If you're not moving forward, you're going backward. I've never understood that aphorism. What about the times when you're so far ahead there seems nowhere to go? What if you're at 99.99999999? Are you going backward if you don't get to 100?
That's why I like the Confucian version of this thought. It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop. (Yes, I'm going deeeep here on a Tuesday afternoon.)
That, I think, is an appropriate way to look at the delicate but important balance the Green Bay Packers sought this summer after a 13-month run that included a Super Bowl championship and victories in 22 of 24 games. One of those losses was a playoff defeat to the New York Giants, the eventual Super Bowl XLVI champions. How do you encourage improvement and progress while still recognizing the reality of a precedent-setting run -- at least on offense?
I asked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers that question during a training camp interview last month. Rodgers had already suggested the Packers would be a better team in 2012, even if it wasn't reflected in their record. (It's difficult, of course, to get to 16 victories when you're already at 15.) Rodgers noted the Packers' efforts to increase their energy level, but he also noted that coaches threw down an early-camp gauntlet of statistics to demonstrate the Packers' room for growth.
According to Rodgers, players have seen where the 2011 team ranked both offensively and defensively against the past four Super Bowl champions in a number of subtle but important categories. As best as I could tell, they include:
Red zone touchdown percentage
Red zone touchdowns
Goal-to-go touchdown percentage
I haven't seen the charts that Rodgers referred to, but I've tried to re-create them the best I could in this post. Many thanks to Matt Willis of ESPN Stats & Information for the research and to blog editor Dan Jung, who formatted the charts as you see them. I have a number of thoughts, as I'm sure you will as well. But generally speaking, you can see there has been at least one team that exceeded or nearly matched the Packers' 2011 offensive production in each category. Meanwhile, the charts provide a more nuanced analysis of where the Packers fell short defensively last season than simply the passing yards they allowed.
"They've had a lot of times on their hands," Rodgers said, laughing. "If you just look at the stats by themselves, there is room for improvement … and they're challenging us to get maybe one more third down [conversion] per game to get us to this level, or one more conversion on the season in goal-to-go to get us to that ranking. If you look at it as a whole, it's going to be tough to put up the kind of numbers we did last year. But if you look at it like this, we can definitely improve."
For the most part, I think the message from Packers coaches strikes an appropriate balance between reality and progress. As proficient as the Packers were on offense last season, it's interesting to note that the 2009 Indianapolis Colts did a slightly better job of converting third downs. The 2011 New England Patriots scored more touchdowns in the red zone, and as crazy as the Packers' 80 percent conversation rate was when they were in goal-to-go situations, those 2009 Colts weren't far behind.
The story on defense tells us a different but no less interesting story. As bad as our perception might be of the Packers' 2011 defense, it did not rank last in any of the four categories compared to the past four Super Bowl teams. We could view the Packers' defense through the same prism as the offense: A few more third-down stops and a few more opponents limited to field goals in the red zone would put the Packers in the wheelhouse of defenses that advanced to the Super Bowl.
Why did the Packers pick these particular statistical categories? One theory: In a passing league, defenses are going to give up yards. But they can limit point totals by executing on a handful of key plays that largely fall into one of these categories.
I realize this is all inside football bordering on minutiae, but it addresses an important big-picture question: How do you improve from a run nearly unprecedented in NFL history? The Packers don't necessarily have the answers, but they're looking for them. It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.