Dougherty: Packers' offense still stagnant
MINNEAPOLIS - The Green Bay Packers got back Jordy Nelson and signed Jared Cook in free agency, but two weeks into the 2016 regular season their offense looks a lot like last year.
In a word, stagnant.
It starts at the top, where quarterback Aaron Rodgers has mixed occasional playmaking with some of the issues that plagued him last season: Holding the ball and throwing more errant balls than has been his norm.
Then in Sunday night’s 17-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, a problem that has rarely plagued Rodgers cropped up on top of that: failure to take care of the ball.
He fumbled three times — there was a big element of luck that the Packers recovered two of them — and threw a crunch-time interception on a third down with the Packers trying to drive for the potential game-tying or winning score with less than two minutes to play.
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But Rodgers wasn’t alone. There were plenty of other ways this also looked like last year, when the Packers finished No. 15 in the NFL in scoring and No. 24 in yards.
Among other things, there hasn’t been much in the playmaking department at receiver the first two weeks, just like last season. Remember the days when the Packers’ quick-strike ability struck fear in defenses as recently as a couple years ago? There was no sign of that at Jacksonville and Minnesota to start this season.
On Sunday night, Nelson had a 39-yard catch in the fourth-quarter that set up a score, but the next longest reception was running back James Starks’ 16-yarder.
Though Nelson made that play by going over cornerback Trae Waynes for the ball, his timing with Rodgers still looks off (11 targets but only five catches for 73 yards), and he isn’t getting much separation.
Now, that well could be because he’s not yet in game shape after missing all of last season and the first four weeks of training camp while recovering from reconstruction surgery in one knee and a less severe injury in the other. Two months from now, Nelson could be playing more consistently and explosively, and the slow start will be nothing but a blip.
But he is 31 years old and coming off major surgery, so there is reason to wonder how far back he’ll make it. We’ll see in December.
Also, coach Mike McCarthy dressed all seven of his receivers Sunday night, yet essentially used only three: Nelson, Randall Cobb (five catches, 42 yards) and Davante Adams (three catches for 26 yards). You could count rookie Trevor Davis’ snaps from scrimmage on one hand, and second-year pro Ty Montgomery didn’t see the field except on special teams.
And the kicker is, Nelson, Cobb and Adams combined to average only 10.8 yards a catch Sunday night. That’s a glaring lack of big-play production.
Then there’s Cook, who in training camp flashed as a big, fast target who could add a missing dimension to the offense. In his first two games, though, the Packers haven’t gotten him the ball. He has five catches for a 7.6-yard average. In the second half, McCarthy did go to a two tight-end set (Cook and Richard Rodgers) for two series in what likely was an attempt to get Cook more involved. But it didn’t have much impact on a night when the 29-year-old tight end had four catches for a 7.8-yard average.
BOX SCORE: Vikings 17, Packers 14
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No doubt, you can’t tell the story of this game without pointing out that the Vikings have the makings of one of the best defenses in the league. Their coach, Mike Zimmer, is one of the best defensive minds in the game, and he has Pro Bowl-caliber talent at every level of his defense: the defensive line (nose tackle Linval Joseph and end Everson Griffen), linebacker (Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr) and defensive back (safety Harrison Smith).
They held the Packers to only 263 yards of total offense; rendered halfback Eddie Lacy a relative non-factor (50 yards rushing on 12 carries), though McCarthy’s play calling bears responsibility there as well; and sacked Rodgers five times.
The early take on the Vikings is that they’re shaping up to be a formidable team.
But what a contrast to see Sam Bradford slinging the ball around in his first game with his new team, which he joined only two weeks ago, while watching Rodgers struggle. Bradford’s 121.2 rating demolished the Packers quarterback’s 70.7.
Bradford’s great weakness is immobility — he can’t make something out of nothing the way Rodgers can. But when Bradford had a little time he made several superb throws, right on the money with rushers in his face. He proved that whatever his faults, there’s no dismissing his arm talent and willingness to stand in the pocket and take your best shot.
We’re only two weeks into the season, which is way too soon to make many big judgments. Strange things happen early. Teams can take several weeks to find their identity, and perhaps that will be the case with McCarthy’s offense.
But some red flags are up. It’s time now for McCarthy and Rodgers to figure out how to put some pop back in their offense. Because a repeat of last year will mean this team’s going nowhere.