Aaron Rodgers would like you to know that he is not freaking out.
After Green Bay’s 38-3 Week 1 loss to the Saints, when Rodgers went 15-of-28 passing for 133 yards, no touchdowns, and—yikes—two interceptions, he said the following:
“We played bad. I played bad,” Rodgers said. “Offensively, we didn’t execute very well. It’s one game. We’ve got 16 to go.”
Rodgers’s tone was a far cry from his head coach Matt LaFleur’s, who called the loss “humbling” and said that the Saints “absolutely embarrassed us.”
“I’ll let him use those words and I’ll use, ‘It’s just one game,’” Rodgers said.
Rodgers and LaFleur represent the two poles of the NFL Week 1 panic spectrum. Small sample sizes are lighter fluid for overreactions; the season is too long to put too much stock into one early-season performance, which is what Rodgers was getting at. Then again, the NFL is designed for parity and, most seasons, there’s a team that goes from first to worst or vice versa in its division. You can’t write off surprising early results entirely. We’ll assess where several teams or players fall on the panic spectrum, but let’s start with the Packers, given that they had the most alarming performance from Week 1. To freak out or not to freak out, that is the question.
A major factor in the Packers-Saints game was that Green Bay never had a chance to achieve any kind of balance. The Saints went on back-to-back touchdown drives in the first half that ate up nearly 18 minutes of game clock, meaning that the Packers went into the half down 17-3 having run just 18 plays.
Pro Football Focus’s Seth Galina did an excellent job breaking down how the Saints sold out to stop the Packers’ passing offense by playing two-high safety shells and asking players in the box to keep eyes on Rodgers when Green Bay ran play-action. In theory, this should have left them vulnerable to getting gashed in the running game. After the first quarter, though, Rodgers dropped back to pass 22 times and handed the ball off for a rushing play only three times before Jordan Love came into the game in the fourth quarter. Defense is about weak links, but Green Bay didn’t take advantage of the weak point in the Saints defense, at least partially because of how the game was unfolding.
This is not all on Rodgers. LaFleur said he regretted not at least trying to exploit the Saints defense, scoreboard be damned.
“We didn’t run the ball, we didn’t even attempt to run the ball enough,” LaFleur said postgame. “So that’s my fault.”
A disadvantageous game script is often how a regular loss turns into a total blowout. It’s probably premature for Green Bay to panic just yet. The Packers lost 38-10 to the Buccaneers last season, a game in which Rodgers’s stat line was similar to his Week 1 performance: 16-of-35 passing for 160 yards, no touchdowns, and two picks. That loss did not make the 2020 Packers a bad team. Furthermore, those very same Buccaneers lost a game to the Saints 38-3 last season. They went on to win the Super Bowl. Green Bay has Rodgers, Davante Adams, a good play-caller in LaFleur, and one of the better rosters in the NFL, plus the benefit of playing in the NFC North, a division in which no team won its first game. The Packers play the Lions in Week 2, and that seems like a pretty good opportunity to get back on track.
It’s a slightly different story for Rodgers himself, though. His displeasure with Green Bay’s front office was the story of the offseason, and everything he does this year will become a mini-referendum on his long-term future with the team.
One of Rodgers’s central issues with the Packers was the fact that they have not regularly consulted him during free agency or on other personnel matters. Green Bay acquiesced to some of his wishes, agreeing to trade for wide receiver Randall Cobb (a Rodgers favorite). I recently spoke with a handful of current and former NFL executives about Rodgers’s situation from the perspective of how to handle players seeking greater empowerment within organizations, and most said that making a move for Rodgers, like Green Bay did, went beyond their comfort level.
“In no way should a player be making decisions for your organization,” former Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told me. “Never. I respect Aaron Rodgers, or Matt Ryan and Julio Jones who I dealt with. Communicating with them and keeping them abreast of situations is important and hearing what they have to say … but ultimately it would have to be my responsibility.”
Rodgers has stated his case that he should get special treatment because he is special. “I’m not asking for anything that other great quarterbacks across the last few decades have not gotten,” he said in July. That case rests on his ability to be an elite quarterback, and performances like Week 1 diminish his position. The Packers’ defensive struggles—from their porous run defense to the coverage mixups that led to multiple touchdowns—were as bad as or worse than their offensive difficulties, but will garner less attention than whatever Rodgers does. The Packers will likely be fine, but Rodgers made an argument predicated on him being a lot better than fine, and even one game can put a dent in that.
Final verdict: Low panic for the team, but maybe medium for Rodgers.
The Patriots’ New Additions
The Patriots and Bill Belichick shelled out $159.6 million in guaranteed money through nine days in March, an NFL record for a single free agency period. They did it to improve on last season’s 7-9 record, the most losses they’ve had in one season since Belichick became head coach in 2000.
