Did The Packers Squander Aaron Rodgers?

The dismissal of Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy — who was let go after the Packers’ stunning home loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday — wasn’t exactly a shock. Perennially tabbed as a Super Bowl contender out of the NFC, McCarthy’s team had gone just 11-16-1 over the past two seasons, including a disappointing 8-9-1 in games that featured future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers as Green Bay’s primary passer.1 It was time for a change along the sidelines that Vince Lombardi once roamed.

Things weren’t always so bleak on the frozen tundra. The McCarthy era had its high points, particularly early on — when he and Rodgers appeared to have Green Bay positioned on the cusp of a potential dynasty. But between postseason near-misses, roster changes, injuries and coaching miscues, McCarthy’s Packers never fulfilled that promise. Instead, it’s fair to wonder whether Green Bay squandered the prime of one of the most talented QBs in NFL history.

The Packers team that McCarthy inherited in 2006 from Mike Sherman2 was one in transition — and that meant navigating some heavy-duty Brett Favre melodrama in his first two seasons at Green Bay’s helm. However, McCarthy quickly found that he had an all-time great on his hands in Rodgers, who, when he took over the starting job at age 25, was just entering his best years as a passer. The McCarthy-Rodgers marriage sputtered to a 6-10 finish in its first season but yielded great results shortly thereafter: an 11-5 playoff campaign in Year 2, then a Super Bowl crown in Year 3 and a 15-1 regular season (with Rodgers winning MVP) in Year 4. The sky seemed to be the limit for McCarthy and his star QB.

Since the end of the 2011 regular season, however, the Packers have gone just 5-6 in the playoffs; by comparison, Tom Brady and the postseason Patriots are 13-5 over the same span. Green Bay’s record includes a crushing home defeat against the New York Giants two weeks after that 15-1 season ended and another loss in which they watched helplessly as ex-49er Colin Kaepernick destroyed their defense in 2012 — still one of the greatest individual QB games in playoff history. The Packers’ postseason circumstances have not always been ideal: For instance, that Giants game was actually the only time since 2011 that Green Bay lost in the playoffs while favored — meaning the rest of the losses were as underdogs. But at the same time, the Pack have also had clear chances to return to the Super Bowl, and they came up short in each of them.

All told, it remains mystifying that a quarterback of Rodgers’s stature hasn’t won more frequently. If we run a simple logit regression between a QB’s Yards Above Backup in a season and whether his team made the Super Bowl,3 we’d expect Rodgers to have made 1.86 Super Bowls in his career through 2017 — roughly twice as many as he’s actually been to. (Meanwhile, other contemporary QBs — such as Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and even Brady — have gone to more than twice as many Super Bowls as we’d expect from their individual stats.)

Rodgers hasn’t won as much as he should have

Top 10 NFL starting quarterbacks by Yards Above Backup QB, 1990-2017, with their actual and expected Super Bowl appearances

Super Bowls Made
Quarterback Years Starting YARDS Above Backup Actual Expected Diff.
1 Peyton Manning 17 21,585 4 4.15 -0.15
2 Tom Brady 16 19,735 8 3.63 +4.37
3 Drew Brees 16 17,250 1 2.89 -1.89
4 Brett Favre 19 13,047 2 1.86 +0.14
5 Aaron Rodgers 10 10,988 1 1.86 -0.86
6 Ben Roethlisberger 14 10,945 3 1.35 +1.65
7 Philip Rivers 12 10,721 0 1.54 -1.54
8 Steve Young 8 10,022 1 1.65 -0.65
9 Matt Ryan 10 8,251 1 1.14 -0.14
10 Tony Romo 9 8,192 0 1.11 -1.11

1990 was the first season of the NFL’s current playoff format. Expected Super Bowls are based on a season-by-season logit regression between a QB’s Yards Above Backup and whether his team made the Super Bowl.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Over time, it became more and more difficult for the Packers to come within striking distance of the Super Bowl. In 2015, Rodgers slumped to career-worst numbers without top wideout Jordy Nelson, though the team as a whole was still good enough to get to the divisional playoffs before losing. In 2016, it was more of the same when Rodgers mused that Green Bay could still “run the table” — sparking an eight-game winning streak that saw the QB return to vintage form and left the Packers a win away from the Super Bowl.4 By then Rodgers was 34 years old, so a sense of urgency was setting in when 2017 came and went without a playoff berth — even though that could be written off as the byproduct of Rodgers missing nine starts.

