Okay, I’m a bit of a statistics worshiper. When assessing a team’s offense, one of the most telling stats is third down success rate. The Packers’ declining rate for this benchmark mirrors their declining win-loss percentage.
From 2010 through 2014, the Packers third down conversion percentage was always among the top ten. In the Jordy-less 2015 campaign, it dropped to 28th, but then they bounced back to second best in 2016. From 2nd, however, it dropped to 13th in 2017, and then to 23rd last season. The percentages for the last three years are 46.7, 39.3, and most recently 36.8. This recent ranking, 23rd best in the league, corresponds closely with the team’s win-loss ranking of 21st.
Sure, there are many factors influencing this decline. Let’s consider some of them, for if the coaches want to truly commit to having more third down success they need to focus on the factors that contribute most heavily to it.
I’d start with looking at yardage to go to get the first down. If a team averages seven yards to go, it’s bound to be much less successful that if there’s only three yards to go. Somebody probably keeps such statistics. I’m guessing that the Packers average more than five yards to go, and that it’s one of the league’s worst.
I think we’ve all seen the Packers tendency to not even attempt to gain first down yardage when it’s third down and more than ten to go – a very defeatist attitude, and another factor to be weighed. The two biggest contributors to long yardage to go are probably: taking a sack or incurring penalty yardage on first or second down.
The Packers rank 18th and 19th in numbers of penalties and penalty yardage when on offense, so that’s not a major factor. We do know, however, that Green Bay ranks high in sacks given up: 53, tied for third worst. Conclusion: reduce those sacks, increase the third down success rate.
After yardage to go, I’d next look at a team’s short pass prowess. You want a high completion percentage in any event, but in terms of third down situations, you really need a high completion percentage short passing game.
So, who are the keys to an effective short passing game, other than the quarterback? I’d say the slot receiver is your first responder, probably followed by your tight end(s), and then your running back acting as a receiver. Of course, if you’ve got Julio Jones out wide, that trumps all else.
We know the Packers have had problems at slot receiver during the three-year decline of third down success. Randall Cobb has been the main slot man, and over that span of time his first down conversions have gone from 36 to 29 to 18 – this stat is for any down, not just third down conversions. That’s a good portion of the trouble.
By comparison, in 2014, 2012, and 2015, Cobb’s three best years, he had 71, 45, and 42 catches for first downs.
How do the top receivers on the top teams do at registering first downs (again regardless of the down)? At or near the top in 2018 were several wide receivers: DeAndre Hopkins (81), Julio Jones (80), Michael Thomas (75), Mike Evans (69), Robert Woods (66), and Davante Adams (64, tenth overall). There were also some tight ends: Travis Kelce (68), Zach Ertz (66), George Kittle (60) and Jared Cook (46, 26th place).
Of guys who often line up in the slot, there’s Juju Smith-Schuster (68), Antonio Brown (63), Tyreek Hill (60), Tyler Boyd (54), and Odell Beckham, Jr. (51, 19th place). Julian Edelman and Christian McCaffrey are tied with 41 (28th place), and Cole Beasley had 39 (tied for 31st).
Running backs were not among the first down receiver leaders. The top three were: Christian McCaffrey (41), James White (38), and Alvin Kamara (31).
Conclusion: the decline of Randall Cobb has been the most significant contributor to Green Bay’s declining third down conversion rate.
For what it’s worth, here’s how the top ten Packers players ranked in terms of registering first downs via the pass in 2018: Adams, 64; Jimmy Graham, 32; Marquez Valdes-Scantling, 23; Cobb, 18; Equanimeous St. Brown, 13; Aaron Jones, 12; Jamaal Williams and Geronimo Allison, 11; Lance Kendricks, 9, and Ty Montgomery, 5.
Oh, and though many fans are under the impression that Jordy Nelson showed in 2018 that he’s through, he had 36 first down catches with the Raiders – something the Packers sorely missed.
In two of the team’s strongest recent passing years, here’s what the top receivers accomplished: Jordy Nelson, 47 first downs, Jermichael Finley, 44, Jennings, 43, and James Jones, 27 in 2011; Jordy, 62, Davante, 45, and Cobb, 36 in 2016.
Conclusion: dumping Jordy Nelson, and losing the connection he had with Rodgers, was another significant contributor to Green Bay’s declining third down conversion rate.
Overall conclusion: Talent-wise, Aaron Rodgers’ cast of receivers has been in gradual but continuous decline for close to a decade now. While slot receiver third down conversions are down, so are tight end conversions, and so are running back receptions. The Packers failed across the board to come up with successful third down calls in 2018 – whether that’s mostly on the head coach or mostly due to lack of receiving talent is subject to debate.
As a team goal for 2019, I’d propose that the Packers aim to convert at least 41% of their third down plays – which should place them right around tenth best in the NFL.