The Green Bay Packers needed some dumb luck to pull off their last-play win over the Detroit Lions on Thursday night.
They also needed the quick feet and incredible arm strength of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
First, the dumb luck. On what looked like the game’s final play, third down from the Packers’ 21 with six seconds left, the Packers ran the lateral desperation play about as poorly as it can be run.
When receiver James Jones caught the pass and lateraled to Richard Rodgers at about the Packers’ 40, Rodgers was in no-man’s land. You could see he really didn’t want the ball at that point, and it’s hard to blame him.
All four of the other receivers were ahead of him, so he couldn’t pitch or throw the ball laterally to any of them. That included Davante Adams, who was across the field and standing rather than retreating, which would have given Rodgers another option for getting rid of the ball.
The only teammates behind Rodgers were the five offensive linemen and Aaron Rodgers. And Richard Rodgers doesn’t have the speed or elusiveness to make tacklers miss, so though he wasn’t under imminent threat of being hit – the nearest defender was six yards away – he had nowhere to go. If he’d tried to run, there was a pretty good chance he’d have been tackled to end the game.
So his least-worst option was to throw the ball back his safety valve, Aaron Rodgers. But that was of no help, because Aaron Rodgers caught the pass at his own 24, about 16 yards backward. He had two defenders with him and nowhere to turn as well.
The dumb luck was that the Packers’ poor execution paid off because the facemask penalty on Lions defensive end Devin Taylor gave them 15 yards and a final, untimed play from their own 39.
As for the penalty, there’s no blaming the officials for calling the facemask. Taylor’s thumb clearly hit Rodgers’ facemask, and Rodgers’ head turned hard. Both the referee and side judge threw their flag.
A close look at the replay showed that Taylor’s thumb hit the facemask, but he probably didn’t grab it, as is required by the facemask rule. The play isn’t subject to review, but if it had been, it still might have been tough to overturn the call, because the replay wasn’t quite definitive. Some officials might have overturned it, others not.
An interesting question, though, is whether Taylor should have been penalized 15 yards for a horse collar tackle. By all appearances, he grabbed Rodgers by the inside of his shoulder pad on the right side and threw him to the ground.
NFL Rule 12, Section 2, Article 15 reads as follows:
“No player shall grab the inside collar of the back or the side of the shoulder pads or jersey pads or jersey, and pull the runner toward the ground. This does not apply to a runner who is in the tackle box or to a quarterback who is in the pocket.”
The exceptions don’t appear to apply here. Rodgers was five yards past the line of scrimmage when Taylor tackled him. He no longer had the protection of a quarterback, because he couldn’t throw a forward pass, and it’s unclear whether the tackle box even existed anyway because of the pass completed downfield to Jones.
So there appears to be a good argument that if a facemask hadn’t been called, a horse collar could have.
Then there’s Aaron Rodgers’ quick feet and great arm strength on the Hail Mary.
Tom Brady, great as he is, couldn’t have made that play because he wouldn’t have escaped the near sack by defensive end Jason Jones, who somehow split the double-team block by right guard Lane Taylor and right tackle Don Barclay. But Rodgers had the feet to get away, which gave his receivers all the time in the world to get to the end zone.
Rodgers took a running start and threw the ball from his own 36. Richard Rodgers caught it about three yards into the end zone. So the ball flew about 67 yards in the air, hand to hand.
More impressive was the height. A spokesman for Ford Field said the distance from the field to the catwalk above the field is 158 feet, or 52 2/3 yards. Judging by a video of the play shot from the stands and posted on Instagram, the ball couldn’t have been much more than 10 feet lower than the catwalk, so the pass likely was about 48 or 49 yards off the ground.
That is an incredible display of arm strength. Brett Favre probably had as much pure arm strength as any quarterback of the last 25 years, and after watching that throw, it’s clear Rodgers’ arm strength isn’t far behind.
The Packers’ passing game still is in bad shape, but you have to wonder if Aaron Rodgers has found a receiving target he trusts and who will catch the ball consistently in Richard Rodgers.
Besides the 61-yard Hail Mary, Richard Rodgers caught seven passes for 85 yards, and he caught all eight passes thrown his way. Maybe his most impressive play was the 26-yard catch he had on a seam route in the fourth quarter.
It was the kind of play the Packers rarely made in the passing game over the last six to eight weeks. Detroit blitzed linebacker Tahir Whitehead, which left the middle of the field open, and the Packers attacked the vacated area. Richard Rodgers beat safety Isa Abdul-Quddus on a post pattern by several yards, a rarity in itself.
That’s where tight ends have to make their hay, in the middle of the field, and it makes you wonder where that has been all season. Richard Rodgers came in with 40 receptions but for only a 7.3-yard average, which even for tight ends is extremely low. The Packers mostly have been using him on short routes, but with his size and hands – he might have the best hands on the team – he should be a threat in the intermediate areas in the middle of the field.
- Jake Ryan played well enough to justify starting him at inside linebacker ahead of Nate Palmer. The fourth-round draft pick has a good feel for the position and is a little quicker to press the line of scrimmage than Palmer. He led the defense with 10 tackles and made an impressive play in the fourth quarter when he pressed the running lane, shed the block by fullback Michael Burton and dropped Joique Bell for a one-yard loss. Ryan, though, had one big error, on Lions tight end Eric Ebron’s three-yard touchdown pass. The Packers had a bad defensive call for the Lions’ alignment, with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix lined up to blitz on the right edge and Ryan lined up in the middle of the line. The Lions went with an empty set and no one was on Ebron. Coach Mike McCarthy tried to call time out but couldn’t get the officials’ attention. Ryan or someone else needed to get the Packers out of the blitz, or else Ryan needed to take a couple of steps over to get on Ebron, because Ryan didn’t have time to get in the passing lane and Ebron took a couple steps up field and had an easy catch for the score.
- We saw Thursday night why Aaron Rodgers and the coaching staff don’t have full trust in second-year receiver Jeff Janis. In the first quarter Janis got behind cornerback Nevin Lawson on a go route and Rodgers tried to hit him. But Janis drifted on his route and then slowed slightly as the ball was coming down, so he couldn’t quite catch up to the throw. Rodgers had correctly thrown the ball to Janis’ outside shoulder because Nevin had inside leverage, but Janis still drifted toward the middle of the field rather than anticipating the throw to the outside, and by the time he tracked the ball it was out of reach.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1