The 2018 season was always going to be the real crossroads for McCarthy. With a healthy Rodgers leading the way, the Pack could always count on contending in the past, so this year’s expectations were no different. But Rodgers’s numbers have been merely good, not great. Brett Hundley isn’t around anymore to take any blame. And unlike in 2015, when Green Bay was talented enough to survive despite a downturn in its QB’s individual stats, there has been no answer from the team’s supporting cast this time around. It all came crashing down around McCarthy in the loss to Arizona as 13½-point favorites, Green Bay’s single most disappointing defeat since the merger according to Pro-Football-Reference’s point-spread data.

We can visualize the Packers’ decline over McCarthy’s final few years at the helm using FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings. Specifically, I’ve been tinkering with an experimental version of Elo that keeps a separate adjustment for the primary QB in each game, similar to how we treat starting pitchers in our MLB ratings.5 Using this, we can trace how a team’s performance rises and falls independent of its QB — which is useful in cases like 2017, when Rodgers was hurt and Hundley started nine games. (For instance, by season’s end, the Packers would have projected to be a 1529 Elo team with Rodgers starting — compared to a 1427 team with Hundley. And remember, 1500 is average.)

At the beginning of 2015, the Packers had an effective Elo of 1622, which included a 73-point boost from having Rodgers at QB and a 49-point boost from his teammates. By the end of the year, Green Bay’s effective Elo was still in the same neighborhood (1597), despite Rodgers’s adjustment actually dropping to negative 11, because the rest of the team carried a larger share of the weight (+108). Meanwhile, at the peak of the Packers’ run-the-table surge in 2016, the team’s 1657 effective Elo arose out of a 61-point boost from Rodgers and 97 additional points (relative to league average) from the rest of the team.

But fast-forward to now, and it’s clear how much the Packers have crumbled around Rodgers. His own adjustment is 16 points of Elo above an average QB, the lowest it’s been since Week 10 of the 2016 season. But he’s still expected to be above average; his supporting cast, by contrast, has fallen to a negative-67 score relative to the average team. That’s the worst they have been in Rodgers’s entire NFL career, and it isn’t especially close. Keeping QB play constant, the Packers’ Elo has dropped by a total of 139 points since the end of the 2016 season, which is essentially the difference in current Elo ratings of the 11-1 Los Angeles Rams and the 6-6 Carolina Panthers.

The reasons for the slide are varied, but many can be traced back to a series of poor drafts under former general manager Ted Thompson, who was replaced by current front-office chief Brian Gutekunst in January. As Sports Illustrated’s Kalyn Kahler pointed out last week, only three of Green Bay’s 17 draftees from 2014 and 2015 remain on the current roster. While no team can avoid dry spells in the NFL draft if given enough time, the Packers also — largely by design — did little in the way of enlisting outside help as a backup plan.6 Combine those infrastructural problems with criticisms of McCarthy’s offensive scheme (criticisms of a perceived lack of innovation that Rodgers apparently shared), plus legitimate complaints about Rodgers’s own decline in performance, and a season like this was bound to happen to Green Bay sooner or later.

