Pistol may be more prominent in Packers' offense
PHOENIX – The Green Bay Packers needed something to lessen Aaron Rodgers' burden after he first strained his calf muscle against Tampa Bay in Week 16.
So coach Mike McCarthy dialed up the pistol formation, a package the Packers have had in their basic installation for the past three seasons. It just didn't become a fixture until an in-game adjustment was needed against the Buccaneers.
A modified version of the shotgun, the pistol brought Rodgers closer to the line of scrimmage and in front of the running back. It enabled him to avoid going under center with a three-step drop, reducing the stress and torque he was putting on the injured calf.
Rodgers lost some of his mobility in the pocket in wake of the injury, but was lethally accurate during the team's run to the NFC championship game. He completed 91-of-131 attempts (69.5 percent) in the Packers' last four games, including the playoffs.
As the Packers find different ways to build around Rodgers, don't be surprised if it makes a return next season.
"I like the pistol," McCarthy said Wednesday morning at the NFL annual meeting's NFC coaches breakfast. "I think there's a lot of value regardless of the injury to Aaron. I know he likes it. There's a place for it year-round in your offense.
"I liked it from a self-scout standpoint. It gives you another self-scout variable when you're in the gun, but you also have the tailback behind you. A lot of benefits to it."
The development of the pistol was a microcosm for the Packers' offensive evolution under McCarthy and Rodgers, who won his second MVP award after throwing for 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
The last month of the season was a grind for Rodgers. He rarely was seen at practice open to the media as he rehabbed a calf injury that likely wouldn't have been 100 percent even if the Packers advanced to the Super Bowl.
Rodgers was able to deliver the ball with plenty of zip since the injury wasn't in his plant leg, but it took away some of his improvisational abilities to extend plays. He rushed only six times for 22 yards in his last four games after scrambling for 111 on 19 attempts in the four games prior to the injury.
Rodgers didn't let it keep him down even after he was carted off the field in the regular-season finale against Detroit when he aggravated the calf injury shortly before halftime. He returned after the first series of the third quarter and led the Packers to a 30-20 win over the Lions to win the NFC North title.
"I know there's a big difference between playing when you're injured or playing when you're hurt. He was clearly injured," McCarthy said. "To play through that injury the way he did the last four weeks I thought was remarkable. The statement that he made to our locker room I thought was enormous. Just watching him go through the rehab during the course of the week, I was never certain that he was going to make it through the game each time the game started."
McCarthy made the decision after the season to give up play-calling, a role he's maintained since becoming the Packers' head coach in 2006. With associate head coach Tom Clements handling those responsibilities, Rodgers likely have even more freedom at the line of scrimmage in the team's no-huddle offense.
McCarthy said he's remained in communication with Rodgers, who is "in tune" with the direction the offense is taking. When players report for the offseason program on April 20, they'll have a "clear understanding" for the team's approach entering next season.
Unlike last year, it doesn't sound like there will be many drastic changes to the offseason program outside of the team installing a new hydrotherapy facility in the training room. Last offseason was highlighted by the Packers incorporating GPS technology and shifting their schedules to tackle their recurring injury crisis.
"I think each and every year you have to be realistic about how we can improve, how I can improve," McCarthy said. "I've felt that's something that we've always done in our program. The changes this year… I think you have to look at each and every year and we do. This year, I hope we're sitting here next year maybe laughing about it a little bit. You could say, 'Boy that was a heck of a change you made last year.' You have to change or adjust if you really think you're going to grow."
The Packers are in a unique situation. With Rodgers now 31 years old, general manager Ted Thompson invested a lot of resources this offseason into keeping his supporting cast in place for the foreseeable future. His top receiving targets, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, are now signed through 2018. His starting offensive line and starting running back Eddie Lacy are contracted for another two seasons.
Lacy, who turns 25 this offseason, may be Rodgers' greatest luxury. He orchestrated a prolific passing offense in 2011 — the Packers finished third in total offense — but did it largely without the help of a consistent rushing attack, where they ranked 27th.
Since drafting Lacy in the second round two years ago, the Packers have benefited from his durable presence in the backfield. When Rodgers broke his collarbone in 2013, Lacy picked up the slack and kept the Packers in playoff contention. He also functioned well out of the pistol after Rodgers' calf flared.
Now, the key is keeping Lacy healthy. The Packers monitored his reps early in the season before featuring him during the final stretch. His maturation as a receiver out of the backfield — 42 catches for 427 yards and four touchdowns — also helped relieve the stress on Rodgers when plays broke down.
"Being a three-down player, that was something we stressed from Day 1, and I thought he delivered," McCarthy said. "I thought Eddie really hit the target last year."
The 2014 season proved how important it is to adjust as a season wears on. The Packers were a three-wide, run-first team through the first month of the season. By the time it ended, Rodgers was operating out of a pistol formation that had been used sporadically until then.
The Packers have the pieces in place to challenge last year's team that led the NFL in scoring, though some of the philosophies will change even if many of the faces surrounding Rodgers remain the same.
At the end of the day, it comes down to optimizing the window Rodgers' presence has provided.
"The level Aaron Rodgers has played the last five years has been very consistent but at an extremely high level," McCarthy said. "I think we're watching a great Hall of Fame player really at a midpoint of his career. He gives us the flexibility to be very creative offensively. He gives us the ability to be very aggressive in what we do."