It's all uphill for Packers until Brett Hundley makes plays downfield
GREEN BAY – Davante Adams tried to judge the football like a center fielder. It hung high in the lights illuminating Lambeau Field, a pop-up for him to run under.
The Green Bay Packers receiver thought quarterback Brett Hundley’s pass was out in front of him. Way out in front. Adams put his head down as he throttled up late in the second quarter, running past Detroit Lions corner Quandre Diggs.
He was one step behind Diggs. Almost two.
“I kind of gave a little burst and caught up to it,” Adams said. “I guess I’m faster than I thought I was.”
When Adams looked up again to find the ball, he reached out with one arm. Should’ve been two.
Hundley’s pass wasn’t all that far ahead. It grazed off Adams’ right fingertips, falling incomplete like most passes Monday night that dared venture downfield in the Packers' 30-17 loss to the Lions. This was a compressed passing attack, much like 15 days earlier against the New Orleans Saints.
Which made this incompletion seconds before the two-minute warning, what might’ve been a touchdown with the Packers trailing by 14 points, hard to stomach.
Because this miss wasn’t on the quarterback. No, Adams said, this one was on him.
“The ball wasn’t off at all,” Adams said. “It was a great pass. I was off on judgment, and that was it. It doesn’t matter who throws it. It could’ve been my little sister, if she can throw that far, she got it there.
“We get practice with it. So I wouldn’t say it’s hard, but it takes a little adjustment period.”
The adjustment period to life after Aaron Rodgers continued Monday night. The Packers' offense was far from the training-wheels game plan coach Mike McCarthy implemented in Hundley’s first start two weeks earlier. Receivers ran routes downfield throughout. Hundley, multiple players said, was free to stretch the field vertically with his passes.
In some ways, Hundley rewarded his coach’s faith. For the second straight start, Hundley did little to lose the game. He also did next to nothing to win it.
Hundley completed 26-of-38 passes, a vast improvement from the 12-of-25 he hit against the Saints. His 245 passing yards almost tripled the 87 he gained against New Orleans, though most came in garbage time. Even some misses downfield, like the deep shot to Adams down the right sideline, weren’t entirely Hundley’s fault.
On the stat sheet, it looked like small improvement.
Yet two numbers revealed the biggest problem the Packers must fix going forward. Hundley averaged only 6.4 yards per pass, and though he didn’t throw an interception, no touchdowns limited his passer rating to 86.
Juxtaposed next to Lions starter Matthew Stafford’s 10.9 yards per pass and 132.4 rating, the Packers' lack of a downfield passing game was the missing ingredient for what remains an offense still searching after Rodgers’ broken collarbone.
“Explosive plays,” Hundley said, “are huge in this game, in the NFL. That, field position and turnovers. It’s a big part of this game. So we’ve got to get ourselves rolling and execute. We left a lot on the field tonight, and I think everybody knows that.”
Everybody knows the Packers' offense lacks explosiveness. Question is, how do they fix it? To answer that, it would be helpful to know where to place blame.
McCarthy draws the ire from fans. This is his offense. He’s the play caller. He’s the one who so adamantly supported in public Hundley’s immediate promotion after Rodgers’ injury.
Naturally, the hot takes go, the problems must be coaching.
Except the quarterback is the last to touch the football before a pass. Most of Hundley’s attempts Monday were thrown within 10 yards. The Packers, similar to two weeks prior, placed some emphasis on short, quick-hitting targets to help Hundley find a rhythm, but there were plenty of downfield routes.
Receiver Jordy Nelson found himself alone in the seam, deep safety with his back to him, but didn’t see the football. Randall Cobb had his defender beat down the left sideline but wasn’t targeted.
“What he feels comfortable with,”’ Nelson said, “is what he’s going to throw. I think he took some good shots when they were there today. I think a pretty good job of getting the ball out of his hands. It’s a combination of everything. I’ve never played quarterback, so I can’t answer that, but I think it’s just a feel thing for what they see pre-snap and post-snap and how they feel comfortable with it.
“He has the freedom to do what he thinks is right within the play and within the concept, and what he sees.”
Nelson said there’s a confluence of factors. Many of Hundley’s targets depend on matchups. He must work through his progressions, read the defense.
On this night, Hundley explained, he saw the Lions secondary sit back to take away the deep ball, content to make the Packers string together multiple plays to score.
There were other times Hundley didn’t see an open receiver. McCarthy is calling plays, sure, but Hundley is the quarterback. He determines where he throws.
“We called shots,” Hundley said. “It was a great-called game, but the way they played their defense, they weren’t giving up the shots. You have to look at the defense, what they’re doing, how they’re playing us, how they’re scheming things up and, this game, they were giving up the underneath stuff.
“So if they’re giving it up, you’ve got to take it.”
The underneath stuff works for completion percentage. To win in the NFL, a quarterback must make plays throwing downfield.
Until Hundley does, the Packers offense will continue driving with the emergency brake on.