Even so, it came contrary to preseason predictions. Going into the schedule, you might have penciled in this week’s matchup against the Atlanta Falcons as a marquee game with playoff implications. Instead, it will be the third-worst game of the week, according to our combination of matchup quality (i.e., the harmonic mean of the teams’ Elo ratings in each game) and game importance (how likely it is to swing every team’s odds of making the playoffs):7

The best matchups of Week 14

Week 14 games by the highest average Elo rating (using the harmonic mean) plus the total potential swing for all NFL teams’ playoff chances based on the result, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
BAL 65.0% +/-15.1 KC 100.0% +/-0.0 31.8 1628
PHI 28.3 24.2 DAL 81.1 19.4 51.0 1578
MIN 59.7 19.9 SEA 87.7 11.8 41.4 1572
CHI 94.4 4.3 LAR 100.0 0.0 10.8 1615
IND 9.8 10.1 HOU 98.2 2.4 23.6 1515
MIA 6.6 7.4 NE 99.7 0.5 16.2 1537
WSH 26.4 11.7 NYG 0.1 0.1 24.9 1435
TB 1.7 2.0 NO 100.0 0.0 6.9 1570
TEN 18.9 10.6 JAX 0.1 0.1 21.9 1478
PIT 83.8 11.0 OAK 0.0 0.0 23.7 1453
CAR 17.8 9.9 CLE 0.3 0.4 22.0 1454
DEN 20.9 11.1 SF 0.0 0.0 24.7 1427
LAC 96.0 3.6 CIN 0.9 1.3 9.1 1504
GB 1.4 1.3 ATL 1.1 1.2 5.5 1469
DET 0.3 0.3 ARI 0.0 0.0 4.2 1412
BUF 0.0 0.0 NYJ 0.0 0.0 2.4 1377

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup. Total Change adds up the potential swing in playoff odds for every team in the league (not just the two teams listed).

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)

Source: ESPN.com

Although the Packers hadn’t replaced a coach at midseason since 1953, Sunday’s loss forced their hand. Now they’ll need to figure out who’s next, from a candidate list that includes big names among both pro coordinators (Josh McDaniels) and up-and-coming college coaches (Lincoln Riley). They’ll also need to hope Rodgers’s issues were more related to McCarthy’s offense and less to his getting older and less productive — basically, that the next Packer coach will be more Mike Shanahan to Rodgers’s John Elway than Jimmy Johnson to his Dan Marino. So while the Packers may not have much on the line over the rest of their games, this promises to be the most interesting offseason Green Bay has had since Favre was retiring and unretiring more than a decade ago.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

Make sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings using our NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times and tracks how often each team should make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. And did you know you can also pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game? Maybe you can also climb up our giant leaderboard (or, if you’re like me, fall down it with each passing week).

Here are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 13

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 13 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
CIN 52% DEN 59% DEN 24, CIN 10 +8.5
PIT 62 PIT 54 LAC 33, PIT 30 +6.7
LAR 68 LAR 79 LAR 30, DET 16 +4.1
ATL 53 ATL 50 BAL 26, ATL 16 +1.5
KC 83 KC 89 KC 40, OAK 33 +0.4
SEA 83 SEA 83 SEA 43, SF 16 -1.5
MIA 58 MIA 57 MIA 21, BUF 17 -2.3
NE 67 NE 65 NE 24, MIN 10 -3.8
PHI 69 PHI 66 PHI 28, WSH 13 -4.1
TEN 78 TEN 72 TEN 26, NYJ 22 -4.4
CHI 69 CHI 72 NYG 30, CHI 27 -6.1
HOU 77 HOU 69 HOU 29, CLE 13 -6.6
CAR 59 CAR 64 TB 24, CAR 17 -7.8
GB 73 GB 79 ARI 20, GB 17 -10.5
IND 51 IND 62 JAX 6, IND 0 -14.0
NO 64 NO 74 DAL 13, NO 10 -15.3

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

After a series of narrow wins at midseason, the algorithm handed the readers their worst loss (-55.2 points on average) since Week 3. Some of the blame can go to the subject of this column — the Green Bay Packers, whose loss not only cost Mike McCarthy his job but also cost users 10.5 points on average. But readers were also burned by the Jaguars’ win over the Colts and the Cowboys’ upset victory over the Saints. Add it up, and Elo has beaten the average reader 12 times in 13 weeks this season.

