The Green Bay Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers takes them, and recently he hasn’t taken them much of anywhere.
Yes, Rodgers has had his spectacular moments over the past month, and he did so again Sunday in the Packers’ stunning loss to the Detroit Lions, who came into this game with the NFL’s worst record.
But the two-time NFL MVP hasn’t been carving up defenses like he consistently did from the Packers’ Super Bowl run in 2010 through the early part of this season. And that, as much as anything, is why the Packers’ offense has gone stagnant during their three-game losing streak that leaves them at 6-3 and in second place in the NFC North Division.
Rodgers is an ultra-accurate passer who has been missing throws. He’s as dangerous as any quarterback in the NFL when plays break down, but in recent weeks he has looked antsy in the pocket even when the protection is good. He doesn’t seem to fully trust his receivers and has been holding the ball too long.
It leaves you wondering what’s going on. Is he healthy? He says he is.
“I have to look at the film,” he said in his curt answer after the game. “I’ll give you a better answer on Wednesday.”
Anyone can have a bad game, but three straight weeks of struggles means Rodgers and the Packers’ offense are in a full-fledged funk. It raises all sorts of questions about what it will take to get out.
Going into Sunday, I thought it was still way too early for coach Mike McCarthy to think about taking back the play-calling duties he relinquished to Tom Clements this season. But after the Packers' 16-point performance at home against the previously one-win Lions, I’m not so sure.
Yes, you have to give big changes like that time to work, and you can’t go back and forth willy nilly. But at this point all options at least have to be on the table, because the Packers need Rodgers playing at or near an MVP level if they’re going to get to and win the Super Bowl. For the last three weeks he hasn’t been near that.
After Sunday’s loss, though, McCarthy wasn't budging. When asked if he was considering taking back the play calling, he said: “I don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t think the game of football is ever that simple. … I like the way our staff works, and I like the way they work with our players.”
And Rodgers professed full support of the new system. McCarthy still is involved in offensive game-planning but is spending more time with the defense and special teams as well, and being freed from calling plays allows him to be more fully engaged in managing games. On the flip side, there appears to be a knack to play calling that all the studying in the world can’t change.
“I think it’s been really good,” Rodgers said of the new system. “I think it’s been a good flow during the week, we’ve had good preparation. Tom’s in every meeting and there’s not a time where I say something about something I like or dislike in the plan that he’s not within an earshot to hear.”
That Rodgers is holding the ball is nothing new. He did it to a fault and took too many sacks in his first 1½ years as a starter. In his ascent to becoming a premier player he usually has erred on the side of holding on and trying to make a play outside the pocket rather than try a risky throw. He’s constitutionally averse to even coming close to throwing interceptions.
But if his playmaking on the move scares defenses to death, that risk-averse approach has its downside as well. If this offense minus Jordy Nelson is going to get going, Rodgers might have to take a few more calculated chances by standing tall in the pocket and delivering the ball.
What’s new is the occasional missed throw, especially in this game. On the Packers’ first possession he bounced one throw to an open Davante Adams and overshot Adams down the sidelines on a potential 26-yard touchdown on a third down that forced them to settle for a field goal.
In the second quarter he over-led Randall Cobb on an out pattern on third-and-10 and overshot him again on a corner route on a third down in the third quarter.
Even on the Packers’ failed two-point conversion that would have tied the game in the final minute, if you can argue that Adams should have secured the catch that backup cornerback Crezdon Butler knocked out of his hands at the last instant, you also can argue that Rodgers should have led Adams by another foot so Butler couldn’t get to the ball.
“I obviously missed a couple today,” Rodgers said, “and have to get back to you on specific ones.”
Said McCarthy: "I think any time you're not connected ... I'm not going to sit here and dissect the mechanics of the quarterbacks, especially our quarterbacks. I don't correct players in the media. We're not as efficient in our passing game as we'd like to be right now. We'll just need to continue to work."
Like he did last week at Carolina, Rodgers also gave the Packers a chance late in a game that looked lost. Among his displays of exceptional arm talent were third-down conversions to tight end Justin Perillo and a sidearm fling with defensive end Ziggy Ansah in his face to Cobb.
But overall, Rodgers’ performance did not match up with the numbers (333 yards passing). The Packers put up only 16 points against a Lions defense that came into this game ranked last in the NFL in scoring defense, and like last week at Carolina didn’t do much of anything until desperation time in the fourth quarter.
"This is a tough game,” McCarthy said. “This isn't easy. And frankly, if we spoiled you in the past (with good offense), that's great. We're looking forward to spoiling you again in the future."