As Aaron Rodgers stumbled through Green Bay’s Week 2 loss in Minnesota, completing 56 percent of his passes, throwing for 213 yards, turning the ball over twice, and getting generally outplayed by Sam Bradford of all people, he wasn’t — well, he wasn’t Aaron Rodgers. Aaron Rodgers is the incredibly smooth power thrower who owns the NFL’s highest career passer rating and the lowest all-time interception percentage. He’s the gunslinging two-time MVP who threw 45 touchdowns to just six picks with 9.2 yards per attempt in 2011.
The player we see now, as Rust Cohle might put it, is like somebody’s memory of a great quarterback — and that memory is fading. Sunday’s version of Aaron Rodgers has been around for almost a full calendar year. He’s no longer just in a slump. He’s not injured. He’s not in some brand-new system. For a player as great as Rodgers, this kind of extended struggle is just … weird.
Rodgers stopped short of telling Packer nation to R-E-L-A-X following the loss Sunday, but this isn’t the same type of uncharacteristically slow start the Packers saw in 2014. Green Bay quickly bounced back after that, winning 11 of its final 13 games. Rodgers finished with 38 touchdowns to just five picks and won the MVP award. The team’s current struggles extend beyond the first two weeks of 2016 and back to Week 6 of last year, the last time that Rodgers posted a passer rating of more than 100.
The Packers had shaken off the infamous NFC championship game meltdown in Seattle the previous January and started the season 6–0. Rodgers had completed 68 percent of his passes at 8.2 yards per attempt, threw 15 touchdowns to two picks, and compiled a 115.9 passer rating. Then, a 29–10 loss at Denver the next week began Green Bay’s sudden free fall into mediocrity on offense. Rodgers’s final 10 games of 2015 looked like this: A 57 percent completion rate, 6 yards per attempt, an 81.9 quarterback rating, and 16 touchdowns to six interceptions. The Packers lost six of those games, and limped into the playoffs after losing the de facto division-title game in Week 17 to the Vikings. They did look good in the playoffs, beating Washington in the wild-card round and then losing to the Arizona Larry Fitzgeralds in overtime. However, despite tying the game against Arizona on the last play of regulation with a Hail Mary that nearly hit the moon, Rodgers completed only 56.3 percent of his postseason passes at just 5.9 yards per attempt.
When a player as special as Rodgers struggles for this long, there has to be an easy explanation: Coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to hand over play-calling duties to associate head coach Tom Clements at the beginning of last year was the first reason, except McCarthy took back the control of the offense in mid-December, and there was no magical turnaround. If it wasn’t Clements, it was losing top target Jordy Nelson to an ACL tear in Week 2 of the preseason — except the offense hasn’t improved since his return, either.
Instead, an inflexible offensive scheme, a lack of wide receiver talent, and some of Rodgers’s worst tendencies have led the superstar signal-caller to try to do it all by himself.
While the two-time league MVP has arguably the best arm in the NFL and makes plays that seemingly no one else on the planet can, he’s also become a little too dependent on his talent, sacrificing fundamentals along the way. Rodgers is a “sandlot” player: Thanks to a combination of his athleticism, amazing field vision, and quick-sling arm action that gets the ball out of his hands in the blink of an eye, he makes plays outside of the offensive design. We saw two of those signature plays that we can’t credit to play design or coaching against Jacksonville in Week 1: Rodgers just improvised and made big things happen.
On the first, Rodgers navigated a muddied pocket for what felt like an hour, finally strafing to his right and firing a bullet into the back of the end zone, right into the hands of a diving Nelson. How he saw Nelson through all that traffic? We’ll never know.
The second was equally as impressive, but for different reasons. Again, he avoided pressure in the pocket, and as he stepped up and felt a tug at his collar, he released a pass off his back foot that ended up in just about the only spot that Davante Adams could reach it.
Sometimes, though, you just need to drop back, step up, and hit the open receiver. By his own admission, Rodgers will get lackadaisical with his fundamentals and rely too much on his strong arm and backyard-football style to get the ball down the field. As he told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King in July, “The times when I am not perfect with my feet are the time when I am not going to be as accurate.”
On Sunday, he overthrew Nelson and Adams on separate plays that should’ve gone for big gains. Check out Rodgers’s footwork and follow-through on the overthrown pass to Nelson, a third-and-5 in the first quarter. He moved to his left — the moving pocket was the play’s design, and the line protected it perfectly — and before throwing, he had time to reset his feet and step into the pass. Instead, he failed to follow through with his step or his arm motion, stopping his follow-through at the top of the throw. Essentially, he just whipped it.
Rodgers was similarly haphazard on the throw to Adams. He fell away as his arm came forward, meaning the ball velocity was generated with his arm alone. As he felt pressure coming, he turned his body to the left, which affected his accuracy, and the ball sailed on him.
Then, on a third-and-9 in the second quarter, Rodgers left his feet to make a throw in the pocket, and he badly missed Randall Cobb high. He had no reason to leave his feet, but he let the rush (which wasn’t imminent) affect his mechanics and destroy the play.
The reliance on his strong arm and improv skills helps to explain why Rodgers’s accuracy has slowly declined over the past five years. Per Pro Football Focus, he led the league in accuracy percentage in 2011, completing 80.6 percent of his aimed passes. That number was 80.2 percent in 2012 (also tops in the league), then dropped to 79.3 in 2013, 75.7 in 2014, and 73.1 last season. Through two games this year, he’s completed just 61.5 of his aimed passes. His deep-ball accuracy percentage (passes over 20 yards) was never lower than 51.8 from 2011 to 2014, but fell to 39.1 percent last year. It sits at 44.4 percent so far this season.