But congrats to Mike Edelstein, who led all users in Week 13 with 137.0 points, and to one of my favorite leaderboard names, Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who maintained his No. 1 ranking on the season with 1,002.1 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Is There Any Stopping Another Alabama-Clemson Title Game?

gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): After weeks of crunching every possible playoff scenario, we finally got our two matchups for the College Football Playoff: Clemson vs. Notre Dame and Alabama vs. Oklahoma. We have to wait until Dec. 29 to see those games. But in the meantime, we have some 37 bowl games to distract us from our families over the holidays.

Let’s start with the big two. Were you surprised by the playoff selections? I think the committee avoided all of the doomsday scenarios as the conference championships played to form.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sports writer): Yeah, they mostly got out of the woods compared with some of the scenarios we talked about here. Only thing that would have helped them more would be if either Oklahoma or Ohio State lost, but that didn’t happen.

To your question, I wasn’t too shocked about the picks. Much was made of Georgia potentially making it, but it seemed very unlikely that they’d take a two-loss nonconference champ over a pair of one-loss conference champs — even if UGA was probably better talent-wise. I was really only slightly surprised they took Oklahoma over the Buckeyes. If you look at the power ratings like Football Power Index or Simple Rating System, or something like ESPN’s Strength of Record, Ohio State was the superior team. But the committee probably held OSU’s strength of schedule against it — as well as that bad loss to Purdue and the near-loss against Maryland.

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, general editor): It helped for the Sooners that, in the Big 12 title game, they beat the only team to have beaten them.

neil: Yes — you definitely heard the phrase “they beat every team on the schedule” thrown around.

sara.ziegler: And I feel like the committee members had Ohio State’s near-loss to Maryland on their minds.

(I know I did.)

Josh Planos (Josh Planos, contributor): I wasn’t all that surprised either. Three were shoe-ins, and if the playoff format has taught us anything it’s that most of college football’s elite programs hog all the playoff spots, and the committee will do everything in its power to eschew controversy. Ohio State certainly wasn’t lacking in that department this season.

gfoster: Oddly, I think blowing out Michigan in such ugly fashion actually hurt Ohio State, because most people seemed to write off that game (rightly) as UM being overrated rather than Ohio State beating a team ranked fourth in the country.

neil: And yet the Wolverines were allowed to (easily) be Notre Dame’s most signature win… 🤔🤔🤔

sara.ziegler: Notre Dame getting its special dispensation, as per usual.

neil: It was funny during the selection show to hear the note about how Vegas would have the Irish as underdogs against every other team in the playoff conversation (except UCF, I guess).

Josh Planos: During Northwestern’s third-quarter scoring run on Saturday night, while Gus Johnson was firing off catch phrases, you could almost hear the committee scratching out the Buckeyes. Would a 40-point win in the Big Ten championship game even have gotten Ohio State over Georgia?

gfoster: Last year, if it hadn’t lost to Stanford, Notre Dame could have easily finished the season with one loss and would have not have made the playoff. In that spot, not having a conference championship would have really worked against the Irish because they wouldn’t have had another opportunity for a signature win. But this year, we see the advantage for ND. Win all your regular season games, as easy as they may be, and you are in.

But likewise, Northwestern didn’t really give Ohio State much of a resume boost. So … it’s Wisconsin’s fault for being lousy I guess.

sara.ziegler: But of course, Geoff, that’s only the case for ND — not for any other non-Power Five teams. (😢 UCF)

gfoster: UCF needs to boost its strength of schedule if it wants to be taken seriously.

sara.ziegler: For sure. And I don’t think the Knights should have gotten in. But it’s not like Notre Dame’s schedule was off the charts.

gfoster: For all we knock ND, they are playing teams like NC State, USC, Syracuse — all of whom would be one of the hardest games on UCF’s schedule.

neil: How can they improve their SOS, short of joining a better conference? (Or is that basically it?)

