The Green Bay Packers’ season wasn’t over the moment Jordy Nelson went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Pittsburgh on Aug. 20.
Coach Mike McCarthy, speaking in his season-ending news conference Monday, believes the timing of the injury gave his team proper time to adjust, and for a time, it did.
However, the loss of Nelson, a Pro Bowl receiver coming off a 1,500-yard season, set forth a series of events that exposed a few underlying problems in the offense. Those struggles only grew in magnitude as the season progressed.
Eddie Lacy came in overweight. Davante Adams and tight end Richard Rodgers couldn’t carry the load. Fan favorite Jeff Janis either wasn’t ready or wasn't given the chance to make an immediate contribution, and Randall Cobb struggled to beat double-coverage without Nelson drawing attention from the outside.
McCarthy and the coaching staff also assume blame for not finding a way to get things quickly back on track when responding to injuries, including the loss of left tackle David Bakhtiari (ankle) during the final stretch of the regular season.
“If I was going to be critical of one of the things on offense that we didn’t do a good enough job of, we didn’t handle the injuries, let alone Jordy,” McCarthy said. “The left tackle, you have to help people at times in each and every season. It’s part of your game-planning, it’s part of your strategic makeup when you get into game planning and when we had uphill match ups, we didn’t do a good job helping that individual.”
Unwilling to give Janis or rookie Ty Montgomery a featured role in the offense, Green Bay re-signed 31-year-old receiver James Jones the day after final cuts. Like Jones, the offense wasn’t as prolific as in past years, but sufficient enough to beat Seattle (27-17), upend Kansas City (38-28) and outpace San Diego (27-20) before the bye week.
After the bye week is when trouble started. More defenses began playing press man overage against Green Bay’s receivers. More safeties started crawling into the box, leaving one-high coverage that would have left the Packers drooling in years past. Instead, it suffocated the offense.
You can talk about the lack of speed – and that topic certainly came up when assessing quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ weapons this season – but what McCarthy felt the offense was missing most was a big difference-maker in the middle of the field.
“Philosophically to me, to have a successful passing game you have to have big targets that can turn through the middle of the field, whether it’s a tight end, whether it’s a big receiver,” McCarthy said. “You look at the production of Jordy when he went inside, you look at the production when he was inside, now you’re dictating to the defense what coverage they can play to you. When you don’t have that element or the element to complement that, you see what we saw this year.”
Richard Rodgers caught 58 passes, but averaged only 8.8 yards per reception. Adams, who missed three games with an ankle injury, was largely a non-factor for one reason or another. Cobb’s biggest impact came when the offense lined him up at running back and motioned him out of the backfield.
An offense that tied for second in the NFL with 15 plays of 40 or more yards in 2014 finished with only six, the second-fewest in the league this season. The offense’s most effective play at times was running screens to backup running back James Starks or Rodgers scrambling until someone came free.
Nelson is valuable in that he can play the boundary as well as any receiver in the NFL, but he’s also dynamic in the middle of the field. It’s a void he filled when the Packers lost Rodgers (collarbone), Cobb (broken leg) and tight end Jermichael Finley (neck) midway through the 2013 season.
This year, the ripple effect was defenses stacking the box against Eddie Lacy and Starks. The Packers occasionally were able to scheme teams out of it or cobble together some yards in the air to push safeties back, but too often it disrupted the tempo and rhythm of what Green Bay was trying to do.
“If you really don’t feel the threat down the field or a big-time threat on both sides, you’re going to see three-deep, three-shell coverage and tight man-to-man,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to add that extra player to the box, to that run area, very quickly. Just look at the first play of the Arizona game. We’re in a three-wide-receiver set and they’re in an eight-man front, which would be a nine-man front. … That’s the biggest commitment you can make to the run defensively. That’s what we saw a large part of the season.”
Perhaps Janis could have been the answer to keeping defensive coordinators and safeties honest. His size (6-foot-3, 219), speed and athleticism rivaled Nelson (6-foot-3, 217), but the coaching staff felt he wasn’t mentally prepared for an increased role on offense at the start of the season.
McCarthy recalled bringing Janis into his office and watching film with his second-year receiver. He said that Janis “struggled in the preseason” on both offense and special teams early, though he eventually turned into an impactful special-teams player.
Offense was a different story. Montgomery beat him out for the No. 4 job coming out of training camp. So did Jared Abbrederis upon his promotion from the practice squad in September. It wasn’t until Cobb’s chest injury Saturday night that Janis finally saw extended action in the 26-20 overtime loss to Arizona.
If the Packers would have prevailed, his 41-yard Hail Mary catch at the end of regulation might have gone down as one of the most memorable plays in franchise postseason history.
“As a receiver, he was inconsistent, had some chances, up-and-down,” McCarthy said. “But with that, I think he definitely learned from those experiences and just had a tremendous game against Arizona. I think what’s really so impressive not only about just Jeff’s performance as a receiver, you know, we didn’t take him off special teams, either.
“If there was ever a picture of one your teammates putting it all out on the field, you definitely saw that on the last catch, on the Hail Mary.”
McCarthy said this is the most adversity Rodgers faced in a season since his first year as a starting quarterback in 2008. The same probably can be said for the head coach, who resumed offensive play-calling duties against Dallas on Dec. 13 and plans to maintain that role going into next season.
By season’s end, the offense was running close to empty. Now, it should get a chance to reload with Nelson and Montgomery (ankle) coming back from injured reserve and another chance to restock the offense in the draft.
Getting Nelson back on the field doesn’t automatically guarantee the offense shoots back into the top 10 in all major categories. McCarthy said Richard Rodgers, Adams and Lacy must all step up next season.
Still, Nelson’s return could lift the offense next season in the same way his absence curtailed it.
“I think Jordy will come back better than ever,” McCarthy said. “He’s one of the players I’ve had a chance to sit down and talk to, and just like you knew he would he’s so far ahead with the rehab, he looks great. There’s no reason to think he won’t be good as new.”
The Packers can only hope the same holds true for their offense in 2016.
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