DETROIT – With Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy healthy, the Green Bay Packers should be a top-three offense in the NFL. Maybe even a juggernaut.
But they're not even close to that early in the 2014 season. They've scored only 54 points in three games, and in their 19-7 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field, they put up their fewest points ever in a game Rodgers has started and finished. It also was his first loss in the 10 games he's finished against the Lions.
So what's going on? Well, while Lacy and the run game bear their share of the responsibility, Rodgers also hasn't played at the high level that the Packers need while they search for their 2014 identity.
Rodgers doesn't throw interceptions (one for the year), so his passer rating (86.9) isn't bad, but it's well below his career average coming into the season (104.9) His average yardage per pass attempt, another of the better gauges of NFL quarterback play, is 6.8, which is 1.4 yards below his career average and almost 4 yards less than his off-the-charts career high of 10.5 yards in 2011.
He simply hasn't been gashing defenses the way he did almost weekly from 2009 through last season.
"I haven't been as sharp maybe (compared to) the standard I've set," Rodgers said after the loss. "We've all got to do better. We've got to adjust better, we've got to throw it better, we've got to catch better, we've got to score points."
The difference probably is only a couple of plays a game, but those are the plays Rodgers usually hits, and often are the difference between winning and losing. They're the plays that separate Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Rodgers from the rest of the quarterbacks in the league.
Against the Lions, Rodgers missed on two throws that he's made look routine over the past several years, and they were emblematic of the Packers' 1-2 start.
One came on the Packers' first series of the third quarter, a third-and-5 from their 40. Rodgers, doing what he often does to keep drives alive, scrambled to his right and on the run threw a dart to receiver Randall Cobb for what would have been a first down. Only the throw was just a hair too high for Cobb, so the Packers were left to punt.
"(The throw) was hot and it was a little high," Rodgers said of his velocity and accuracy. "Just missed it a little bit."
Then on the Packers' final drive, Rodgers quickly drove them into scoring position with 7 minutes left. A touchdown would have pulled them within five and given them a chance to turn a bad day into a gratifying come-from-behind win.
But on fourth-and-5 from the Lions' 20, Rodgers threw behind receiver Jordy Nelson on a post pattern in the end zone with linebacker DeAndre Levy in trail coverage. It was the kind of throw Rodgers hits regularly.
"We made an adjustment, and (Nelson) ran a great route and I missed him," Rodgers said. "I missed him with a throw that I've hit many times."
This season feels a little like 2007, when for the first 1½ games McCarthy tried to run the ball with zero success. With his offense struggling in Week 2, McCarthy in the second half abandoned the run and went to a spread passing game for Brett Favre. It produced, the pass set up the run for the rest of the season and the Packers went on to the NFC championship game.
Now McCarthy needs to get Rodgers going, just as he did with Favre in '07. So far, McCarthy has been all-in with the no-huddle offense, which limits his ability to change skill-position personnel but allows him to exploit matchup advantages. Rodgers' experience (seventh year as a starter) is the biggest reason McCarthy likes the no-huddle.
"Whether you call plays rolling (in) personnel or staying with the personnel, that's really not an issue," McCarthy said. "I like the way the mechanics of how we game plan, get the play in. This is more about execution and taking advantage of opportunities."
McCarthy tried a little shake-up in the third quarter when he went with four receivers and Lacy, rather than the three receivers, a tight end and a halfback that had been the staple personnel grouping for the first 2½ games. The Packers picked up two first downs but still ended up punting.
"We have a lot of good players on offense," McCarthy said, "and obviously our system of offense is built around making the quarterback successful. I'm not going to change the way we approach the game of football, and I'm definitely not changing anything when it comes to Aaron Rodgers' responsibilities."
The fact is, McCarthy is searching for something that works consistently with an offense that over the past two seasons has lost receivers Greg Jennings and James Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley, and replaced them with Jarrett Boykin, second-round draft pick Davante Adams and tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers. More importantly, the Packers added Lacy, who last season provided Aaron Rodgers the protection of a viable run game.
This week, the Lions' basic plan was to slant coverage to Nelson, keep two safeties back to prevent the big pass play, and stop the run with only six defenders in the box.
"We'd rather have the ball in Lacy's hands than Aaron Rodgers'," Levy said. "Lacy's a great running back, but Aaron Rodgers is phenomenal."
The Packers' next few opponents, starting with the Chicago Bears this week, will see this game film and surely follow suit. So the Packers will need Rodgers to make the plays that most quarterbacks in the league can't, and they'll need someone such as Lacy, Randall Cobb, Quarless or Richard Rodgers to make teams pay for taking away Nelson and the deep ball.