I don’t think any real power team wants to play them nonconference. No upside there, only downside.

gfoster: You could get a mid-tier Power-Five team that would take them at home, no? When Notre Dame was playing Michigan in Week 1, UCF had UConn — quite possibly the worst team in FBS.

neil: Defensively, at least.

sara.ziegler: Though that UConn game was a conference game.

Josh Planos: They followed it up by playing South Carolina State, too.

sara.ziegler: They scheduled North Carolina, but that was canceled because of the hurricane.

gfoster: North Carolina is also terrible.

sara.ziegler: And that’s the other problem: You can schedule a mid-tier Power-Five team, but you can’t guarantee they’ll be good.

neil: Or if you’re Notre Dame, you can schedule prestige Power 5 teams and not know if they’ll be good.

sara.ziegler: UCF did schedule and beat Pitt, which was good enough to get trampled by Clemson in the ACC title game.

gfoster: Truth is, maybe UCF does need to move conferences? TCU managed to do that when it was facing similar problem.

sara.ziegler: Or we could solve this with an eight-team playoff!

neil: This.^^

gfoster: Well, yes.

sara.ziegler: Solve it for this year, anyway.

LOL

gfoster: NO ONE is against that.

neil: Except conference and university presidents.

gfoster: As for this year, this is the first time both playoff games have double-digit spreads. Which falls in line with some lopsided lines in the conference championships. Any reason to like the underdogs here?

Or is this destined for Clemson vs. Alabama again?

neil: Maybe if Tua is still hurt? (He won’t be. And they will destroy Oklahoma.)

sara.ziegler: And it’s hard to see Notre Dame doing much against Clemson.

neil: Clemson vs. Bama Part IV is pretty redundant at this point. But at least there’s a chance it doesn’t play out according to chalk. Under the old BCS system, they’d automatically be slotted in at 1-2. (Although that would have been very uncontroversial.)

gfoster: It’s hard to see any team doing much against the Tigers’ defense. Look at the line of Pitt QB Kenny Pickett in the ACC title game: 4 of 16 for … wait for it … 8 YARDS.

That’s 0.5 yards per pass attempt. (538 math skills, folks.)

Josh Planos: Yeah, we don’t know about Tua’s health. Oklahoma’s offense puts up video game numbers, so you’d expect Alabama to need to bring at least something to the table in that regard. Trevor Lawrence is playing the best secondary he’s seen all season. Brian Kelly is probably pretty motivated that his team’s recent struggles were broadcast on a Showtime series.

sara.ziegler: If Tua plays, you gotta think he’ll go to town on the Oklahoma defense.

Will he actually have to play all four quarters? LOL

Josh Planos: Have we ever seen the likely two top vote-getters in the Heisman race square off in the postseason? Is this the best QB battle in terms of single-season QBR that we’ve ever seen? Each is on pace to set the single-season record (though that will change, I’m sure).

gfoster: It might not change for Tua against that Oklahoma defense that gave up 700 yards to West Virginia.

The Sooners also might be without their best receiver: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, which would be a significant blow to Kyler Murray.

neil: Josh, we almost got 1-2 Heisman QBs in the 2008 title game: Tebow vs. Bradford.

(But Tebow finished 3rd in the voting.)

(Colt McCoy finished 2nd????)

sara.ziegler: Wow

gfoster: If we had an eight-team playoff, my guess is that it would be Alabama-UCF (lol), Clemson-Washington (I’m thinking they must include a token Pac-12 in this new world), Notre Dame-Ohio State, Oklahoma-Georgia.

neil: What would the line be on that Tide-vs.-Knights game?

gfoster: 28.5

Josh Planos: Without McKenzie Milton? 30+

neil: Isn’t that the same line they gave the Buffalo Bills vs. Alabama?

gfoster: The Bills are like the sixth worst team in the NFL now. Shows how misguided those types of stories are.

sara.ziegler: Would a Pac-12 team even make an eight-team playoff this year? The committee had Michigan at No. 7.

