Unsettled play marks Rodgers' 2016 debut

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
View Comments

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers’ starting offense, even one if not two backup quarterbacks have played some sensational football in August over the past nine years.

Aside from snippets courtesy of Eddie Lacy and Jared Cook, this hasn’t been one of those stellar summers for the No. 1 unit.

Assuming no one of consequence takes the field Thursday night against host Kansas City in the exhibition finale, it’ll be on to Jacksonville in two weeks with the Packers’ offense looking at some nagging questions.

RELATED: Clark doesn't make trip to San Francisco

RELATED: Play GM in our RosterBuilder

They arose Friday night in the Packers’ 21-10 exhibition victory over the San Francisco 49ers before a crowd of about 25,000 at 68,500-seat Levi’s Stadium. Green Bay and New England are the NFL’s only 3-0 teams; the 49ers fell to 1-2..

On Monday, associate head coach Tom Clements predicted that Rodgers would play well in his first live exposure since the divisional playoff defeat in Arizona seven months ago.

“I anticipate that he’ll be sharp,” Clements said. “At this point it’s like riding a bike: You’ve been there, you’ve done it, you know how to do it and you just have to go in and practice it a little bit and get ready.”

In 24 first-quarter snaps and a final 25th to open the second quarter, Rodgers looked much like the unsettled player whose passer ratings in the final 12 games a year ago all were under 100.

Rodgers’ first pass was his best, a 19-yard slant to Cook on third-and-3 that showcased the newcomer’s impressive and consistent ability to separate from even a cover linebacker like Ray-Ray Armstrong.

His next three dropbacks, however, showed Rodgers at his worst.

Instead of remaining patient behind the Packers’ prized offensive line, standing tall and delivering the ball off his front foot, Rodgers kept trying to make something happen by extending plays when there appeared to be little or no reason to do so.

Looking to run, Rodgers repeatedly found himself cut off at the pass and in the end fired incomplete, incomplete and incomplete. One of the balls was behind Cook, the athletic tight end.

The first series, which ended on a low punt by Peter Mortell, included three penalties on Green Bay. Cook drew a holding penalty in protection as Rodgers went off on one of those crazy-quilt scrambles. The illegal-shift foul came when Rodgers saw the 49ers substituting and tried to catch them with a quick count.

Green Bay then covered 87 yards in 14 plays capped by Rodgers’ 6-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb that was thrown behind the line.

Lacy started the march by bouncing outside on the first play for 21 yards. After leaving three carries later, he in all likelihood finished exhibition play with 20 carries for 114 yards (5.7).

Rodgers did draw a penalty on the 49ers with a quick count on third-and-8. A few plays later, he gave back the five yards with a delay penalty.

Davante Adams ran a nice sideline comeback route 12 yards downfield but Rodgers threw wide. He came back on third-and-2 with a 15-yard throw to a fast-breaking Cobb from the slot.

McCarthy incorporated extensive no-huddle in the second series. Rodgers benefited when the 49ers popped him twice.

“In a sick way, yeah, all quarterbacks are,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said about liking to get tagged for the first time. “I remember playing in games where you’re nervous and then you get the crap knocked out of you and all of a sudden you’re not nervous anymore.”

Rodgers completed his 12th exhibition season setting career-lows for games played (one) and pass attempts (nine). His previous low for attempts, 24, came in 2013 and ’15.

From 2009-’11, Rodgers couldn’t be stopped in the summer game: in order, his ratings were 147.9, 141.2 and 130.1, and all came in extensive action.

Now Rodgers (6-for-9, 60 yards) and the offense will face a more talented defense than the Jaguars have fielded in several years without having dominated an opponent in a very long time.

At halftime, McCarthy said, “I thought both of the series with the mechanics and tempo (were good). We had the penalties on the first series but, yes, I feel very good about where Aaron is.”

After the game, McCarthy summed up the victory this way: “It was a productive evening. I thought our guys played well and took another step as a team.

“This is an excellent win for us. I’m just proud of our young players. We are 3-0 with a lot of quality tape.”

The status of backup Brett Hundley remains unsettled after he wasn’t in uniform after reinjuring his left ankle last week against Oakland. Rookie Joe Callahan turned in his best outing, but if Hundley isn’t physically able to be effective against Jacksonville do the Packers want a free agent from NCAA Division III Wesley (Del.) one play away from having a game in his hands?

