Rodgers, Quarless see TE roles expand
Tom Clements saw his rookie tight end standing all alone in the corner of the end zone, but the Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator didn't know if his quarterback saw the same thing.
Aaron Rodgers was scrambling to the other side of the field, away from his open target. With a mess of Minnesota Vikings defenders closing in, he twirled and lobbed a pass across the field. It dropped softly into tight end Richard Rodgers' arms for a 1-yard touchdown.
This, Rodgers said later, was a little bit of "freestyling." Clements admitted he'd never seen anything like it.
"It had to travel about 45 yards in the air for a 1-yard gain and a touchdown," Clements said. "Fortunately, he was wide open."
Actually, multiple estimations put Aaron Rodgers' pass at 39.4 yards. The point remains. Out of time, with nowhere to go, the MVP quarterback turned to the rookie who had never caught a touchdown pass.
Richard Rodgers didn't disappoint.
Slowly, the third-round tight end is settling into the Packers offense. His 11 catches for 137 yards don't look like much, but a rookie tight end's production can be deceiving. Before former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley became one of Aaron Rodgers' favorite targets, he caught six passes for 74 yards and hardly saw the field as a rookie in 2008.
In five of his first six games, Richard Rodgers went without a catch or target. He's caught at least one pass – and averaged 2.6 targets – in each of the past five games. After 11 games, he's ranked fifth in the NFL among rookie tight ends in catches and yards.
His first touchdown came Sunday.
Over the past three games, Richard Rodgers isn't the only one who's started making more plays for the Packers offense. Running back Eddie Lacy's production in the passing game – screen passes, especially – has been well documented. Recently, Green Bay's tight ends also have contributed more as a group.
Fellow tight end Andrew Quarless has earned his quarterback's trust. He has three touchdown catches in his past six games, including a game-winning score with three second left on the road against the Miami Dolphins. It's the same number of touchdowns Quarless scored in his first 44 games with the Packers.
In Minnesota, Quarless only caught two passes. He made a defender miss on both. On his second, Quarless was finally tackled within the 1-yard line, setting up his quarterback's highlight-reel touchdown on the next snap.
"They've been improving throughout the year," Clements said of his tight ends. "Andrew Quarless had a very good game; so did Richard Rodgers. They keep getting better, and they're an important part of our offense."
With the Packers trying to replace Finley – whose career likely ended after a neck injury last season – an immediate solution was difficult to find.
Packers tight ends combined for 14 catches, 159 yards and two touchdowns in the season's first six games. Since then, they've hauled in 20 catches for 211 yards and three touchdowns in the past five. It's not a big difference, but the trend is ticking up.
For Green Bay, the key is getting tight ends involved with the passing game without diminishing receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The duo is on track to catch 183 passes for 2,768 yards and 27 touchdowns, a record-setting pace.
Two weeks ago, Nelson and Cobb caught passes for more than 100 yards apiece against the Philadelphia Eagles. Meanwhile, on the Packers' first touchdown drive, Quarless and Rodgers combined for three catches of more than 10 yards. One came on third-and-18, another on third-and-10.
That kind of balance could be especially important this week when the New England Patriots visit Lambeau Field. Patriots cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner are one of the league's top duos, capable of challenging Nelson and Cobb.
The responsibility to make up for less production may fall on the tight ends.
"I think Aaron does a very good job running the offense," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this week. "I think any time you install a system of offenses, it's important to let the offense work for you. I think sometimes as a younger quarterback and even as a younger play-caller, you could have a tendency to chase a game, try to make things happen where you need to trust your plan, trust the things you're doing. Aaron's always done a very good job of going through the progressions, not forcing the ball, throwing it to the open guy.
"Now, how we install plays, and who you try to make the primary receiver versus the secondary receiver, that part hasn't changed. I just really think what you're seeing is the way defenses are attempting to play us that Aaron is just going through the process of delivering the ball to where it needs to be delivered. With that, other people are getting more opportunities."
Like Richard Rodgers did Sunday.
He wasn't the primary receiver on his touchdown catch. That would be Quarless, who was covered in the end zone.
"Usually, yeah, if someone's open on the front side, he's not going to pass him up," Richard Rodgers said.
From his end, the touchdown catch might not have looked like much. The joke inside Green Bay's locker room was he could've called for a fair catch, like a punt returner. Still, Richard Rodgers never quit on the play.
Even with his quarterback across the field, the rookie waved his hands to signal he was open.
"Thankfully, he caught the ball," right guard T.J. Lang said. "Because I've seen people drop those passes when they're that wide open."