As great as the numbers are – and they’re clearly out of this world – the brilliance of Aaron Rodgers can’t be defined strictly based on a stat sheet.
Sure, the Green Bay Packers quarterback leads the NFL with a 135.4 passer rating and is one of only three starters who have yet to throw an interception, but there’s another dimension to Rodgers’ game that so often takes a backseat to his highlight-reel plays and unrelenting dissection of defenses.
The NFL’s reigning MVP has kept his cool amid a funnel cloud of injuries that has hovered over the offense to start the season. Remember earlier this summer when the conversation centered on the Packers returning all 11 preferred offensive starters? That narrative has been long forgotten.
The whirlwind started last month in Pittsburgh when Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Since then, Randall Cobb (sprained AC joint), Davante Adams (ankle), Eddie Lacy (ankle), Bryan Bulaga (knee) and Andrew Quarless (knee) all have missed time with injuries.
Lacy and Cobb are playing through their sprains, while Bulaga and Quarless could be sidelined for several weeks. There’s concern Adams, once seen as the de facto replacement for Nelson, could miss time after aggravating his sprained ankle in Monday night’s 38-28 win over Kansas City.
The injury situation was in such flux that Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he didn’t finalize the team’s inactive list until about two hours before game time Monday night, cutting it close to the 90-minute deadline when inactive players must be submitted to the NFL.
The constant is Rodgers. It has required him to discover new weapons such as rookie receiver Ty Montgomery and reconnect with an old favorite in James Jones. Regardless of personnel, he has completed nearly 75 percent of his passes for 771 yards and 10 touchdowns in the Packers’ first three victories.
“Aaron is playing great football,” McCarthy said. “He does a phenomenal job in the preparation phase of getting guys acclimated, getting on the same page with the offense. There’s a lot of interaction in the meetings, a lot of player-to-player interaction and a lot of player-to-coach interaction. He’s a big part of how we operate. It’s definitely carrying over to the field.”
It was thought the loss of Nelson might force Rodgers to take more chances with the football, but he’s protecting the ball as well as ever. He’s still been able to balance the need to generate explosive plays and avoid being reckless. He has attempted 91 passes this season without a turnover.
The Packers had two weeks to adjust to the loss of Nelson, but it wasn’t until the day after final cuts that they made their biggest move in re-signing Jones less than 24 hours after he was released by the New York Giants.
After catching 13 passes for 88 yards in his final month with Oakland, Jones already has 12 catches for 219 yards and four touchdowns this season. Not too bad for a 31-year-old receiver who was cut twice this offseason. How long did it take to regain that chemistry with Rodgers?
“One day,” Jones said. “We were out there throwing the ball, he told me the things he likes, the things he’s looking for me to do and we’ve been on the same page ever since and hopefully we can keep it going.”
After losing Lacy on the opening series in last week’s 27-17 win over Seattle, the offense plugged James Starks into the backfield and didn’t skip a beat. The Packers split touches between Starks (18) and Lacy (13) against Kansas City with undrafted rookie Alonzo Harris also taking a handful of offensive snaps.
The offense was running close to empty in the second half Monday after Adams and Quarless exited. In fact, the Packers lined up their last five “healthy” receivers (Cobb, Jones, Montgomery, Richard Rodgers and Jeff Janis) on Rodgers’ 4-yard touchdown pass to Cobb in the fourth quarter out of an empty-back set.
In the trenches, the Packers have again turned to swing tackle Don Barclay to bide time at right tackle until Bulaga’s return. While Rodgers has felt some heat off the edge the past two weeks, the line has provided him with enough room to maneuver out of the pocket. He’s been sacked only three times.
“I just think we’re scratching the surface a little bit,” Rodgers said of the offense after the game. “You know, Davante being out for parts of the last game-and-a-half has been tough. Again, we’re very thankful James Jones was there at the end of the cuts. I think that he’s proven he was a good guy to bring in. Randall’s had a great start to the season and we’re bringing Ty along as much as we can.
“But again, it starts with the guys up front. They’ve been blocking really well. We have three games in, we’ve got three sacks. That’s pretty impressive. If those guys keep blocking like that we’re going to be tough to beat.”
The Packers might not be able to replicate Nelson’s big plays, but Rodgers has helped generate some explosive opportunities with his ability to draw rushers offside with his cadence and capitalize on defenses having too many players on the field.
He already has forced 11 free plays this season with the Packers declining six of their eight offside penalties this season to take the result of the play. No other NFL team has caught the opposing defense offside more than four times, according to NFLPenalties.com.
“You take it for granted,” outside linebacker Julius Peppers said of Rodgers. “I don’t. Trust me, I don’t. I played on some teams where I wished I had a guy like him. I think the fans here, I think everybody takes it for granted. Enjoy it. Enjoy what you’re seeing.”
The offense may need to stretch its resources even further this Sunday in San Francisco. Rookie tight end Kennard Backman, who has been a healthy scratch so far, could be called upon to fill Quarless’ spot. If Adams can’t go, that means more opportunity for Montgomery and Janis.
Whether it’s breaking in a new receiver or adjusting the offense to play to the strength of personnel, the catalyst for making everything work is Rodgers. It’s early, but the Packers rank ninth in total offense (337 yards per game) and fourth in points scored (96) despite the losses.
The Packers went 18 games last season with only one missed start by an offensive starter (Bulaga in Week 2 against the New York Jets). That won't be the case this year after a challenging September, but Rodgers and the offense still hope to maintain their early momentum Sunday in San Francisco.
“We’re going to need a lot of guys again this week,” McCarthy said. “When you get into these types of situations when you’ve got guys that are nicked, particularly we had injuries happen that didn’t occur until Friday, just the way the guys rallied together down the stretch that was probably the most impressive part of the preparation phase for me.”
-firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.