After last week’s drubbing, Packer fans are searching for answers and glomming on to anything that makes sense to them. Poor execution? Hard to argue with receivers running into each other. Missed opportunities? Mason Crosby would direct you to his inbox of hate mail this week (don’t be that guy, by the way), despite Rodgers attempts at shouldering the blame. Bad Defense? While I think they were playing with a short deck, I would hear an argument for it. These don’t really get at the core of the issue though. While the rest of the teams in Wisconsin are looking to analytics to compete, embracing a new era in sports, McCarthy is hanging on to 2011 successes with all his might.
Since Billy Bean, Bill James, and Michael Lewis rocked the world with “Moneyball”, a way of putting a competitive team on the field by effectively playing a numbers game, sports have never been the same (in a good way). Embracing “sabermetrics” and deriving true value of players at fair market prices, Beane and company was able to make the playoffs with the 3rd lowest payroll in baseball. Since then, most teams in every sport have tried to find their own version of ‘Moneyball’. Analytics departments across all sports have cropped up, and are influencing player acquisition, on field management and situational decision-making in every sport. So what does this look like? Well, we will go team by team.
What you might have missed during the Packers drubbing was a team run almost entirely on analytics advancing to the NLCS. After the collapse of the Brewers in 2014 and the horrid 2015 season, the Brewers decided to tear it all down and rebuild. They fired then-manager Ron Roenicke and forced GM Doug Melvin to step down and hand over the reins to an analytical darling in David Stearns. Immediately getting to work, Stearns started pilfering their talent on the field for prospects and managed to replenish a once depleted farm system.
This, in a vacuum, isn’t enough to rebuild a team, but Stearns remained active in acquiring pitchers with high strikeout/walk ratios(Chacin, Miley, Jeffress), batters with high .OPS +(Yelich, Shaw, Moustakas), and defenders who won’t bleed runs(Cain), all of whom are on manageable contracts. What you see now is a team primed to take on the Dodgers for a trip to the World Series not but 2 years later, all while carrying a bottom 3rd payroll. Now, that’s not to say they follow all aspects of what makes Moneyball successful (they still employ Jonathan Schoop), but it’s hard to ignore the drastic change this organization has taken to compete in this new era. All of these would be moot if manager Craig Counsell doesn’t embrace the same philosophy.
Properly managing a team run by analytics is just as important as putting one together with it. Throughout the end of the season, Counsell has managed a team through a bull pen game, starting a game off with a reliever to get the first out, and managing every statistically favorable match-up possible. To this point, neither man has missed their shot. Us Wisconsin fans are hoping this thrill ride continues.
The Bucks offer a look at the introduction of this shift to analytics. Modern NBA Moneyball resembles something similar to a 3 point barrage, perfectly exemplified by a team like the Rockets. Teams try to space the floor, scheme open high percentage 3 point shots through ball movement and spacing, or high percentage shots close to the hoop. For years under John Hammond and Jason Kidd, the Bucks were the antithesis of an analytical team. Hammond favored lanky, long-limbed, shooting deft players who could defend. Despite rostering a generational talent in Giannis Antetekounmpo, the Bucks regularly were in the bottom 3rd of three-point shooting teams, and one of the highest mid-range shooting teams, heavily favored isolation (1 on 1 matchups) and were hyper aggressive defensively, often giving up easy looks at the hoop, or corner threes. The Bucks have since parted ways with Hammond and have fired Kidd, going in a completely different direction.
Enter Mike Budenholzer and Jon Horst. The former Hawks coach had his teams taking their vitamins, working on their spacing with simply taping exactly where they should be on the floor (hint, it’s the 3 point line). His teams are notorious for finishing toward the top of the league in 3 point shooting. As a disciple of Greg Poppovich, it’s hard not to like the early returns from the new head coach. The only concerning part of this union is the GM, who has made some questionable moves. Signing Tony Snell to a fairly large 4 year 46 million dollar contract, and selecting another lanky, long limbed play in DJ Wilson are moves that cry Hammond-era Bucks. However, moves to acquire Eric Bledsoe while getting rid of Greg Monroe’s contract, and snagging former all-star Brook Lopez for mostly peanuts give hope that this organization are moving in the right direction.
Where Does Green Bay Stand?
Since the 2011 season, one in which quarterbacks eviscerated the record books, there has been a renaissance in the NFL. One that had teams passing the football at a staggering rate, a league in which the Packers were the innovators. What happened next was a shift in the focus of the passing game – one that has left the Packers offense a few steps behind. Teams are moving to college style spread offenses with high percentage, shorter throws that have a chance at picking up chunks of yards, rather than trying to push the ball down the field. The Packers run mostly a West Coast offense that pushes the ball more vertically, and relies on the QB time to let routes develop downfield.
While good offenses rely on the deep ball, innovators such as Doug Pederson and Sean McVay have implemented spread offense looks with a West Coast offense feel, something McCarthy has toyed with at times (and had success with) but reverts back to his tendencies almost every year. It’s something that relies so much on execution, rhythm and chemistry on offense, and for a team for the longest time that was draft and develop, led to periods of stagnancy (current times included). These new concepts by teams like the Rams and Eagles make it easy for younger players to grasp, and allows for there to be a margin of error on offense. In a pure West Coast offense, if your vertical passing game isn’t working well, you find yourself in a lot of low percentage, 3rd a long situations that are tough to convert.
Coupled with higher percentage throws on offense, the analytics era in football is also marked by stopping the pass on defense, something the Packers have been historically poor at for the better part of a decade. Either having a great pass rush (ex. Eagles, Giants & Denver) or an incredible secondary (Seattle), being able to shut down offense’s vertical attack has been a harbinger of success in this modern era. The Packers haven’t had much success in this since they addressed the pass rush in 2014 with Julius Peppers. They attempted to make some of these shifts this offseason (adding Mo Wilkerson and the rookie corners has gone a long way), but they mostly ignored a pass rush that finished in the bottom half last year.
What’s more, from a play calling standpoint, more and more, coaches are focusing on game theory to help their play calling. I found myself yelling at the screen, with the Packers kicking an extra point, on the road, down 11, with a struggling kicker. The Packers were playing for the tie, something McCarthy has done with some regularity. The same can be said for going for it on 4th down. The Packers, with Aaron Rodgers, have thrown the ball 29 times on 4th down and 4-9 yards to go in his entire career. By comparison, Doug Pederson in 2017 alone went for it 29 times on 4th down. That is absolutely unacceptable. Part of it might have to do with how historically bad the passing defense has been, and giving them a shortened field would hurt. However, with a surefire hall of famer at the helm, going for it on 4th down should always be an option, especially past midfield. McCarthy should have a sheet to reference from his analytics department, that tells him exactly what to do. The fact that he needs to seemingly micromanage every aspect is a problem, and one that seems to be holding this team back.
There do seem to be some positives. Gutekunst seems committed to bring the Packers into the modern era as far as drafting players with high raw athletic scores and actually using free agency to his advantage. There is only so much he can do, though. The rest falls on the head coach. Play calling, managing the game, and managing personnel is a lot to rest on any one person. The Packers have been bereft of any innovation since 2011, and it was clear as day Sunday. Something in McCarthy’s approach needs to change, otherwise, he may need to dust off the resume. Time will tell, and McCarthy has pulled off miracles before, but the 2nd longest tenured NFL coach might just be running out of tricks to pull this team back up.