Limiting Variance is Key for Packers Going Forward

The Packers' scheme on offense isn't where it needs to be yet.


As a frequent tournament poker player, I’m constantly dealing with the concept of variance. Put simply, the idea is that to maximize the chances of success, one needs to employ every tactic possible to reduce the impact of things that are out of one’s control, such as the luck of the cards.

The hardest part of this is to accept that isolated results are not the best measure of success, which sounds pretty weird. But you can play better than your opponent, get your money in with what is, or is likely to be, the best hand, and lose to someone who had a 2 percent chance of getting the card he needs, but hits it. The other person wins the money in that instance. But over time your better play, and especially your ability to reduce variance, will win far more often.

In football, think about what looks like a perfect play. The receiver is open, perhaps ridiculously so, but he drops the pass. Or the quarterback overthrows him. Those elements of individual performance are the variance. In other words, stuff happens.

I love football because no team sport involves as much complexity when it comes to limiting variance. And it is an ongoing chess match, as each team tries to adjust to what the other is doing.

The best way to smooth out variance is with scheme, which is why when I watch the Packers on offense, I’m looking first for how effectively they create open spots for receivers through play design, or what kind of holes for running backs are opened up with effective blocking schemes. I’m looking for whether a play should have worked, and how easy it made things for the players, even if it didn’t succeed in that instance because of poor execution. Over time, players at the NFL level will make those plays. And it’s no accident that the coaches who best understand and deploy creative schemes — the Belichicks (along with Josh McDaniels), the McVays, the Reids and the Shanahans, have been around the Lombardi trophy more than most over the past several years. (Keep an eye on Brian Daboll in New York and Mike McDaniel in Miami, too.)

If you want to be reminded of how much the Packers needed to improve in this regard before Matt LaFleur arrived, check out this video analysis from a 2018 game against the Patriots. More important, note how some of these key issues remain.

For all the critical modernization Matt LaFleur has brought to Packers, what I’ve seen so far this season indicates that the Packers are a notch below the best when it comes to creative scheme. With the exception of a couple of plays highlighted by Dusty in this excellent piece, we still saw Rodgers throwing often into tight windows, or to covered receivers hoping for a contested catch, plays that depend on near-perfect execution. Where were the screen passes, to pick one example, or involving tight ends more to stress the secondary by drawing safety attention?

Which is why Sunday’s matchup with the Buccaneers is so important.

By Tom Brady’s own admission, Aaron Rodgers is the more talented of the two. The two teams are fairly evenly matched in terms of overall talent and roster depth. Both have good defenses, but with some vulnerabilities. Maybe the Packers can run the way they did against the Bears, but I doubt it. More likely, they are going to need to show a diverse, deceptive passing attack with play design that creates opportunities in the middle of the field. Sure, Doubs or Watson might blow past someone deep, but you can’t bank on it.

LaFleur has to outcoach Todd Bowles.

__________________________
Jonathan Krim grew up in New York but got hooked on the Packers — and on hating the Cowboys — watching the Ice Bowl as a young child.  He blames bouts of unhappiness in his late teens on Dan Devine. A journalist for several decades who now lives in California, he enjoys trafficking in obscure cultural references, lame dad jokes and occasionally preposterous takes. Jonathan is a Packers shareholder, and insists on kraut with his brats. You can follow Jonathan on twitter at @Jkrim.

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Comments (24)

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NickPerry's picture

September 23, 2022 at 06:43 am

"LaFleur has to outcoach Todd Bowles."

Yup...AND Rodgers MUST throw to the open man. In week one after the Watson drop, Rodgers wasn't looking his way NO WAY NO HOW. Several times during the first two games I've seen WIDE OPEN receivers open and either Rodgers doesn't see them or just flat out won't throw them the ball. I understand this whole "Trust" thing, I really do. But Rodgers needs to understand these are now his guys. Adams is gone, so is Nelson and Cobb is getting old. But what you do have is two uber-talented WRs who will make mistakes, but will also makes some plays if you just throw them the damn ball!

The scheme is just fine and I wouldn't rank it below anyone's...ESPECIALLY Shannahan and his 40-43 regular season record. IMO we just haven't seen everything the MLF offers because his QB is a friggen Diva. Granted, Rodgers seems to have gotten better these last 4 years, but IMO he still handcuffs the MLF scheme and EVERYTHING it can offer an offense.