Which is kind of amazing — another two-loss Power-Five team above poor UCF.

neil: I would guess an eight-team playoff would have an automatic berth for a Pac-12 champ.

sara.ziegler: There’s obviously no way to do this without some controversy.

neil: Then we can get into those fun March Madness arguments about “at-large” bids.

gfoster: Right … and one token non-Power Five. (Or in this case two, because of ND.)

neil: Notre Dame is Power Five! (According to our tier system.)

gfoster: Let’s talk about the other bowl games. Any others you are particularly excited for?

neil: UGA-Texas should be fun, I think.

Josh Planos: Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for the nostalgia of Big 8 football, but Missouri vs. Oklahoma State. FPI is really high on the four-loss Tigers (like, higher on the Tigers than UCF and LSU), and each of Oklahoma State’s past five games have been decided by no more than 7 points. If nothing else, there will be a lot of points.

sara.ziegler: Missouri never should have left the Big 12.

neil: I always forget they aren’t in the Big 12 now.

sara.ziegler: Wisconsin vs. Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl is kind of a fun throwback.

gfoster: That should be called the Pinstripe Lack Of Motivation Bowl.

sara.ziegler: Haha

Josh Planos: Fun is an interesting word.

Is this the underachieving bowl? And did any team underachieve more than Wisconsin? All we heard throughout the preseason was that Jonathan Taylor could win the Heisman, they returned the entire offensive line, and Alex Hornibrook was returning for a 12th year of eligibility.

gfoster: In the bowl games, it’s always fun to identify the games where one team is really pumped to be there and the other has zero interest. For instance, Purdue vs. Auburn in the Music City.

You think Auburn is getting up for that?

Josh Planos: If they couldn’t get up to bully UCF last year, they’re not getting up to try and corral Rondale Moore.

neil: Also, the biggest early spread in a lower-tier bowl might be the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. ESPN has BYU as a 14-point favorite over Western Michigan

I always root for the Directional Michigans though.

gfoster: Sad that Alabama-Oklahoma might be the most lopsided bowl game.

Also a 14-point spread.

sara.ziegler: I’m actually pretty interested in how UCF does against LSU.

LSU is a good proxy for a playoff team, since the Tigers did OK against Bama (at least early on) and pounded Georgia.

gfoster: I actually think LSU will get up for UCF, mainly because of what happened to Auburn and all this chatter.

neil: Although I wish UCF had gotten one of the just-missed-it playoff contenders like UGA or Ohio State, just for experiment’s sake.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that would have been better.

Though maybe it’s all moot with no Milton.

neil: True. It wouldn’t have settled the debate.

gfoster: LSU is actually still playing that game against Texas A&M. They are in their 134th overtime.

sara.ziegler: 🏈 💤

gfoster: But Neil, didn’t we see kinda see that the year they let Hawaii play UGA?

neil: Hah, yes I was thinking of that exactly. Poor Colt Brennan.

Josh Planos: Should’ve known that a haircut like this didn’t stand a chance.

gfoster: OMG

sara.ziegler: Why … would … you … do … that?

gfoster: He even has the little island that they don’t let anyone on.

neil: The run-n-shoot makes you do crazy things.

gfoster: OK, what’s the worst bowl game.

This answer is two parts.

Worst name and worst game.

neil: Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl

Can anything top that?

Short of bringing back the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl?

sara.ziegler: I love the Boca Raton Bowl.

Congrats, teams! You’re going to … Boca Raton!

gfoster: That’s the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl, Sara.

Josh Planos: Best bowl experience: The Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl, FIU vs. Toledo.

Last season, folks could bring beer into the stadium. There were also archery opportunities near the concession stand.

I apologize for not answering the question, Geoff.

neil: I do miss the Popeye’s sponsorship for that one. Gave us an excuse to pick up fried chicken at Times Square and eat it in the office.

sara.ziegler: As if you needed an excuse for that, Neil.

neil: (Sorry again about the spicy tenders, Geoff.)

gfoster: The DXL Frisco Bowl is a rare short name that is terrible.

