How Does Aaron Rodgers’ Injury Affect the Green Bay Packers?
Every football team needs a good quarterback to expect to compete. Teams with bad signal callers who have gotten to or won the Super Bowl have tended to be massive underdogs, teams who hit a hot streak at the right time.
As a Green Bay Packers fan, I recognize that I haven’t had to think about that issue at all in my lifetime. We went from ironman Brett Favre setting scores of passing records to Aaron Rodgers’ historic hyper-efficiency. We’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have two potential Hall of Famers under center for the last quarter-century.
Now, however, the Packers are staring down the prospect of more than half a season without a quality quarterback tossing the rock for the first time in a generation. Rodgers broke his collarbone on a big hit in Sunday’s Week 6 game, an injury that has forced him to undergo surgery and will all but knock him out of the team’s remaining 10 games.
How does this change the Packers' outlook for 2017?
Rodgers has only missed significant time in one other season in his career: 2013 saw him break his non-throwing shoulder collarbone, causing him to miss seven games. With Rodgers, Green Bay was 6-3 that season. Without, they went 2-4-1 and barely snuck their way into the playoffs with a last-second Hail Mary over the Chicago Bears.
But Rodgers came back for that one. He may be gone for the season this time around.
Despite Brett Hundley showing some flickers of capability in Sunday’s game, the last time Green Bay had to turn to its backups for most of the season, things didn’t go well.
We can see just how much impact the Packers lost with Rodgers out through numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score production, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
The table below shows the difference in plays per game and opponent-adjusted NEP per play for the team, comparing Weeks 1-9 and 17, when Rodgers was in, and Weeks 10-16 when he wasn’t. How much do they lose?
|Week||Adj NEP/P||Adj Pass NEP/P||Adj Rush NEP/P||Plays/G||Pass/G||Rush/G|
Green Bay went from owning one of the better passing attacks in the league to negative passing value every time backups Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, and Seneca Wallace dropped back, meaning that over the course of a typical game, they were losing almost a field goal’s worth of expected points due to their quarterbacks. On a per-play basis, their running backs were losing double that amount, since defenses could load up the box to stop them.
This is clearly not good news for the team as a whole, and while it’s not yet reflected in our playoff odds (Green Bay still sits at 60.7 percent, second-highest in the NFC North), give it another week and they should fall off.
Packers fans are now fully dejected, so we’ve done our job there. Now how can we ruin fantasy football players’ days?
While NEP is by no means a direct correlation to fantasy points, it’s pretty clear that when quality of passing play drops off (and first downs and touchdowns dry up), the fantasy totals of receiving options will suffer. With Rodgers having been an every-game starter in most seasons since taking over the job in 2008, there's little way to compare his receivers' production without him. This second half of 2017 will be a great test case for us to look back on, but as fantasy owners, we need to know now what we should do to react to the coming changes for the Green Bay offense.
The biggest thing to note is that the game script is likely going to change somewhat for the Packers. For those of you who haven't heard the term game script before, this simply means the expected play pattern for a team at any given point in a game. If a team is trailing, they are in negative game script; if ahead, they are in positive.
Due to the incredible efficiency of the offense, we almost always expect the Packers with Aaron Rodgers to be in a positive game script. This means fewer throws, usually, as the offense attempts to just run down the time and grind out a win. In 2017, however, the Packers have spent an average of 18 minutes and 29 seconds per game in the lead (30.8 percent of the time).
With a defense currently ranked 20th in the league in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP per play, Green Bay hasn't been able to get ahead of other teams and coast often; that's not going to change with even less offensive impact going forward. While the Packers have been in a neutral or negative game script for almost 70 percent of the season, there's a very real chance they challenge the Cleveland Browns for the top spot the rest of the way.
In 2013, Green Bay started passing a bit more with Rodgers out. Due to his super efficiency, Green Bay didn’t need to run a lot of pass plays with him under center. Without Rodgers, they had to play catch-up quite a bit more, leading to more about three more targets for their pass-catchers per game.
With a slightly more impactful rushing attack than 2013 and not much further to drop in game script or rise in pass-to-run play calling ratio (the Packers are currently the fourth-most pass-happy team in the league), a few more targets may come for the Green Bay receivers, but things aren't going to look pretty regardless.
In short, the main pass-catchers for the Green Bay Packers are going to see a significant fantasy hit.
Hundley will likely look for his short-area receivers, such as Martellus Bennett, Ty Montgomery, and Aaron Jones more as check-down options, and his second-team familiarity with Davante Adams could mean slightly less drop-off for his production. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will be perhaps the most impacted, as they are two of Rodgers' favorite targets, and those veterans don't have rapport with the youngster Hundley.
What fantasy owners have to hope for is that the Packers’ almost certainly perpetual negative game script (thanks to a bad defense) allows Hundley to consistently drop back 40 to 50 times a game and rack up volume for his receivers instead of value.
No one can replace Aaron Rodgers, however -- not in the NFL and not in fantasy football.