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Spock's picture

September 23, 2022 at 07:34 am

Nick, Couldn't agree more with your analysis. I still fear Rodgers will choose "hero ball" over using his RB's like he should. We shall see.

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T7Steve's picture

September 23, 2022 at 08:09 am

Do you think MLF's system is handicapped because Rodgers isn't a real threat to run the ball anymore? Do you think they went for Jordan Love to open up the RPOs even though he limits the passing game to some degree?

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dobber's picture

September 23, 2022 at 09:46 am

We seem to assume that Jordan Love is some kind of running savant. He's athletic, and somehow we tend to assimilate that with "running QB"...which he really isn't--or at least wasn't in college.. ARod really wasn't, either. He has pocket presence and he knows how to play on the move, but that doesn't make him a running QB.

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NickPerry's picture

September 23, 2022 at 02:14 pm

Hi Steve...Hopefully Love is the real deal and can run it to it's potential. Jalen Hurts would do WONDERS in this offense and I think Love can too. But I'm afraid unless if Rodgers retires or is traded we'll never know. But Rodgers already doesn't run several plays because of motion...DIVA!

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Return_To_Sanity's picture

September 23, 2022 at 05:54 pm

@T7Steve, typically rpo's are more deadly with a qb who can keep it and take off. But that isnt Lafleur's philospophy. Nowhere he's been prior to Green Bay have the offenses featured rpo's.

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Guam's picture

September 23, 2022 at 08:21 am

Its not just your opinion NP, Rodgers has publicly stated on more than one occasion that he does not like motion in his offense and prefers a static set so he can get a better read on the defense (never mind that the defense gets a better read on the Packer offense). Since the Shanahan/MLF offense is based on motion and confusing the defense, Rodgers has significantly limited MLF's preferred offense. What the Packers have is a hybrid of the old MM offense (favored by Rodgers) and the MLF offense.

I don't think we will see the true MLF offense until Rodgers retires.

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LambeauPlain's picture

September 23, 2022 at 08:53 am

We did see the ML O Sunday to a meaningful degree. Much more play action, motion and more of the two headed monster of AJ and AJD taking a handoff or a short pass after motion and/or play action that moved the chains and earned points.

It was a good plan vs the bare D. I think it will also be effective vs the Bucs who have a fast front 7…some illusions of complexity can get them out of position just enough for an edge in the trenches.

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LLCHESTY's picture

September 23, 2022 at 12:22 pm

"Rodgers has publicly stated on more than one occasion that he does not like motion in his offense and prefers a static set"

Can you link where he said that? I haven't seen where he said anything of the sort. He HAS said he wishes they could occasionally just line up and go sometimes to establish some rhythm and all the motions and check with mes slows the pace of play. But that can't be right because they're having no problems like that in Denver and Chicago. Broncos fans are counting down the play clock just to be helpful to Hackett and Wilson!

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

September 23, 2022 at 03:29 pm

I remember AR saying he didn't like motion. I can't quote him, so perhaps there was a qualifier like you mentioned, I think Guam's paraphrasing is pretty accurate. Then again, my memory stinks.

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Return_To_Sanity's picture

September 23, 2022 at 06:01 pm

Check out Rodgers' interview on Barstool's Pardon My Take with Big Cat from like 2 months ago. Thats where he proclaimed his hatred of all the motions and windoe dressing while also confessing his undying love for the west coast offense. And if you remember, not long after Lafleur was hired, Rodgers took to Kenny Mayne's show to complain about the lack of audibles and his lack of control over the offense. He hasnt been shy about any of this. To take it even a step further, remember Tyler Dunne's damning article about the end of the Mccarthy era? Most Packer fans assumed it was mostly bullshit but the way things have gone in the Lafleur era only give creedence to what was written in that article.

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Coldworld's picture

September 23, 2022 at 10:11 am

I’ve always seen this season as inevitability heading to a watershed moment at some point. This roster in O is just not going to work well or consistently enough in the air unless we do more than throw to veterans. There simply isn’t the athletic talent and durability there.