The bad news is that they still lost in Week 1, 17-16 to the Dolphins, who took advantage of four forced fumbles, two of which were lost by the Patriots. The good news for New England is that many of its offseason additions looked good, though the final score wasn’t satisfactory for Belichick.
“It was obviously a disappointing game,” Belichick said.
Defensive newcomer Matthew Judon had a strong game, bringing consistent pressure and recording four tackles, one for loss, and one pressure on the elusive Tua Tagovailoa.
Most importantly, Mac Jones looked solid in his debut as the Patriots’ starting quarterback.
He went 29-of-39 for 281 yards and a touchdown and was poised in situations when the Miami defense knew he’d throw, going 9-of-12 for 89 yards on third down. He had a strong connection with wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who made five catches for 72 yards with a touchdown after struggling with drops during the preseason.
After Jones said he could do better multiple times in his press conference, some other players seemed to take it upon themselves to bring up that he played well.
“I thought Mac showed a lot of mental toughness. He did some things really well. We have to do a little better job protecting him at times. I think he took too many hits,” center David Andrews said. “I thought he really showed some toughness, standing in there and making some big throws, taking the hits, and keep moving.”
Jones was sacked only once but was hit 13 times and clearly felt pressure from Miami’s pass rush, particularly after tackle Trent Brown went out following the team’s first series.
“He put us in position to win,” said tight end Jonnu Smith.
Final verdict: Low panic, but cover all the footballs in grease this week.
Washington Football Team’s QB Depth
The Football Team had a solid quarterbacking plan in place for 2021 after bringing in Ryan Fitzpatrick as a free agent, with Taylor Heinicke serving as a capable backup. But in the second quarter of the team’s game against the Chargers on Sunday, Fitzpatrick suffered a right hip subluxation, which landed him on injured reserve. He will be out for at least three games but will likely need to miss more than that, according to The Washington Post.
Heinicke was impressive against the Bucs in the playoffs last season when he was unexpectedly thrust into the starting role—he earned Pro Football Focus’s best single-game grade by a quarterback all postseason. His output was more modest in Week 1 in relief for Fitzpatrick, with a line of 11-of-15 passing for 122 yards and a touchdown. It might be a little optimistic, but Heinicke seems capable of boom-or-bust outputs similar to Fitzpatrick, which would keep WFT in contention in the NFC East.
The bigger concern is Washington’s depth at the position. Heinicke was a nice insurance policy, particularly for a streaky quarterback like Fitzpatrick. But Heinicke is streaky too, and it’s harder to say the same about Kyle Allen, who is now Heinicke’s backup. The Football Team is in an all-too-familiar position of needing help at quarterback, and it can’t feel good that its first loss came against the Chargers’ Justin Herbert, who they passed up on drafting in 2020.
Final verdict: Medium panic; spiking whenever Heinicke takes a hit or struggles.
The Cowboys lost to the Buccaneers in the first game of the 2021 season and their star running back wasn’t much of a factor. Elliott had only 33 yards on 11 rushing attempts and was outshined by backup Tony Pollard, who gained 14 yards on three attempts and added 29 receiving yards on four catches.
Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said this week that Dallas ran the ball less than anticipated because quarterback Dak Prescott checked out of called runs 12 times based on what he saw from the defense. Still, that doesn’t account for Pollard looking better than Elliott both as a runner and a pass catcher.
Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million contract with the Cowboys in 2019. He’s probably not going anywhere for the time being, as moving next offseason would cost Dallas $11.9 million in dead money against the salary cap. It looks less and less likely that Elliott will see the remaining years of his deal beyond that, though.
Final verdict: High panic.
The Baltimore Ravens’ Bad Injury Luck
The Ravens played one of the most bananas games in recent memory against the Raiders on Monday night. It’s worth evaluating the significance of any game that requires a ranking of its weirdest moments, but Baltimore’s biggest challenge in the aftermath of the loss has to do with its upcoming schedule.
The Ravens now face Kansas City in Week 2. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is a career 0-3 against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Ravens face a difficult end to the season, with matchups against the Browns and Steelers twice, plus the Packers, Bengals, and Rams in the final seven weeks. There’s pressure to get out to a good start in a competitive division with that slate looming, but the Ravens now face solid odds of starting 0-2.
What doesn’t seem worth panicking about is Jackson’s play. He completed only 63 percent of his passes, but had an average depth of target of 9.1 yards, which ranked 18th in the league in Week 1, according to PFF. That’s not spectacular, but it hints at a decent downfield passing offense, and that was Baltimore’s main priority this offseason. Jackson was his usual excellent self on the ground, rushing for 86 yards on 12 carries, which helped the Ravens maintain their typical position as the best running game in the NFL in Week 1 despite numerous injuries at running back.
The Raiders also pressured Jackson on 55 percent of his dropbacks, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. That’s hardly the ideal environment to get a solid assessment of a quarterback early in the season and, even so, Jackson had some promising moments.
Final verdict: Medium-high panic.