Explaining Close Packers Playoff Failures

In the wake of yet another heartbreaking Green Bay Packers playoff loss, the team and head coach Mike McCarthy have been taken to task on the high number of close playoff losses the franchise has had since 2007. The Packers have lost five playoff games on the final play, including four in overtime, under McCarthy and no other coach has lost more than two such playoff games in NFL history. There are obvious questions being asked:  how does this happen, who is to blame for these outcomes and how can they be changed?

The real answer is one nobody likes to hear because it does not really explain anything in the minds of most fans; it’s bad luck and randomness. Few people accept that as an answer because they feel the need to blame somebody, and the media narratives driven home to fans on a daily basis never suggest that. Media announcers and writers pretend they can see things like momentum, confidence, fear and clutch because they’re the easiest things to write about instead of using real analysis, and those things can be used to fit any narrative that they know fans will just eat up. In reality, they have no way of knowing these things unless they’re certified psychologists.  Just saying it’s randomness is plain boring, so other reasons are made up.

Winning in close games is not a repeatable skill from year to year in any sport because it’s based on luck and randomness. Do a Google search on it and you will find many experiments.  The way to determine the best NFL teams are by points differential and yards per play differential. It’s no shock that the Carolina Panthers led the NFL outscoring their opponents by 192 points in the regular season. Obviously, blowing a team out removes any chance of one playing ruining the game and causing a lesser team to win. The NFL playoffs aren’t designed for the best team to win since it’s a one game sample size, but that’s what makes it so great and fascinating.  For example, a mostly mediocre team like the 2007 New York Giants can go on a run like they did and beat one of the greatest teams of all-time in the Super Bowl.

There isn’t any possible way to ensure you win close games, which is why McCarthy didn’t have an answer for it. All you can do is put the best possible team together and keep giving yourself chances like the Packers have. Eventually their record in close playoff games should come back to the mean and turn around. Using coins is a good way to understand this. If you flipped a coin 10 times it would come out to exactly five heads and five tails 24 percent of the time. However, if you flipped the coin an infinite amount of times the rate of heads coming up would approach 50 percent. There’s a huge difference between what we observe in the short run and what we would observe in the long run. Five games might seem like a lot because they’re over many seasons, but that is still an extremely small sample size. If a coin came up tails 10 times in a row there would still be a 50 percent chance of heads coming up on the next toss.

There are millions of plays in these games that you can go back on that could have changed these outcomes. What if Jarrett Bush falls on a fumble in 2007? What if the facemask call on Aaron Rodgers is made in 2009? What if Phil Dawson misses the field goal in 2013? What if Brandon Bostick just did his job on the onside kick in Seattle, among many other things? What if the Packers win the coin toss in Arizona or in Seattle? All those things are just random things that you can’t predict, and if they go the other way the game outcome changes. A crazy stat is the Packers have only recovered 3 of their 13 forced fumbles in those five losses, including an incomprehensible one of five in the 2007 NFC Championship game. Turnover margin is usually the biggest deciding factor in NFL games, and one more turnover could have been all the difference. The fumble recovery is the ultimate random play in football with the ball bouncing every which way and you have to be fortunate enough to have a guy by it. This was evident against Arizona when the Packers forced a fumble on Carson Palmer and the ball miraculously bounced backwards to him. He was not as lucky yesterday.

The Packers had those things go their way in 2010. They had to have a miraculous comeback from the Philadelphia Eagles over the New York Giants in Week 15 just to make the postseason. Michael Vick threw an interception in the end zone on a potential game-winning drive in the Wild Card game, and Desmond Bishop saved the game on a fortunate shoe-string tackle of Desean Jackson moments prior. Rodgers had a similar tackle on a potential pick-six on Brian Urlacher in the NFC Championship game and Jay Cutler was injured. Rodgers threw the famous pass on 3rd-and-10 in Super Bowl XLV that was complete for 31 yards to Greg Jennings and was inches away from being knocked down by Ike Taylor, which would have given Pittsburgh much more time to mount a game-winning drive. The Packers recovered three out of five forced fumbles in the 2010 postseason, including the one forced by Clay Matthews in the Super Bowl that completely changed the game with everything going Pittsburgh’s way. Why did those things go Green Bay’s way in 2010? There’s no explanation for that either.

