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Part I of our catch radius season finale spotlights the NFC kings of double coverage (Calvin Johnson), the sideline (Jordy Nelson), the drag route (DeSean Jackson) and the red zone (Dez Bryant).

08 Aug 2012

Andy Benoit Previews the Packers

by Andy Benoit

(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)

Your forgiveness, please, if you think it’s inappropriate to present a team as a dynasty-in-the-making when that team is coming off an 0-1 postseason. This is not meant to promote hyperbole or incite reaction. It’s true, the word dynasty gets preemptively thrown around way too much these days. (Thanks a lot, Miami Heat.) And yet, what would you say is a more accurate way to depict the 2012 Green Bay Packers?

Just because they lost to the white-hot Giants in the divisional round last January doesn’t mean they’re looking to avenge anything. That loss wasn’t a case of their hidden weaknesses catching up to them, it was just an "off day" coming at the worst of times. In that game, Aaron Rodgers missed a few throws he normally makes. There were eight dropped balls by Packers receivers. The offensive line could not independently hold up against a dominant Giants pass rush, and the Packers’ defense was uninspiring and sloppy in a few very costly ways (see: end-of-half heave).

None of these were pervasive issues throughout the year, though. Remember, before that ill-timed bad day, this team was 15-1. Yes, the Packer defense took a step back. After ranking fifth (in yards allowed) en route to a Super Bowl title in 2010, it ranked 32nd in 2011. Opponents averaged a league-high 299.8 yards per game throwing against Dom Capers’s unit. This data is a bit misleading, though, as the potency of Green Bay’s offense led to a lot of garbage time or shootout games. Yes, Green Bay’s defense must bounce back this season, but it doesn’t have as far to bounce as you’d think. If it did, the Packers would not have gone 15-1.

It is Green Bay’s glistening offense that makes the "dynasty-in-the-making" talk sensible. Reigning MVP Rodgers, at 28, is now regarded by his peers and more than a few analysts as the best player in the sport. He has a cavalcade of big-play receivers, an innovate designer of offense in Mike McCarthy, and a stable supporting cast that allowed this unit to post a staggering 35 points per game last season.

General Manager Ted Thompson did not make many moves during the off-season because he did not have to. He used his first-round draft pick on Southern California pass rusher Nick Perry, hopefully filling the closest thing this team had to a hole. He replaced veteran center Scott Wells with a cheaper, older model: Jeff Saturday. He signed a few backup defensive ends to compete with second-round pick Jerel Worthy. And he made a few shuffles to the coaching staff –- most notably, promoting the quarterbacks coach Tom Clements to offensive coordinator, where he will replace new Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. This sort of run-of-the-mill off-season is what happens when a front office constructs a sterling long-term roster and manages the cap well. No drama, no hoopla, no story lines.

And so that leaves "dynasty" talk to define the angle on the 2012 Green Bay Packers. There’s not a more accurate approach. The Packers are young, well-managed, and clear Super Bowl favorites. Let’s examine this dynasty-in-the-making.

OFFENSE

First off, let’s just get the Aaron Rodgers paean out of the way. You already know about his physical tools. Rodgers has a strong, lively arm. He does not just have great accuracy, he has great precision accuracy. That’s the primary reason Packers receivers post such hefty run-after-the-catch numbers. Also, Rodgers’s athleticism shows up every time he scrambles and throws darts on the move. He does not rely on his legs, though, because he is so mechanically sound and poised in the pocket, even with bodies around him, that he does not need to.

That’s Rodgers from a physical standpoint. Mentally, he’s just as good. He works through his progressions as quickly and decisively as any quarterback in the game. He’s Bobby Fischer at the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t just identify defenses, he manipulates them. He has mastered the art of subterfuge before the snap, and he has mastered subtle, deceptive body language after the snap. It may not matter that Ted Thompson could not keep the backup Matt Flynn (he commanded mid-level starter’s money as a free agent); going with the untested Graham Harrell (or the seventh-round rookie B.J. Coleman) is all the same to Thompson. He knows that if his starting quarterback is out for an extended period, his team is finished anyway.

The Packers have not just put Rodgers in a great system (more on that momentarily), they have surrounded him with great weapons. Wide receiver Greg Jennings is a first-class route runner, which makes him nearly impossible to cover one-on-one despite not being an ideal physical specimen. Opposite him, Jordy Nelson is coming off a season in which he scored 15 touchdowns and caught 68 passes at an average of 18.6 yards per pop. Nelson can stretch the field and, more importantly, make quick adjustments to a ball in flight. Behind Nelson is the sagacious 37-year-old veteran Donald Driver, who has not lost nearly as much speed as you would guess.

Inside, if tight end Jermichael Finley’s raw athleticism were a form of currency, he would be about 10 times richer than he is even after having signed a two-year, $14 million contract. The reason Green Bay did not give the 25-year-old a longer deal is that he has struggled with injuries, mental lapses, and dropped passes. But it is possible, perhaps even probable, that Finley is still improving. That’s scary.

Finley can serve as a slot receiver, though if they want, the Packers have a real slot receiver in James Jones. Sloppy mistakes have skewed Jones’s image a bit, but if you look at his skills, he can be as dangerous a big-play threat as just about anyone. So can the man gunning for his job: second-year pro Randall Cobb. Cobb is similar in style to former Steeler Antwaan Randle El ... can we dub him "Antwaan Randall Cobb" yet?

There’s not an offensive coach in pro football who would not yearn to have a receiving corps like Green Bay’s. What makes this one particularly dominant is the West Coast-style spread system it operates in. Mike McCarthy is superb at creating mismatches through entangled route combinations and formation variation. He remains several years ahead of his time in designing plays out of the increasingly popular three-receiver sets.

McCarthy is also terrific at capitalizing on the flexibility of his personnel. Generally, Finley is the X-factor. Defenses must decide whether to treat him as a tight end or a wide receiver. He is a much better pass-catcher than blocker at this point, but defenses can’t always treat him as a receiver because McCarthy has shown a commitment to using base personnel and multi-tight end alignments. That’s commendable given how tempting it must be to sling it to these wideouts all day, but slightly fewer touches for the wide receivers in the name of a balanced attack would make this a much better offense in the grander scheme of things.