Now, not all of Rodgers’s struggles stem from a drop in downfield accuracy. Some of his statistical decline can be attributed to the slow degradation of his receiving corps over the years. In their 2010–12 heyday, the Packers had incredible depth and talent at receiver, including Nelson and Cobb (drafted in 2011), plus Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, and tight end Jermichael Finley, who was a de facto receiver. Defenses could scheme to take away his top receiver and Rodgers would have no trouble making his second, third, or even fourth option the focal point of any given game. In 2014, that deep group had thinned out to basically just Nelson and Cobb, but the duo―who combined for 189 catches, 2,806 yards, and 25 touchdowns―were so damn good that it didn’t matter if defenses could zero in on them or that there wasn’t much depth behind them. In 2015, Nelson got hurt and Cobb was on his own, and through the first two games of 2015, Nelson still doesn’t look 100 percent.
Instead of having third and fourth options as precision route runners and downfield playmakers like Jennings, Driver, and Jones, Rodgers’s first option after Nelson and Cobb is the talented but still inconsistent Adams. Big plays that you’d typically see Green Bay receivers make end up as drops or miscues.
Against the Jaguars in Week 1, Rodgers spun out of pressure, rolled to his left, and made a near-miraculous throw 50 yards downfield. Adams drifted away from it instead of attacking it in the air, and it bounced off his fingers
A similar thing happened against Minnesota. Rodgers bootlegged out to his right and threw the ball 55 yards downfield, only to see Adams fail to come down with it.
The Packers benefited from a pass interference call so it wasn’t a total loss, but on both plays, Rodgers put Adams in a position to make a big catch, and he came up empty-handed.
The lack of depth in the receiver corps has made it more difficult for Rodgers to trust those third and fourth options. That severely limits the scope of what the Packers can do in the offensive scheme because McCarthy’s playbook relies heavily on skill players beating coverage by themselves. Rodgers must trust that his receivers will be where they’re supposed to be — at the exact depth and width as the play calls for — so he can hit his fifth or seventh dropback step and let go of the ball. When those players are consistently a step or two slow, Rodgers has to wait, and the play’s design breaks down. This leaves Rodgers stammering in the pocket before trying to scramble to make Houdini-style magic.
The precision offense that McCarthy wants to run certainly has a higher ceiling — it’s almost impossible to defend when the quarterback and his receivers are perfectly in sync, as Green Bay’s Super Bowl XLV win demonstrated — but the margin for error is tiny, and the Packers just don’t have the kind of receiving talent to make it work. Instead, Green Bay needs to add some things to its arsenal that don’t rely so heavily on depth, timing, and separation. In other words, the Packers need to simplify the offense.
As Mike Lombardi pointed out and as Ollie Connolly broke down, the Packers use very few schematic devices to get people open. They run their standard slants, go-routes, or curls, all of which depend on timing and an ability for the receivers to create separation by themselves. But the problem is none of their receivers save for Cobb are doing that right now. Green Bay rarely schemes its players open using rub routes (legal screens), stacked or trips formations, and motion like you frequently see in the Steelers, Patriots, and Bengals offenses.
The few times the Packers have used those concepts this season, they’ve worked. Late in the first quarter Sunday, we saw Cobb and Nelson cross paths on their routes. In a man scheme, this would’ve created a natural pick for Nelson, but since it’s zone (and the outside defender switches onto Nelson as he runs outside), it creates space for Cobb to run to the middle because his defender is sitting deeper in coverage.
Green Bay tried this simple scheme several times in the game, but twice, when the plays worked in theory, Rodgers failed to pull the trigger, was sacked, and fumbled. Late in the first quarter, Rodgers gave up on his options to the left too soon — a tick before Jared Cook could come open on the three-route pick play. He was sacked, he fumbled, and luckily, his offensive lineman recovered it.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Rodgers decided against throwing quickly to Cobb, who had come open off the rub route, and instead tried to make something out of nothing. Again, he was sacked and he fumbled, but this time the Vikings recovered.
After the game, both Rodgers and McCarthy talked about how the offense still doesn’t have a rhythm, and they’re right — but these quick-hit plays that create separation for the wideouts are the way to do it.
Right now, the offense is making things unnecessarily difficult for the guys catching the balls and the guy throwing it. As a defender, it’s tough to play close up on a guy when he’s the third man in a stack formation, is combining with another route to create a natural pick, or when he’s motioning across the field at the snap. Making these plays a bigger part of the identity of their offense could help manufacture some of that hard-to-measure rhythm. The quickness of these plays also mitigates pressure, which Rodgers has struggled against so far this season.
There’s no one answer to fixing this Green Bay offense, but for the same reason his recent play is puzzling, it’s also promising: There’s nothing wrong with Rodgers physically; he remains one of the most talented throwers the league has ever seen. It’s still early, and the Packers aren’t that far off from getting the rhythm back: There were a couple of drives against Minnesota’s quality defense where glimpses of the old Rodgers showed up. He’d string together a few completions, the Packers would move the ball effectively, and the offense would look poised to really start rolling … only to have a turnover or fumble derail it all.
Even with a generational passer like Rodgers, the offense still needs to evolve with the personnel on the roster. McCarthy is a true believer that the Packers will always have “a precision-timing passing game,” but without a fully functioning Nelson, the team needs to start incorporating more plays that rely on motion, formations, and route combinations rather than precise routes and a perfectly measured dropback and release. That’ll give replacement-level receivers like Adams and Jared Abbrederis, guys who can’t get open on their own, more of a chance to get involved. Right now, the team can still have some success with Rodgers trying to do it all himself, but he won’t get back to being the unstoppable force we saw from 2011 to 2014 without a scheme that gives him some help.