How the Green Bay Packers Dominated the NFC North Despite a Slow Start
The Green Bay Packers started off the 2014 season with a pair of losses in their first three games, leading to Aaron Rodgers' now infamous "Relax" comment. This "milestone" has been cited as a turning point in the Packers' season, as if Rodgers' comments were the spark which ignited the team's ability over the final 13 games.
And the team certainly needed a boost after stumbling to a 1-2 record, as they dropped from 51% preseason odds to make the playoffs all the way to 12.7%, according to our data. That's not just an overreaction based on their record: that's stat-driven algorithms projecting out the season and failing to see the Packers finishing in the top six in the NFC. When you look at the numbers that inform our projections, it's easy to see why.
A season-opening loss to the Seahawks earned the Packers a negative Net Expected Points (NEP) total on offense and a very high NEP on defense. Those are both on the wrong side of the spectrum, as a low offensive NEP suggests the team was producing at a below expectation level, while the defense was surrendering more production than would be anticipated by an average defense.
A win over the not-very-good Jets (at home in Green Bay) helped salvage the team's numbers before a miserable loss at Detroit, which saw even worse offensive numbers than the Seahawks game (according to our numbers) and a bad performance on defense. Through the first three games, Washington had better playoff odds than the Packers, who were definitely looking like the year's biggest disappointment.
So what changed for Green Bay? There are three clear trends in the Packers' season that stand out as reasons for their turnaround, and none are as cool or fun as the quarterback saying "Relax" on local radio. But let's consider the three main reasons why Green Bay was able to right the ship and earn a division title despite a horrible start.
Home Sweet Home
By now you've surely seen the statistics about how well Aaron Rodgers has played at home over the past few seasons, avoiding interceptions and producing insane yardage and touchdowns when playing in Green Bay. In case you've missed the constant reminders, Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception at home since December of 2012, tossing 36 touchdowns over that span with only two full games under 60% completion percentage.
But it's not just Rodgers who plays better in the friendly confines of Lambeau Field, as the Packers were better in every team category we track while at home this season. Here's a quick chart to show what I mean, using Adjusted per-game NEP data which accounts for strength of opponent.
|Location||Adj NEP||Adj PNEP||Adj RNEP||Adj D NEP||Adj D PNEP||Adj D RNEP|
The Packers were 10 expected points better per game on offense at home this season and were also significantly better on defense in Wisconsin, holding teams below expectations in the average home contest. The Packers' three best single-game defensive performances were all in Green Bay, as they dominated the Vikings, Bears, and Eagles with strong defensive play and forced turnovers.
Most teams are better at home, however, so this should come as no surprise. The Packers may be more dominant than some other teams when playing on their own turf, but strong home/road splits are quite common in the NFL.
Time Heals All Wounds
A bit less expected, especially for a veteran team with lots of returning players and a consistent roster from year to year, is improvement as the season progresses. The Packers rarely sign big-name free agents and don't have that many notable new faces on offense or defense, so there's no reason to expect them to "build up" to a better product by the end of the season.
Yet that's exactly what happened this year, as the first three poor games were combined with a struggle against the Saints in Week 8 and several bad defensive performances across the board to sink Green Bay's production through their first eight games. Here's another chart outlining the Packers' performance in the first and second halves of the season.
|Time||Adj NEP||Adj PNEP||Adj RNEP||Adj D NEP||Adj D PNEP||Adj D RNEP|
The Packers started the season off with five of their first six games in the positive in terms of Defensive NEP, which is the wrong side of zero from a Green Bay perspective. After the Week 9 bye, the Packers tightened up considerably on defense, including a very strong run to end the season against the Bills, Bucs and Lions.
Green Bay's decision to move Clay Matthews around the formation could have to do with the improvements on defense, as the versatile linebacker gets into better positions to make plays when he's lined up off the ball. But really, these stats all basically lead to the same conclusion...
Regression to the Mean
Before the season, our numbers predicted the Packers would make the playoffs 51% of the time, if the season were played over and over again. They were one of the best teams in the league in that regard, with only seven teams starting the year with higher playoff odds. And of those seven teams, five made the playoffs.
This isn't specifically an attempt to brag about our numbers here at numberFire (although we are quite proud of them) but simply a reminder that good football teams often figure it out over time and right the ship before things get out of hand. The same thing happened this season for the Patriots and Seahawks, who had moments where their playoff dreams seemed to fade for a couple of weeks before turning things around.
The Packers have dealt with injuries all season, had an unbalanced schedule in terms of home/road games and games against quality opponents, and just had a couple of bad days at the office here and there. But when we look back at the season as a whole, we see a 12-4 record and a division title, which we could have expected before two losses in the first three weeks threw everyone into a panic about Green Bay's chances in 2014. They also finished with the league's best offense, according to our data, despite being "shut down" by Seattle in Week 1.
So allow the Packers' 2014 season to serve as a reminder for the future: if you're a good football team (or a fan of a good football team), just "relax." More often than not, the best teams find a way to bounce back and meet expectations in the end.