Jared Birmingham Bowl? It sounds like its named after someone named Jared Birmingham.

neil: I think “Jared Birmingham” is UCF’s backup QB.

Josh Planos: LOL

gfoster: I will say. I’m a big fan of the Cheez-It Bowl

I wish I had a bowl of Cheez-Its right now.

sara.ziegler: We didn’t talk about the best game of the weekend.

neil: Iowa State!

sara.ziegler: A dominant (not at all) win over powerhouse (not at all) Drake!

Josh Planos: I think Washington State could beat Iowa State by 40 points. Or the Cyclones could ride the Matt Campbell relevancy train to a 13-10 win.

sara.ziegler: That’s quite a range.

neil: And nothing in between.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: I’m also kinda intrigued by the Peach Bowl: Michigan vs. Florida. Feels like that is a constant matchup in the tier of bowls just below the prestige level.

That has happened in many Citrus Bowls, for instance.

Josh Planos: How. Do. These. Teams. Keep. Playing.

gfoster: Harbaugh’s only bowl win at Michigan was a romp of Florida. And Lloyd Carr’s final win was an upset of Tim Tebow Florida.

neil: And don’t forget about the 2003 Outback Bowl!

sara.ziegler: Who can forget?

neil: Grossman vs. Navarre.

gfoster: I’m excited for West Virginia vs. Syracuse in the Camping World. That feels like a 100-point game. I also am oddly interested in Boca Raton bowl! UAB is an amazing story. They won Conference USA just a few years removed from having their football program eliminated.

It’s at this time where I’d normally ask for predictions. But I imagine no one is picking an upset in the first two playoff games?

So let’s skip to the final predictions.

sara.ziegler: It’s pretty hard to pick against Alabama.

neil: Alabama 27, Clemson 24

sara.ziegler: Clemson has been dominant, obviously, ever since squeaking by Syracuse. But Bama is just too good.

Alabama 30, Clemson 18

gfoster: Clemson 35, Alabama 28

This isn’t (entirely) me being the contrarian. I think the Crimson Tide are kinda vulnerable to an upset. They start slow every game (tied with Citadel at halftime, remember) and it’s going to catch up to them at some point. Clemson defense can keep Tua off the field enough to win.

(Assuming they beat ND, who I think will make a game of it against Clemson.)

Josh Planos: Alabama over Oklahoma 35-14

Clemson over Notre Dame 21-7

Alabama over Clemson 28-14

sara.ziegler: I guess there’s nothing left to do but watch the games!

The Republican Party Has Changed Dramatically Since George H.W. Bush Ran It

George H.W. Bush, whose death at 94 was announced on Friday by his family, was a hugely influential figure in the Republican Party: chairman of the Republican National Committee, vice president, president and father of another GOP president. But the GOP has changed dramatically since it nominated Bush for the presidency in 1988 — a fact reflected in the ex-president’s strained relationship with the GOP’s new standard-bearer, President Trump.

So, I think Bush’s death is another moment to highlight what my colleague Clare Malone described in the summer of 2016 as “The End Of A Republican Party.” Let’s run through some of the big shifts that have occurred within the GOP:

The GOP was once a more moderate party

Ideology is complicated to measure. By some standards, the Republican Party has moved to the left. In a poll conducted last year, 42 percent of Republicans backed same-sex unions; it’s safe to assume that number was far lower during George H.W. Bush’s presidency. In 1992, one of South Carolina’s senators was Republican Strom Thurmond, who ran a 1948 presidential campaign featuring his opposition to civil rights for blacks. Today, one of South Carolina’s senators is Republican Tim Scott, who is African-American.

But by most other measures, the GOP is far more conservative than it used to be. The General Social Survey, for example, shows self-identified Republicans moving far more toward the “extremely conservative” end of its scale (as opposed to “extremely liberal”) over the past several decades.1

Political scientists, using DW-Nominate scores,2 have concluded that the Republicans now in Congress are much further to the right of congressional Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s. And even anecdotally, figures like former House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the late Arizona Sen. John McCain — considered solid conservatives in the George H.W. Bush era — found themselves cast as insufficiently right-wing by the party’s base in recent years.