If we are to be successful we have to lean in the run more certainly, but that alone won’t do it over a season. We are going to have to fully utilize the speed and agility of the youth. Not as an after thought, not as a one off gamble, but as part of our core game plan. That’s a high risk strategy to start with, but it’s the only way that this receiving corps makes sense. Cobb, Watkins and Lazard are useful, but durability aside, they aren’t going to carry us. Unless the rookies can, the outcome will be decent at best over the season.

To find out, at some point we have to commit to plans that give the rookies a chance. That is going to require LaFleur and Rodgers to grasp the reality. Both seem unlikely. Rodgers has apparently embraced the run game, at least for now, so that’s a start, but he’s still murmuring about the rookies and focusing on the veterans every time he speaks.

Cobb can be an important role player, Lazard a good complimentary piece, Watkins could be a little more, but his health issues are already lurking with another hamstring after he had one in camp. That’s not a group that will get us a championship though. So do we pretend it will, play percentage ball and hope? Or do we just accept it and scheme the rookies Into the core of the game plan and take the inevitable lumps in return for the upside?

It was always likely to take injuries to force the issue (and even then we could refuse the option). Perhaps this week will see if we are really in denial or if we will decide to take the chance and give us a possibility of making this roster work? In reality, that’s likely up to Rodgers. It’s pretty clear he is the dominant influence in shaping our approach.

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PatrickGB's picture

September 23, 2022 at 03:48 pm

Cold. You said it better than I did.

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PackAttack4155's picture

September 23, 2022 at 12:37 pm

You're skipping over some on-field factors. The OL was pretty awful in week one, not giving Rodgers enough time to go through his full progressions. Pressure ruins getting through progressions, and when your first reads aren't getting open, then the pocket collapses, a non-mobile QB is pretty effed. Week two the OL was a little better, but the Bucs have the best front seven the Packers will have faced so far. Keep Rodgers protected, he'll find his man, hopefully.

I'm not saying Rodgers hasn't missed the, likely, best pass option on a play in which he was well protected. Could be he looked, the receiver wasn't open at that moment, and he continued on in his progressions, only for the receiver to get open later in the play.

It'd be a solid article to deep dive into if, when protected, Rodgers is still missing his open players, or worse, the "trust" factor has him seeing the open man, only to continue on with his progressions anyways. I usually don't re-watch games, but I bet some of the peeps here could better confirm or deny that.

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PatrickGB's picture

September 23, 2022 at 08:01 am

“The best way to smooth out variance is with scheme”. The assumption of that statement is that all players have the same skill. Football is more complex than that because you also have to factor in the skills of the players. Of course you are right that savvy coaching and player preparation is also key. Another consideration is, as mentioned, the total team skill and ability. Player A may be better than player B. But what about those around him? That’s where your point is best made. Thanks.

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Jonathan.Krim's picture

September 23, 2022 at 09:32 am

Hi Patrick, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m actually trying — perhaps badly — to say the opposite. Difference in player skill is another element of variance,. Scheme and play design can reduce the impact of that. If I have an average wideout but through design I regularly get him open, he will find more success than a better wideout who has to do all the work himself. Is having both better? Of course, but there are only so many great wideouts to go around, and we don’t have one anymore, so scheme becomes even more important. Hope that made sense.

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PatrickGB's picture

September 23, 2022 at 03:41 pm

It did. Thanks. Yet I also think that the variance in skills of players can make even the best play calling moot. It’s much more complicated than one would find in a deck of cards. Even the weather and officials can overcome good coaching and schemes.

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mrtundra's picture

September 23, 2022 at 08:11 am

Just get on the field, win your match ups, score points, repeat. GO PACK, GO!!!

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PatrickGB's picture

September 23, 2022 at 03:47 pm

I agree but easier said than done.

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Coldworld's picture

September 23, 2022 at 08:21 am

What you are really saying is that a team should make the play with the best odds each time, if I understand correctly. Allowing for the imperfections in humans, even NFL players, that is a good recipe. I think it’s one instinctively close to Rodgers mindset. He’s made a name limiting risk as he sees it.

