Was Green Bay's NFC Championship Loss Mike McCarthy's Fault?
After losing to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mike McCarthy said this about his play calling in the game:
You can't blame a team for wanting to run the football against Seattle. The Seahawks' secondary ranked third in the NFL this year according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, and played better than any other unit during the second half of the 2014 season. If you're going to beat them, you need some semblance of a ground game.
That's not the problem we should have with this quote. Instead, this whole "I wanted to hit 20 rushing attempts in the second half" thing is the aspect that should make football fans mad. Especially when you have the best quarterback in the game -- regardless of his injury -- leading your team.
The first half of yesterday's game couldn't have gone much better for Green Bay, aside from McCarthy's choices to kick field goals close to the end zone rather than going for it on fourth down. That's not entirely important here though.
During the first half of play, the Packers ran 21 passes to 16 runs. This 1.31 pass-to-run ratio was directly in line with the team's 2014 average (1.30). They were playing their game, creating turnovers, and that's why they had the lead.
Here's a quick drive chart of the team's first half play calls from yesterday. Even if you remove the four pass plays they ran before the second half ending, the team ran more pass plays than run plays, despite having a strong lead throughout the game.
|Drive||Half||Pass Plays||Run Plays||Result|
Among the 21 pass plays ran, 11 were deemed a success -- positive plays -- according to our Net Expected Points metric. Aaron Rodgers' Success Rate on the year was 53.47%, just slightly higher than his first half 52.38% rate. But, obviously, he was playing against the best secondary in the NFL in a place where quarterbacks rarely perform well. On a play to play basis, aside from a couple of costly mistakes, Rodgers was fine.
The Packers' running game, too, was performing well, with a Success Rate of 50%. That's much better than average.
Rather than continuing this trend into the second half, McCarthy forced a more conservative game. He mentioned in his post-game interview that he was trying to hit 20 rushing attempts, so this isn't much of a surprise. The Packers ran 9 passing plays to 13 running plays prior to their final two-minute drill drive, which essentially allowed the Seahawks to get back into the game.
Of Green Bay's 13 second half runs, only two went for more than 5 yards. And after James Starks' 32-yard run to open up the fourth quarter, the best Green Bay run added 0.15 expected points. To put this into perspective, an average Jamaal Charles run this season added 0.11 points. And that's just his average -- this was the Packers' best tote for almost the entire fourth quarter.
Before hitting the field goal that sent the game into overtime, the Packers' previous two drives resulted in two three-and-outs. The play calling on the first of the two drives: Starks run, Starks run, Rodgers' pass, punt. The play calling on the second one: Lacy run, Lacy run, Lacy run, punt.
It's really difficult to get behind those calls when you have Aaron Rodgers, despite the fact that this was Rodgers' second-worst game of the season (-8.11 Passing NEP). It's not as though Eddie Lacy, who finished the game with a Rushing NEP of -3.45, was any better. And when the defense is expecting run, why give them run? All you needed was one first down to close out the contest.
In McCarthy's defense, the team did have over 98 percent odds to win the game after Russell Wilson's fourth interception with about five minutes left in the game. Up until that point, McCarthy was fine. But there's a reason that number wasn't at 100 percent -- you have to close out games, and you have to trust that your MVP quarterback is going to make a play (a first down) to move onto the Super Bowl. The end-of-game play calling appeared to be filled with just as much fear as the field goal choices made in the first half. And that doesn't cut it in the playoffs.
Now, the Packers will be watching the Super Bowl from home this year.