Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Other Weirdos
NFL Week 7 - Aaron Rodgers wants less motion in the Green Bay Packers offense, Tom Brady is screaming at his Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates, and Russell Wilson has retreated into a visualized paradise to play catch with his inner child instead of Denver Broncos receivers.
Welcome to the inescapable Sartrean hellscape of entrusting your team to a legendary quarterback.
Rodgers wants to "simplify" the Packers offense. Experienced Rodgers-to-mere-mortal translators tell us that Rodgers specifically wants less pre-snap motion in his offense. Ah, so that's the problem now. Last year it was too much Cover-2 defense from opponents. Before that it was a lack of first-round wide receivers. Glad we have finally put our finger on the issue.
We'll look at the Packers' motion numbers in a moment—yes, dear reader, Football Outsiders is still a stat site, even when Walkthrough snatches the microphone—but rest assured that sorting the data, grinding the film, and explaining the many benefits of pre-snap motion would be entirely missing the point.
Rodgers doesn't hate pre-snap motion. Rodgers hates being told what to do. And he loves telling us so in his ever-so-subtle, passive-aggressive way. The Packers can't score enough points, and wouldn't you know it, it's because of a thing the head coach/general manager/authority figure is doing wrong!
Brady, meanwhile, has entered the final act of Citizen Kane, wandering around an empty Xanadu and scowling at the help. Some readers hate Walkthrough's little spitballs at Brady's marital issues, because heaven forbid we poke fun at the internationally reported foibles of powerful individuals who have profited heavily from branding themselves as superior-to-thee lifestyle-expert demigods.
Whatever. Brady chose career over family, and if he finds fulfillment along that path he'll be the first.
The Buccaneers are now a therapeutic environment for Brady's misplaced emotions: he can take time off when he needs to and scream at whomever he likes without consequences, because who are we (or teammates or coaches or management) to question the unassailable Tom Brady? Fortunately, the Bucs will still win the NFC South because the Saints paid near-mint prices for a bunch of action figures in fair-to-satisfactory condition.
Russell Wilson? He's Rodgers, but high on toxic positivity instead of trippin'-and-poopin' tea. Wilson can simply no longer comprehend the petty concerns of lesser beings, with our finite-brained concepts such as "game plans" and "wide-open receivers." Wilson is playing perfect football in his mind. It's up to the Denver Broncos and society to tune in to his wavelength.
Wilson is also "day-to-day" with what Ian Rapoport assures us is a "real injury." Sounds legit. Wilson would never invent excuses for his poor play. He has a publicity team for that.
This is, inevitably, what hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade-plus of fawning adulation buy: temperamental, eccentric celebrities who know that the blockbuster movie production grinds to a standstill until they're lured from the trailer with the promise of a higher grade of imported mineral water. Rodgers, Brady, and Wilson can still be successful and fun to watch, just as Christian Bale or Gwyneth Paltrow can be while causing mass migraines in everyone around them. Rooting for these a-little-too-legendary quarterbacks, however, is becoming an increasingly selective acquired taste. And building a team around them is growing ever more risky.
From an objective/analytical standpoint, it's impossible to put a DVOA or dollar value on a legendary quarterback turning into late-career Marlon Brando or Archduke Flakypants. Yet teams should find a way to factor such a likely scenario into their budget. Pay a superstar X dollars at stage Y in his career and you get the guy, the ego, the entourage, the brand, the baggage. He can tune out his coaches, scream at his teammates, take random vacations, hawk patent remedies, rant and rave on podcasts, and disseminate his version of what's going right/wrong through his own publicity network. Of course, he can also win lots of football games and sell season tickets and jerseys, so the quarterback-as-independent-duchy paradigm could still be worth it. But there's a downside that's just off the fringes of being quantifiable: Brady or Rodgers 2020 is still worth the hassle, but Brady or Rodgers 2022 has tumbled past the tipping point.
This train of thought, like all Walkthrough trains, makes a stop at Carson Wentz. Wentz is in the midst of turning yet another injury—his hand, this time—into a passion play. Wentz desperately wants to play through the injury, mostly because he has been terrified of being outperformed by his backup since the days of Nick Foles. Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott trust themselves to shrug off a controversy the moment they return from an injury. Wentz, not so much.
Eagles and Colts fans know how this saga goes: Wentz will heroically rush back and play poorly because of the injury and/or lack of practice (and because he's Wentz), with Ron Rivera enabling the whole charade rather than risking a combination quarterback controversy/organizational power struggle.
Wentz is The Legendary Quarterback Who Never Was, prematurely crowned and compensated, a Russell Wilson wannabe who performed at a high level for nine weeks instead of nine seasons. Like Wilson, Wentz has a particular notion of how to play his position which cannot be debunked by coaching or repeated failures, and he's somewhere between impervious and oblivious to criticism, constructive or otherwise. Wentz is what the "legendary quarterback" baggage looks like without an actual legend. With Brady midlife-spiraling, Rodgers grousing more loudly than usual for October, and Wilson surfing the cosmos as the herald of Galactus, the Buccaneers, Packers, and Broncos are getting a taste of it too.
For now, the Packers need to appease Rodgers, the Bucs indulge Brady, and the Broncos send subspace messages to Wilson in an effort to get things right. But oh, to be the Seahawks right now, with Geno Smith late-blooming like Rich Gannon (if not Kurt Warner), and all those extra draft picks in the larder! Oh, to enjoy a reduced payroll and expectations, to run the offense you want to run, coach the way you choose to coach, and not be treated as an extension of some cultural icon's vanity project! If only the Bucs, Packers, and Broncos had identified the inflection point where the diminishing returns would start and sold themselves and their fans a rebuild, a rookie, Jordan Love, the freedom to be thrilled by a few upsets instead of grinding their teeth about a .500-or-worse record in October.
