Converting on third down is frequently cited as a key to success in the NFL.
Well, the Green Bay Packers are below the NFL average with their third down conversion rate of 36.4 percent this season, ranking just 18th in the league.
But that hasn't stopped them from being the second-highest scoring team in the NFL this season, averaging 32 points per game.
Part of the reason the Packers have been able to rack up points at such a clip is that they don't necessarily wait until third down to move the chains.
In fact, Green Bay has the best quarterback in NFL history on first down, at least as far as passer rating is concerned, and at least as far back as statistics will allow.
According to STATS, Aaron Rodgers has the best all-time first down quarterback rating of 105.2, better than Peyton Manning, who comes in second at 101.7. Data from STATS only goes back t0 1991.
Perhaps that statistic is not surprising considering Rodgers has the best passer rating in NFL history regardless of down (104.9), but it does go to show teams don't necessarily have to wait until third down to keep the chains moving and put points on the scoreboard, which is the ultimate goal of the offense.
So far this season, the Packers rank first in the NFL averaging 7.26 yards on first down. Furthermore, Green Bay has covered four or more yards on first down on 53.5 percent of its plays, which ranks fifth in the NFL.
According to numbers cited by Pat Kirwan of NFL.com back in 2008, teams convert on second down and five yards or less 56 percent of the time. The only down-and-distance situation in which teams covert at higher percentage is on third-and-1, which teams convert 67 percent of the time.
Even a one-yard difference has a noticeable effect on third down with the conversion rate dropping to 52 percent, just going to show the more success a team has on first down, the easier it is to keep a drive alive.
When a team faces second-and-4, for example, the defense has to respect both the run and the pass.
No doubt about it, some of the credit goes to a revitalized Green Bay ground game this season that ranks second in the NFL with 5.3 yards per carry.
"I think it's the best that we've seen it in a while," Rodgers said of the rushing attack earlier this week. "I think a lot of the credit goes to the offensive line. They're opening up some big holes.
"We've done a good job of having a little bit of balance, rushing for over 100 yard back-to-back weeks by one individual player after forty-some (games) in a row without doing that, so that's pretty impressive. And those guys all add a different dimension with their style of runs. So I think the future is bright for those guys around the football, and we have to keep finding a way to get them opportunities."
When the run game is finding room to move the football, however, it starts opening up opportunities for the play-action pass that in turn, once again helps out Rodgers.
In the aftermath of the Packers' most recent loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 before the bye, Rodgers has endured his share of criticism in situational football, particularly the lack of success he's seen in trying to engineer fourth-quarter comebacks.
Much of the attention has come in the form of an ESPN Insider piece by Scott Kacsmar that points out the Packers are just 5-24 when trailing by eight points or less in the fourth quarter with Rodgers at the helm.
Still, the Packers' overall record with Rodgers as a starter at quarterback is 58-31 (including the postseason) with a Super Bowl win to his credit and no end to his career in sight.
Whether or not Rodgers is having success on first down, third down, in the first quarter or when trailing in the fourth quarter, the Packers are winning more often than not and have been to the postseason four consecutive seasons coming into this year.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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