"You know, we had 400 yards of offense, so I don't know why the hell I've got to come in here and answer questions about the things you think that went wrong."
That’s what Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said after his team beat the New York Giants, 23-16, in Week 5. McCarthy has been dealing with these questions for the better part of a year now, quite simply because his passing offense has regressed, and everybody knows it. Never did it regress more than last Sunday, when Green Bay’s formerly viciously efficient passing game looked like something out of the Three Stooges in a 30-16 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Aaron Rodgers completed 31 of 42 passes for 294 yards, one touchdown and one interception—not horrible stats, but even a cursory look at the game tape against Dallas shows a passing offense that is broken, and a quarterback in Rodgers who is seeing things that aren’t there, while missing obvious things that are.
|Aaron Rodgers Week 6 NFL1000 Scores (Sneak Peek)|
|NFL1000 Scouts (Cian Fahey)|
It obviously wasn’t supposed to be this way. Rodgers was the toast of the NFL from 2009 through 2014, and he was unquestionably the best quarterback in the NFL when healthy. His prime season was 2011, when he threw 45 touchdown passes to six interceptions, threw touchdowns on nine percent of his pass attempts, completed 68.3 percent of his passes, and averaged an ungodly 9.2 yards per attempt. Passer rating isn’t the ultimate arbiter of quarterback excellence, but Rodgers’ 122.5 passer rating that season was the best in NFL history.
Things really started to change in 2015, when Rodgers’ completion percentage dropped from 65.6 to 60.7, his touchdown percentage fell from 7.3 to 5.4, and his yards per attempt went from 8.4 to 6.7. This season, his completion percentage is 60.2, his touchdown percentage is 5.5, and his yards per attempt is down to 6.5, all in line with the regression.
I’ve written at length about Green Bay’s offensive issues over the last two seasons, and here’s what I believe to be true: McCarthy and his coaches have designed and are implementing an overall offensive game plan that is unsustainable in the modern NFL.
Over time, Rodgers has overcompensated for the things that offense doesn’t provide to the point where it’s broken him as a mechanically consistent player. And when you’re a modern NFL quarterback, mechanical consistency is the most valuable attribute. It’s what allowed Tom Brady to knife up two teams in his return to the NFL from an offseason and a four-game suspension; it’s the common denominator among all truly and consistently great NFL quarterbacks. It’s something Rodgers used to have in spades when his offense was formationally diverse; and now that it isn’t, he’s forced to improvise far too often, which has set him off his mechanics to a disconcerting degree.
McCarthy can go on and on about 400 yards of offense, but that misses the larger point: His future Hall-of-Fame quarterback has been rendered dysfunctional by a limited series of schemes that force him to play outside structure to the point that there is little structure left.
Let’s start with the first play in the Giants game: This winds up as a six-yard completion to Randall Cobb out of the left slot, which seems like a positive result on first-and-10. But if you look to Rodgers’ left at the snap, and watch the progression of the play, something weird happens. The slant/flat concept is a staple of the Packers’ passing game, with one receiver moving to the flat (basically, the screen area), and another running a slant. It’s one of the few route combinations McCarthy consistently calls to create designed openings, and in this instance, Rodgers has Nelson on the slant to the left side for a bigger gain—he’s got linebacker Johnathan Casillas beat, and that favorable matchup happens because slot defender Landon Collins follows tight end Richard Rodgers out to the boundary.
This is a tailor-made opening for Rodgers, and he even looks to his right to start the play...and then, he just doesn’t pull the trigger. He doesn’t trust what he sees, he bails out to his left and he makes a play outside of structure. Again, it’s a completion, but it points to a larger issue: Rodgers appears to be operating under the belief that he must transcend a faulty offense with his own impressive physical attributes. It’s clear that the slant/flat comprises his first and second reads. And it’s just as clear that for whatever reason, he doesn’t trust it.
With 8:36 left in the first quarter, you can see another example of Nelson getting open, and Rodgers instead taking the easy underneath pass to Cobb. This time, Nelson runs an over route, beating Collins, who has the underneath coverage.
In a timing and rhythm passing game, Rodgers would easily make the throw to Nelson on time, but he’s either not seeing his open receiver or he’s not taking advantage when he does. This was a recurring theme, so we can’t put all the blame on McCarthy and Green Bay’s passing game, which can be rudimentary at times. The boot-action aspect of this play does take Rodgers away from Nelson in the first-read sightline, but this is Aaron Rodgers. This shouldn’t be terribly complicated.
So, the question is: Why doesn’t Rodgers trust his own passing offense? Why doesn’t be believe that his open receivers are open?
Let’s take a look at a still shot of an incomplete pass to Richard Rodgers with 10:23 left in the third quarter of the Giants game. I could use one of tens of examples, but this is pretty graphic. All of Green Bay’s deep receivers are running one-on-ones with Giants defenders. The picture shows when Rodgers has just pushed off his back foot and is looking for an open receiver and there is nobody open. Richard Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers’ eventual target, but he’s gone outside linebacker Keenan Robinson and has to circle around Robinson to get open.
