Mike McCarthy wanted to start the season fast, with no hangover from the Green Bay Packers’ collapse in the NFC title game, and it showed in the team’s preseason opener.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw 19 passes against the New England Patriots. He was on pace to throw 57 in three games, which would’ve been his most since becoming the Packers’ starter in 2008.
Rodgers threw 57 passes combined in the 2013 and 2014 preseason.
It’s a simple equation. The more preseason work, the more opportunity to be in rhythm Week 1. Considering the Packers also have a new play caller, with McCarthy handing those responsibilities to former offensive coordinator Tom Clements, this preseason seemed to be especially important for the offense.
Rodgers’ pitch count against the Patriots was in stark contrast to last preseason, when he didn’t play in the opener at Tennessee. But a hot start wasn’t exactly his primary goal.
“There’s a lot talked about that,” Rodgers said on the first day of training camp, “but we’ve been 1-2 around here a lot of times and still won the division, still made the playoffs. We were 3-3 and went on to win a Super Bowl. Yeah, we’d love to start fast every year, but it’s really how you’re playing in December.”
More than anything, Rodgers wanted the Packers to get through this season healthy. That was key to their playoff run last year. With every player on the active roster available for their title game showdown in Seattle, the Packers outplayed the Seahawks for 55 minutes at CenturyLink Field.
Only an unfathomable collapse prevented them from a trip to Super Bowl XLIX.
When All-Pro receiver Jordy Nelson was lost for 2015 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the Packers’ second preseason game at Pittsburgh, it threw a wrench in McCarthy’s plans. McCarthy’s course change could best be seen with Rodgers’ usage. The MVP quarterback was removed after one more series against the Steelers, following a safety.
He didn’t play the rest of the preseason.
McCarthy said it was the “right call” to shut down Rodgers early. With three offensive line starters out because of injury when the Packers hosted the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, there was no sense in risking their season with an injury to the franchise quarterback.
“Like all these play-time conversations,” McCarthy said, “you start with the individual, you start with the people he’s playing with. There are goals and targets you’re trying to hit. It’s never really the same every year. You have a general format and philosophy on how you’d like to go through four games, but it doesn’t always work out that way. There’s factors you can’t control.”
Rodgers’ absence wasn’t the only disjointed part of this Packers preseason.
There was the lack of continuity for the offensive line. There was the season-ending injury to Nelson, and Randall Cobb’s scary but ultimately minor shoulder sprain. As a whole, the Packers’ first-team defense was full of moving parts. Mike Daniels, the team’s best defensive lineman, played only the final two games because of an ankle injury. Clay Matthews, moving more to inside linebacker, only played once primarily for general body maintenance.
Still, the Packers go as Rodgers goes. Just as the Patriots go as Tom Brady goes, the Denver Broncos go as Peyton Manning goes. Rodgers is the center of everything the Packers do on the field, and what started as potentially his most active preseason ended as his lightest.
Rodgers completed 15-of-24 passes for 174 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions – and a quarterback rating of 84.4 – in about three quarters of playing time. It was his fewest completions and yards, and tied for his fewest pass attempts, since becoming the starter in 2008. It was only the second time he threw no preseason touchdowns (2013), the second time he only appeared in two games (2014), and his second-lowest passer rating (2012).
Rodgers isn’t fretting about his light work. The two-time MVP said he knows how to get ready for the regular season. Before the Packers played the Eagles – before Rodgers was officially shut down – the quarterback was asked if he’d be ready for Week 1 without playing another preseason snap. He didn’t hesitate.
“I think it’s definitely, it’s enough,” Rodgers said. “We value the snaps in the game, but also the practice snaps and things we do pre-practice in the walk-throughs. … We’re right where we need to be. We’ve had some productive drives when we’ve been out there. I’m happy with where we’re at.”
Whether there’s any residual effects from a preseason gone awry remains to be seen. McCarthy can’t be blamed for preserving his starters, of course. It was the natural reaction to not only Nelson’s injury, but a rash of bumps, bruises, strains and sprains throughout the roster. The Packers are one of the top contenders to win Super Bowl 50, but only if injuries don’t deplete their roster.
So McCarthy saved his key players until the games start to count.
But there’s also that equation. The more preseason work, the more opportunity to be in rhythm out of the gates Week 1. Did their need to preserve players cost the Packers a hot start to the season? McCarthy, whose focus is on final cuts, was asked Thursday night if the Packers are ready to start the regular season.
“Ready or not,” he said, “here it comes. It's here.”
Here's a look at Rodgers' preseason production since becoming the Packers' starting quarterback in 2008:
2015: 15-24, 174 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 84.4 rating (2 games)
2014: 20-33, 267 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT, 116.6 rating (2)
2013: 17-24, 237, yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 102.3 rating (3)
2012: 21-43, 234 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 53.8 rating (4)
2011: 37-47, 395 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 130.1 ratings (4)
2010: 41-53, 470 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT, 141.2 rating (3)
2009: 29-41, 465 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INT, 147.9 rating (4)
2008: 37-54, 436 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 103.6 rating (4)
-firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood