Near misses depriving Packers of points
GREEN BAY - They are plays this Green Bay Packers offense has made for years. An open receiver. A toe tap inbounds. A catch in the end zone.
They are also mistakes this offense has avoided: turnovers, drops, poorly timed penalties.
What’s wrong with the Packers' offense? There are endless theories, but cold, hard numbers suggest a specific diagnosis. Week after week, the Packers are taking an inordinate amount of points off the board.
A red-zone offense that ranks 22nd in touchdown percentage (converting 52 percent of the time) doesn’t help. Particularly problematic has been a bevy of simple plays that – for one reason or another – have gone unconverted.
Take Thursday night’s win against the Chicago Bears for example. The Packers scored 26 points, but it could’ve been 41. Their most glaring scoreboard subtraction was a pair of near touchdowns between quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb.
On the Packers’ opening drive, Cobb failed to cleanly catch a pass in the end zone before Bears cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc knocked it out. In the second quarter, Cobb held onto an end-zone catch, but LeBlanc shoved Cobb in the back enough for his right foot to land out of bounds.
Cobb eventually got into the end zone in the fourth quarter, but the near misses were still on his mind in the locker room. Two plays were the difference between a 14-3 halftime lead, instead of 6-3.
McGINN: Rating the Packers vs. Bears
“I’ve got to have those other two,” Cobb said. “That could be the difference in a game. … That’s touchdowns. You put those two touchdowns on the board, you add another 14 points. I think there wouldn’t be any talk about us struggling in the first half if we had those points.”
Cobb isn’t the only one in the Packers' offense who left points on the field this season, and the Bears aren’t the only opponent to benefit.
Four days earlier, Rodgers overthrew an open Cobb in the back of the end zone, as easy a touchdown as an NFL quarterback could want. There are plenty of other examples.
It has become a weekly trend for an offense grappling with inconsistency. A most conservative estimate has the Packers leaving up to 36 points off the scoreboard for various reasons this season, which comes out to a touchdown per week. The estimation doesn’t include multiple first-and-goal situations that have become field goals, and also a tough incompletion between Rodgers and Jordy Nelson in the back, left corner of the end zone against Detroit.
For context, those 36 points would increase the Packers’ average scoring to 29.3 points per game, which would be third in the NFL behind the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Currently, they’re tied with the Denver Broncos for 16th in scoring with 23.3 points per game. The Packers particularly have struggled since their bye, with 30 of the missed 36 points coming in their past three games.
No, this isn’t to suggest the Packers are close to being one of the NFL’s best offenses. Quite the contrary. Elite offenses make simple plays that directly lead to points.
Regardless, it could be telling the Packers’ 4.2 red-zone trips per game are tied with the Falcons for second in the NFL, behind only a Chargers (4.7) offense that ranks third in scoring. Their average number of red-zone trips is almost identical to the 4.1 they averaged in 2011, and a shade better than the 3.9 they averaged in 2014.
The Packers are getting opportunities to score with the frequency of an elite offense, but not making the plays.
“You have to do the little things,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “You have to get a foot down, you have to take care of the football, you can’t turn it over. Obviously, six points for the other team. Our turnover ratio is unacceptable right now. That’s clearly the outlier for us to improve on.”
The Packers' turnovers too often have come after they crossed midfield, killing promising drives. Yet they have entered the red zone at a proficient rate. More troubling than turnovers has been an inability to finish scoring drives.
Their red-zone issues are in line with last season’s clip. The Packers ranked 17th in the NFL with a 55 percent touchdown ratio in 2015, still higher than their 2016 clip. In 2011, at the height of their offensive success, the Packers ranked third in the NFL with touchdowns on 65.22 percent of their red-zone trips.
“We’ve kicked too many field goals,” McCarthy said, “and we’ve got a couple turnovers down there. We’ve definitely got to do a better job. That’s definitely one of the situations where we need to improve on.”
It has been a problem for so long at this point, there is no guarantee the Packers can fix it. For whatever reason, this may simply be what the Packers are – a flawed offense that can’t finish scoring drives. Yet the film reveals plenty of opportunities.
If the Packers start making the plays that lead to points, their bottom line will look much different.
Packers' potential points off the board…
15 points vs. Chicago (4 on Cobb end zone drop that resulted in field goal, 3 on Mike McCarthy deciding to go for a TD on fourth-and-goal from 1, 4 on Cobb end zone out of bounds, 1 on wide-right missed XP, 3 on 31-yard blocked field goal)
11 points vs. Cowboys (7 on Rodgers fumble on first-and-goal at 1, 4 on overthrowing Cobb in end zone)
7 points vs. Giants (3 on INT tipped off Jordy Nelson’s hands, 4 on Richard Rodgers end-zone drop)
3 points vs. Lions (3 on Bulaga holding penalty that put them out of field-goal range)
3 points vs. Vikings (3 on McCarthy’s decision to go for 4th-and-2 instead of kicking short field goal)