GREEN BAY – When a new receiver joins the Green Bay Packers, there are two offenses he must learn.
The first is his playbook. There are routes on paper, concepts for how a play should be ideally run.
Then there is Aaron Rodgers’ offense.
The blessing of receiving passes from a future Hall of Fame quarterback is, especially in Rodgers’ case, also a challenge. Historically, Rodgers is good at many things, but chief among them is his ability to extend plays outside the pocket. So there is the initial route on paper, what a receiver sees in his playbook, and then there is a second route.
What a receiver should do when Rodgers extends.
“It’s just something we practice,” tight end Lance Kendricks said. “If you see him scrambling one way, you have to try to get in his view. And if he goes the other way, same. Sometimes it’s tough when you can’t see him. You’re running your route, and you can’t see him. But once you see him, you have to try to just get in his view, and try to keep space away from other receivers who are also scrambling.
“It’s tough. It’s really tough. It took me a while when I first got here to work on that.”
After Sunday’s loss in Chicago, Rodgers surmised the Packers' offense’s struggles this season with one word: “details.” Kendricks said he took that to mean a few things, but especially timing.
The linchpin that holds the Packers' two offenses together, the routes on paper and the second routes when Rodgers scrambles, is timing. A receiver runs his first route and looks for the ball. If it didn’t arrive, he must immediately find Rodgers and make himself an available target. There isn’t time to waste.
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Kendricks had six NFL seasons when he arrived in Green Bay, and even still his transition was difficult. Even with fellow tight end Jimmy Graham’s diminished speed, it’s fair to wonder how much of his underwhelming first season with the Packers is learning how to balance the two offenses. What’s apparent, judging by their inconsistent connection, is rookie receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown are still learning.
Which is why the Packers’ decision on whether Rodgers should play Sunday can’t be easy. Because, yes, Rodgers playing against the New York Jets presents the possibility for catastrophe. A significant injury in a meaningless game, an injury that could potentially influence the 2019 season, would be the worst-case scenario.
It’s why the Packers quickly shut down Rodgers a year ago, placing him on injured reserve one week after he returned from his broken collarbone to play in Carolina. But that situation was entirely different than this year. In late 2017, Rodgers was surrounded by veterans Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, receivers whose chemistry with the veteran quarterback was proven.
This year, Rodgers is surrounded by rookie receivers and a first-year tight end the Packers may want to bring back. Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown appear to be the future of the Packers' receiver position, along with Adams.
These last two games present the opportunity for Rodgers to continue working on the details with the same receivers he’ll be throwing to next year.
“We’re talking about extended plays and at that point being able to operate within that framework,” receivers coach David Raih said last week, “and it takes experience to get a feel for that. We have a couple general rules that we try to follow, but at this point, yeah, I mean, that is something that you’ll see. We can only get better at that right now.
“Because if you’re just sitting there watching the game, you’re, ‘Hey, we’ve got a big play here if we operate within our rules and our teaching.’ So that’ll come along, but there’s a process to it.”
For Rodgers’ part, the quarterback made clear Wednesday he expects to play at least this week.
There are several reasons to be on the field, even with the Packers out of playoff contention. Rodgers no doubt would enjoy helping Adams pursue the Packers' all-time single-season records he’s approaching. He’d also like to win Sunday so the Packers could get a road victory this season. Rodgers noted the last time the Packers didn't win a road game was 1958, the year before Vince Lombardi arrived.
But for Rodgers, the reason to play is more off the field.
“I think it’s a lot about leadership,” Rodgers said. “If I want to be listened to and followed and looked up to, how could I stand here and say that these games that don’t matter for playoffs, I’m going to cash it in? That’s just not the way I lead.”
When asked, Rodgers acknowledged there’s “some value” in maximizing his snaps with Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown. Not everything will carry over into next season. The Packers don’t know who their next head coach will be, much less what kind of offense they’ll be running.
But in a passing game where chemistry remains an elusive target between the quarterback and his young receivers, using the final two games to work through the details might be beneficial.
“You’d love for those guys to have as many game reps as they can get that fits what we’re doing and what we’re trying to accomplish within the game plan,” interim head coach Joe Philbin said at the start of the week. “We’d love for them to play with Aaron. We’ll see how that unfolds. But again, that’s kind of secondary to me. Primary to me is having the Green Bay Packers play as well as they possibly can against the New York Jets.”