Rodgers needs to cut it loose

Pete Dougherty
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The Green Bay Packers’ best chance of resurrecting their offense isn’t any 11th-hour change in personnel or scheme.

They’ve tinkered with those things for the better part of half a season and gotten nowhere.

No, their best chance is for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to alter his risk-averse mind-set, which is a topic Rodgers himself raised late this week in an interview with Press-Gazette Media.

Rodgers said he probably has to go into this weekend’s wild-card playoff game at Washington with something closer to the let-it-fly mentality that has worked in comeback mode in the fourth quarter of several games this season.

“At this point we haven’t been very consistent in any capacity on offense,” Rodger said, “so if it means being a little riskier with the ball with a bigger reward on the back end, that’s something you’ve got to think about.”

Anyone who has watched the Packers the last eight years knows how interception-conscious Rodgers is. It has helped him attain an 80-39 record in the regular season, and the NFL’s highest all-time passer rating (104.1) and lowest all-time interceptions percentage (1.6) among players with at least 1,500 passes. It has kept coordinator Dom Capers from having to defend many short fields.

But it hasn’t worked for the 2015 Packers. Their 10-6 record was good enough to get them into the playoffs, but their 4-6 mark and consistent offensive under-performance over the last 10 weeks more accurately reflect the state of their team.

Without the field-stretching and fallback-in-a-pinch presence of Jordy Nelson, the Packers’ receivers aren’t getting open as often or by as much as in the past. They're also dropping too many balls. That's on them. So Rodgers has been holding the ball more. At this point in the season, that's on him.

Rodgers has thrown only eight interceptions this season, and his interceptions percentage (1.4) ranks No. 3 in the league. So he has been taking care of the ball as well as ever that way.

But his average per pass attempt tells everything you need to know about the Packers’ season. Average per attempt is the single best statistic to measure an offense’s explosiveness, and Rodgers’ 6.7 yards ranks No. 30 in the league and is his lowest average since he became a starter in ’08.

That’s staggering and comes one year after he ranked No. 2 at 8.4 yards. A 1.7-yard difference is astronomical.

Compare that with Tom Brady, one of the other two or three elite quarterbacks in the league. Brady also has an undermanned receiving corps – tight end Rob Gronkowski has been playing on a bum knee for more than a month, and New England’s top two wide receivers, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, are solid players but hardly top talents. Edelman also missed seven games this season.

Yet, Brady still is winging the ball and winning games. He’s averaging 7.6 yards per attempt, which ranks No. 9 in the league, and New England (12-4) is No. 6 in the NFL in scoring and No. 3 in points.

So while Rodgers’ receiving corps clearly has under-performed without Nelson, Rodgers also hasn’t done as much as he did with Nelson to make it better despite its limitations. As always, he not only hasn’t thrown many interceptions, he rarely has close calls. That’s not working with this Packers team.

Now, it bears pointing out that if he changes his approach Sunday, it might be boom or bust. He could take more chances, try to throw more guys open and fit more passes in tight windows, and it could pay off in a big day.

He also could end up throwing two or three interceptions, which could cost the game.

But it’s an approach he has to take if the Packers are to have any chance of a playoff run.

They’ll also need their receiving corps to elevate its play if it gets more contested chances, most notably Davante Adams, who has to rank as the team’s biggest disappointment.

The second-year pro looked ready to take off in 2015 after a strong finish in the playoffs last season. But he has been a non-entity (50 catches, 9.7-yard average) despite playing two-thirds (66.5 percent) of the Packers’ offensive snaps. And none of the skills that the Packers thought compensated for his ordinary speed has shown up on game day.

The Packers especially liked Adams’ hands when they drafted him in the second round in 2014, but he leads the team in drops (10 according to Pro Football Focus). They liked his strength and short-area quickness to run after the catch, but his 2.9-yard average (according to Pro Football Focus) is lowest among the team’s receivers except for Jared Abbrederis’ 2.2 yards, and Abbrederis has only nine receptions. Even tight end Richard Rodgers is averaging 4.0 yards after the catch.

They also liked his ability to high-point jump balls with his 39 1/2-inch vertical jump, and in training camp Adams in fact made several leaping, one-handed grabs along the sideline. But he’s had nothing like that this season.

Instead, Adams’ 4.56-second 40 speed has been more of a liability than the Packers ever thought. The average 40 time for a receiver at the NFL scouting combine, according to research by Tony Villiotti of the National Football Post, is 4.50 seconds.

Adams has been so routinely inconspicuous that you have to wonder when the Packers are going give many or most of his snaps to Abbrederis and even Jeff Janis.

“You have to work for everything you get,” said Alex Van Pelt, the Packers’ receivers coach. “And (Adams) is having a little bit of a down year for him based on last year and his expectations coming into this year. That’s the way this game goes. Call it the sophomore slump, call it whatever you want. He’s got to find a way to fight through and learn from it and get better moving forward.”

The Packers’ wild-card opponent also could be an elixir for their 25th-ranked passing game, at least for a week. Washington finished the regular season No. 28 in the NFL in yards allowed and No. 17 in points allowed, and its secondary is its defense’s weakest link.

Washington lost its best cornerback, Chris Culliver, to a knee injury in November. According to a scout from one of the team’s NFC East rivals, second-year cornerback Beshaud Breeland is the best remaining cover man, yet Dallas picked on him time and again in the regular-season finale.

Former Packers fourth-round pick Will Blackmon is a starter after being signed off the streets in mid-September, but at age 31 and after two ACL surgeries his cover skills are diminished. Washington also was desperate enough this week that it signed former Baltimore, Philadelphia and Seattle cornerback Cary Williams. The Seahawks had cut him in early December, and there’s a chance he’ll play extensively against the Packers.

Washington moved 32-year-old DeAngelo Hall from cornerback to safety in late November in part because of the decline in his cover skills. And the other safety, 31-year-old Dashon Goldson, is a thumper who never was much of a cover man.

“Rodgers will watch the tape and see Will Blackmon continually getting attacked,” the scout said. “They’ll pick on Will Blackmon. He plays outside and sometimes in the slot. That’s where (Washington) will probably lose this game. I don’t think they’ll get enough pressure, and I don’t think they’ll hold up on the outside in coverage.” and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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