The Packers are willing to throw from their heavier sets, and they have a bounty of niche players to incorporate here. Tight end Andrew Quarless is effective working off the line of scrimmage inside, and he showed during Finley’s injury absence in 2010 that he is capable of occasionally splitting into the slot. (He is, however, coming off a serious knee injury and may be limited early.) H-back Tom Crabtree is a serviceable red-zone target, though mainly because defenses expect him to be a motion blocker. Crabtree will try to keep fending off athletic 2011 seventh-round pick Ryan Taylor for playing time. He also has the more athletic receiving H-back D.J. Williams (fifth-round pick, 2011) behind him. Out of the backfield, James Starks is adequate in the screen game (a tactic the Packers make good use of), and fullback John Kuhn is surprisingly soft-handed in the flats. Additionally, some in the organization believe that the man with the best hands on the team is undrafted second-year running back Brandon Saine, who is in line for an elevated role this season.

Saine shows decent tempo-changing ability with the ball in his hands, which could earn him touches in the running game. This is one area where the Packers can stand to improve. In the playoff loss, the Giants’ pass rush forced Green Bay’s passing attack to go max-protect and be predictable in its quick strikes. Most offenses would have tried to weather this storm by pounding the rock. The Packers, however, very clearly did not have a formidable enough ground game to rely on.

Starks will likely be listed as the starting back heading into Week 1, but that’s only titular. This will wind up being a committee. Starks does not have the consistent burst to handle every-down duties. Perhaps last year’s third-round pick, Alex Green, will, though he must bounce back from an anterior cruciate ligament injury that wiped out most of his rookie season. Green, like his predecessor Ryan Grant, is a one-cut runner who will most likely need quality blocking in order to thrive. Green will likely show a better initial burst than Grant, though.

With every great offense, there is a tendency to assume that the front line is good. That’s how an undeserving Saints offensive tackle has made the Pro Bowl each of the past two years, anyway. Really, though, in today’s NFL, great offenses often have mediocre front lines that are masked by a great quarterback. The Packers are this way. Right guard Josh Sitton, though less impressive last season than he was in 2010, is tremendous in all facets, but he is the only stud up front. At right tackle, third-year pro Bryan Bulaga is dependable but not yet dynamic. At center, Jeff Saturday will prove unable to move powerful players out of a phone booth. But at least he won’t make any mental mistakes. At left guard, T.J. Lang will fill in the blanks but don’t expect many running plays to be designed around his pulling. At left tackle, Marshall Newhouse will probably beat out last year’s first-round pick, Derek Sherrod (who suffered a gruesome broken leg in December), and he’ll need plenty of chip-blocking help against quality edge rushers. Or maybe he won’t, because his brilliant quarterback will understand the offensive line’s limitations and adjust accordingly. After all, that’s exactly what Rodgers did last season.

DEFENSE

The difference between the 2011 Packers defense and the 2010 Packers defense was that the 2011 Packers defense gave up a ton of big plays. That’s the risk that coordinator Dom Capers takes with his multidimensional, often byzantine zone-blitzing scheme. The big plays given up are often a consequence of the pass rush and blitzes not functioning properly.

The Packer pass rush was inconsistent and underperforming. That became painfully apparent whenever superstar Clay Matthews got tied up, and that happened just a tad more than usual with Matthews battling minor injuries. To correct the problem, Ted Thompson drafted Nick Perry, whom he hopes will become the second USC Trojan in four years to light it up at outside linebacker. Scouts love Perry’s fluid explosiveness and violent hands. He left college early and only started for one-and-a-half seasons. If Perry's initial learning curve proves too steep, Frank Zombo (a decent speed guy but not an explosive athlete) and Erik Walden (a slightly limited player that can cover tight ends) will see plenty of snaps. Fifth-round rookie Terrell Manning could get a look, but he also figures to have a challenging early transition ahead of him, and the Packers seem more inclined to make him an inside linebacker in his first year.

A staple of any zone-blitzing defense is the fire-X blitz, which involves both inside linebackers rushing the A-gaps. The Packers have one of the game’s best fire-X blitzers in Desmond Bishop, a former sixth-round pick who is also a solid pass defender with improving instincts against the run. Bishop has clearly supplanted the resoundingly average A.J. Hawk as the primary inside linebacker. Hawk has not lived up to his draft position, but keep in mind that "average" does not mean "poor." He is still a better option than the backups D.J. Smith and Rob Francois, both of whom had good and bad moments as fill-in starters last season. Also of note is former starter Brad Jones, who is moving from the outside to the inside.

Hawk plays a lot more snaps in Green Bay than he would anywhere else because, in a lot of their nickel packages, the Packers substitute a defensive lineman and keep four linebackers on the field. In fact, the 2-4-5 is really their base defense. They played that on 61 percent of the snaps last season, as opposed to just 27 percent of snaps in a 3-4.

A two-man defensive line can often suffice when one of the men is B.J. Raji. Though the 2009 first-round pick was a little more up-and-down last year than you would like to see, there is no reason to worry. Raji accentuates his 340 pounds of raw power with the uncanny quickness and agility of Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata. It’s just a matter of exhibiting those traits on a slightly more regular basis.

Raji, who almost never comes off the field, plays nose tackle in the 3-4. Flanking him is a deep rotation of ends that, the Packers hope, will one day be headlined by second-round rookie Jerel Worthy. Coming out of Michigan State, where he matured greatly between his sophomore and junior seasons, Worthy drew comparisons to Green Bay’s current end, Ryan Pickett. If he can play to Pickett’s level, and show even just hints of Pickett’s versatility, he’ll be a successful pick. If he is underwhelming, as he was at the scouting combine, he’ll be the next Mike Neal (Green Bay’s 2010 second-round pick).