Early in McCarthy’s tenure, the young coach treated the third exhibition game as a legitimate dress rehearsal. He played his starters well into the third quarter in 2006, his first year, and through the first series of the third quarter in ’08.

Green Bay’s starters played all or almost all of the first half in 2007, ’09, ’10, ’11 and ’12. McCarthy’s philosophy began to change in 2013 when Rodgers took a seat after an opening 11-play series.

Last year, after the starters played about an entire half but Rodgers was withheld in part because three starting offensive linemen were sidelined by injury, McCarthy explained his decision.

“We all have to be practical about this,” he said after Game 3 against Philadelphia. “The health of your players is at the forefront of everything that you do in your program … (but) you have to play football. It’s nonsense to think you cannot play your starters throughout the preseason.”

In the first decade under McCarthy, the Packers often saved their best performance of the exhibition season for Game 3.

Based solely on the play of the starters, the Packers’ third exhibition game was outstanding in 2007, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12 and ’14, so-so in ’08 and poor in ’06, ’13 and ’15.

Here’s a look back at McCarthy’s third exhibition games (the score of the game and the Packers’ record in the first three regular-season games are in parentheses).

2006 – At Cincinnati (17-48, 1-2): On national television, the Packers allow seven more points than before (or since) in an exhibition game. Charles Woodson, among others, is notably awful. “Are the people in Green Bay a little concerned?” one scout says at halftime. Months later, McCarthy blames himself for practicing too hard and bringing a tired team on the road.

2007 – Jacksonville (13-21, 3-0): The No. 1 defense doesn’t allow a point in the first half against a Jaguars team that would win 11 games. “I’m definitely pleased,” Packers personnel man John Schneider says. “It was a great preseason test.”

2008 – at Denver (27-24, 2-1): After turning in two desultory efforts in his first starts of the post-Brett Favre era, Rodgers leads four scoring drives in five possessions for a passer rating of 118.4. His exceptional showing is offset by a No. 1 defense that yields five scoring drives.

2009 – At Arizona (44-37, 2-1): Rodgers, on fire with a near-perfect rating of 155.2, destroys a team that played in the previous Super Bowl. The Packers lead at halftime, 38-10, after the No. 1’s blast through a third straight game without having to punt. “Is it possible to peak this early?” a scout asks incredulously at intermission.

2010 – Indianapolis (59-24, 2-1): The starters lay waste to the Colts, the defending AFC champs, posting the Packers’ highest exhibition point total since 1938. In the first half, Rodgers sparkles with a 124.9 rating. Favored by many to win the Super Bowl (which they do), GM Ted Thompson says at halftime, “I’d love it if it were true.”

2011 – at Indianapolis (24-21, 3-0): McCarthy turns Rodgers loose in the no-huddle for one of the first times in the city where Peyton Manning made a living doing it. Rodgers’ rating is 118.1. Mason Crosby’s 50-yard field goal at the buzzer is decisive.

2012 – At Cincinnati (27-13, 1-2): Cedric Benson debuts as featured back with six rushes for 38 yards. Meanwhile, Rodgers carries for 52 and two touchdowns. “I thought the defense, and really the whole team for that matter, had a lot of juice in them,” says McCarthy.

2013 – Seattle (10-17, 1-2): Rodgers, who had played at least the first half of Game 3 from 2008-’12, exits after one series. The Packers lose having scored merely two touchdowns in three games. “I’m fully aware of touchdowns and all that,” McCarthy says. “This is about developing a roster and trusting the process. It’s not all about the games right now. I feel strongly we’ll get ready.” At halftime, one scout says: “Unless they’ve got really good, up-tempo stuff in practice it’s hard to say about their level of execution and chemistry. Will they be able to get off to a fast start? Or will it take them until the third game?”

2014 – Oakland (31-21, 1-2): In six series, the Rodgers-led starters attack with almost reckless abandon using the no-huddle and going for it on multiple fourth downs. “Really, it’s like they’re in midseason form,” says Tom Flores, the Raiders’ radio analyst. Says McCarthy: “I feel good about where our starters are coming out of this game.”

2015 – Philadelphia (26-39, 3-0): Chip Kelly brings an offensive buzzsaw to Lambeau Field that generates 21 first downs, 325 yards and 39 points in a 44-play first half. In an emotionless, disgraceful showing, the Packers’ No. 1 defense is blown off the field.

On the injury front Friday, linebacker Jayrone Elliott and safety Chris Banjo left with hamstring injuries. Running back John Crockett suffered a shoulder injury.

View Comments