Here's one major reason why 'league average' Aaron Rodgers can bounce back big for Packers in 2019
Play action can help the Packers in a big way in 2019
If there's one thing Under Siege 2: Dark Territory taught us, it's that assumptions are not good. We've all assumed for a while that Aaron Rodgers would just magically fix whatever was ailing him as a quarterback, but that might have been a mother of a screw-up too. And yet, the blind assumption is he'll be better this year.
Perhaps it's not quite as blind as one might think, just because the Packers swapped out Mike McCarthy for Matt LaFleur. In fact, as noted by FiveThirtyEight and Establish The Run's Josh Hermsmeyer (@FriscoJosh) on Thursday's Pick Six Podcast (listen to the full interview below and make sure to subscribe to our daily podcast right here), it might be as simple as being successful at running play action in 2019 to fix Rodgers.
Hermsmeyer wrote about it in detail at FiveThirtyEight.com -- go read that piece here -- but as he explains on the show, the Packers have just been AWFUL at play action over the last four years. Couple that with the departure of Jordy Nelson and Rodgers has been "about league average."
"I think everyone in Green Bay is really looking forward to a new system and some kind of forward thinking on that side of the ball and not letting Rodgers call an audible a third of the time and then throw it out of bounds. There is some reason for hope. What I looked at -- from 2015 to 2018, which is his previous four years, he's been about league average," Hermsmeyer explained. "And there's parts of the field where he's well below league average. And that's in the deep and intermediate left where Jordy Nelson used to prowl. And in the middle of the field, he's also below average. I was kind of curious why that might be, and I looked at it and it's actually the case that the Packers are absolute garbage at play action."
You'd think the Packers would be good. They have a great offensive line and are always rotating through complementary/decent backs -- Aaron Jones had a pretty good year last year and remains underrated. Plus, play action is an easy win!
"That's wild to me. Because play action is the most efficient play type in all of football. Even lowly, lowly offenses can execute it at a high clip. And his yards per target is last -- the Packers yards per target on play action is last in the league over the last four years. And that just blew my mind," Hermsmeyer continued. "So what I did -- I went to the film, you guys -- I went to the film and I looked at a couple plays from the Packers and a couple plays from LaFleur last year on the Titans and I found one against the Dolphins for each of them where they ran a similar type of play."
Looking at the similar play calls, Hermsmeyer noted that the plays in question had vastly different concepts. McCarthy's was easy to lock down with just a pair of receivers trying to get open, while the LaFleur concept, which probably came from Kyle Shanahan (picture George Kittle leaking all last year), gives multiple options for the quarterback.
"What I saw with McCarthy's kind of scheme is he had only two wide receivers running routes attacking the secondary," Hermsmeyer explained. "Whereas with LaFleur -- and I guess under Shanahan, because it's a Shanahan concept -- a tight end leak, where it looks like he's blocking the whole time and then he goes and he attacks the vacated area where all the linebackers and some of the secondary go to play the run, he sneaks and leaks out that tight end. Mariota on that play didn't actually throw for a touchdown, because he underthrew it."
The long and short of it is that play action is extremely effective and the Packers, per Football Outsiders data, didn't run much play action last year (20 percent of their plays, 27th in the NFL) and weren't even good at it when they did (26th in DVOA on play action plays).
"My point in the entire piece, really, is that if they can get play action going with Rodgers, I think he can be one of the top quarterbacks again," Hermsmeyer concluded. "Because it's just such a good play in the NFL -- the fact that the Packers have been so garbage at it for the last four years is just so wild to me."
Conversely, the Titans were one of the most effective teams in the NFL in terms of play action during the 2018 season, per FO. They ranked sixth in percentage (27 percent) and ninth in DVOA on play action plays. The bigger, more stunning difference is how they fared WITHOUT play action.
Tennessee was 28th in DVOA in terms of plays that did not feature play action, giving them one of the biggest margins in the NFL in terms of play-action effectiveness compared to non-play action plays, behind only the Patriots (an absurd level of efficiency on PA) and Cardinals/Bills (historically terrible offenses, but still effective on play action, as Josh mentioned above).
Green Bay has the players to operate the play action that LaFleur wants to see run. If Rodgers is willing to stay on schedule and work within the framework of this Tennessee offense, it's possible that the Packers see an explosion in terms of effectiveness.
Such an explosion would likely validate our assumptions about Rodgers' return to greatness.
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