Number of plays not key to Packers' success
In July, we learned coach Mike McCarthy wanted his Packers to run 75 plays a game.
On Sunday in Miami Gardens, Fla., his team delivered in dramatic fashion.
Green Bay needed every one of its offensive snaps to stun the Dolphins 27-24 at Sun Life Stadium. Aaron Rodgers fired a TD strike to tight end Andrew Quarless with three seconds left to provide the margin of victory.
The number 75 has no special power. Prior to the Dolphins, Green Bay was 7-7-1 in games when it ran 75 or more plays under McCarthy.
Sunday's game further demonstrated how arbitrary the number is. Had the Packers not trailed 24-20 when they got the ball with 2 minutes, 4 seconds left, they likely would have taken their time to run out the clock and never would have run the 11 plays they did in mounting their comeback.
Even though the number of plays a team runs has little or no correlation to winning, most coaches apparently want the ball in the hands of their offense as often as possible. It's one reason more teams are turning to the no-huddle offense.
But as with any goal, stating it doesn't make it come true. Instead of producing a record number of plays this season, McCarthy's Packers were in danger of setting records in the other direction.
Green Bay got off 275 plays (55.0 average) in its first five games this season. Since 1933, only the teams of 1934 (51.0) and 1933 (55.0) were as opportunity-deprived.
In each of the Packers' first five games, their opponents ran more plays than they did. That had happened only five times before in team history, most recently in 2003.
Through five games, the competition had run 88 more plays than had the Packers. It was the biggest deficit since the 1984 team found itself down 90 in opening 1-4.
Further, every one of Green Bay's first five opponents held the edge in time of possession. That hadn't happened since the 1986 team started 0-5.
The Packers turned those disturbing trends around in Miami. They produced season-highs in plays (79) and time of possession (37:12).
They also produced their longest drive to date. Their first advance of the third quarter consisted of 13 plays and took 8:04 off the clock. Rodgers capped it with a 5-yard TD throw to Randall Cobb that put Green Bay up 17-10.
That long stretch on the field was similar to what transpired in the first half. The Packers uncorked 42 plays to the Dolphins' 27 and possessed the ball for 20:55.
Such lopsidedness has been good for Green Bay in the past. Under McCarthy, the team had been 13-2 when running 40 or more first-half plays.
Maximizing snaps requires effort from offense and defense. The Packers manufactured six drives that lasted more than three minutes; the Dolphins had three, none in the first half.
Green Bay did not turn the ball over. Casey Hayward and Sam Shields each intercepted Ryan Tannehill in the second quarter.
Yet despite the edge in turnovers, and time of possession and number of plays, the game boiled down to one final drive. On it, the Packers came away with big plays — guard T.J. Lang's recovery of Rodgers' fumble, Jordy Nelson's 18-yard reception on fourth-and-10 and the TD catch by Quarless — but Play No. 75 was nothing special. It was an incompletion, the last of 16 passes targeted for Nelson.
Green Bay never has averaged 75 plays per game over the course of a season, and it doesn't need to do so to win. The Packers last led the league in most offensive plays (1,085; 67.8 per game) during McCarthy's rookie year when the team finished 8-8.
No team in NFL history has averaged 75 plays per game. The Patriots of 1994 fell one short at 1,199 plays (74.9) in going 10-6 under second-year quarterback Drew Bledsoe.