PHOENIX – Since the beginning, their Saturday morning meetings have been a link, keeping coach and quarterback connected.
It wasn’t long ago Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy used his hour-long, pregame conversation with Aaron Rodgers as a checkup, guiding the quarterback through his first season as a starter. Their relationship developed since then, based in collaboration.
What’s good for one is good for the other. Conversely, hard times find company. Both men took their shots in 2016. McCarthy’s offense was stale. Rodgers was broken. The sky was falling last November.
With the Packers coach and quarterback facing similar scrutiny, their Saturday chats turned into something more than scheme and preparation. Last season, there was plenty of therapy.
McCarthy said he and Rodgers discussed weathering the adversity.
“We talked about a lot of those things during those meetings,” McCarthy said Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings. “Yeah, I think it just confirms a lot of the things we’ve been through.”
You know how last season ended. Run the table. Eight straight wins. Wild finish in Dallas. Another NFC championship game appearance.
Wasn’t easy getting there.
At a glance, 2016 was just another “MVP season” – as McCarthy called it – for Rodgers. He led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes. Threw for 4,428 yards. Made more highlights each week.
But success was difficult. Harder than usual. When the season opened, McCarthy said, the Packers' offense couldn’t find its flow. Rodgers reacted the only way a great player knows how, trying to force the Packers into a rhythm.
“I think especially with Aaron,” McCarthy said, “as much success as he’s had, if it’s not going to go right based on other variables, he’s going to do it himself – and that’s what the great ones do. He’s human. Every once in a while, he’s going to bring it back a notch and trust those other guys.”
With injuries decimating the offense, McCarthy said Rodgers “had some tough moments” adjusting to the ever-changing personnel around him.
Rodgers graded “a little different” internally early in the season and late, McCarthy said. His passer rating showed an even greater disparity. Only once in the first five games did Rodgers exceed 100. Only once in the final seven games did he finish below 100.
Things weren’t much better for McCarthy. He said it took more than a month to get the offense right. He veered from his no-huddle pace to diversify the Packers' personnel before a Week 3 game against Detroit, but injuries delayed progress.
Jared Cook’s six-game absence put a major kink into the Packers' offense. Down to only one tight end, McCarthy’s playbook was limited. It was the first big injury for that side of the ball. It wouldn’t be the only one.
McCarthy said he views offensive philosophy on either one-back or two-back concepts. Last season, the Packers at times were on the verge of no-back. Eddie Lacy and James Starks had significant injuries almost simultaneously. Running back became a revolving door, with rookies and newcomers thrust into roles they were unready to fill.
“We had a lot of moving parts in there,” McCarthy said.
Injuries were still a problem when the Packers made a midseason trip to Atlanta. Through the absences of Ty Montgomery, Randall Cobb and others, the Packers found a way to score 32 points on the road. It was the first of four straight losses, but McCarthy said he left Atlanta feeling the offense had momentum.
It took a few weeks to hit full stride, but the Packers never returned to rock bottom. Led by Rodgers, they finished as perhaps the hottest team – and offense – in the league.
“I understand what the statistics were,” McCarthy said, “and maybe the convenience of maybe trying to tie in the year before, 2015 offense. I think now you can clearly understand, because I’ve said this all along, the way we played in ’15 was different than the way we played in ’16 – and Aaron’s numbers reflected that.
“Aaron had an MVP season. So statistically didn’t have a great start, but I think it was more of a reflection of how we were playing on offense.”
It’s a testament to how well the Packers played down the stretch that an offense hit with so much adversity could finish the regular season ranked fourth in scoring. The Packers' offense might be even better in 2017.
McCarthy and Rogers, the two men who faced the most public scrutiny before last season's turnaround, have been perhaps the two biggest winners of the Packers' offseason. Both stand to benefit from the arrival of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks.
“The tight end position,” McCarthy said, “is clearly underrated on some levels in my view. I’ve always looked at the left tackle position and quarterback position as the two primary positions on offense. I really think tight end is pushing the envelope on that. Just with today’s game, with the rules changes that have occurred here in the last five, six, seven, eight years, the middle of the field is open.
“That’s a lot tougher area to defend with bigger, athletic men at the tight end position. So I think the premium on that position is obvious.”
Looking back, McCarthy said the Packers personnel stabilizing late in the season was a big reason not only his offense improved, but also Rodgers. Montgomery “just kept getting better and better and better” as a running back. Jordy Nelson “had to go through a transition” after surgery. Cook returned from the ankle injury.
Such is the nature of Rodgers’ position. Quarterbacks play better when the pieces around them are consistent. Trust matters.
In 2017, Rodgers figures to have even more talent around him.
“When you’re talking about great quarterback play,” McCarthy said, “it’s great quarterback play with offensive production. That’s what the great ones do. Great players make people around them better, and Aaron Rodgers makes everybody better. I think he did it probably at the highest – or one of the highest – levels of his career in the second half of his season.”
McCarthy hopes it carries into this fall.