Another possible solution at end is fourth-round pick Mike Daniels, who weighs well under 300 but possesses good quickness. It will probably be tough for the rookie to get a lot of snaps, though, considering that incumbents Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson are both experienced in this scheme. The Packers also added free agents Anthony Hargrove and Phillip Merling, both of whom offer upside and little risk. Hargrove (who is suspended for the first eight games for his role in the Saints bounty scandal) lacks quickness but has always had a knack for making big plays. Merling, if finally healthy and focused, can be a lissome bruiser.

What makes Capers’s system great is its chicanery and flexibility –- often best exhibited before the snap. The not-so-secret ingredient is Charles Woodson. He’s the primary reason the Packers spend so much time in a 2-4-5. With him, the Packers are one of the few teams in football who do not feel unbearably vulnerable to the run when in nickel. Woodson is such a good blitzer that, occasionally, offenses find themselves back on their heels, calling plays in reaction to what this defense is doing. It’s not so much that Woodson knows how to get near the football (though he does), it’s that he knows how to influence where the football goes. He attacks spots and angles better than any defender in the game.

Though he turns 36 in October, Woodson has not shown any signs of decline. If he does start to leak or gets dinged, backup Jarrett Bush has proved capable of filling his role in short spurts (the second half of Super Bowl XLV comes to mind). Bush is not Woodson’s planned successor, though. The Packers drafted Davon House in the fourth round last year and Casey Hayward in the second round this year. House projects to be a man-press-type corner, while Hayward is considered to be a better zone player. Both could evolve into versatile forces; they will be learning behind a possible future Hall of Famer.

What is amazing is that Woodson can also still play man coverage from the slot and, if need be, outside. The Packers have two other very adroit outside man defenders in Sam Shields and Tramon Williams (who is hoping to rebound from a shoulder injury that hindered him in 2011 and ate up most of his off-season). At strong safety, Charlie Peprah was released after a failed physical. Undrafted second-year pro M.D. Jennings will be his primary replacement, though when Green Bay slides into a traditional 3-4 look, Woodson will move to strong safety.

In center field (though also capable of playing the strong side, if need be) is third-year pro Morgan Burnett. He is no Nick Collins, but the Packers don’t necessarily need him to be. They do, however, need him to be less reactive to pump fakes and duplicitous deep route combinations. With Peprah gone, the top backup safety becomes the fourth-round rookie Jerron McMillian.

SPECIAL TEAMS

In 2011, Mason Crosby made more than 80 percent of his field goals for the first time in his five-year career. The Packers trust him in just about any situation. Tim Masthay averaged a respectable 45.6 yards per punt last season. In the return game, "Antwaan Randall Cobb" is dynamic but tends to offset his big plays with big mistakes. The Packers are willing to live with that, though, because they believe a) Cobb will grow out of it and b) The big plays can still outweigh the big mistakes.

BOTTOM LINE

As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, this offense will be nearly impossible to stop. The defense seems too loaded at all three levels not to bounce back from a subpar year. Expect this team to win its second Super Bowl in three years.

Posted by: Andy Benoit on 08 Aug 2012

47 comments, Last at 10 Aug 2012, 7:01pm by Lance

Comments

1
by akn :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 5:23pm

I love how Benoit insists the defense will regress to the mean but ignores the same applying to the offense. After all, that would get in the way of a compelling narrative. Either regression applies to all statistical measures or it applies not at all.

6
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 6:26pm

It's been shown that offenses remain relatively consistent from year-to-year, while defensive performance is far more volatile, and special teams performance completely undpredictable.

-I'm not Billy Bad-Ass.

8
by tuluse :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 7:01pm

Or:

It's been shown that current measures for how well a defense or special teams unit is are very poor and thus not measuring the true performance.

27
by t.d. :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 1:47pm

I think the measures accurately reflect offense's greater consistency, and I think it's because of the old Bill Walsh idea that systems make great offenses, but players make great defenses (and players are subject to injury- schemes aren't, except for when starting quarterbacks have to be replaced)

10
by justanothersteve :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 7:02pm

Even as a Packers fan, I expect a bit of the regression to the mean on offense. They'll still be a top 5 offense. But it's unlikely they'll be as good as last year.

2
by ebongreen :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 5:35pm

Strengths: Starting QB. Duh.
Talent, experience and depth at WR. The only thing they may lack is a dominant #1 a la Calvin or Andre Johnson, and they use Finley for that role.
Talent and depth at TE. Even with Finley being inconsistent and/or injured, DJ Williams looks like a capable #2 and matchup issue in his own right. Crabtree, and Taylor to a lesser degree, are the blockers unless/until Quarless returns. It's a young group.
Talent at offensive line. Depth at OT is shaky until Sherrod returns, but Bulaga is a stud at RT. If Newhouse improves in his second year as a starter, it's possibly one of the top-5 offensive lines in the NFL. They need more depth on the interior - the only guy they trust right now is Dietrich-Smith. Saturday replaces Clifton as the old man in the group.
Defensive turnovers. It's a group that is good at taking advantage of QB misfires.
Youth on defense, other than Woodson and Pickett. It has a lot of room to improve through the maturation of young players at nearly every position.

Weaknesses: Reliability at HB. Every back on the roster seems to have the injury bug right now, one way or another.
Pass rush other than Matthews. They've got lots of bodies that might fix this, but will they actually do it?
Experience in the secondary, other than Woodson and maybe Tramon Williams.
Tackling, at least last year. Emphasized in camp this year; we'll see if that gets fixed as well.

Short: Da&% this team looks like a contender. Let's see if/how they show up.

3
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 5:49pm

Let me be clear, i think the packers are a sb favorite, probably going to again be in the mix. But I have several problems with this article.

To begin, he starts with a common fallacy of assuming rodgers' accuracy is terrific because of the receivers high YAC. While rodgers probably does have great accuracy, brian burke has basically shown that YAC has 0 correlation with qb quality(i suggest people who don't believe me look up this study). In addition, i can't understand how matt flynn's two performances in rodgers absence didn't indicate that maybe Rodgers(gasp!) is being overrated by his supporting cast. Now, i happen to think rodgers might be the best player in the nfl, but that doesn't mean that his stats aren't being inflated by the top flight talent he's got all across the board. Andy mentions gb's overall talent, but acts as if the two are mutually exclusive when i think correlation runs both ways.(In fact, one could argue we have more evidence to suggest its gbs offensive talent thats the key than vice versa).

