ESPN: Green Bay's (Maybe) Fatal Flaw

Why the 2012 Packers season is almost entirely dependent upon Aaron Rodgers' health.

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30 comments, Last at 05 Jun 2012, 4:40pm

#1 by bradmerrill // May 25, 2012 - 11:55am

If any team loses a great QB, meaning they have one playing for them to start with, then that team's chance of a superbowl is probably lost anyways. So, why even bother? It's not worthwhile allocating resources to a backup QB, when resourcescan be spent on the rest of the team (see D-line and secondary)

I am alive and doing science

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#3 by Dan // May 25, 2012 - 12:57pm

I agree. How many quarterbacks are worth $1.5 million per game? Maybe the top 3? But that's about what Jason Campbell and Kyle Orton are getting paid, in expectation.

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#4 by sjt (not verified) // May 25, 2012 - 1:27pm

But a quality backup can be worth it if he can save one or two games for you in a pinch. The Bears likely would have made the playoffs with even an average replacement level QB last year, at which point Culter could have recovered from his injury and taken over again (assuming you think Cutler is a good enough QB for a deep playoff run).

Instead of that, the Bears lost 4 very winnable games in a row because they got some of the worst QB imaginable. A decent backup could have saved their season and their shot at the Super Bowl.

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#5 by akn // May 25, 2012 - 2:06pm

You are correct that a backup is unlikely to save the team from a season-ending injury to a starting QB, but more importantly is if the backup QB can salvage a few games. Especially with the unwritten mandate that a concussion injury requires at least a week off, losing your starter for a few games may be the difference between making the playoffs or not. This has been the case for the past 2 Superbowl winners, as both the Packers and Giants were wild card teams that just made it in, and both were heavily dependent on great QB play.

(Don't have insider, so I'm unaware if the article makes this point)

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#7 by Aaron Schatz // May 25, 2012 - 3:54pm

Ding ding ding. I'll tell you that the article makes exactly that point about concussions, which is something I also talked about when the Patriots drafted Ryan Mallett.

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#9 by Dan // May 25, 2012 - 5:38pm

In order for the quality of a team's backup QB to make the difference in whether or not a team goes to the playoffs, a lot of things need to happen:

- the team needs to be just good enough so that they're right on the edge of making the playoffs
- the starting QB needs to miss some games
- the backup quarterback's play needs to make the difference between winning and losing those games

How much is it worth spending to try influence the rare cases where all 3 of these things happen?

How often do these things happen? For starters, we could look at last year. We're talking about backups for very good QBs, so let's focus on the top 10 QBs in passing DVOA in 2010 who were their team's presumed 2011 starter.

5 of those QBs didn't miss any time due to injury - Brady, Rivers, Rodgers, Ryan, and Brees only sat for meaningless snaps.

3 of those QBs missed 1 game: Roethlisberger, Romo, and Freeman. For Roethlisberger & Freeman, that missed game turned out to have no playoff implications - the Steelers would've been the 5 seed regardless of whether they won or lost (Batch won), and the Bucs were out of the playoff hunt (Johnson lost). I'm not sure about Romo's missed game (when McGee lost to the Eagles) - they would've tied NYG at 9-7 for the division lead if they'd won it, and I don't know who the tiebreaker favored. The game wasn't that close (20-7) and McGee's play was bland but not disastrous (4.8 ypa but no turnovers) so we don't know if Orton-caliber QB play would've been enough to win it.

1 QB missed 3 games: Vick. The Eagles went 1-2 in those games, and would've made the playoffs at 10-6 if they'd gone 3-0; I'm not sure if they'd have been in if they'd gone 2-1 (tiebreakers again). The Eagles did have an expensive high quality backup in Vince Young, who had a $4M contract and was coming off a couple years of very strong numbers (at least by DVOA), but it wasn't enough. Young didn't play very well and went 1-2 with neither loss very close. It would've been very hard for any QB to go 3-0, and even 2-1 would've been difficult, since they played NYG, NE, and SEA, and their defense struggled against both NE & SEA (allowing 30+ points in both games).

1 QB missed 16 games: Peyton Manning. And it's pretty safe to say that the Colts were not making the playoffs with any backup quarterback.

So that's 8/10 cases where the backup didn't matter in terms of making the playoffs (or even playoff seed), 1 (PHI) where a seemingly strong backup QB didn't have enough (and it's unlikely that better QB play would've put them into the playoffs), and 1 (DAL) with a weak backup where better backup QB play could have put the team into a tie for the division lead (if it was significantly better). If we count the tie in the standings as a 50-50 chance at making the playoffs, and guess that an Orton-led Cowboys team would've had a 50-50 chance of winning that game (which is probably too high), the Cowboy's would've had a 25% increase in their chances of making the playoffs if they'd had Orton on board. That's a 25% increase for 1 team out of 10, which means that, based on this data set, for a team with a good QB having a quality backup increases your chances of making the playoffs by about 2.5%.

