further on Mason Crosby's attempt to tie the game. Since we can't really divvy blame up for that without making guesses, I won't.
However, if you'll allow me to expand the meaning of the word "call," the Colts were the beneficiaries of a very questionable pass interference call on Sam Shields. With 1:59 left in the third quarter, the Colts were at the boundaries of field-goal range when Luck lofted a pass to Donnie Avery that was practically uncatchable. Despite this, and the fact that from my vantage, Avery shoved Shields in the back, the officials ruled that Shields was at fault. The resulting yardage put the ball in the red zone, and four plays later, the Colts cut the Green Bay lead to just two points.
If there is one truism that I think has taken hold in the media the last few years, it's the fact that a passing game does not need a good offensive line (or, in particular, a good left tackle) to win a Super Bowl. In a way, this almost feels like splashback from The Blind Side. Yeah, the quarterback is still the most important player on the field. Yeah, Jermon Bushrod probably doesn't make a Pro Bowl if he's protecting Alex Smith instead of Drew Brees.
But there is still a very noticeable difference between having an acceptable offensive line and having a poor one. If you happened to watch Kevin Kolb last Thursday night, you know what I am talking about. Well, Green Bay's deep passing game has ground to a halt this year, and the logical bogeyman, given how often Aaron Rodgers has been sacked despite his good pocket presence, is the Green Bay line. Outside of Josh Sitton, there isn't a player on this unit that has played up to his potential this season. Jeff Saturday was supposed to come in and pick up the slack for the departed Scott Wells, but that hasn't happened yet. Beyond that, the unit returns just about every player who started for them last season, minus the aging Chad Clifton.
Through Week 4, Green Bay had allowed an Adjusted Sack Rate of 9.6 percent (tied for second-to-last), as compared to just 7.4 percent (23rd place) last year. The fact that the Packers have been able to continue having moderate success in the air is in large part a tribute to how special Rodgers is. However, when a quarterback loses pocket time, they also lose the ability to have receivers run the entire route tree, and that means the passing game needs to key on three- and five-step drops. If you want to take a shot play behind a shoddy offensive line, they need to commit more blockers.
Green Bay did this on the very first play of the third quarter in this game, running a play-action pass out of an I-Formation set with two receivers to the right. When the dust settled at the line, Indianapolis rushed four, and Green Bay countered with eight blockers. It might not surprise you to learn that despite having all the time in the world to work with, Rodgers could not find anybody open. He scrambled to the sideline, threw the ball away, and the Packers got hit with a holding penalty for good measure. That drive ended in a third-down interception, and the Colts went right down the short field to score a touchdown.
(I figured we didn't need any pictures this week because you all know what a Rodgers sack looks like after the Seahawks-Packers Monday Night tilt.)
Here is what our statistics make of the Packers passing game on passes that go 15 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage:
|Green Bay Passing Game 2011-2012|
Keep in mind that the average DVOA on deep passes is roughly 55 percent. This is mostly because when deep passes don't get attempted, they become sacks, dumpoffs, and the like. So Green Bay has gone from about 75 percent better than average on these throws to about 35 percent worse.
There are a few mitigating factors beyond the offensive line. We would naturally expect the Green Bay offense to regress a little bit after how well they played last season. Greg Jennings has alternated between injured and ineffective (-18.0% DVOA). Jordy Nelson was never going to repeat what he did in 2011. You get the picture: this team was never likely to be 2011 good again, but they should be doing much better than this.
Rodgers will keep the offense reasonable either way, and Green Bay's defensive rebound from 2011 will keep them in the thick of contention, but the aura of offensive invincibility they had in 2011 has faded. Step one to getting it back will be finding a way to let Rodgers hit a deep ball again, and that starts up front.
NFL teams may not need good offensive line play to win a Super Bowl, but they definitely need adequate.
21 comments, Last at 11 Oct 2012, 1:20pm by Kevin