2nd, and this was mentioned above, the packers offense was unsustainably great all last year and to just assume that its going to hum forever and ever is just wrong. I expect it to be great again, maybe the best in the league, but nearly every offense suffers regression to the mean and last year in particular was too much of an outlier.

Finally, the worst offense is that andy seems to be handing the packers defense a complete mulligan for all of last year. He acts as if their poor play was the result of bad pass rush and too many big plays, but in reality, their run defense was even worse than their 24th ranked pass defense. If not for the turnovers, this defense was pitiful. I also question just how qualified andy benoit or really anyone is at dolling out praise on individual levels, especially when it seems impossible to know without watching a specific unit every week. For instance, despite the team's poor defense, he seems to act like BJ raji, woodson, williams, and shields were all good last year, but in fact, by pff(again, i like their numbers but some may not), they all struggled, including raji being rated as the worst nosetackle in the league.

I initially liked Andy's comments but these are feeling more and more like regular espn stuff.

4
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 6:19pm

PFF is a context free zone and if they really knew their stuff they would have realised the futility of the task they were attempting before they started.

9
by tuluse :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 7:02pm

The FO charting project has Woodson with quite good numbers.

12
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 7:10pm

I actually was wrong about Woodson. He graded negatively in terms of their pass rush grades, but was actually positive in coverage and run defense, both seemed in line with Fo's charting numbers(which are a good thing)

13
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 7:11pm

I actually was wrong about Woodson. He graded negatively in terms of their pass rush grades, but was actually positive in coverage and run defense, both seemed in line with Fo's charting numbers(which are a good thing)

11
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 7:04pm

I accept they have flaws and I submit that many of their grades are probably heavily influenced by scheme/players to an extent, but exactly why are all of their ratings so terrible? Are you suggesting that their work provides absolutely 0 information? Id like to hear a detailed response about why its completely useless, when instead, i think what they're doing feels pretty good and if you are to believe them, they've actually been praised by nfl personnel and greg cosell himself.

18
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 7:28am

The best thing that FO does is the D in DVOA and DYAR where they adjust for the strength of the opponent. I don't think that PFF have a rigorous system for accounting for this, which is problematic.

However, I think the larger issue is that their methodology is flawed. Bill Barnwell recently recounted an anecdote where an NFL team decided to attempt to create a database grading every offensive lineman in the NFL. They were professional front office personnel, scouts and coaches with access to the coaching tape that showed every player on the field and they found that it wad an impossible task as they were unable to determine the blocking schemes with any certainty.

ROn Jaworski wrote in The Games That Changed the Game, "Heck, a lot of the times the players themselves aren't always sure what their responsibilities are. You can diagram a play, practice it all week, and then all of a sudden face a different look during the game, and an adjustment would be made on the fly. In the own postgame critiques, coaches aren't always completely sure what happened until they ask the player."

Given this I have difficulty placing much credence in the grades handed out by a non professional group whose pro scouting experience is little to none. For example, if a defensive end is allowed a free rush at the quarterback is it the fault of the tight end, the tackle, the back or the quarterback? Was there even the option to audible out of the play in that offense? This is compounded by the NFL not releasing the all-22 until now, so how on earth were PFF making any reliable judgement on defensive backs other than plentiful guesswork? If a quarterback throws a pick is it due to the receiver cutting the wrong way? A football writer once told be that an agent had said that their participation data contained substantial errors.

It isn't a totally useless source, they do watch the games closely, which is more than can be said of the goons at PFT or a certain SI writer, who might be even more influential (though in their defense they don't purport to be scouts, just reporters). In my opinion their work should be taken with a shovelful of salt, it's qualitative analysis at best.

22
by tuluse :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 10:16am

In addition to everything you just wrote, pff tries to distill a players performance into a single number. Which is such a ludicrous idea, it makes me not trust anything else they say.

28
by theslothook :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 2:28pm

Ok, I agree with what you said, but again, its a rough composite. They do an aggregate of the play for the majority of the year. You make this feel like you either are in the club or your not. As if every play an o lineman makes is either a complete schematic contribution or its such a bizzare play that its impossible to apportion credit/blame. My question is, why do you trust Fo's charting numbers then? And also, i ask, do you think they are completely useless? I think most of the time their numbers are pretty good. Again i wrote above, their methods are not the final word, but they do provide a nice outline and they do have a methodology that they've run by coaches and scouts to ensure they're doing things correctly as much as they can.

And btw to Tuluse's pt, they do actually have a composite of stats that go into building their grade.

32
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 4:55pm

One crucial difference between the approaches from FO and PFF is that FO are up front and emphatic about the limitations of their products to a much greater extent than PFF. It' quite common to find a disclaimer of either total or partial ignorance within their articles and research, which is as it should be.

And no I don't think that it is impossible to grade every play but what proportion of plays have to be opaque before the assessment becomes infirm? I would point out that PFF managed to anoint Chilo Rachal as the best young guard in the NFL two seasons ago, despite him being benched during that year.

As for FO's methods; I think that DVOA at the unit level (ie offense, defense) is the best measurement of the strength of football ability available. Personally I have less trust in the figures below that level as I think that individual play is too difficult to differentiate from the player's surroundings. FO's game charting project appears to be devised to remove subjective judgement as far as possible. I think that you can say this for FO's approach in general.

31
by Dan :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 4:32pm

Any football stat that tries to assess an individual player is going to be imperfect, since context influences everything. For some reason this comes up all the time as a complaint about PFF in particular, when it is also endemic to much of what Football Outsiders and mainstream football statistics do.

