Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers have been here before. Maybe they should look there for what to do next.
Nine games into 2009, Rodgers, in only his second season as McCarthy’s starting quarterback, was playing his share of good football (101.8 rating) but also holding back his Green Bay Packers (5-4 record) because he was holding the ball too long.
Rodgers was on pace to be sacked 73 times, second most for a quarterback in a season in NFL history. Whatever tweaks McCarthy had tried, the problem wasn’t abating.
So at just past the halfway point of the season, McCarthy went big. He changed his game plans to more quick-hitting throws that forced Rodgers to get the ball out fast.
In the final seven games that season, Rodgers was sacked only nine times. The Packers went 6-1 and increased their scoring by a touchdown (to 32.7 points from 25.8) and total offense by 30 yards (395.6 to 366.2) a game.
It started in the Packers’ 30-24 win over the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field. Here’s what the Press-Gazette’s game story had to say that day, along with a couple quotes from players:
“It was the kind of rhythmic offense the Packers had shown only occasionally since their impressive preseason when their sack problems were nowhere in sight. It centered on quarterback Aaron Rodgers completing pass after pass by throwing mostly off quick drops, which in turn set up halfback Ryan Grant for his best day of the year, a 129-yard performance that included a healthy average of 6.1 yards a carry.”
Receiver Greg Jennings: “A lot of dink-and-dunk, a lot of quick three-steps (drops), trying to get the ball in guys' hands. That's what we have to do."
Tackle Mark Tauscher: “Short passes, whatever you want to say, you have to find out what you're good at, and I think we're starting to figure that out.”
Which brings us to here and now.
Rodgers is a far more accomplished and experienced player than he was in 2009. He has two NFL MVP awards and a Super Bowl title.
But he’s also enduring his longest stretch of average or worse play since the first half of ’09. In his last 14 games, playoffs included, the Packers are 6-8, and Rodgers’ passer rating is 82.4. His career marks are 81-40 and a 103.8. Something clearly is wrong.
Last offseason McCarthy and his coaches devised an offensive plan, worked on it in OTAs and minicamp, and then refined it in training camp. Yet, through two games this looks every bit like the offense that finished 2015 ranked No. 15 in points and No. 24 in yards, and like the quarterback who had the lowest rating (92.7) in his eight seasons as a starter.
The gist of the Packers’ public stance after their 17-14 loss at Minnesota last week has been that the offense just has to play better and make more first downs so it can run more plays. But you have to think there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes.
The NFL is all about in-season adjustments, big and small. Considering what’s been going on for almost a calendar year now, McCarthy and his coaching staff have to be looking harder than ever for ways to get Rodgers and their offense on track. And they should be thinking big. Or at least bigger.
This is the kind of change McCarthy has done before, and not just in ‘09.
In 2007, he went into the season hell bent on running the ball. But that got him nowhere for about 5½ quarters. So late in the first half of Week 2 at the New York Giants, he abandoned the run, went to a spread passing game with often four and sometimes even five receivers, and his offense took off. Grant later came around to salvage a run game that was set up by the pass, and the Packers finished with the NFC’s best record and an overtime loss away from the Super Bowl.
In 2010, McCarthy had spent all offseason building his offense around the budding talents of tight end Jermichael Finley. In training camp that year it seemed like Rodgers threw to Finley on about every other play. Then a knee injury in Week 5 ended Finley’s season, and half of McCarthy’s playbook went out the window. Yet the coach adjusted, mixed and matched his deep receiving corps snap after snap, and the Packers went on a late-season run that won them a Super Bowl.
And halfway through 2014, the Packers’ run defense was a disaster. So over the bye week, coordinator Dom Capers got radical and moved Clay Matthews from outside linebacker to inside. Capers’ defense went from below average to a little above average, and that season ended in Seattle with the Packers only a late-game choke away from playing in the Super Bowl.
All those adjustments came on the fly. McCarthy needs to make a similarly big one now.
What in particular? Well, if you’re a big Packers fan and have a computer, you’ve probably seen plenty of journalists and experts weigh in.
But no matter what, it starts with Rodgers. He makes the decisions and delivers the ball. How he goes is how the team goes.
If I were McCarthy, I’d take him back to the roots of his success: the second half of the 2009 season and the quick-rhythm passing game. Start there and make defenses adjust. Rodgers won’t make as many plays outside the pocket, at least at first. But he seems to be forcing that part of the game at this point, and defenses know it’s coming. A change in emphasis could change that dynamic.
Some other possibilities?
McCarthy has run a predominantly no-huddle offense for several years now because he likes to force tempo and prevent the defense from substituting. That tires the defensive line and exploits favorable matchups. But the no-huddle has a potential disadvantage: the offensive personnel stays static, too.
McCarthy was successful earlier in his Packers tenure changing personnel constantly. Three receivers and a tight end one snap, two tight ends the next, two backs and three receivers the next, and four receivers the snap after that. That forces defenses to change up too, and allows for specific calls for specific players.
Along those same lines, Davante Adams, the No. 3 receiver, has played 83.7 percent of the Packers’ offense snaps through two games. His play going back to last year doesn’t warrant it.
McCarthy could add speed and quickness to the offense by mixing in second-year pro Ty Montgomery and fifth-round pick Trevor Davis in that role. Montgomery, if his explosion is back after ankle surgery last season, has run-after-the-catch talent. Davis at minimum can threaten defenses deep. And for that matter, Jared Abbrederis had the best training camp of the bunch, even if his ceiling is lowest as well. Any or all should be sharing time with Adams.
Maybe there’s a solution in there, and maybe it’s somewhere else. But this offense has been blasé for too long, and Rodgers is too good to play like he has.
McCarthy, with a background steeped in quarterback play, is the Packers’ head coach precisely for times like this. His MVP quarterback is struggling. And for a starting point, it’s never a bad idea to go back to his roots.
email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.