This set of cases didn't include Cutler because I was systematic about how I chose what cases to look at (in order to estimate rates, you have to have some rule for deciding which cases to look at or else your numbers will be distorted by selection effects). If you use a bigger set of cases (including starting QBs like Cutler who had worse DVOA, looking at more years, etc.) the number would probably change some, but 2.5% seems like a pretty good rough estimate.

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#10 by Thomas_beardown // May 25, 2012 - 5:57pm

I don't see why you would limit it to the top 10 QBs.

The problem is the dropoff to the backup, you could have a top 20 QB and make the playoffs, but not make it with a QB ranked 56-64 (the bottom quartile of #2 QBs).

The Raiders or Chiefs both would have had a change if their starting QB hadn't gotten hurt. I think the Eagles would have been a virtual lock for the division if Vick plays 16 games.

"a team with a good QB having a quality backup increases your chances of making the playoffs by about 2.5%."

Ok, and how much does a back up defensive tackle affect the odds of making the playoffs? 2.5% from a backup player sounds like pretty large influence to me.

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#12 by Dan // May 25, 2012 - 7:17pm

I stopped at 10 QBs because it would've taken twice as much work to do 20.

Also, if you go too deep you start running into cases where a QB could lose his job due to performance rather than injury. A backup who is competing to be starter is different than a pure backup who only comes in for injury.

Ok, and how much does a back up defensive tackle affect the odds of making the playoffs

The question is what else can you do with that $3 million (or whatever) instead of paying it to your backup QB. Maybe you add a $3M rotational defensive lineman (not sure who that would be - among last year's Bears, Idonije re-signed for $2.5M and Okoye signed an incentive-laden deal worth $1.3M-$2.0M). Or maybe you upgrade and sign a $6M/yr defensive lineman (like Cullen Jenkins) instead of a $3M one. If the Saints had an extra $3M they could've kept Carl Nicks instead of signing Ben Grubbs (and had a little left over).

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#11 by James B (not verified) // May 25, 2012 - 6:18pm

Just for kicks, while Young was supposed to be a very good back up, he threw 4 interceptions against the Seahawks, one of them returned for a TD, another leaving only thirty yards to go, and one giving the Seahawks the ball towards the end and allowing them to run out time. The Eagles had the tiebreaker on the Giants with a 5-1 division record and a split series. This is not to say that it would have definitely made a difference had a better backup played, and it doesn't explain away the fact that Young had a pretty good contract for a backup and was supposed to be good, but a good game out of a mediocre quarterback would have certainly made that game a hell of a lot more winnable, and a win would have given us a different Super Bowl Champion.

Dallas was swept by the Giants and would have needed an outright better record.

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#15 by MJK // May 27, 2012 - 12:59am

Your analysis approach is pretty sound but your sample size is hopelessly too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. You look only at teams with the top 10 QB's, and only at one season.

The real relevant questions are:

* What is the probability of your starting QB missing N games during the season,

* Given he has to play N games, how many of them will a good backup win versus a bad backup, i.e. given a backup playing N games, what is the improvement in expected wins by having a good backup

* For a given improvement, what is the probability that you will make the playoffs with that improvement, but miss it without?

You can combine those three distributions if you're intelligent about it and evaluate the value, in increased chance of making the playoffs, of a good backup QB versus a bad one. However, the frequency of relevant events is so low that I think you'd have to crunch a lot of data (I suspect at least 10 seaons, considering all 32 teams) to come up with anything meaningful.

In other words, your point that one out of 10 team in 2011 happened to be impacted by a bad backup in terms of playoffs doesn't tell us much about if this is normal or not. Maybe 5 out of 32 teams were affected in 2011. Maybe 2011 was a particularly weird year. We don't know.

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#17 by BaronFoobarstein // May 27, 2012 - 3:46am

I know Dan prefaced his analysis with a clause about making the playoffs, but I don't accept that making the playoffs is the only valid case for a better backup QB. If you make the playoffs anyway then maybe you improve seeding and get a bye or more home games. If you miss maybe your season is that much more respectable.

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#30 by skibrett15 // Jun 05, 2012 - 4:40pm

Graham Harrell has been activated on and off by the packers in order to prevent other teams from poaching him from the roster. He also earned a full salary during his time on the practice squad.
The team paid him like the 54th man, so he IS the 54th man. In fact, due to the presence of flynn, it's completely possible that harrell was the 50th, or 48th best player. No one knows. You acknowledge the Packers impressive depth yet at the same time separate harrell as the worst member of the team.

