After a concussion knocked Aaron Rodgers from last week’s game at Detroit with the score tied, the outcome was a coin flip.
Say what you want about the Lions, they’re not that bad a team despite their 2-10 record going into the game. And say what you will about the Green Bay Packers, but without Rodgers they’re not that good.
Put another way, if Rodgers were the Lions’ quarterback, and Drew Stanton or even Shaun Hill was the Packers’ this season, the teams’ records would be about reversed. That’s with their rosters as currently configured, and I’m not sure things change that much even if the Packers were at full health. With Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant playing, plus Hill at quarterback, maybe the Packers are .500. Maybe.
Yes, quarterbacks matter that much.
The Lions, for all their weaknesses, are not the Matt Millen Lions, the winless Lions of 2008. Their best receiver, Calvin Johnson, is as good as the Packers’ Greg Jennings. Halfback Jahvid Best, though probably brittle, is better than any of the Packers’ backs. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew isn’t near Finley’s class as a playmaker, but he’s better than everyone who’s played in Finley’s place.
The Packers have better depth at receiver, but the teams are a wash at the No. 1 spot, and as the quality of the quarterback drops, that depth helps less. The Packers also appeared to have an edge on the offensive line, but after last Sunday that’s a hard case to make.
On defense, the Lions’ line is superior, one of the league’s best, and in rookie Ndamukong Suh they have a difference maker, the kind of guy who changes games. The Packers have big advantages at linebacker and the secondary, though the Lions’ line camouflages the shortcomings in the back seven to some extent. It certainly did against the Packers.
If the Lions have Rodgers instead of Stanton or Hill, their entire dynamic changes. Johnson gets the chance to make more plays. Things loosen up for Best, especially in the screen game, where he’d be at his most dangerous, in space. The Lions, who have lost six games by five points or less, would rank much higher than No. 17 in the NFL in scoring.
As for the Packers, think their run game is a problem now? Imagine it with Stanton or Hill under center. Jennings doesn’t make as many plays. Same for Finley. The quarterback would throw more interceptions and make fewer plays. Points would be much harder to come by.
This is hardly a novel idea. NFL history is replete with examples of how important the quarterback is unless a team is absolutely dominant in other areas. Look no further than the Packers’ opponent this week, the New England Patriots.
In 2000, with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback and Bill Belichick as coach, the Patriots went 5-11. In ’01, Bledsoe started the first two games, and the Patriots lost both. In Week 3 Tom Brady started for the injured Bledsoe, and played the rest of the year. The Patriots went 11-3 the rest of the regular season, then won the Super Bowl.
There’s a good case that even the 2008 Patriots illustrate Brady’s value. In the first half of the opener, he sustained a season-ending knee injury. Matt Cassel played the rest of the year and did surprisingly well in taking the Patriots to an 11-5 record, which usually gets a team in the playoffs but didn’t that season.
Nevertheless, even if they’d played in the postseason, those Patriots were no threat to win the Super Bowl. They just didn’t have it. And remember, this was basically the same team that went undefeated in the regular season the year before. They returned all their starters from the highest-scoring offense in league history and with Brady were the clear-cut favorite to win it all. That’s a big drop, from the best team in the league to a fringe playoff contender.
For a more recent example, there’s the Arizona Cardinals. With Kurt Warner at quarterback last year, they were 10-6 and won a playoff game (over the Packers). The year before they lost in the Super Bowl on a last-second play. Warner retired last offseason, and with Derek Anderson, Max Hall and now John Skelton at quarterback, the Cardinals are 4-9 even though they play in the worst division in the NFL. The league’s best receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, no longer dominates.
Yes, the Packers’ loss to Detroit was bad, possibly devastating to their postseason hopes. They had everything to play for but weren’t resourceful enough to win without Rodgers. In the end, it’s on coach Mike McCarthy and his staff to find a way.
But let’s not pretend this was some kind of gimme. The best players are the best because somewhere over the 60 minutes they usually make the plays that win the game. Once Rodgers went down with the score tied, this was an evenly matched game.
Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.