The result, from Aaron Rodgers’ perspective, had to look all too familiar.
And that’s where McCarthy has to shoulder some of the blame. I’ve been watching the relative simplicity of the Packers’ passing game over the last two seasons, and I begin to wonder exactly what decade McCarthy seems to think he’s coaching. In, say, 1973, you could send your receivers out on straight isolation routes and win. Base defenses were base defenses, and as a receiver, the most you had to worry about was Mel Blount or George Atkinson turning you over and dropping you on your head.
But now, in an era where nickel and dime defenses are the norm, and hybrid defenders stalk the field presenting all sorts of new challenges, sending your guys out there to beat their guys just doesn’t cut it.
Watching this play and so many others, I wonder how many option routes the Packers have—simple route adjustments that allow for quick openings. The option route concept is easy to navigate, though it requires the quarterback to understand all the possibilities for all the receiver positions. Basically, receivers respond post-snap to defensive positioning and coverage: If the cornerback does this, I adjust my route that way. If the linebacker does this, I go here instead of there. McCarthy’s offense seems to have little in the way of real-time adjustments, which is another problem.
So, on to the disaster against Dallas on Sunday.
With 8:10 left in the first quarter, Nelson separated from cornerback Morris Claiborne (who has played at an entirely different level this season), but Rodgers threw the ball farther out, just beyond Nelson's reach. It’s not a glaring inaccuracy, but it’s just bad enough, and it's a strange look from a quarterback-receiver duo that’s been so good in the past.
The frustration on Rodgers' face was evident.
And here, with 1:18 left in the first half, the Packers went with five receivers. As Troy Aikman said from the booth, they had one-on-ones across the board if they wanted to take a shot. Rodgers did just downfield to Cobb, but the ball again just missed the mark. It was slightly overthrown, and Cobb’s angle to the boundary left no option for anything but a perfectly-placed throw. From a physical matchup perspective, this should have been a touchdown.
Rodgers finished the first half with five completions, but they were all easy, short passes, and the Cowboys were just letting the short stuff go as the clock ran down. Rodgers completed a 15-yard pass to Ty Montgomery down to the Dallas 14-yard line as time expired, and that drive seemed to symbolize what Green Bay’s offense has become: a lot of small sound and fury, signifying very little.
We’ll end with Rodgers’ inexcusable interception to Cowboys safety Barry Church with 10:12 left in the third quarter. Church started out pre-snap in a deep safety look to the offensive left side, and it appears that Rodgers thought Church was going to help bracket Nelson deep to that side. However, Church came to the linebacker level in a robber look, which put him in perfect position to defend a crossing route throw to Cobb. That’s exactly what Church did, and it’s absolutely mystifying why Rodgers didn't see it.
|NFL1000 Position Ranks From Previous Week|
|David Bakhtiari (LT)||1|
|Lane Taylor (LG)||28|
|JC Tretter (C)||3|
|TJ Lang (RG)||3|
|Bryan Bulaga (RT)||1|
GIF taken from NFL.com Gamepass
I asked Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL MatchUp to give me his take on Rodgers' problems outside of scheme. Greg knows as much about football as anyone in the media who hasn’t played or coached, and his comments were enlightening.
"This all started last year," Cosell said. "And the easy explanation then was that Jordy Nelson wasn’t there [he was out for the 2015 season with a knee injury], which really isn’t an explanation when a quarterback’s mechanics are terrible. Right now, Rodgers is not a comfortable player. There are not many snaps where he settles into the pocket, and there’s a frenetic nature to his play. He looks like he’s playing fast. That’s not new. What’s happening now is that the results are becoming more extreme. Because when you play fast and you play with bad technique and footwork, eventually that becomes a problem.
"Now, what’s happening is that the precise accuracy which we loved for years, he doesn’t have that. What continues to stand out is that his accuracy is not what it once was. Precise ball placement is what made him special, and that attribute has been very erratic going back to last season. And now, it’s getting worse. Now, he’s missing wide-open receivers. For a while, he was just not as precise, but still throwing the ball where the receivers had a chance."
So, how to fix this debacle? There are plays in which Rodgers gets favorable matchups and excellent protection (his offensive line has been stellar of late).
The last play of the first quarter against Dallas is a great example of what Rodgers can do with strong protection and favorable matchups. Bookended by a lot of muck as it may be. Here, the Packers have a bunch left look, and Cobb motions out of it to the outside, which stresses Dallas’ coverage. When cornerback Brandon Carr comes up to press Cobb, you can bet that Rodgers’ eyes lit up. Rodgers had to navigate the pocket and wait for Cobb to work to the boundary, but that’s what he did. And he got a designed opening out of it for a 17-yard gain.
This Packers offense and this Packers quarterback need play structures that allow Rodgers to operate with confidence in the system, as opposed to the belief, right or wrong, that without his super-human efforts, the offense is as good as dead.
No quarterback, regardless of his natural talent, can operate for long in that vacuum. Right now, it’s that vacuum that’s making Aaron Rodgers look like an overwhelmed rookie at times.