Dougherty: Stale, stagnant Packers face rougher road to 2016 repeat
Ten games into their 2016 season, the Green Bay Packers looked finished.
They were 4-6 and on a four-game losing streak that included blowout losses at Tennessee (47-25) and Washington (42-24) the previous two weeks. Aaron Rodgers wasn’t playing well, and it looked like coach Mike McCarthy had lost his team.
Think back to that time and be honest. Did you write off that team?
Yeah, pretty much everyone did, and pretty much everyone was wrong. Rodgers famously predicted the Packers could run the table and then did it with his play, all the way to the NFC Championship game.
Eight games into the 2018 season, the Packers and Rodgers find themselves in a similar state. At 3-4-1, theirs is only the 10th-best record in the 16-team NFC.
They’re coming off back-to-back road losses to the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots. Rodgers again isn’t playing anything like an MVP, and McCarthy’s unevenly performing team is giving off a distinctly stale vibe.
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The lesson from ’16 is to not make rash judgments and become a prisoner of what has happened most recently when you’re only halfway through the NFL season. Things can change fast in this league based on quarterback play alone.
But then we have to ask, is there good reason to think these Packers can turn it around just like they did 2016? Are there enough similarities to think McCarthy will rally his team again this year? Is the feeling this season the same as it was at this time two years ago?
“Similar,” receiver Davante Adams said. “… We’ve just got to get rolling.”
“We've lost games before here, but this just feels different,” receiver Randall Cobb told ESPN.com.
It’s hard not to agree more with Cobb, for reasons we’ll get into shortly. But here’s a quick breakdown of what’s the same and different from 2016.
Very much like ’16, Rodgers is playing below the MVP-candidate standards that are his norm and a must for this team to win.
In that 4-6 start two years ago, Rodgers had a 96.0 rating. He played most of those games with an undermanned receiving corps and a weak running back group comprised of fast-aging James Starks, converted receiver Ty Montgomery and fullback Aaron Ripkowski.
But then Rodgers went on a spectacular run. In the last six games he put up a 121.0 rating that included 15 touchdown passes and no interceptions. He played as well as he ever had and carried his team.
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Through eight games this season Rodgers has a similar rating (98.9) and a completion percentage (60.6) that for a full season would rank as the lowest of his career as a starter. An additional tidbit here: Rodgers’ adjusted completion percentage (i.e., minus throwaways and spikes), according to Pro Football Focus, ranks No. 16 in the NFL this year. In ’16 he tied for 16th.
Unlike in ’16, Rodgers has played injured. His sprained left knee cost him mobility and a lot of practice time early in the season and probably affected his throwing, too.
But he’s getting healthier now. He didn’t wear a brace against New England last week and had his first full week of practice this week.
His running gait looks good, though his speed isn’t all the way back. He’ll need it soon to be at his playmaking best to save the season.
More importantly, there’s the deteriorating chemistry between Rodgers and McCarthy. You don’t have to be an insider to see that the quarterback and play caller aren’t in tune. Rodgers’ body language during the dry spells tells all. If those two don’t find a spark, somehow, some way, their blasé offense will never take off.
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Late in ’16 Rodgers had one thing these Packers don’t: Jared Cook. It’s no coincidence that Rodgers took off when Cook returned from a high-ankle sprain for the 10th game that year. In the final 10 weeks, playoffs included, Cook caught 42 passes for 606 yards and three touchdowns. He was the missing threat.
No one like that is coming to Rodgers’ rescue this year.
On the other hand, these Packers have a real running back in Aaron Jones, if they ever decide to get him 20 touches a game. And they have two rookie receivers, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, who are producing and improving.
This year’s Packers also have at least a fighting chance defensively, as low as that bar might be. In ’16 they couldn’t get stops because they didn’t have a starting-caliber cornerback after Sam Shields’ season-ending concussion in Week 1. This year they’ve got real cover talent in Kevin King and rookie Jaire Alexander, and depth with Bashaud Breeland and rookie Josh Jackson. King’s fragile health is the weak link there.
But really, the Packers’ hopes for a second-half run mostly come down to Rodgers and McCarthy elevating the quarterback’s play back to an MVP level.
There’s no getting around that their offense looks and feels stagnant, and has going back to early last season. Whether it’s play caller and quarterback committing to give Jones the ball more, or mixing in a Patriots’-like hurry-up no-huddle rather than the slow-play no-huddle the Packers use, or something else entirely, the Packers are desperate for a jump start and an identity. This team’s No. 19 ranking in scoring is criminal.
Rodgers has rallied the team in the past, in words and deed. In 2014, he famously told fans to “R-E-L-A-X” after a 1-2 start, then went to the NFC title game. In ’16, he said the Packers could “run the table,” and they did.
But he can go to that well only so often and keep his credibility.
When asked if he had a similar message now, Rodgers said, “Well, you asked a question so it’s not authentic, and those two were authentic responses to questions (in ’14 and ’16). So when prompted I just feel like we have to play better, consistently, 60 minutes, try to eliminate some of the lows we’ve been having. We have to play with confidence and play up to the level we’re capable of playing.”
Not exactly win one for the Gipper, or even the Zipper. But only eight games in, the Packers well know their 2018 season already is on the line.