Dougherty: Packers must point to 2019 to salvage something from dismal season

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers is dejected after not converting on 3rd down during the 2nd half of the Green Bay Packers 24-17 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, in Chicago. Photo by Mike De Sisti / The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

CHICAGO – Different coach, same team.

Whatever lift the Green Bay Packers gained from firing Mike McCarthy lasted exactly one week. On Sunday at Soldier Field, the Packers returned to the kind of performance that ultimately cost McCarthy his job in their 24-17 loss to the Chicago Bears, who clinched the NFC North title in what had to be an immensely satisfying win over their great rival to the north.

It wasn’t that the Packers didn’t play hard or have their moments. They did both. But as has often been the case this season, their quarterback and their offense failed to make the plays that win games when they had the chance. So as has often been the case this year, a winnable game ended in defeat.

Granted, the challenge was greater this week against the Bears, who might have the best defense in the NFL. Chicago is ranked No. 1 in defensive passer rating and No. 3 in points, and was coming off a game in which it had held one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses, the Los Angeles Rams, to season lows in points (six) and yards (214).

Still, the big question when team president/CEO Mark Murphy fired McCarthy and promoted Joe Philbin two weeks ago was how it would affect Aaron Rodgers. Would their quarterback look more like a two-time NFL MVP? Or would he play as he had for McCarthy in this underachieving season that has seen the Packers now drop to 5-8-1?

In the first game under Philbin, last week against Atlanta, there were small signs of improvement. Rodgers looked a little sharper and a little looser. The offense’s tempo and rhythm seemed a little better.

But Sunday against the Bears, not so much.

Sure, there were times when the ball came out fast, a couple slants from the days of old, and no issues with substitutions or flirting with delay-of-game penalties. That was a little better than earlier in the season. Rodgers, too, had a couple great throws.

But as has been the case shockingly often this season, Rodgers (68.9 rating Sunday) missed — or at least appeared to miss — several throws that could have won the game. For most of his career he has put the ball on the money as well as any passer the NFL has seen, but this year it has been jarring to watch him overshoot or over-lead an open receiver several times a game.

On Sunday, for instance, he missed a big third-down throw to an open Equanimeous St. Brown on what should have been a 23-yard touchdown in the second quarter. That cost the Packers four points. In the second half, with the game up for grabs at 14-14, he overthrew Randall Cobb deep on a scramble throw, then a play later on third down overshot a deep ball to Marquez Valdes-Scantling for what could have been a 77-yard touchdown.

There’s the difference in the game.

Rodgers made his bones hitting these passes. Routinely putting them on the money is the reason he came into this season with a 94-48 record. Yet this year he's missed more than he's hit.

After the game Rodgers acknowledged missing his share of throws this year but talked around whether he has been any less accurate than usual.

Rodgers, for instance, said he threw too far inside to Valdes-Scantling, but said Soldier Field’s swirling winds got hold of the deep ball to Cobb. He also lamented the injuries that have bounced the veteran Cobb in and out of the lineup all season, and he said that the recurring issue in the passing game has been “details.”

“Some of the ones you probably think are missed throws maybe we’re just not on the same page,” he said.

If the Packers had come down to Soldier Field and won, and Rodgers had played great, it would have given Philbin a real shot at replacing McCarthy next season. That obviously didn’t happen.

Philbin still might be a candidate, because he has been a head coach before and has an excellent reputation in the organization. But he also was part of the old regime, and this was the game he could have set himself apart and shown he makes a difference in Rodgers’ play.

Regardless, the Packers are now officially out of the playoff race, so they’re left to play out their final two games with nothing at stake but professional pride and impressing the bosses going into the offseason.

Rodgers said his groin tightened at the end of the first half and bothered him the rest of the game, but neither he nor Philbin allowed for the possibility the quarterback would sit the final two games.

Play he should. The Packers need to get started on 2019, and Rodgers has two more games to work on the details with rookies Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown. Those games shouldn’t go to waste playing DeShone Kizer instead.

They have to salvage something from this lost season. After the investment they made in their quarterback this year, they can’t have any more like it.


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