Packers 25, Falcons 14: A Quarterback's League, Illustrated

In Sunday night's tilt between the Atlanta Falcons and the Green Bay Packers, one thing was clear from the get go: the Packers were losing the ground game. First they watched the Falcons use rushes of 15, 11, and 17 yards to advance into Packers' territory en route to an opening touchdown. Then, Michael Turner punched in the Falcons' second touchdown to give them a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. Meanwhile, the Packers struggled to get the running game going, picking up only four successful rushes on 10 attempts in the first half. The Packers would end up with only 58 rushing yards, succeeding on only 37% of rushes (7-for-19). The Falcons, somewhat inexplicably, only rushed 18 times, but they succeeded on a 63% of them (12/19) in picking up 86 yards.

 But this is 2011, and the NFL is a quarterback's league. We need look no further than this game to illustrate this fact. Although the Falcons used the run effectively to gain their early 14-0 lead, Matt Ryan was money under center as well. Ryan was 8-for-10 with 80 yards and a score on these first two drives, picking up a striking 9.4 expected points added. Meanwhile, Rodgers started relatively slow -- despite going 7-10 with 78 passing yards, Rodgers also took two sacks for -12 yards and earned a relatively meek 3.1 EPA. And things turned, slowly but surely. Two hours later, and the Packers were walking out of the Georgia Dome with a 25-14 victory, almost completely determined by the play of the two quarterbacks. Observe how closely each team's win probability tracks the play of the quarterback, as measured by expected points added:

And also observe the relatively tiny impact of the running game:

After each team's first two drives -- roughly the 50 play mark -- we saw a complete reversal of fortunes. Ryan utterly collapsed, completing only eight of his final 22 passes for 87 yards and two interceptions, a negative adjusted yards per attempt. As a 14 point lead slipped away, Ryan contributed -10 expected points added, and the Packers went on to produce 25 unanswered points behind the golden arm of Rodgers.

Rodgers finished 19-for-29, picking up 307 yards and two touchdown passes, with the only blemishes two more sacks for -15 yards. In the latter portion of the game, Rodgers averaged an excellent 9.4 adjusted yards per attempt and compiling another 12.5 expected points added, ending with a total of 15.8 in an 11-point contest.

Let us not forget -- in 2010, the initial selections for the Pro Bowl were Michael Vick, Drew Brees, and Matt Ryan, with Aaron Rodgers nowhere to be found. Any controversy over Rodgers's snub was eventually moot, as his Packers reached the Super Bowl and he was ineligible to compete in the exhibition. But it still allows me to make a point -- Rodgers has compiled 214.5 expected points added in the 2010 and 2011 regular seasons, whereas Ryan has 125.3. There isn't much of a comparison, and the better quarterback's team won again Sunday Night.

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13 Responses to “Packers 25, Falcons 14: A Quarterback's League, Illustrated”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I'm a die hard Falcons fan and I could not agree more with this article.

    Matty Ice may be the best QB we've had in ATL (followed maybe by Bartkowski and Vick?) but the contrast between Ryan and Rodgers was clear on Sunday night.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Interesting post, but I would avoid the yellow if possible. It's hard to see.

  3. Sampo says:

    I love the way you present the running success! 7-of-19, brilliant!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Picky like the above comment, I'd recommend using one color to represent the team, say green for green bay and black for atlanta. So you'd have two colors rather than four. This would make it easier to pair activity (run in one chart, pass in the other) with team. Steve Jobs taught us: Design is everything.
    Analysis is great, though.

  5. Keith Goldner says:

    That first chart is extremely telling and a great illustration of the effect of the passing game in the NFL.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Great article. I love this graphs. I wish things like that were available for pre 2000 games, because ...

    "this is 2011, and the NFL is a quarterback's (passing) league."

    ... not only 2011, but since the days of Luckman the most prolific passing offenses (with the help of above average Pass-D´s) prevailed. Yes, even in the running 70´s. Every team applied the same head banging run tactic, but it wasn´t the Csonka´s of the world that made the difference, it was the Griese´s and Warfield´s that were.

    Karl, Germany

  7. bigmouth says:

    Absolutely fascinating!

  8. Brian Burke says:

    Karl, good point. I'd love to see some similar graphs from the mid 70's. It would probably show a much tighter coupling of running to winnig.

  9. Whispers says:


    What's with the love for inappropriate apostrophes?

  10. Brian Burke says:

    That's my fault. I wrote Jack's contract that he gets paid by the apostrophe.

  11. Jack Moore says:

    Argh, that's embarrassing. My bad, and thanks for the catch.

  12. Jim Glass says:

    The main point is true enough, but I'd feel much better reading about how it is "a passing league", not "a QB's league", personalizing everything so extremely on the hero-failure QB: "Ryan was money under center ... picking up a striking 9.4 expected points added" ... while "Rodgers started slow" ... but then "Ryan contributed -10 expected points", and we saw "the golden arm of Rodgers", while "Ryan utterly collapsed".

    Why would a guy who was money under center utterly collapse? Well, it is a team game with more than 11 players involved in the passing game on both sides of the ball, plus all the coaching input. It's not just Ryan.

    Recall that the rule changes that created the modern passing game did it by opening things up *for the receivers*. As put it, "passers get 28.3% of the passing game points and receivers get the other 71.7%. Remember, there are a lot of people who have to split the receiving points." And that's not counting the blocking.

    Look at NFL payrolls. If Rodgers personally really created 214.5 expected points added last year for the Pack then he is GROSSLY underpaid -- and so are all the other good QBs.

    Something happened in this game to shift the passing game advantage from Atlanta to Green Bay -- it wasn't just that Rodgers got hot and Ryan got cold, like it was a PP&K competition between the two of them.

    That's my pet peeve, vented once more. I won't say any more about it for a while, I promise.

  13. Jim Glass says:

    "Karl, good point. I'd love to see some similar graphs from the mid 70's. It would probably show a much tighter coupling of running to winning."

    Why not whip up a few for some selected games and teams? It could be interesting.

    Here's a pre-78 team that always interested me:

    It had the 3rd-most rushing attempts in the league even though being next to last in yards/attempt at only 3.5 ... and was dead last in pass attempts -- even though it had the league's #1 passing attack by ANY/A, pass completion %, and any other rate measure you use.

    The coach looks like a moron, ignoring what worked great and piling on what the team was worst at.

    Of course that was Lombardi's 1966 Packers, 14-2 SB winners. The same model fit the '65 Pack, only 3.4 per run attempt while heavy-running to the NFL championship.

    My personal opinion is that the NFL has always been a passing league, in that a team needed a top passing game to win the title. The Packers certainly had that. But before the '78 changes the ball control elements of the game were done with running (converting first downs, gettting three yards, scoring from near the goal line, clock-killing, etc). After the '78 changes, short passing has taken over these too. The regressions I've run for pre-78 seasons show the "killer stat" in the league back then was yards per pass completion (as I pointed out on the Community site). Now it is yards per pass attempt, and td-pick ratio.

    Lombardi's teams, in spite of those meager yards per carry, were considered by his opponents and contemporary observers to be rushing juggernauts. I'd bet that looking at some game play-by-plays would show they ran a heck of lot more efficiently than we think of today when we see "3.4 a carry", and they weren't concerned with ripping off the occasional long ones that inflate y/c. But today those efficiency tasks have largely been handed over to the high-percentage passing game by the rule changes.

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