The difference between football and Poker though Is the variability in the cards. A jack is a jack, an eight an eight and both have a fixed match with the others in the opponent’s hand. In football players have good games and bad, they vary in every given week by virtue of being human, but also though niggles and conditions. Each is different to. My TE is not the same as yours, your ILB is very different than the one we faced last week.

Why does that matter? I think because it changes the odds calculation by week and by player. Throwing to Adams in coverage was often a higher odds call than throwing to an open MVS. Conversely, completing to Doubs might be more challenging but have a better chance of resulting in the outcome you need than an easier pass to another.

The concept you espouse is a fair one, and I agree with its conclusion. The challenge on this team though is balancing the value of the target. In the past Rodgers knew his pieces. I think that’s the essence of trust in the positive. Right now he knows some, but those he does may not have the greatest value: they may be low risk but they may also not have enough value to get the job done. Completions aren’t a guarantee of a score or even a first down.

Right now The conundrum is that the highest value players physically are the most unpredictable, whether open or not. That tends to result in caution that can preclude success. At some point that risk:reward calculation has to be faced. Against the Bears we just played our Jokers and ran to success.

Interesting thoughts, but in the end I would imagine that, as in QBs, Poker players have traits that you try to exploit. In football DCs are doing that constantly and with a huge body of evidence. That’s where game changing talent is the wild card. Adams’ super power was to tilt the odds in his favor dramatically. Right now we don’t have that. There is the potential to do the same through big plays but, as noted, that lies in the most unpredictable targets and thus the greatest variance.

Consistently taking the low risk option can be self-defeating if the return is too low to win. It doesn’t matter if you win lots of hands but the opponent ends up with the money in the end because they hit the plays that define the game.

You gave me an interesting concept to mull. I enjoyed that and the perspective despite concluding that it’s only half the calculation because it potentially conflicts with the end value of the result.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

September 23, 2022 at 03:44 pm

Well said.

Strength on strength matchups are always interesting. Even weakness on weakness matchups are interesting. Bakh might have a photo of an ace next to his name, but he might not be an ace this Sunday, just as Jenkins was not an ace last week. And the coach might not know if Jenkins should be considered an ace this week now that he has knocked off some rust or if some lower value should be assigned to him.

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LambeauPlain's picture

September 23, 2022 at 08:35 am

The coaching staff has to succeed on game day as much as the players.

VS MN, neither ML’s or Barry’s staffs maximize their player strengths into opportunities to win more plays than they lost.

ML decided to pass pass pass to an inexperienced WR group and made the experienced run game second fiddle. Three and outs and stalled drives followed.

Barry stubbornly cling to zone D and abandoned the blitz. Kirk Cousins played catch with Jefferson all game long.

Neither coach adjusted during the game which was perplexing as the vyqueens dominated the Packer scheme with a far better one of their own.

However vs bares, ML and coaches rediscovered a potent run game that set up passing opportunities.

The Defense still played zone given the bare WRs (pedestrian), but did crowd the box and it worked well EXCEPT for the opening drive (figuring out the run scheme) and the 4th qtr drive (tackling incompetence.)

This gave me hope the coaches will (finally?) play O and D to maximize the strengths of their players to the weakness of the adversary.

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MooPack's picture

September 23, 2022 at 08:48 am

"If you want to be reminded of how much the Packers needed to improve in this regard before Matt LaFleur arrived, check out this video analysis from a 2018 game against the Patriots. More important, note how some of these key issues remain."

Amen. The video analysis was excellent. MLF is trying to change these past schemes and has had better results, but he is absolutely correct that there are some key issues remaining. They sorted some of it out better against the hapless Bears. Hopefully they don't regress against the Bucs.

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splitpea1's picture

September 23, 2022 at 01:03 pm

Excellent article and straight to the point with the last sentence and the part about play designs in the middle of the field. Watch the Chiefs. I sometimes marvel at the way they sometimes sweep down the field, and one reason is that their receivers are able to find open spaces on the move and produce big YAC. I also liked the video because it showed the Pats using flea flickers and lateral passes--something you rarely, if ever, see the Packers try. Maybe these plays are going to have a higher success rate against suspect defenses, but I still think they're worth a shot once in a while, especially in low-scoring games. Unfortunately we're probably not going to be seeing this anytime soon with so many new parts on offense.

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