The Green Bay Packers have switched play callers, used a wide array of different personnel packages and stretched the boundaries of their playbook in hopes of finding a way to ignite the offense.
After 16 inconsistent regular-season games, however, they seem no closer to finding legitimate answers to what truly ails the NFL’s 23rd-ranked unit. Whether it’s personnel or coaching, the Packers have scored a mere 21 points total in back-to-back losses to Arizona and Minnesota.
Sunday’s 20-13 loss to the Vikings was infuriating on a number of levels. The offense packed things in tight early, using two tight ends and two running backs in an effort to pound the ball against Minnesota’s defensive front, but a 28-yard Mason Crosby was all Green Bay had to show for it at halftime.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged Monday that he didn’t like the tempo of his offense, but also wouldn’t admit defeat. Green Bay (10-6) quickly put the game in the rearview and turned its attention to Sunday’s wild-card playoff game against Washington (9-7).
Where the offense goes from here is anyone's guess. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers hasn’t had more than a 100.0 passer rating since before the team’s Week 7 bye. With the passing game in shambles, the Packers tried and failed to run the ball against Minnesota with only 26 carries for 76 yards.
McCarthy’s decision to reclaim play-calling duties from associate head coach Tom Clements hasn’t helped matters.
“A lot is made of play calling, as we know,” McCarthy said. “The change in the play calling was more about changing the process back to the way we put together a game plan. … It wasn’t about what Tom was calling. It was really, I wanted to get back to the old process, because I know that works. I believe in it. That’s why we changed it. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for everything that happens to this team, and I’m definitely responsible for the production of the offense.”
All season, the Packers have struggled in the second and third quarters. They actually have outscored opponents 226-96 in the first and fourth quarters, but been dominated 227-142 in the middle portion of games. Sunday was no different.
The Packers again turned stagnant in the second and third quarters, which enabled the Vikings to take a 20-3 lead. The Packers then reverted back to their two-minute schoolyard offense in which Rodgers buys time in the pocket and his receivers scramble around until someone can get open.
Green Bay produced 10 points and 233 yards in the fourth quarter using bunch and spread formations with receiver Randall Cobb and fullback John Kuhn rotating in the backfield. The Packers fell short of the comeback, but the outburst left Rodgers hopeful about the possibilities for the offense in the playoffs.
As Rodgers said afterward, the offense kind of “threw caution to the wind” and took more shots down the field. It has been a recurring theme for the season. The only time the Packers’ passing offense appears to be in rhythm is when it's playing from behind, but McCarthy is quick to point out opposing defenses are playing differently at those times, as well.
“He wants the ball in his hands and when things break down he’s going to make things happen,” McCarthy said. “But also the risk and exposure he’s put to is unacceptable to myself. And he knows that. To me, I’m not sure exactly what the comment was, that’s him competing, ‘Give me the ball and you go win.’
“Really, as far as how we lined up and who we lined up with, the second quarter was my disappointment. We had some things there we should have been able to take advantage of and we didn’t execute in that second and third series when we had a particular personnel group.”
The Packers have tried just about everything they possibly could to jump-start their offense. Several players, including left guard Josh Sitton, have campaigned to run the ball more based on the blueprint for victories over Minnesota and Dallas in the second half of the season.
Green Bay tried to follow the game plan it used to turn back the Vikings 30-13 in November, but hit a snag after the first series. Third-down efficiency (2-of-15) and turnovers were a problem.
“The personnel group when we came out, we wanted to establish the run, which we did,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “But after that drive, we were inconsistent. Situational football, we didn’t convert on third down, and then obviously as you know later in the game we had the turnovers, penalties, so those are the things we’ve got to continue to clean up moving forward.”
The Packers desperately need to pull something out of their offensive bag of tricks against Washington, whose defense gave up the fifth-most yards in the league this season (380.6 yards per game).
Receiver Randall Cobb acknowledged the offense’s frustrations amid the most challenging season in McCarthy’s 10 years as head coach. Sure, the Packers lost Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson in the preseason, but many of the same parts from the NFL’s highest-scoring offense a year ago remain intact.
Only the direction seems to be blurred. Each week, the Packers keep digging holes to find their offense. Sometimes they hit on something, but often they’re sent back to the chalkboard.
Time is running out. Now, you win or you go home. The Packers, who had high expectations even after Nelson's injury, say they aren’t giving up regardless of the disappointing end to the regular season.
“We have hope. Nobody has lost hope,” Cobb said. “We know we can play ball. Nobody has lost hope.”