GREEN BAY – If there’s a responsibility Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy hates more than having to answer questions about his relationship with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, it’s having to pull the strings that landed him in that position in the first place.
In a wide-ranging interview regarding the state of his offense, McCarthy said Rodgers’ left knee sprain, too many penalties and lost-yardage plays and poor ball-handling have kept him from digging deeper into his playbook and running some of the new material that was added during the offseason.
Mostly, he said those circumstances have forced him to put the brakes on a player he has designed the entire offense around.
McCarthy said he understood why Rodgers was so frustrated after the 22-0 victory over the Buffalo Bills that he called the offensive performance “terrible” and suggested the game plan was no good. But he said it’s his job to look at the big picture and that picture needs to feature a healthy Rodgers supported by a healthy run game and a healthy offensive line.
He has not had any of those at the same time the first four weeks of the season. It has led to the offense being average in many categories, even though the 2-1-1 record heading into the Detroit game Sunday at Ford Field has the Packers a half game behind Chicago in the NFC North.
It is not the way Rodgers envisioned his comeback year.
“You have what happened last year (Rodgers’ broken collarbone), you could see right away in OTAs, he came back in great shape,” McCarthy said. “In the new stuff we put in on offense, the guy put in a frickin’ clinic. I have videotape of him in footwork drills and individual drills that I will use for the rest of my life.
“The point I’m making is the guy is dialed in. I mean, he is prepared to have a great year. He gets hurt in the first game. And what he’s playing with (the injury) is not small. It’s significant.
“He’s Secretariat. He’s got the bit in his mouth and his knee hurts a little bit. But he wants to run because he still can. And he’s got the big-head Irishman yanking on the reins a little bit. He doesn’t like it. I get it. But that’s my job. That’s the reality.”
McCarthy said he had an unusual offensive package planned for the Chicago Bears in the season opener, but in the first two series, the Packers suffered two holding penalties and a sack, changing the play-calling dynamic. One series after that, Rodgers got hurt and he had to scrap the entire thing.
When Rodgers came back in the second half, he went to a base offense and somehow the Packers won.
Since then, McCarthy has had to come up with game plans that fit what Rodgers can do physically. Against Minnesota and Washington, Rodgers had to take all the snaps in shotgun or pistol.
As a result, the running game wasn’t as effective because without the quarterback ever being under center, the defense has a pretty good idea which direction the run is going. In addition, some of the effective play-action schemes he has in the offense, like what the Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers are using, were out the window.
Against Minnesota, McCarthy said on the first deep ball he called, Rodgers got sacked. The second one he called also resulted in a sack. He said he couldn’t keep letting Rodgers get hit, so he backed off on those lower-percentage “shot” plays.
Against Washington, McCarthy said the heavy rain concerned him enough that he decided not to move Rodgers around and risk him aggravating the knee injury. The offense still produced 240 yards passing and two touchdowns, but several dropped passes and critical penalties resulted in a losing performance.
Against Buffalo, McCarthy finally was able to put Rodgers under center and the biggest beneficiary was the run game. All three running backs were productive and a couple of explosive plays from Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery set the tone for the game.
In the second half, Buffalo changed up its defense and started bringing a safety up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run and add numbers to the pass rush. Rodgers felt he could have a field day with receiver Davante Adams in single coverage, but McCarthy felt he needed to finish the game with his rushing attack.
His offensive line hadn’t had much time together in training camp because of injury and had been mostly in pass-protection mode playing from behind the first three weeks. So, he wanted to give them a chance to pound the run game at the Bills. He wound up calling 27 run plays and the Packers’ backs combined for 110 yards and a touchdown.
Rodgers finished with a 76.9 passer rating.
“The second half, two drops, Geronimo (Allison) gets hurt,” McCarthy said. “They’re down, they start playing man-to-man. They got aggressive. I was running the ball. I wasn’t giving up the run game to throw for 900 yards. Could I have? Yeah.
“But the linemen hadn’t run the ball 30 (times). Our line needed to run the ball 30 times. The runs weren’t as high as we would have liked going into the game. Do you know how good they felt this week?”
McCarthy said the five drops that occurred against the Bills and the four drops against Washington have greatly affected the offense and reminding the players of the importance of ball-handling has been an emphasis this past week.
Rodgers took Wednesday off as usual, but he was a full participant in practice Thursday and was taken off the injury report Friday. He began taking some snaps under center against Buffalo and probably will expand that number against the Lions.
A lot of the game plan may be contingent on the health of the team, which may not be very good Sunday because Randall Cobb (hamstring) is out and Adams (calf) and Allison (concussion/hamstring) are questionable.
But the healthier Rodgers gets, the more McCarthy can do with him. He said the new things he and the offensive staff put in the playbook have been mostly sidelined and he’s hoping to get to some of them as the season wears on. The fact the running game got in gear last week will be extremely beneficial to Rodgers this week.
Whichever way the game plan sorts out, McCarthy said that people do not need to worry about the working relationship between him and Rodgers. They are two completely different people from two different walks of life and they don’t always see eye-to-eye.
They wouldn’t be friends if they weren’t connected through football. But they were brought together to win Super Bowls and they need each other.
“(That) people keep bringing up the relationship is mind-boggling to me,” McCarthy said. “This is a personality business. My brother (Joe, who passed away in 2015) is as close as anybody I’ve ever been around. I’ve had conversations with Aaron about things in life that I didn’t even have with my brother.
“I know this young man on a very deep level. We don’t run around together. That’s not really my personality. I think you have to have a line between coach and player. They know I care about them. I hope they do.
“The Packers didn’t bring me here (to be friends), they brought me here to coach them first.”