Rodgers, Packers in search of answers

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.

After six games this season, Aaron Rodgers’ passer rating was 115.9.

That helped the Green Bay Packers to a 6-0 start and left Rodgers about on pace with the 112.2 rating he compiled last year while winning his second NFL MVP award.

But over the last five games, Rodgers’ rating is 80.7. That ranks No. 28 in the NFL during that stretch and is well below his career mark of 105.1. He went 1-4 in those games.

There are many potential culprits for the Packers’ offensive failings during their 1-4 slide. Game planning and play calling, Jordy Nelson’s season-ending injury in training camp, the limitations of the rest of the receiving corps and the dearth of playmaking at tight end are among them.

But to whatever degree those reasons figure in the mix, Rodgers is in the thick of it, too. The Packers have been a premier team the last five seasons in large part because he has been a premier player. That same standard applies to their current struggles.

“He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to have ever played the game,” said Alex Van Pelt, the Packers’ quarterbacks coach. “He didn’t all of a sudden become an average player. We’ve got a find a way to play at the level that we’re accustomed to.”

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This is Rodgers’ first sustained stretch of subpar play since he blossomed into a top performer in the second half of the 2010 season. But if it’s new for him, it’s not necessarily unusual even for players among the best at that position.

Brett Favre had several stretches of poor play after his first MVP season with the Packers, including a five-game run in 1998 in which his rating was 60.2 and the Packers went 2-3. He started the 2004 season 1-4, and his entire 2005 was a disaster for multiple reasons but with this bottom line: 4-12, a 70.9 rating and a league-high 29 interceptions.

Peyton Manning had a run in his fourth season, 2001, when he lost seven of eight games and his passer rating topped 100 only once. In 2006 he lost three of four games in a stretch during which his cumulative rating was 75.7, and in 2010 he had a 74.2 rating while losing four of five games.

And Tom Brady had his worst stretch in 2002, the year after he won his first Super Bowl, when he put up a 69.1 rating over four straight losses.

As for pinning down why Rodgers’ play has dipped, this is where the waters muddy.

One factor is that teams have a template to defend Rodgers, who turned 32 on Wednesday, and without Nelson he hasn’t found a good answer. Also, though McCarthy put a lot of thought into changing coaching responsibilities in the offseason — he turned over play calling to Tom Clements and added receivers to Alex Van Pelt’s quarterbacks duties — there’s reason to question whether Rodgers and the offense lost something in the transition.

Regarding how teams are defending Rodgers, we saw something similar with Favre. For all of Favre’s playmaking, defenses knew that if they blitzed him he’d take risks and probably give them two or three shots at an interception.

With Rodgers, defensive coordinators have determined that they have rush to contain him more than sack him — he makes many of his biggest plays outside the pocket. They also are pressing the Packers’ receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt their timing, and double covering Randall Cobb. In the last month, without Nelson as his fallback, Rodgers hasn’t made defenses pay for playing that way.

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Some of that responsibility falls on the Packers' primary receivers — Cobb, Davante Adams and James Jones. They haven’t been creating much separation and have dropped more than their share of passes lately. Last week against Chicago, Adams dropped a possible touchdown pass, and Jones dropped the potential game winner in the end zone.

“We have to take full advantage of those one-on-one situations (outside),” said Edgar Bennett, the Packers’ offensive coordinator.

Rodgers might have the best mix of arm talent in the league — strength, accuracy, touch, the ability to throw from all angles. But it’s obvious the only receiver he trusts anywhere near the level he did Nelson (or Greg Jennings before him) is Jones, and Jones at age 31 is having trouble getting open.

Even Eddie Lacy's 105 yards rushing last week against Chicago didn't open up the offense (Rodgers threw for only 202 yards in the 17-13 loss). But somehow, Rodgers has to shake his caution for throwing to this receiving corps if the Packers are to have any shot at the Super Bowl.

One way is if Adams starts making tough, contested catches and performs more like the ascending player he was as a rookie late last year.  Another theoretically is Jeff Janis, who finally appears to have worked into the playing rotation this week. But for all Janis offers in size and speed, he doesn’t look like the precision route runner Rodgers is inclined to trust down in and down out.

A better possibility might be second-year receiver Jared Abbrederis, who is back from the rib and chest injury that sidelined him for two games. Though Abbrederis missed his rookie season (knee injury) and has played in only one game in his two years, Rodgers already seems to trust him.

As for coaching-staff changes affecting Rodgers’ play, McCarthy made them for all the right reasons. He wanted a more panoramic role, so he gave up play calling to Clements. And he wanted to improve communication between Rodgers and the receivers, so he gave both positions to Van Pelt.

But as the season has gone on, the Packers’ offensive rhythm isn’t improving and the passing game is underperforming. They’re still groping for answers as an offense, ranking No. 24 in yards and No. 12 in points after leading the league in scoring last season.

The Packers insist that combining quarterbacks and receivers under one coach is working well and argue it wasn’t an issue when the team started 6-0. And it does seem like a good idea to have receivers and quarterbacks watching video together because they can sort out mistakes and differences on the spot. But Van Pelt’s priority has to be the quarterbacks, and you wonder if the receivers are missing something not having a coach all their own.

The charge ultimately is McCarthy’s to get Rodgers playing at the level he did early this season, when at times he made it look easy to play quarterback in the NFL. As we’ve seen lately, it ain’t easy.

That might mean trying Janis and Abbrederis in bigger roles, or convincing Rodgers to take more chances, or changing the play-calling dynamic. Somehow, McCarthy has to create the circumstances for Rodgers to thrive. The Packers’ season depends on it. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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