Of course, that's not how the business of the NFL works. But the teams trapped in legendary quarterback codependencies should bury a time capsule for whomever is coaching Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen in 2032. The message in that bottle? Cherish the days when your quarterback is playing like a legend, and fear the days when he starts behaving like one.
Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers, and Pre-Snap Motion
Walkthrough promised you actual data, and here it is: the Packers' passing statistics with and without pre-snap motion so far in the 2022 season. Chargers-Broncos from Monday night is not included in the data, which comes from our friends at Sports Info Solutions.
|2022 Green Bay Packers, With and Without Motion|
|Category||Pre-Snap Motion (Rank)||No Motion (Rank)|
|Dropbacks||70 (20th)||131 (15th)|
|Attempts||65 (17th)||121 (14th)|
|Completions||43 (16th)||82 (11th)|
|Comp%||66.2 (11th)||67.8% (5th)|
|Yards||445 (14th)||848 (13th)|
|Yards/Att||6.8 (17th)||7.0 (17th)|
|Air Yards||114 (28th)||377 (20th)|
|Intended Air Yards||244 (28th)||869 (15th)|
|TDs||3 (T12th)||5 (T8th)|
|INT||1 (T18th)||2 (T14th)|
|Sacks||4 (T20th)||9 (T10th)|
The most interesting thing about these splits is how uninteresting they are. It's not like Matt LaFleur is asking the lads to square dance before the snap. The Packers are a perfectly cromulent team when it comes to motion principles: they use them a middle-of-the-pack percent of the time, choose not to use them a middle-of-the-pack percent of the time, and get middle-of-the-pack results.
You want dramatic pre-snap motion splits? 49ers quarterbacks have executed just 44 passing plays with no pre-snap motion. The Commanders and Cardinals have executed 187 passing plays without motion. The Chiefs have used motion on 134 passing plays, the Saints just 20. Film grinders who gush about the value of motion will note the difference in offensive production between those who use it heavily and those who do not. It's hard to look at the data and say, "let's be more like the Cardinals!"
Anyway, the only rankings that stand out on the table above are the Packers' completion rate without motion, which ranks fifth in the league, and the low air-yardage figures when they do use motion.
It's worth mentioning here that Rodgers' completion rate without motion is just 67.2%; the data includes four mop-up completions on five attempts by Jordan Love. It's hard to advocate for Rodgers getting his way in the name of an extra percentage point of completion rate when it has such a negligible impact on yards per attempt, especially when Love's four completions that netted 65 yards are factored into the data.
But the air yards mean something. For LaFleur, pre-snap motion is often window dressing for his Kyle Shanahan-flavored dink-and-dunk tactics: see the 49ers data from two paragraphs ago. Many of the Packers' motion plays are passes to receivers behind or at the line of scrimmage. You can imagine how Rodgers feels about executing Jimmy Garoppolo plays. Yet those plays must be working, with Packers ballcarriers generating enough YAC, and with the rare deep shot sprinkled in, to give the Packers a league-average pre-snap motion game.
Superficially, the numbers above suggest that motion neither helps nor hurts the Packers, who hover near the offensive league average no matter what they do. So why not throw out the motion and make Lord Surlyknickers happy? Because that would be ignoring some of the reasons coaches use motion: to disguise tendencies, generate favorable coverage/blocking matchups, and manufacture touches for players who need help getting open.
LaFleur uses motion, particularly this year, to get the ball to Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon in the flats with some space to operate, to match Randall Cobb and Robert Tonyan up with defenders they can beat, and to get Christian Watson involved at all. He also uses it on early downs to keep the Packers unpredictable and ahead of the sticks.
The Packers need motion and short-game concepts because they aren't the 1999 Rams. Their receivers aren't going to win 1-on-1 matchups from static formations, especially with Cobb out a while. Rodgers should remember that principle from the Mike McCarthy days, but again: this is all about Rodgers getting his way, contradictions be damned.
There's also no down/distance/game situation context in the data above, but I'm reluctant to start publishing splits and drawing conclusions on sample sizes in the single digits. Here's one split, for discussion's sake: Rodgers (Love not included) has executed seven passes on third-and-7-plus with pre-snap motion. He's 4-of-5 for 30 yards and two sacks on those plays. The total air yards of 12 on those plays suggest throws in front of the sticks. Quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Patrick Mahomes have all dropped to pass 10 or more times with pre-snap motion on third-and-long, so again: Rodgers isn't being asked to do what he dislikes often.
Rodgers and LaFleur could probably have a productive conversation about, say, eliminating all of those third-and-long motion dink-and-YAC attempts from the game plan. That conversation would be private. It would also be most effective in an environment of mutual trust and respect. Which brings us back to the first half of Walkthrough.
Much of what we think of as play calling and game planning comes down to a coach looking at his players, the opponent, and the scoreboard and asking, "what has any chance of working right now?" LaFleur has a Shanahan-instilled preference for pre-snap motion, but he also looks at his receivers and knows he needs to gingerbread his offense. Rodgers chooses not to understand or acknowledge the ailment, so instead he blames the treatment.
Rodgers should just go back to complaining that he doesn't have Justin Jefferson to throw to. At least that made sense.