Teams that you mention (Pitt, NE, NYG, etc) have alternative ways to win games other than great QB play. Last year GB didn't but they had 2 QBs (so no issue), but so long as they show an improvement on Defense behind a 6 draft pick class Harrell won't need to be any better than Charlie Batch or David Carr. The real "backup QB" for these teams is a different offensive philosophy.

Lastly, mccarthy has developed a system that is too complex to be run by McNabb or Feeley or Joe Dirt off the street to pick up in just one offseason. But along with that, it doesn't require the immense talent at QB to operate at a high level so long as it is run correctly. Unlike the rest of the league, if Rodgers gets hurt, the offense won't change a bit. They will still pass to win, but with a (hopefully) better defense.

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#21 by bigfoot (not verified) // May 28, 2012 - 4:45pm

Ask Polian how that worked out for him. I think in retrospect he wishes he had invested in a backup that is at least capable of putting a competitive product on the field

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#22 by Thomas_beardown // May 28, 2012 - 4:58pm

They wouldn't have got Luck then.

It's rarely in a teams interest to be bad, but not awful. Either you want to be really awful and get a high pick or average or better for a shot at the playoffs. The Colts with Orton would be in the worst position.

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#25 by Ryan // May 28, 2012 - 10:33pm

My guess is if the Colts had picked up Orton (and thus won, oh, 4-5 games), Peyton Manning would be wearing blue and white this season.

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#26 by AJ (not verified) // May 29, 2012 - 1:08am

Idk where the idea that orton going to the colts would've made them win games. This is the same orton that led the broncos to an 8-8 finish in 2010, and 4-12 in 2011 and a losing record in 2012. So its not like orton was exactly blessed with winner sauce.

I frankly think with orton the colts instead of going 2-14 overachieve and go maybe 4-12 and land the 4th pick. Sure it changes history but its not like the colts season is thus saved because of orton.

This ridiculous blame the colts for not having a backup plan is just bizzare to me. Does anyone really believe there was a good enough backup to carry the woefully pitiful colts the way manning did. Hell, they could've acquired tom brady and i wouldn't expect the colts to make the playoffs with that team.

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#2 by hansen9j // May 25, 2012 - 11:55am

A) Graham Harrell was cut by the Roughriders to allow him to pursue NFL opportunities, rather than due to performance issues.
B) Harrell was on the practice roster because the Packers felt that having three QBs on the 53 man roster was unneccessary if there was someone else that could make the roster and could be reasonably be expected to be needed (since very rarely do two QBs get injured in the same game).

Not that I'm super-excited to have Harrell as the undisputed #2, but I think he's more an unknown variable that *could* surprise a la Matt Flynn (but probably won't), rather than a known quantity that id doomed to failure from the beginning.

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#8 by bradmerrill // May 25, 2012 - 4:48pm

Saw a little of Harrell in preseason last year. He didn't suck. Although I saw only a few snaps, I thought he seemed like the typical backup QB grown by the packers through an arcane spontaneous generation process that nobody else understands.

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#16 by Turin // May 27, 2012 - 3:02am

During his time in San Fransisco as QB coach (and later OC) the talisman of Walsh was bestowed upon Holmgren. This talisman granted him the ability to create Pro-Bowl quarterbacks seemingly out of thin air (in actuality, the process was quite grusome and involved the sacrifice of a 3rd string QB). But when Holmgren was offered the head coaching position in Green Bay, he betrayed the 49ers and brought the talisman with him to the frozen tundra.

The great Wolf of the tundra, upon relising Holmgren's crime, forced him to surrender the talisman, and hid it somewhere in that frozen land. Despite the cold, it's power has not dwindled, and ever since quarterbacks fortunate enough to spend a few years practicing on that blessed tundra gain skills well beyond those of mere backups.

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#6 by Mr. X (not verified) // May 25, 2012 - 2:23pm

And I suppose this has never been a potential issue with other teams with dominant players. I'd rather have the Packers problem in this area (QBs) than, say, the Seahawks.

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#13 by AJ (not verified) // May 26, 2012 - 7:24pm

I understand aaron's ultimate point but even i find the argument somewhat lacking. I think people still make the fundamental mistake of assuming its all qb driven. One of the earlier comments was if the bears had gotten even mediocre qb play, they would've won. Um...does the fact that the bears also have an atrocious offensive line and some pretty horrible receivers not also factor into hanie looking terrible. In fact, doesn't cutler going from looking like an all pro to looking like a flop not have something to do with the talent around him? Similar story with orton looking like he would be cut with the bears to a really solid starter with the broncos...

