It’s called ‘YAC,’ which stands for yards after the catch, and it measures the offensive production receivers compile essentially on their own -- by making tacklers miss, getting good blocks, and using their speed when the ball is in their possession.
In Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s offense, which often uses short passes to produce bigger gains, the Packers initially became one of the league’s best in this category, ranking No. 2 in 2006 behind New Orleans and then surpassing the Saints for No. 1 in 2007, according to STATS, Inc.
But the receiving corps isn’t happy with where it has ranked over the past couple of years, and it’s looking to get back to its old ways in 2010.
“Our goal is to get our title back, yards after the catch,” veteran Donald Driver said. “We all knew we struggled for the last two years. That was our title and now we’ve got to get it back once again. That’s something we’ve been talking about this whole offseason is making sure that once the ball is in our hands, everybody’s doing their job, blocking and running.”
‘Struggled’ may be too harsh an assessment, but it reflects how badly this group wants to be the best. The most significant drop-off came in 2008, when the Packers fell from first to 14th in the league with 1,656 YAC, more than 500 yards fewer than their totals the prior two years (2,161 in ’06, 2,294 in ’07). After compiling more than 50 percent of their total receiving yards after the catch for the prior two years, the percentage dropped to 41 in ’08.
Part of that was due to the adjustment to Aaron Rodgers as the new starting quarterback and the changes to the offense and to some pass routes under his direction. But this group wasn’t going to use that as an excuse, and they proved it wasn’t in 2009 by climbing up to No. 6 with 2,190 YAC, 49 percent of the team’s gross passing yards.
“I think they feel like the fun doesn’t really start until after they catch it, and they know that’s what’s going to set them apart from other groups in the league, the ones that consistently are in the top 5,” receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. “We feel like we ought to be first in the league.”
Reaching that goal won’t come without extra work, though. There’s an emphasis on it in practice, with drills geared toward balance and footwork to help the receivers stay on their feet after catching the ball and absorbing that initial contact.
“Some of it is getting over the bags, stiff-arm, spin move, … and then just putting your head down and trucking a couple of people and getting that extra 3, 4, 5 yards,” tight end Jermichael Finley said. “That’s big.”
Added receiver Jordy Nelson: “You can work on it a little bit, but it’s all about the effort – other guys downfield blocking, and making the one guy miss.”
The improvement in 2009 culminated with a performance in the NFC Wild Card playoff in Arizona that showcased just how dangerous the Packers can be after the catch.
As Rodgers threw for a team playoff-record 423 yards, almost exactly half of that production – 212 yards, according to STATS, Inc. – came after the catch. Touchdown passes to Nelson, receiver James Jones and tight end Spencer Havner all were caught well short of the goal line and required nifty runs to score. The longest gains of the day by receiver Greg Jennings (35 yards) and Driver (28), as well as two big plays by Finley in the second half (33 and 38 yards) all came on short throws that turned into big plays.
“It’s just a mentality,” Nelson said. “You have to go out and fight for every yard. Every yard matters. Even if it’s all the way back on your own 30, it’s going to make a difference when you get down toward the end zone.”
The closeness of the group certainly helps. Members of this receiving corps take as much pride in throwing a block to spring a teammate free as they do in making the catch themselves.
“It’s not just the guy with the ball in his hands, it’s everybody’s responsibility,” Robinson said. “They all have to buy into that, that when the time comes they have to count on their buddies to block for them.
“The guy with the ball in his hands, he’s got to make somebody miss to begin with and get things started, break a tackle or whatever. But everybody else has to rally up and have a part of that, a piece of that.”
Taking ownership in it goes without saying, because the alternative is taking the heat in the locker room, friendly ribbing or otherwise, from fellow mates.
“That’s one of those things we have to do, block downfield,” Jennings said. “You never want to be that guy that gives up the potential tackle on a potential long run. You don’t want to be that guy.”
The Packers also don’t want to be middle-of-the-pack, or anywhere outside the league’s elite, in this category any longer. And they aren’t alone in trying to climb back to the top.
New Orleans, after three straight years in the top two, dropped to No. 9 last year, so if the Saints high-powered offense is looking for anything to improve on following a Super Bowl title, it’s probably targeting YAC as well.
But the Packers plan to just focus on themselves, knowing they’ve reached No. 1 before, so there’s no reason they can’t get there again.
“They’re a dangerous group, a good group, good guys,” Robinson said. “We’ve got the ability to be the top of the league with that stat, so we’ll see what happens.”