Are the Packers really this good? Not really.

Are the Green Bay Packers good or lucky? Yes.

The Packers beat the New York Giants last week thanks to last minute heroics from Aaron Rodgers, moving them to 12-0 on the season. It begs several questions. Will they go undefeated? How good is this team, really?

The Packers are an excellent football team. They are 12-0 thanks in large part to great play from their offense. Aaron Rodgers is having one of the best seasons for a quarterback – ever. He is truly great. He’s a key reason the Packers are 12-0.

But, the Packers defense is not very good. And, thanks to a lot of luck in the turnover department (yes, I said luck, not skill), this team has a better record than their true skill would indicate.

How Good are the Packers?

The Packers are a very, very good team. And, they may in fact go undefeated given their weak schedule the rest of the way. But, they are not “undefeated great.”

What is “undefeated great” you may ask? It’s a totally made up term. What I mean by that is that the team deserves to be undefeated. It means they are as good as their record indicates. While any team needs a few bounces going their way to be perfect, I think Green Bay has a few more holes than people think. The 2007 New England Patriots were a better team than the 2012 Packers. I don’t think Green Bay is as good as their record indicates. Why do I say that?

The numbers tell us they aren’t as good as 12-0 would suggest. As mentioned earlier, their offense is great (ranked #4 in yards and #1 in points per game through 12 games). But, their defense is mediocre at best (ranked in the bottom half of the league in points per game and second to last in yards allowed per game). How can a team that allows nearly 400 yards per game be considered “undefeated great?”

Pythagorean Theorem

The great Bill James of Baseball Prospectus made famous Pythagorean Wins in baseball. This figure tells you how many games a baseball team “should have” won in a season based on their statistical performance (runs scored, runs allowed). It’s an attempt to reduce some of the “noise” inherent in sports in which a team gets luck or unlucky, resulting in “false” wins or losses. It’s widely considered a truer view of a team’s performance and abilities than win-loss records. The latter have more noise.

The same concept can (and should) be applied to other sports when trying to get a true look at a team’s strengths. What should Green Bay’s record be this year, based on points scored and allowed (Pythagorean analysis)? 9-3. That’s right. While the team is 12-0 in record, their statistics through 12 games indicates that they should have about 3 losses. Another way to state this: Over many games and many seasons, teams with statistics identical to the Packers would own a 9-3 record (.750) on average. In contrast, the 2007 Patriots ended the regular season with a 14-2 Pythagorean record (.875). This is the primary reason I think the ’07 Pats were better than the ’12 Packers.

Does this mean Green Bay hasn’t earned their 12-0 record? No. I am not saying that. They have played amazing offense and taken advantage of fortuitous opportunities on defense. They have come to play every week, avoiding letdowns. Props for that.

The (unappreciated) Role of Randomness

I am just saying that their record is inflated due to factors outside of their actual point production (and points allowed) on the field.

I believe the reason for that is twofold:

  1. Aaron Rodgers has been lights out and has pulled victory from the jaws of defeat several times. He is that good.
  2. The Packers have benefited from being on the right side of randomness in forcing turnovers.

I get a lot of crap from people when I mention number two. It goes something like this: “Green Bay isn’t lucky. They are good. They make their own luck. They force lots of turnovers which is skill.”

Ummmm. Not really.

While it’s true to some extent that “luck favors the prepared,” the truth is that statement is more of a motivational tool (get people to work harder) than a statement of fact. Forcing turnovers is a little bit skill, but it’s mostly random. The Packers barely beat the Giants last week thanks in large part to another pick-6. It was Green Bay’s 23rd interception on the season – tops in the league by a longshot (next closest is 17). How skillful they are at intercepting the ball!

Ummmm. Not really.

It’s been proven that defensive interceptions are almost entirely random noise vs. skill. See the chart below which demonstrates, for NFL seasons 2002-2007, how interception rates from last year (x axis) correlate with interception rates for the current season (y axis). There is no correlation there – it’s random.

Don’t believe me? Think about the New Orleans Saints. In 2009 this team won the Super Bowl. Their defense wasn’t particularly great, but they sure did force a lot of turnovers! In fact, that team was #3 in the league in interceptions, averaging 1.63 per game. This year the Saints, with the same coaches and largely the same players, is ranked 3rd worst in the league, averaging 0.56 per game. How can you go from 3rd best to 3rd worst in less than two seasons with the same players and coaches? Because defensive interceptions are almost entirely random. And, the Packers have been the luckiest team in the league this season as it relates to this key statistic.

If randomness continues to favor them on this front continues, the Packers can easily go 16-0 or maybe even 19-0 and win the Super Bowl. But, if the defensive interception rate reverts to normal, or god forbid shifts the other way, this team could easily lose a key game.

Why the Packers are Overrated

To recap my thoughts:

  1. The 2011 Green Bay Packers are an excellent team
  2. Based on points scored and points allowed, their record should be closer to 9-3 vs. 12-0
  3. Their quarterback is as good as it gets and is putting together one of the best seasons ever
  4. Their defense is mediocre at best
  5. They have been extremely lucky as it relates to defensive interceptions (which are random)
  6. Because of their QB, points scored per game, and unblemished record, the general public thinks the Packers are better than they really are. This team is overrated (they are very good, but not THAT good).

Of course, your opinion may differ and I am sure if you are from Wisconsin it does. Let the hating and the disagreement begin!