Football Outsiders has a column which tracks sacks allowed by individual offensive linemen, which is subject to exactly the problem that you describe. And I'm sure that J.J. Cooper's judgment of whether an offensive lineman is responsible for a sack will sometimes be mistaken, but I'd still rather have that information than not have it. And, despite the noise, over the course of a season I think it does a pretty good job of evaluating individual players' pass protection. There are some systematic errors (for instance, the QB has a large influence on sacks allowed) but there is a lot of signal that gets through (Marshall Newhouse was still able to crack the sacks-allowed leaderboard).

PFF is doing something a lot like what Cooper and the FO Game Charting Project are doing, they're just being much more systematic about it - tracking more things, for more positions, using the same charters (which presumably means a more consistent standard). For pass blocking, they track hits & hurries in addition to sacks. I suspect that makes their stat, Pass Blocking Efficiency, a better measure of pass blocking performance than sacks allowed, since it gives them a larger sample of pass blocking mistakes and is less influenced by the quarterback's ability to get rid of the ball (bad quarterbacking turns hurries into sacks). They also have their grading system, which is supposed to take other things into account (like how long it took for the blocker to allow pressure) but is something of a black box. For pass blocking, the grades have such a strong correlation with Pass Blocking Efficiency that it's not really important to distinguish the two (r=.96 for offensive tackles last year, between PBE & pass blocking grade per snap, n=58).

I'd guess that PBE is about as good a stat of pass blocking as the various mainstream & advanced stats that get used to evaluate "skill position" players (yards per carry, receiving DYAR, adjusted net yards per attempt, or whatever). Having close to the same level of systematic information about linemen as we've had about quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs seems like a huge success to me, even though those statistics of course have some flaws.

33
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 4:59pm

I don't really see PBE as that different to the sacks, hits, hurries charts that FO does and I think both have the same problem.

I can't agree with most of the rest of what you have said. Basically, I prefer to use my eyes.

37
by theslothook :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 7:00pm

Theres a big difference between Fo's dvoa metrics and charting metrics. In fact, they are basically providing two different sets of contexts. Yes, Fo's dvoa is the best macro stats in the world, but they can only tell you macro stats. At the end of the day, football is like any other complex system, comprised of individual parts and to those try to understand or forecast the future, the individual parts weigh heavily. To blithely just say you cannot do it is something that I don't think is true. Again, we can question how much weight to put into pff's numbers, but i don't think you can paint it all as futility the way you are doing. They have an approach that as mentioned is systematic and fair across all teams, therefore, if there is a bias in their methods, it should affect all teams the same way. And finally, most of their number seem to actually make sense by in large.

And btw, according to pff, Chilo rachal had an outstanding year as run blocker in 2010 but but was a horrendous pass blocker, which explains why why he was benched.

39
by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 5:59am

It isn't that the project is entirely futile, it's that they present their information as a precise number even though it is inevitably incomplete and subjective. FO's rigorous objectivity is valuable to me because it is something that I cannot arrive at myself.

PFF are the embodiment of the phrase, 'a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing'. It is just my opinion but I wouldn't give any more weight to their grades than I would to any reasonably informed fan.

I've seen every snap of Rachal's career, they blew it with that call, he can generate movement in the run game when he actually manages to get his hands on the defender but he's so slow that he rarely does.

38
by Dan :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 1:48am

Your eyes have a lot of the same problems as any other approach. They don't know what the blocking scheme is supposed to be, either.

The eye test has some advantages over counting statistics like PBE, since your eyes provide a much richer set of information. You can get some sense from watching a play of how much of an advantage the pass rusher got from the play call, whether there was a protection breakdown or if the individual blocker just got beat, how much help the blocker had, whether the quarterback helped his blockers (with a quick throw or movement in the pocket) or hurt them, and just how impressive the players looked.

But the eye test also has some major disadvantages (for me, at least). I don't see every play by every team. With the plays I do watch, I don't pay close attention to each individual player. What I notice is influenced by what the announcers point out, and by what I'm expecting or looking for (e.g., during J'Marcus Webb's rookie year I thought it was a huge mistake for the Bears to have their rookie 7th rounder on the field, and so I noticed every time he blew a block). When I do notice what a player did on a play, I don't have a systematic way to keep track of what I noticed (I just form some messy aggregate impression in my memory). I'm not a trained scout, and I've watched less football than most analysts & charters, so there are parts of the game that I'm not able to evaluate as well as some other people can. So I do use my eyes some, but I also get a lot of information from other people who have used their eyes and devoted more time/attention/expertise/systematicity to their work.

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by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 6:06am

I agree that my eyes don't know the blocking scheme but they might notice that the tackle has quick feet and good knee bend, that he got beaten because he failed to pick up a stunt. I would struggle to present that as a number between 2 and -2.

Webb is a great example, if he played in a system where the ball came out quickly or they often ran behind his tremendous bulk then he would be much more highly regarded. There is no accounting for factors like that in PFF's grades.

I don't really care about PFF but I do get irritated when their numbers are deployed to back up an argument. You may as well say 'I think he's good' as quote their figures.

5
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 6:23pm

I'm beginning to get the flavour of these reviews, they tend to be rather sweet on the subject, saccharine even. It was inevitable that the Packers' write up would make most readers diabetic.

Metaphors that haven't been used in this series:

'X is so fast that if he lined up for the 100 meters final in the London Olympics, he'd win in Beijing.'

'Their coach has more Xs and Os than a Tic-Tac-Toe simulator on crystal meth.'

'if tight end X’s raw athleticism were a form of currency, he would be about 10 times richer than he is even after having signed a two-year, $14 million contract'

Hang on, he used one of those.

It is nice to see a review of the Packers that recognises that the offensive line isn't that great.

14
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 7:14pm

Also, and im sure this going to incite more debate: Pff had gb ranked 11th in terms of o line rankings, noting it was a very solid group overall with the exception of the horrid left tackle position. And btw, they do take into account qb effectiveness with their rankings.

19
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 7:34am

I don't think GB has an awful line, I think they are helped by an elite quarterback, two very good receivers and excellent reserve wideouts. I was thinking about SB Nation's line ratings who said that they are the best in the NFL, which I think is more than generous.

