DETROIT – The Green Bay Packers are in some early trouble.
It’s not just that they’re 2-2-1 after a poor performance in their 31-23 loss to NFC North Division rival Detroit, a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggested.
The Packers have had bad starts before and rebounded. Think 2014, when after opening 1-2 Aaron Rodgers told everyone to R-E-L-A-X. Those Packers ended up playing in the NFC championship game.
They’ve also been in more dire straits, such as 2016, when they were 4-6 at one point. Rodgers said they’d run the table, and sure enough they did, all the way to the conference title game again.
But there were no admonitions or bold predictions Sunday. Not after Rodgers’ and coach Mike McCarthy’s offense put in another horrid first half, the third in five games this season, and coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense, a week after pitching a shutout against Buffalo rookie Josh Allen, was battered and gashed when matched against a real NFL quarterback.
“Concerned is kind of a buzz word that’s going to make a headline if I agree with you,” Rodgers said when asked if he’s concerned, “so I’m going to say I’m aware of where we’re at and we have to play better, myself included. I got to start faster, like we’ve done over the years.”
Watching the Packers through one-third of the 2018 season, you don’t get the feel of a dangerous team in the making. Take that for what it’s worth. NFL playoff history is littered with teams that advanced to or even won Super Bowls with .500 records far later in the season than this.
Tom Silverstein and Pete Dougherty try to make sense of Sunday's 31-20 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Packers News
But you have to wonder where it’s going to come from for these Packers. As has been the case going back to 2011, the offense has to carry this team. It has to get ahead early and keep the foot on the gas to cover up the chronic defensive shortcomings, starting with the lack of a pass rush.
But three times in five weeks now — Chicago and Washington were the others — Rodgers and McCarthy have put in abysmal first halves. Rodgers’ injured left knee hasn’t helped matters, but that’s not the only issue, and neither was Sunday’s absence of receivers Randall Cobb (hamstring) and Geronimo Allison (concussion).
“I’ve got to play better from the start,” Rodgers said. “And I expect to, and I will and we’ve got to give our defense, you know, some more help.”
One of Rodgers’ great assets is turning bad plays into good ones by breaking the pocket and finding somebody downfield. McCarthy has even built those improvisations into his offense.
But off and on over the years it’s been very much a double-edged sword, because things bog down when Rodgers too often passes up an open receiver early in hopes of finding something better later. The Lions, in fact, invited that by rushing only four, giving second and third efforts to chase him down when Rodgers moved around, and covering with seven or even sometimes eight players.
Twice the Lions strip-sacked Rodgers on extended plays in the first half that led directly to 10 big points and a 24-0 halftime deficit that was just too much to overcome.
“I had a couple real bad ones,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers’ final numbers looked good — he passed for 442 yards and a 108.0 rating — but he did not play well. Two lost fumbles don’t show up in passer rating, but they surely change games just as much as interceptions. And as he has the last few weeks, he missed a couple big throws that could have changed the game, too.
“If I hit Davante (Adams) on that first drive he might score on a crossing route,” Rodgers said.
Funny enough, even with their poor performance Sunday, the Packers could have been in this game if Mason Crosby had just made his kicks. Five misses (four field goals, one extra point), well, that was astounding.
You can’t just add those 13 points to the score and say the Packers would have won, because Detroit would have played differently. If Matthew Stafford had needed another score or two, is there good reason to think the Lions quarterback wouldn’t have gotten them against this defense?
Still, if Crosby makes his kicks, it’s a different ballgame.
One of the problems the Packers face going forward is that unlike running the table in ’16, for instance, they face a very challenging schedule. This was a game they needed for the "W" column against a division rival that’s trying for a quick rebuild with a new coach.
This week the Packers are fortunate to be catching the Jimmy Garoppolo-less San Francisco 49ers, and then they have a bye to get healthy, which will be a godsend for Rodgers.
But after that they play at the best team in the NFC (Los Angeles Rams) and at the NFL’s perennial power (Tom Brady’s New England Patriots) in back-to-back road games on each coast. They also travel to one of the tougher venues in the league, Seattle, even if the Seahawks aren’t the team they were a couple years ago. And they go to Minnesota and Chicago in the final six weeks of the season.
In any event, does anybody else feel a sense of déjà vu? The Packers, as they always seem to, struggle, scrimp and fight their way through the season, play horribly enough at times to look like they’re going nowhere, only to manage to get into the playoffs because of their quarterback. There they eventually get bounced when they’ve run out of gas.
After Sunday’s defeat, McCarthy and Rodgers said the things coaches and players always say after defeats, such as making corrections, moving on to the next game, and staying in the hunt. The Packers will do all those things, and they’re surely stay in the hunt in an NFC North where early leader Chicago (3-1) is still highly suspect, and favorite Minnesota is in the same boat as the Packers (2-2-1).
But if you were waiting for the Packers to finally have a season where they look like a championship contender from start to finish, well, this isn’t it. They’re still just the most predictable team in the NFL.