In Bush’s era, Fox News did not exist. Deeply conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and their allies had not created a huge network of right-wing groups that constitute basically an alternative political party. There was no tea party or House Freedom Caucus. Trump may be personally more conservative than Bush, but even if he weren’t, the forces that push a Republican president to the ideological right are stronger now than they were in the 1980s.

Bush himself famously signed a tax increase to help reduce the federal budget deficit, a move that angered the party’s conservative base. His two GOP successors (George W. Bush and Trump) never even really considered tax hikes, aware of the power of the party’s conservative coalition.

The GOP used to be more in line with the nation demographically

Trump’s rallies include lots of older white people, as the stereotype goes. But that is the Republican Party of today. The country has become older, more diverse and more educated. The GOP, meanwhile, has grown even more disproportionately old. And while its voters grew more diverse along with the country through the 1980s (though at a bit of a lag), that shift stalled in the party in the 1990s. Same with education: The share of non-Hispanic white voters without a college degree fell throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — in the electorate overall and the GOP. But beginning in the 1990s, it stopped falling among Republicans.

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In 1992, according to the Pew Research Center, about 38 percent of registered voters who identified as Republicans were 50 years or older. By 2016, that number had grown to 58 percent. In 1992, 61 percent of Republicans were under 50, compared with 41 percent today.3

Republicans were once competitive on the coasts but weak in the South

The ideological and demographic shifts described above have corresponded with big changes in the GOP’s geographic coalition. In 1988, Bush won California — the sixth straight election in which the Republican presidential candidate carried the Golden State. Bush also won Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont. The Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate from that era included two members from New Hampshire, two from Oregon and one from both Delaware and New York. There were zero Senate Republicans from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee.

All but one of the 16 Senate seats I just described are now held by the opposite party that controlled them in 1992, as the GOP gained ground in the South but lost power on the coasts. Trump, reflecting the growing weakness of Republicans in California, lost there in 2016 by 30 percentage points. Bush lost West Virginia in 1988 by 5 percentage points. Trump’s 42-point win in West Virginia in 2016 was his second-biggest margin in any state.4

In short, today’s Republican Party is centered in the South and almost completely out of power on the West Coast.


Let me not overstate the changes in the Grand Old Party. It still loves to cut taxes, like it did in the George H.W. Bush era. It’s still overwhelmingly white. The majority of its voters are still whites without college degrees. White evangelical Protestants are still about a third of the party. It still deploys negative racial stereotypes about non-white Americans to appeal to white voters. (Remember the Willie Horton ad of the 1988 Bush campaign?)

But the changes highlighted here have dramatically altered the power dynamics in Washington. Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush always had to share power with Democrats, who controlled the House from 1949 to 1994.5 But since the GOP won the House in 1994, the party has held the chamber for all but four years.6 (They won’t be in control in 2019, of course.)

When George H.W. Bush won 53 percent of the national popular vote in 1988, it was not that remarkable. Richard Nixon had won more than 60 percent in 1972, and Ronald Reagan breached 50 percent in both 1980 and 1984. But 1988 was a watershed moment for the Republican Party — it was about to start a measurable decline in terms of its national standing. In the seven presidential elections since then (including Bush’s 1992 defeat), Republicans have won more votes nationally than Democrats just once (2004).

The tensions between Trump and the Bush family, and between Trump and McCain, speak to this broader narrative. Trump is a different kind of Republican — and he is changing the party in his image in ways they don’t like. But he is also the product of a different Republican Party than the one that the Bushes and McCain ascended in. Trump got the GOP nomination in some ways by embracing what the Republican Party had become, not what the Bushes wished it were.

CORRECTION (Dec. 1, 2018, 1:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said President Trump’s largest margin of victory in any state in the 2016 election was in West Virginia. It was in Wyoming.