BOCA RATON, Fla. – It’s obvious where the Green Bay Packers’ passing game fell short when Mike McCarthy flips on the film from last season.
It didn’t matter whether it was on the perimeter or in the middle of the field, Green Bay’s receivers and tight ends didn’t consistently win enough one-on-one matchups to properly keep defenses on their heels. As defensive backs crept closer to the line of scrimmage, the Packers’ offense slowly suffocated.
Sure, there was no Jordy Nelson. Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and every receiver not named Jeff Janis battled some type of injury, too. The truth is the Packers didn’t just miss Nelson’s presence on the field, the offense lacked what the Pro Bowl receiver represented: an all-encompassing playmaker.
Nelson could play anywhere in Green Bay’s offense. His speed, awareness and knack for spectacular sideline catches made him a nightmare on the boundary. His quickness and size allows him to be a matchup concern in the middle of the field, as well. His versatility has no bounds.
The Packers synthesized Nelson’s production in spurts during their 6-0 start, but the fissure his torn anterior cruciate ligament created in the offense only grew larger as the season wore on. Defenses routinely dropped a safety into the box and Green Bay could do little to prevent it.
“Our biggest failure on offense is defenses challenged us with seven, eight men in the box and schematically I don’t know really how much more we could’ve done,” McCarthy said at Wednesday’s NFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings. “We didn’t do a very good job winning the one-on-ones on the perimeter and the fact of the matter is when you have one more than the offense has at the line of scrimmage all day long, obviously it’s more challenging for the running game and it’s obviously the focus on keeping Aaron (Rodgers) in the box.
“You can run every crossing route in football and get in stacks and bunches — and we’ve done it — but at the end of the day it comes down to beating the other guy with your technique and your fundamentals.”
By season's end, the Packers' offense dipped to 25th in passing (218.9 yards per game) and 29th in passing plays of more than 40 yards (six) after finishing eight in passing (266.3 ypg) and second in 40-yard pass plays (15) a year earlier.
That’s probably why the Packers opted against bringing back James Jones. While a capable and respected veteran, the 32-year-old receiver was erased outside too often last season with second-year receiver Davante Adams not faring much better on the opposite side of the field.
Adams, only 23, will get another chance to make good on the promise he showed during last year’s offseason program and should benefit from the attention Nelson and Cobb will draw. Whether it was injury or mental mistakes, the former second-round pick just wasn’t ready for the spotlight last year.
The ability to match the Packers’ perimeter weapons with single cornerbacks allowed opposing coordinators to fortify the middle of the field and blanket Green Bay’s top receiving target, Randall Cobb. The Packers occasionally lined him up in the backfield to keep defenses off-guard, but even that wasn’t foolproof.
The Packers drafted intriguing Ty Montgomery in the third round last year to add another multifaceted threat like Cobb, but the 6-foot, 216-pound rookie was lost for the season after six games due to an ankle injury that later required season-ending surgery.
Montgomery stayed in Green Bay this offseason to continue his rehab. Early indications are he’ll miss the offseason program, but should be back in time for training camp.
“It’s a game of matchups and you’ve got players that have the ability to play really all four positions the way we view it,” McCarthy said. “You can play the 1, the slot, the 3 and also come out of the backfield. It gives you a flexibility to get in and out schemes that we really didn’t get to use last year. It will great to have him back. More importantly, he needs to get healthy.”
The Packers might have been able to survive Nelson’s absence if Jermichael Finley were still the team’s starting tight end. Second-year tight end Richard Rodgers caught 58 passes and eight touchdowns, but offered little after contact in averaging 8.8 yards per catch.
To be fair, Rodgers played nearly 1,000 snaps last season. He was really the only tight end who could be counted on to play in every situation with Andrew Quarless missing 11 games with a torn MCL and sixth-round pick Kennard Backman seeing only 11 offensive snaps as he worked to pick up the offense.
The Packers remain in the market for a tight end to complement Rodgers, but may not find any immediate help in this year’s draft class. Veteran tight end Jared Cook recently visited the Packers and could be a possible answer. He remains unsigned more than a month after Los Angles released him.
“You want as many tight ends, you want as many people to stress the field as you can,” McCarthy said. “Let’s be honest, the middle of the field is open now (with) league rules. Big people running down the middle of the field, I’ll make no secret about it. I think that’s a key to offensive success, whether that’s a big receiver or big tight end or a big man running down the middle of the field, making those safeties cover you. It’s an important part of playing in today’s NFL.”
The Packers have given no indication that last year’s lapse will cause them to bring in a veteran receiver to help the passing game. The Packers seem content in proceeding with Nelson, Cobb, Adams, Montgomery and 2014 draft picks Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis.
Janis’ popularity in Green Bay continued to skyrocket after his game-tying catch off a Hail Mary from Rodgers in the NFC divisional playoffs in Arizona. A naturally gifted athlete, Janis still has a ways to go in his development to be an every-down receiver in the Packers’ no-huddle offense.
First and foremost, the Packers’ path to getting the offense back on track starts with Nelson, who McCarthy acknowledged is “probably our top playmaker in our offensive perimeter group.” Nelson, who is running again, is expected be cleared in time for training camp, barring a setback.
McCarthy said he learned a lot from the experience when asked about the offense’s problems last season. While he wouldn’t go into details of what might change going forward, the most obvious change is McCarthy resuming offensive play-calling duties in 2016.
Once Nelson gets back on the field, the Packers hope their passing game soon will follow. So does it concern McCarthy that his receivers couldn't get open last season?
“Not at all because you watch the tape, you understand why you didn’t win the one-on-one," McCarthy said. "We’re going to win them this year, I can promise you that. We didn’t do a good enough job collectively getting that done last year and we’ll learn from that."
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.