Last summer a scout in the NFC East Division looked at the NFL schedule and thought about the best players his team would face in 2016.
He put Aaron Rodgers at the top of the list.
Now at the quarter pole of the season, the scout isn’t sure what to think after watching two of the Green Bay Packers’ games on videotape – at Minnesota in Week 2 and at home against the New York Giants last week.
The Packers are 3-1 and again look like a contender in the NFC. But Rodgers ranks No. 19 in the NFL in passer rating, and like last season the Packers still aren’t the yardage (No. 25 in the NFL) and scoring (No. 12) machine they’d been for most of Rodgers’ career.
“We’re all trying to figure it out,” the scout said. “I look at Green Bay and say, ‘They’re going to be better with Jordy Nelson (back), they’re going to be better with Randall Cobb (healthy).
“… I just don’t see those chunk plays. Any time you ever watched the Packers with Rodgers it was going to be the big play. He was going to hit a tight end, he was going to hit a screen, he was going to hit one of the receivers, throw the ball to Randall Cobb, who was going to tight-rope the sideline. I haven’t seen that from these guys.”
The scout and his colleagues aren’t the only ones wondering about Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. Anyone who’s watched this team going back to 2009 can see something has been different going back about a year now. This season the Packers have played one outstanding half of offense – they put up 31 first-half points against Detroit on Sept. 25 – but aside from that they’ve been the same herky-jerky, non-rhythmic offense they were for most of last season.
The Packers see it too, even if coach Mike McCarthy bristled at his Wednesday news conference when asked why Rodgers couldn’t find open receivers against the Giants with all the time he had to throw.
“You know, we had 400 yards of offense,” McCarthy retorted, “so I don't know why they hell I've got to come in here and answer questions about the things you think that went wrong.”
The standard answer from the Packers’ coaching staff and players this week was that they’re a dropped pass here or tipped pass there from breaking out on the scoreboard. But more telling is that the coaches made the passing game the point of emphasis this week in preparation for the Dallas Cowboys.
“We’re expecting results,” said Alex Van Pelt, the Packers’ quarterbacks coach.
We’ve heard plenty about the Packers’ offense from the team and local pundits. So to get an outsider’s perspective I consulted the aforementioned scout, who’s been keeping an eye on all of the NFC North because that division plays the NFC East.
Here’s his take based solely on game videotape:
Rodgers: The scout suspects that Rodgers has become so intent on making plays outside the pocket that his decision making and throwing accuracy from the pocket have suffered.
“I think he lives to move in the pocket and then roll and throw the ball,” the scout said. “I think that’s where he feels the most comfortable. When you put him in the pocket and make him have to throw, that kind of messes with him a little bit.
“… I’m not calling him selfish, but he’s made so many plays on the move – every time I’ve watched film (in the past) it’s like, ‘Oh my God, what did he just do?’ But I think he does it because he knows it’s a spectacular play. I know that sounds funny to say, but him throwing from the pocket is like the quick screen – he sees separation on the outside on a running play, and he just takes the ball and fires it to the (receiver) outside. That’s really his (only) pocket stuff.”
After watching the two game tapes the scout went to the stat sheet to see if it reflected what he’d seen. It did.
The Packers’ lack of explosiveness in the passing game shows up in Rodgers’ average per attempt, which at 6.3 yards ranks No. 28 in the NFL. His career mark is 7.9 yards, and his season high was 9.2 yards in 2011.
Rodgers’ accuracy issues from the pocket are there in his 56.1 completion percentage, which is No. 31 in the NFL and more than eight points lower than his career mark of 64.8 percent.
“I don’t think you’re seeing those rare, spectacular, holy (crap) plays,” the scout said. “In the tapes I’ve watched I haven’t seen that.
“… (But) Rodgers hasn’t been as accurate as he has in the past, I think that’s been a big, big issue as well. These receivers aren’t separating, and all of a sudden you’re in a situation where Rodgers is having to be accurate, and he has not been accurate.”
The receiving corps: The scout thinks the Packers aren’t making many plays downfield because of their receivers.
“(Rodgers) is a Hall of Fame quarterback, in my opinion, as he is,” the scout said. “But he doesn’t have a lot to throw to as far as down the field. They haven’t made the chunk plays, that’s been a big problem with this offense. You usually see them making those big 20, 25-yard pass plays, big plays. There haven’t been that many this year."
The scout considers Nelson a good player and likes Cobb’s abilities after the catch, but the corps lacks a game changer and quality depth.
"I don’t think the (Davante) Adams kid has been all that great," he said. "I don’t see anybody else. Nelson has made some nice plays. The touchdown he made in the Giants game, he extends in the end zone, they roll to the right and he makes a spectacular catch. I don’t think they’ve been real consistent, though. (Rodgers) has thrown some balls down the field that they’ve missed on. I was watching it might have been Minnesota, Adams dropped a ball down the field. I don’t see those chunk plays that we once saw from this offense. It was always, they’re going to gash, then they’re going to throw the red-zone screen. I haven’t seen a whole lot of that dynamic."
Eddie Lacy: The scout considers Lacy underused. Lacy's 295 yards ranks No. 16 in the NFL, and his 54 carries is tied for No. 21.
“They don’t give him the ball that much, but hell, every time they do it’s damn near a five-yard carry,” the scout said. “I don’t know if they do it enough. For that guy to have 11 carries (in a game), 13, carries, 12 carries – you need to hand the ball to him 20, 25 times a game.
“It’s really an unusual decision for them to go with two running backs (on the team) too. It’s really a strange way to set your roster.”
There are plenty of ways McCarthy might try to get his offense operating back at a high level. Changing up skill personnel more often to give defenses different looks and tailor calls to players’ strengths; throwing more quick passes to enhance the passing game's rhythm; and using more bunch and rub routes to help receivers get open, rather than relying on them to win isolation routes.
But the scout thinks McCarthy’s best bet is turning more to Lacy even though Lacy has an ankle injury that’s limited him in practice this week. The scout recalled seeing the tape of the Packers’ 28-7 win over Dallas last season when Lacy’s physical style was too much (124 yards and a 5.2-yard average) for the Cowboys’ front seven, and what that did for the offense as a whole.
“I don’t think they’ve run the ball as much as they should,” he said. “They’re not an offensive line that totally blows you off the line, but I think they’re good enough to get in your way and allow the back to do some damage to you.
“Then you have to worry about the play action stuff, which still is one of Aaron Rodgers’ real strengths.”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.