How Explosive Plays Affect the Packers
One of the men behind the Packers’ success in the 2000s and beyond came from the rival Minnesota Vikings. He didn't play a snap in his fourteen years in Green Bay. He never coached the players.
But when Mike Eayrs joined the Packers in 2001, he proved to be a crucial addition, one whose impact still can help us evaluate the team today.
Eayrs took his first job in the NFL with the Vikings in 1984 and spent fifteen years in a research role. While there, he pioneered many of the statistical analyses we see on TV broadcasts, and his insights helped the Vikings and Packers find advantages during their games.
Jason Wilde spoke with Eayrs’ after his arrival from Minnesota in December 2001. In the course of their conversation, Earys revealed the concept of “explosive plays,” one of his lasting contributions to football analysis. Eayrs told Wilde he’d discovered the concept of explosive plays during the 1970s and 1980s.
"What we looked at was, what is the minimum yardage you need on one play to significantly affect the scoring probability of that possession?" Eayrs explained. “So we did a formula called a linear regression, and what the results of the study revealed was, to significantly affect the probability of scoring on a single drive, you needed a passing gain of 16 yards or greater and a running gain of 12 yards or greater. So that became our line of demarcation."
The Power Sweep uses stats like explosive plays to help our readers become smarter Packers fans. The conclusions Jon and I found (using Earys' definition of explosive plays) shine insight into why the Packers struggled in 2017 and 2018.
Here’s how we define explosive plays based on Eayrs’ conclusions:
Explosive passing play (XPP): A completed pass gaining at least 16 yards.
Explosive rushing play (XPR): A rushing attempt gaining at least 12 yards.
In this analysis, we take care to eliminate explosive plays that don’t actually help teams. For instance, if a team needs 18 yards on fourth down and nets 17 with a pass, that play doesn’t qualify as explosive in our metric.
Why measure explosive plays?
Offenses possess the ball about ten times in an average NFL game. Using Eayrs’ odds, the four teams who averaged at least nine explosive plays per game on offense in 2018 had nearly a 50/50 shot at scoring every time they touched the ball.
Teams that produced the most explosive plays in 2018 tended to be very successful. Three of the four most explosive teams made the playoffs, and the Rams and Chiefs advanced to their respective conference championship games.
This year, the Packers’ hot-and-cold offense averaged about seven explosive plays per game, near the middle of the pack. In Green Bay, like the rest of the league, explosive plays led to winning football. When Aaron Rodgers and the offense played well, the Packers were among the league’s elite teams in explosive plays. In Green Bay’s six wins, the offense generated 9.2 XP/G, the fifth-most of any team in their wins.
2018 Packers finished positive in net explosive plays
Given how influential explosive plays can be in a football game it stands to reason that preventing explosive plays is also important. If your defense is stopping explosive plays while your offense produces them, there’s a good chance your team will find success.
Let’s examine the difference in explosive plays a team gains on offense and the explosive plays the team allows on defense, or net explosive plays (NETXP).
In 2018, the Packers finished with a +3 margin in NETXP, finishing with a higher NETXP than three playoff teams: the New England Patriots (+2 NETXP), the Seattle Seahawks (-2 NETXP), and the Philadelphia Eagles (-15 NETXP).
In a crucial four-week stretch after the bye week, the Packers went 1-3. Green Bay ended up on the wrong side of the NETXP differential, generating fewer explosive plays than they allowed in all three of those losses. They finished that season-defining stretch with a -6 NETXP.
Here’s how they did on a game-by-game basis:
The Packers finished third in NETXP behind division rivals Chicago (+18 NETXP) and Minnesota (+19 NETXP) and ahead of Detroit (0 NETXP). In their six division games against the Bears, Lions and Vikings, the Packers finished with a 0 NETXP, gaining 37 explosive plays on offense and allowing 37 explosive plays on defense.
Packers struggled mightily in 2017 in NETXP
Early this season, Jon wrote how the Packers had become irrelevant despite the return of Aaron Rodgers after a broken collarbone in 2017:
The Packers aren’t bad enough to be a truly bad team. At times, they’ve looked downright passable as a good team. Aaron Rodgers and the offense transformed into a nuclear-powered Megazord in the second half of the Bears game and stole Chicago’s soul right out of its body. For upwards of several quarters at a time, the defense has looked as good as it possibly can in its present configuration.
The Packers’ 15th-best NETXP ranking highlights in 2018 just how irrelevant they wound up being despite having Rodgers under center for 16 starts.
In 2017, without one of the game’s best quarterbacks for most of the season, the Packers were a truly bad team according to NETXP:
Only the Giants, Dolphins and Colts finished with a worse NETXP than the Packers in 2017, and they finished dead last in their division, a full 26 explosive plays behind the Detroit Lions.
The dip in production at quarterback explained the Packers’ dismal result. Backup quarterback Brett Hundley completed 26 explosive passing plays across ten games in 2017, three fewer than Rodgers completed in six games. Hundley’s legs helped, but no more than Rodgers’ scrambling ability. Both Hundley and Rodgers averaged about a single explosive running play per game in 2017.
Rodgers has the Packers trending in the right direction
The Packers fired defensive coordinator Dom Capers after the 2017 defense allowed 113 explosive plays. But new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s 2018 defense wasn’t any better, conceding 113 explosive plays.
However, Rodgers’ return boosted the Packers offense. Green Bay averaged two more explosive plays per game on offense in 2018. His presence helped the Packers make the NFL’s second-biggest jump in NETXP behind the New York Giants, even without added contributions from the defense:
The Packers could be in line for another jump in 2019. New head coach Matt LaFleur is a big fan of generating explosive plays. It’s central to his offensive philosophy, as he outlined when he took the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator job.
“It is extremely difficult to dink and dunk all the way down the field,” LaFleur said. “The defenses are just too good. If you look at it, statistically the teams that are getting the chunk plays, the explosive (plays), those are the teams that are going to produce more yards, more points.
LaFleur’s decision to keep Pettine gives the coordinator a second year to minimize his defense’s explosive plays. If LaFleur and his new offensive staff grow the number of explosive plays on offense alongside a decrease on defense, the Packers will be in a better position to win more games and return to the postseason.