Thinking about it, the NFL doesn't boast many very good lines. It' hard to think of any with five established, quality veterans. I can't think of one in the NFC, in the AFC who? The Pats, the Broncos, maybe Cincinnati? There isn't a unit that compares to a line like the early 2000s Chiefs.

21
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 9:48am

There was this team in NO who managed consistently clean pockets for their 4'7" QB...

23
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 11:54am

That would be a very good example of a team whose coaches take advantage of their strengths. Brees does a great job of getting rid of the ball and his guards allow him to step up. That doesn't necessarily mean that the tackles are that good.

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by theslothook :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 2:32pm

it does make you wonder how good the 49ers o line would be if they had a diff qb. I was asked this by my 49er friend when we went to their game against the cowboys. Did the 49ers have a good o line? I think the easy answer is to say no, but I suspect the 49ers o line might go from being considered a liability to a strength if they had say picked up peyton manning(especially now that they got rid of chilo rachal)

7
by justanothersteve :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 6:59pm

My comments:
QB: Nobody really knows if Harrell is any good. He hasn't taken a regular season snap. Most teams are finished if their starting QB goes out for more than a few games. The Packers coaches think Harrell can at least hold the fort or they would have signed one of the many mid-level QBs that were available this offseason.
WR: Most people don't realize the only non-sub 4.5 WR is Jones. This is one fast group. It would not surprise me to see Borel and/or Gurley make the team. Borel is a converted QB who runs a 4.5 40 and Gurley is slightly slower (4.53) but bigger.
TE: DJ Williams seems to be one of those guys who has made the second year receiver leap. I think he'll end up as the #2 TE. In any case, Quarless will probably be on the PUP list and may end up on IR. His injury was that bad.
OL: Solid starting five, but no depth. Sherrod also may end up on the PUP list, but will probably be ready by mid-season. If anybody goes down before then, it could get ugly. If two go down, A-Rod could get happy feet.
DL: Raji is probably the second best NT in the NFL. Last year, the depth was so bad he was gassed by the end of the year. Worthy and Daniels may help, but Neal is suspended for four games and if the DL looks good by then Neal may get cut.
LB: Matthews will probably play more coverage this year. Perry has a lot to learn as converted DE, so he'll be pass-rushing almost every play. Look for the unheralded and undrafted Dezman Moses to jump up the depth chart and make the final 53. He was an undersized DE at Tulane after starting college as a LB at Iowa. He seems to be a natural pass rusher who they won't be able to hide on the PS. Look for DJ Smith to come in Hawk in blitzing situations.
DB: Peprah would have probably been cut even without the physical. The staff was angry about his playing at the end of the season and especially during the Giants game. Woodson is almost always the slot corner. Shields is also in the coach's doghouse, but has too much talent to give up on given his history. Travon Williams claims to be back, but probably only has a couple good years left. He's never had elite speed. It would not surprise me to see House and Heyward as the starting corners in two years.

25
by Steve in WI :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 12:19pm

Regarding backup QBs, I agree that most teams (probably including the Packers this year) are finished if their starter is out for an extended period of time. One thing I didn't like about this article was that Benoit suggested that it doesn't matter that Flynn is gone. I think it's arguable that Flynn could carry the team if Rodgers had to miss a few games, and that he's clearly better than the Packers' backups this year. (Kind of a moot point, I realize, since there's no way that they could have kept him).

Plus, maybe this is a sore topic for me as a Bears fan who suffered through the Caleb Hanie era last year, but while pretty much every team is going to suffer without their starting QB, a serviceable backup could be the difference between making it to the playoffs and not. Give the Bears a replacement-level backup and they would've limped in, and maybe Cutler would have been ready to go in January.

15
by fb29 :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 7:24pm

These previews are pretty boring. I demand entertainment!

16
by Kevin M (not verified) :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 7:38pm

Regarding the excuses from the Packers vs. Giants playoff meeting... didn't those teams play twice last season? The Packers dropped passes in the first meeting, as noted by Aaron Schatz in the Audibles article for Week 13. The Giants carved up the Packer defense in the first game, leading to Mike Tanier's "Giants know they can match Packers score for score" article in NY Times. The Giants also got pressure on Rodgers in the first meeting, as Tanier also mentioned in the Times article. The Packers barely won the first meeting and were soundly beaten in the second meeting. I don't know why people feel the need to make excuses for why it happened.

20
by JByron212 :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 8:53am

It's especially infuriating considering how bad the officiating was. If I remember correctly the Giants had two GB fumble recoveries taken away, in addition to the phantom Roughing the Passer call on Osi which kept one of GB's scoring drives alive.

(Disclaimer NYG Fan)

24
by Jimmy :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 12:12pm

And the Giants in no way benefitted from having a fumble ruled as halted progress. That was a BS call, he fumbled immediately, the fact that he went flying backwards too is irrelevant for my mind, the Niners weren't stacking and stripping him, he got hit so hard he dropped the ball.

(disclaimer, no horse in this race)

26
by DisplacedPackerFan :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 12:20pm

The officiating favored the Packers overall but there were a few bad calls against them too. It was a poorly officiated game in general but over the course of the game the bad calls did favor the Packers. I only disagree on how much with some of the Giants fans.

My basic summary is that the Packers did have an off game, but not all of how bad they looked were because of that, some of it was caused by the play of the Giants. The end of half hail mary was more about the Packers than the Giants, but some of the "dropped" passes I feel were more about the Giants defense than the Packers.

The Giants also played better than they had during most of the regular season.

Had the Packers not had a flat game and just played closer to their average from the regular season I think the game would have been much more similar to the first meeting and could have gone either way.

I agree the Packers had a bad day but that was not the only reason they lost that game. The Giants should get more credit than they generally do (I think on this site they generally do get the credit they deserve). They thumped the Packers and like I said I'm not convinced the Packers fixing most of their mistakes would have changed who won though it would have made the game closer.

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by PackersRS (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 4:29pm

Everything that's been said about that game is true, and the Giants did woop the Packers' ass.

And, though 8 is a lot, the Packers' receivers are known for dropping passes.