Its the same reason why highly successful backups generally do nothing once they sign elsewhere. Were the pats really prepared for bradys injury in 08? Was cassell really any more proven than harrell? And has cassel really proven hes anything other than a mediocre qb that was elevated by the talent and coaching around him? DItto for Aj Feely, ditto for rob johnson, ditto for most every short stinted nfl backup. I think its talent around you that makes the backup look serviceable, not the other way around. Sure there are exceptions, but honestly, was it really curtis painter and dan orlovsky that sucked and made the colts bad or was it likely they had no real talent other than an aging wayne and vastly overrated garcon? Do we really blame the colts for having no backup plan?

I can accept aaron's argument somewhat, its nice to have some proven play back there, but id argue its far less an issue than making sure you're talent is pretty good. Again, there are exceptions, but overall, to me, matt cassell is the best evidence about this idea of being "prepared"

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#18 by AJ (not verified) // May 27, 2012 - 5:14am

Jay Cutler dvoa /w denver, 2007(his 2nd year in the league)- 19.4-rank 11, 2008- 22 - rank 7,

Kyle Orton /w bears dvoa - 2007 -25, 2008- -.9 ranked 25th.

Now flash after the trade:

Cutler 2009- -17 rank 30,
Cutler 2010 - 1.5 rank 30
Cutler 2011- 3.8 rank 21

Kyle Orton 2009 - 13.3 ranked 17
Kyle Orton 2010 - 14.4 Ranked 17
Kyle Orton 2011 - 1.4 ranked 24

You tell me if that doesn't just scream its talent around you that matters. In fact, kyle orton's decrease in dvoa makes perfect sense- their receivers declined in quality, where in 09 it was marshall royal and gaffney, to 2010 when it was loyd thomas gaffney royal, to now this year where it was just thomas decker. Consequently also, 2011 was sans mcdaniels.

I think its fairly reasonable to suggest its not cutler getting worse when he went to the bears, its the bears being awful. And btw, i want to add it takes a great deal of misfortune to end up with an offense of the bears quality. Usually, some of your picks end up being solid or mediocre starters, from o line to receivers. Instead, nearly all of them were horrible and none of their top picks have panned out. Its just a case of bad luck and cutler has had to shoulder that.

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#20 by MJK // May 28, 2012 - 1:38pm

Which receiver was it that got all that negative press for saying "Chicago is a place wide receivers go to die"?

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#24 by AJ (not verified) // May 28, 2012 - 6:11pm

it was musin muhamad. Its actually amazing how horrible the bears qbs/wr have been throughout the franchise. When it feels like every franchise has managed a jimmy smith type at some point, it has still eluded the bears. Rather tragic considering how often the packers keep stumbling into hall of fame quarterbacks.

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#19 by davepyne // May 28, 2012 - 1:11pm

We don't have to rely solely on our imaginations for a Rodgers-less Packers offense. Remember that guy Matt Flynn who is making only $2 million this year to play for the Seahawks? (QB league-average salary is $1.97 million according to SI). Well, that average QB threw 6 TD's in 1 game vs the Lions (Lions pass defense ranked #4 in the league). I think its more than just Rodgers making offensive plays.

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#23 by Karl Cuba // May 28, 2012 - 5:40pm

How do you work out that Flynn is only getting $2 million from the Seahawks? Unless you are completely ignoring bonus money.

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#28 by LionInAZ // May 30, 2012 - 7:57pm

The Lions pass defense in 2011 was ranked:

22nd in opposing QB completion percentage
22nd in passing yards given up
8th in yards/attempt
22nd in TD passes surrendered
5th in INTs
10th in sacks
12th in opposing QB rating

That doesn't sound very much like a #4 pass defense to me.

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#27 by AJ (not verified) // May 29, 2012 - 1:16am

In fact...i wish aaron could run some numbers on some of the most successful backup stints that have happened in recent memory. I suspect nearly all of them involved some unheard of low round draft choice that got almost no playing time that was suddenly thrust into the spot light. That description is as easy to throw on someone like flynn as is it curtis painter and yet you have two diametrically different views of both qbs. Why? Flynn is better i would imagine, but again, its the packers /w flynn and its the colts /w painter and to ignore that fact is what 99 percent of most fans and analysts do and that just boggles my mind.

If you want to blame polian- blame him for assembling a lousy team with a suspect head coach and roster bereft of talent, not for having a poor "backup" plan for peyton manning.

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