From the Far Hash: The Evolution of the Packers Offense
Hi everybody! I’m Jay, the younger brother of Kelly. I previously wrote a guest post about Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense. After the guest column, I’ve decided to join the cast as a regular. I’m calling my column “From the Far Hash.” I hope you enjoy it!
In my previous entry, I outlined that the Packers offense, as run by Aaron Rodgers, has many concepts derived from the K-gun run ‘n shoot offense. Was I claiming that the Packers are a run ‘n shoot team? Well, no. But, I was suggesting that the Packers offense has just as much, if not more, derived from the run ‘n shoot as it does from Bill Walsh’s west coast system.
To explain the evolution of the Packers offense, I’ve decided to talk about the most recent Super Bowl Victories, XXXI and XLV. I mean, all that matters in the NFL is championships, right? So, let’s look at how the Packers went about winning these titles and evolved in the fourteen years between them. These Super Bowls were won with very different coach and quarterback combinations. XXXI was the return to glory with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, and XLV was part of the post-Brett Favre healing tour with Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. In my last article, I mentioned that most fans can easily tell that the offense run by Brett Favre was very different from the offense directed by Aaron Rodgers. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Both of the last Super Bowl victories will always be linked to the Cincinnati Bengals. Is your mind blown? Surely, you can’t be serious? I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley. And, I’m not talking about the failed Forrest Gregg experiment. Here’s why:
The one thing we know about the NFL is it’s a copycat league that runs in cycles. Fads come and go, and then come and go again. Remember the wildcat craze? That was just a new iteration of the ancient single wing. The run ‘n shoot came and died out. The pure run ‘n shoot of the early 1990s died when Buddy Ryan’s fist hit Kevin Gilbride’s face. But, the run ‘n shoot came back to life and is currently a major scoring engine in today’s NFL. The Packers run many of these concepts, but so do the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. Just find some clips of Wes Welker taking passes from Tom Brady. This season, watch Danny Amendola do the same. Marcus Colston is a favorite run ‘ shoot receiver of Drew Brees. Also, the west coast offense has come and gone many times. So, when did the west coast offense first show up? It wasn’t with the San Francisco 49ers. It was with the Cincinnati Bengals. Seriously? Yes.
Between 1968-1975, Bill Walsh was an offensive assistant under the legendary Paul Brown. While running the offense, Walsh had to design an offense around the weaker-armed quarterback, Virgil Carter. Carter was accurate, but didn’t have the down field strength that Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler had in their respective aerial raids. So, what was the solution? The west coast offense was born to solve this weakness. Short passing routes based on precision timing were how the Bengals consistently moved the chains. Once the Bengals developed quarterback Ken Anderson, Bill Walsh was really able to bring his blueprint to life. Ken Anderson experienced, at the time, some of the best statistical performances in professional quarterback history. Some argue he should be in the Hall of Fame.
In the ultimate game of what-ifs, Bill Walsh eventually found his way to San Francisco and won three Super Bowls with another accurate, but not overly strong-armed, quarterback named Joe Montana. Walsh trained Mike Holmgren, and Holmgren developed Brett Favre. And, so we now have the Super Bowl XXXI victory. Mike Holmgren ran Bill Walsh’s offense in a very pure form, complete with quick slants as the staple of the passing category. Imagine what would have happened if Paul Brown hadn’t tried to blackball Bill Walsh from the league. Perhaps the Bengals would have been the team of the 1980s and Joe Montana would have gone the way of Rich Campbell.
Now, what about the Super Bowl XLV victory? In my previous article, I explained how many of the Packers passing concepts come the Buffalo Bills K-gun offense. But, from where did the K-gun offense come? That’s right, the Cincinnati Bengals. In the mid-to-late 1980s, Sam Wyche’s Bengals ran an up-tempo, no huddle, variant of the run ‘n shoot. Marv Levy publicly complained about this offense and wanted it outlawed. Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. In 1989, Marv Levy installed the K-gun offense and let Jim Kelly go gang busters all over AFC defenses. They did make it to four straight Super Bowls, but just couldn’t figure out the NFC defenses. The template was set to come alive more than a decade later. Copycat league indeed.
The Packers spread out the Steelers defense and won Super Bowl XLV. Everyone who heard even a minute of the pregame analysis and hype knew the Packers would “spread ‘em and shred ‘em.” The K-gun brought the Lombardi trophy home to Titletown for a fourth time. I still smile thinking about this. But, the overall message is clear. The NFL is a copycat league that goes in cycles. Right now, due to superior quarterback talent, we are experiencing a long-ball frenzy. I say enjoy it now, because if history is any indicator, things will change again. Defenses will figure it out, and maybe the short-ball will become the next, recycled staple. Slowly moving the chains will become en vogue again.
Still don’t believe me that Aaron Rodgers runs many K-gun concepts? Let’s use numbers to do the talking. Two important statistics we use to measure quarterback performance are yards per attempt (YPA) and yards per catch (YPC). Now, we’ll compare how these career average numbers are different between traditional west coast quarterbacks (Ken Anderson, Joe Montana, and Brett Favre) and K-gun quarterbacks (Jim Kelly, Warren Moon [in a true run ‘n shoot], and Aaron Rodgers).
You’ll see, with the exception of Ken Anderson, the K-gun quarterbacks average more yards per catch, meaning the routes are deeper and they are attacking deeper than the west coast routes. Usually, the deeper the routes, the harder they are to complete the passes. This explains why west coast quarterbacks have higher yards per attempt–because they throw shorter, but complete more of them. The K-gun quarterbacks throw deeper, but typically complete fewer of them, leading to lower yards per attempt numbers.
Looking at the numbers, we can objectively compare Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. I’m not trying to start a flame war here, as they are both talented quarterbacks who won championships. But, Brett Favre’s Packers won by “moving the chains” (in his own words). Favre is tied for the lowest yards per attempt of all the quarterbacks mentioned, and is dead last in yards per catch. Despite his rocket arm, he consistently threw the ball short for many of this passes. This is where Aaron Rodgers is different. Not only does he consistently throw deeper, he’s the best at it of all of the other quarterbacks mentioned. Rodgers has the highest yards per attempt and is tied for the highest yards per catch. What does this mean? It means he throws the longest and completes more of them than other quarterbacks.
Just for giggles, let’s throw Tom Brady and Drew Brees in here because they switched to many run ‘n shoot concepts during the second half of their careers (and to show the “modern pass game” comparisons).
From watching games, and analyzing numbers, we can see that Aaron Rodgers is the pinnacle of modern quarterback evolution. His skill set is something Packers fans should relish. This is why Uncle Teddy had no problem throwing money bags at Rodgers. He is a unique talent and we should cherish what he brings to the table. He is statistically better than Brees and Brady, and may end up being the best of all time. He is more accurate while throwing the long ball of any quarterback I can remember, including Lynn Dickey, who Larry McCarren called the most accurate long thrower he’d ever seen. If Rodgers doesn’t win at least another Super Bowl, I’d be very surprised. The Super Bowl window doesn’t stay open very long, so teams need to capitalize when they get hot. The Packers didn’t capitalize on their 1996 run, mainly because the team got old and Holmgren bolted for greener pastures. But, his departure lead to the evolution of Mike McCarthy’s aerial assault based on existing K-gun passing concepts. The current iteration of the Packers offense utilizes Rodger’s skills and gives the young Packers the best chance of winning another title during this short opening. Maybe in 12 years from now, we’ll see another retreaded offense bring home another title. That’s not to say we won’t see another title in the next couple of years.