But the real factor were the turnovers lost. This has been one of, if not the best offense in the league in terms of ball security for the past 3 years, and they lost 4 in that game. It may have been a coincidence that their offensive coordinator lost his son that week, but it was evident that the offense wasn't "in synch".

Since 2010, the team never had a game with a margin bigger than -1 in turnover ratio, but in that game it ended up -3. To me, that is abnormal.

There's another indicator that it was an off game. In the last 2 years, they've played 37 games. They've lost 8. But this last game was the only instance where they've lost by more than 1 possession.

Week 3 2010. GB @ CHI = 17-20
Week 5 2010. GB @ WAS = 13-16 OT
Week 6 2010. GB vs MIA = 20-23 OT
Week 12 2010. GB @ ATL = 17-20
Week 14 2010. GB @ DET = 3-7
Week 15 2010. GB @ NE = 27-31
Week 15 2011. GB @ KC = 14-19
NFC Divisional game 2011. GB vs NYG = 20-37

By all that, it was an odd game, thus the Matthews' comment, and the current article. It's silly to discredit any influence the NYGiants had in the defeat, to the extent that it doesn't need to be mentioned, if not for political correctness.

But apparently the analysis of the game and search for the motives of said abnormal defeat, with absence of praise for the opposite team is interpreted as "making excuses", as well as used for bulletin board material.

I'm going to use such political correctness and blame it on the offseason.

36
by Shattenjager :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 5:27pm

"This has been one of, if not the best offense in the league in terms of ball security for the past 3 years."

The Packers have turned the ball over the second-fewest times in the league the last three years: http://pfref.com/tiny/x2oBG

Making it two years instead of three gives a rather different picture of the distribution at the top of the league, though, which is noteworthy even though the Packers still rank third: http://pfref.com/tiny/cFPtx

17
by DisplacedPackerFan :: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 8:23pm

I understand that these are written for the NYT and republished here, which is cool, but as Karl Cuba mentioned, I'm worried about my insulin levels now, even if I agree with many of the base concepts that were written about. So I'm going to give another long post that people around here expect from me from time to time.

Rodgers is excellent, he would be good to excellent on pretty much any team in the NFL, but he doesn't carry the load himself. I do not expect a 2011 level out of him again, though better than 2009 and 2010 is still very probable (35ish TD, 4400ish yards, 8.4ish YPA, 9ish INT, which is still great but not 2011 great). The Packers have had 23.1%, 31.0%, 29.1%, 67.6% passing DVOA's with Rodgers, expecting something in the 30-40% range isn't unreasonable, and even if it drops back to 23.1% that's still likely to be around 8th in the league. It will be good, but I can't expect top 3 level again. Fortunately you don't need that to be playoff contenders.

I am glad that it was pointed out that he covers for an average o-line. I do think the individual player recap was good with this. It's not the worst line in the league, but it's not top 5 caliber either. They have less depth this year though and it's a real concern. I expect a line that if it were easier to rank would be in the 12 - 18 range.

As to the defense, I do think it will get better but I'm not sure Andy touched on what I think are more key issues. Tramon Williams isn't going to be playing with unhealed nerve damage like he was last year. It doesn't seem to be common knowledge that he essentially has the same issue they keep talking about with Peyton Manning. He had one arm at about 30% strength most of last season. Reports out of training camp seem to indicate that it's probably about 90% of what it was in 2010 right now on that arm. So he should play better, but I doubt the rebound will be his 2010 levels. But I don't think they'll be 20th in the league defending opposing #1 WRs (14.1% DVOA as opposed to -29.2 and -23.5 in 09 and 10) like they were last year.

I'm not sure Sam Shields is going to be more than the dime back now. House and Bush have both been outplaying him in camp and Heyward is coming up fast. This is a good sign for improvement too because this is only Shields 4th year as a corner (he was a WR for 3 years in college and never played defense in high school) so it's easy to believe that he is getting better. I don't think Capers can afford to cover for any CB by just allowing him to run down the field with a guy like he did in 2010 with Shields and we saw what happened to him in 2011 when he was given more to do, but it seems Shields is better than in 2011 and will likely lose his job anyway. So CB play should get better from Williams recovering from injury and some player being better than Shields was in 2011, even if Woodson declines some.

I think the pass rush will get better, but not drastically. Perry was the top SackSeer prospect this year but he's changing positions, and while they are keeping him limited and had Clay swap sides again, it's not an easy thing to do. Though Perry has dropped 10 pounds from his draft weight (which was up from him college playing weight as he was expecting to be a 4-3 DE not a 3-4 LB). I do think Raji will get better, but some of that is because they are planning to have him on the field less. But that only works if Worthy, Daniels, Neal, Wilson, or Wynn can step up enough.

They still have poor linebackers outside Matthews. Bishop was worse than Hawk in pass coverage if I'm reading the FO stats right, and was ranked in the low 80's in the league in coverage stats that FO tracks. Their DVOA of 12.8 and 23.2 vs Tight ends (22nd and 26th in the league) the last two years seems to bear this out too as the linebackers are usually covering the tight ends. I don't expect Perry to boost this either based on the position shift.

So while I do think they will get a bit more pressure, which will help all facets of their defense, they have issues. In 2010 the decent pass rush and the safeties were able to allow Shields to be one dimensional which was the key weakness of that defense. In 2011 the weaker pass rush meant that Shields was asked to be a more complete player and he wasn't up to the task, then you add in Williams injury and the loss of Collins and you had a fairly week secondary while also needing to try and do things to help the pass rush. With having a slightly better secondary and pass rush this year, Capers might be able to scheme up enough to help whichever turns out to be weaker. So I think you can have a situation where some small improvements in a couple of units produce a synergy that makes the overall improvement larger. So I think they can bounce back to being an average NFL D.