There’s no magic formula for the Packers to win close games in the postseason in the future. When either Carolina or Denver hoists the Lombardi Trophy in two weeks it will be the eighth different champion in the last eight seasons. There’s a reason for that, and it’s because so much has to go right for you. If the Packers keep putting together teams that are among the best in the league it’s likely at some point things will go right for them again.


Matt Bove is a writer at PackersTalk.com. PackersTalk.com. You can follow him on twitter at @RayRobert9.


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5 thoughts on “Explaining Close Packers Playoff Failures

  1. Great piece. Couldn’t agree more. The other example I would give is the Patriots. They lost twice to the Giants on last minute touchdowns. The first one was set up by one of the flukiest plays I have ever seen (the helmet catch). Then last year, the beat the Seahawks in a game the Patriots should have lost on a goal line interception that should never have been thrown. Check out Belichick comments on yesterday’s game. In a nutshell, he said “in close games, shit happens.” Shrug.

  2. I don’t know if it’s player quality, coaching or Ted Thompson. Ted’s insistence in not filling gaps and not going to free agency has not helped. The Khiri draft for example. And Carl Edwards? What if you draft and develop but the players aren’t quite developed? Look at what McCarthy just said about Thompson!

  3. I don’t know if it’s player quality, coaching or Ted Thompson. Ted’s insistence in not filling gaps and not going to free agency has not helped. The Khiri draft for example. And Carl Edwards? What if you draft and develop but the players aren’t quite developed? Look at what McCarthy just said about Thompson!

  4. I’m with Peter–just consider this–in the ’12 playoff game vs. Niners and Kaepernick–he ran for NFL RECORD YARDS for a QB after a season of doing so against opponents the Niners played. So, after losing to Niners in season opener, facing a RUNNING QB in playoffs–what part of RUNNING QB did Dom Capers NOT understand? Enough that McCarthy sent ALL defensive coaches to Texas A&M to understand the “read option” offense. In the ’14 playoffs–with GAME on the line and Seahawks driving–Capers has the NFL’s WORST DB Tramon Williams, based on QB completion/TD rates, in SINGLE cover on ‘Hawks BEST WR with NO safety help–easy TD win and another playoff loss for GB. Against Cardinals, in a game clearly dominated by Packs’ pass defense–Capers SWITCHES from ‘man to man’ defense for their more POROUS ‘zone cover’ which has been the Packers WEAKEST point for 3 seasons running! It resulted in Cardinals scoring late to take the lead and again scoring the winning TD in overtime. For a Defensive Coordinator who’s defense has cost the team FIVE consecutive playoff losses and has been called out for POOR TACKLING for FIVE consecutive seasons–you wonder, WHAT has Capers got on McCarthy that keeps his job secure? As for Ted Thompson–he insists his policy is drafting “best available” athlete–but he consistently allows the BEST athlete GB needs for improving this defense to constantly get away while he settles for MORE players than BETTER players. IF he had used some recent draft picks for trade bait, it’s easy to see a Tyler Eifert, Maxx Williams, Jordan Reed, or Zack Ertz at TE instead of Richard Rodgers, who most analysts agree Thompson selected a round earlier than value. IF he had been willing to give up some QUANTITY of players for QUALITY of athletes–we might see LB’s like Jamie Collins (NE), Jarvis Jones (Pitt), Ryan Shazier (Pitt), CJ Mosely (Ravens), Stephen Anthony (NO), Benardrick McKinney (Hous) or Eric Kendricks (Minn) over having to settle on Jake Ryan. No doubt Ryan and Rodgers both have potential–do you really think they will rise to level of those Thompson passed on? I don’t, and it will be obvious in competition that GB seems to find ways to snatch defeat FROM jaws of victory.

    1. I’m just gonna go out on a limb and say you don’t understand how draft a sequencing works. Most of the players you mentioned were gone before the Packers could even draft them. That’s what happens when you draft at the bottom of the draft order year after year. You miss out on the great players. Yes, Rodgers was a bit of a reach. But who would’ve guessed he would not be able to break a tackle to save his life? It’s not like everyone has a crystal ball to predict the future. Every draft pick is a gamble. You win some, you lose a lot. And when you’re drafting toward the top of the list missing out on the top 10 players year after year, you tend to miss more than you hit.

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