Another thing they do have is true stars on both sides of the ball. Matthews is the real deal, and even just a slight improvement from any other pass rushing facet will give him a big boost. The secondary is allowed to gamble some and they do get turn overs. So while I think they will end up being mostly an average D, the system that allows them to gamble a bit more should still help them produce a healthy amount of turn overs and the D will look above average. But they will still get burned by things that have burned them since 2009. A QB who is on his game will still be able to carve out big plays (see Big Ben and Kurt Warner in 2009, Favre and Brady in 2010, just about anyone in 2011). The run defense is still vulnerable to a team that has a couple of good blockers that are able to get the to second level just a couple of times because the backers are still poor at shedding blocks, or a running back who has good cut back skills.

A consistently good to excellent offense has always helped the D, as the games have at worst been close, so there has nearly always been some urgency on the other team, and as mentioned they allow the secondary to gamble and have some good ball hawking type players back there, so the GB offense tends to get a few extra opportunities.

The formula works, and it will continue to work. The front office is very good at managing the cap, so that when a star is found they can keep them for most, if not all, of their peak, and they let role players go and replace them with other role players to try and up the chances of landing another "playmaker". NE does this too. Keep guys for rookie and maybe one more contract if they are above average (say a 6 on a 1-10 scale) or worse, but good or better get paid so that there are a few positions that just don't need to be worried about for a few years so you can 'throw more at the wall and keep what sticks'.

So yes I expect them to stay good to great for many years but like all teams in the salary cap era there are holes. It won't always be easy to exploit those issues and they should remain a team that beats itself more than it gets beat, but the random factors that football has mean that dynasty level is still not likely. To be fair I think NE over the last 10-12 years was good enough to wear that title. 3-2 in Super Bowl's over a 11 year span and only one year with less than 10 wins. Yes you can call that a dynasty. Green Bay is on that path but they aren't there.

34
by PackersRS (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 4:59pm

Due to Williams' injury and Shields' "suckitude", as well as the safeties' inability to understand each other, Capers could not play press coverage, which happens to be the speciality of this defense, and which also led to huge cushions all year. At least it seems as if the #1 CB will be able to put his hands on the opposite receiver, which is bound to help. It still remains to be seen if the opposite outside CB will not be a complete liability playing press, and if the safeties will understand the concept of not jumping every pump fake and double move, but it's far from a certain thing.

What is also far from certain is the improvement in the pass rush. Yes, they seem to have taken the necessary steps in the right direction, with the addition of a pass rusher drafted before the 7 round, and with explosive defensive lineman, that figure to at least allow Raji to not have to play 95% of the snaps. But what we know so far is that if you double team Matthews, the QB will have all day to throw.

They're terrific at forcing turnovers, ending in the top 3 every year since Dom Capers took over, and as you so eloquently said, that aspect, coupled with the outstanding offense, was good enough to win 15 games last season.

The article does sugarcoat all the problems in the team though, and only 1 season with postseason victory (though it went all the way) does not lend any credit towards the "dynasty" mantra.

However it's like you said, in this era, this is as close as it gets to perfection. Only 8 losses in 37 games, with only 1 of those by more than 1 possession is a very good indicator of level of performance. I don't believe even the most fervent Bears or Vikings fan will deny this team has as good a chance of winning it all, this year and the next few, as any other in the league.

That's the extent one can go right now, without any games played. There is good reasoning behind the dynasty talk, and as I homer fan I fully support it and expect it, but right now it's hyperbole.

35
by PackersRS (not verified) :: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 5:06pm

Capers also needs to figure out how to stop delayed routes by TEs and RBs. So there's also that pretty big issue that didn't get corrected at any point last year, Eli Manning will attest to that. Something that doesn't involve benching Hawk, because that's not gonna happen.

41
by Will Allen :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 2:36pm

It'll never happen, but I'd like to see the area of allowed contact on receivers expanded to 10 yards, so as to make offensive line play more important. The game is just too dependent on one position for my tastes; it's not as bad as the mediocre NHL team with the hot goalie in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it is moving in that direction.

Yes, this Vikings fan had the same sentiment in 2009, when they were getting great qb play.

42
by dmstorm22 :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 3:02pm

I think 10 would push it too far in the other direction. Maybe 7 or 8, but that would be extremely hard to officiate.

Overall, I agree that something has to be done. The way the league is going, within 20 years the scores will resemble arena football.

I think relaxing the illegal contact rules is one step, but an easier, more necessary one would be to start calling more offensive holding.

Sadly, with ratings going up and up, I doubt the league ever wants to let go of the offense-heavy trend it is now in.

43
by Will Allen :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 3:13pm

You really can't enforce holding more without subjecting the qb to A LOT more hits, and that'll really never happen, for a pretty good reason. Making it easier to cover receivers at least provides the qb with the option of throwing the ball away, while also increasing the incentive to run the ball.

Like I said, though, it'll never happen, because easy passing yardage makes for higher ratings. You and I are at odds with the majority of football fans.

44
by dmstorm22 :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 3:23pm

That's a good point about the increased hits.

I will say, is there really evidence that TV ratings are tied to scoring. It makes sense, but while the overall viewers have increased, the overall ratings I think are about the same as they were in the 80-90's, and if they are lower, it may have to do with just more options now. Each year, teh number of viewers just increase. This past NFC TItle Game was the 3rd most viewers for any NFC Title Game ever, and going in people knew it wasn't going to be high scoring. I would love to see some research on if increased offense actually helps ratings or revenues.

45
by Will Allen :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 6:34pm

The other economic factor may be that it makes more marketing sense to promote 5 to 10 superstar qbs, while making offensive linemen even more anonymous and interchangeable.

46
by Lance :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 7:01pm

There is absolutely ZERO evidence for this, you're right. It's sad that the NFL (and the networks) think like this, though. The NFL's popularity is nothing to do with rules tweaks and such. Instead, it has to do with cultural and social dynamics that are based more on marketing and lifestyle shifts than anything that some competition committee came up with.

47
by Lance :: Fri, 08/10/2012 - 7:01pm

There is absolutely ZERO evidence for this, you're right. It's sad that the NFL (and the networks) think like this, though. The NFL's popularity is nothing to do with rules tweaks and such. Instead, it has to do with cultural and social dynamics that are based more on marketing and lifestyle shifts than anything that some competition committee came up with.