You will hear a lot of different theories as to why the Packers’ passing game is broken, and why they’ve now dropped three games in a row after losing 18–16 to the Lions on Sunday. It was the first time the Lions had won in Wisconsin since 1991, ending a 24-game streak of dominance at Lambeau Field for the Packers, and it was historic in several other ways.
Aaron Rodgers set a career high with 61 passing attempts, though he completed just 35 attempts for 333 yards and two touchdowns. Most of Rodgers’s yardage came late in the game as the Packers were mounting a furious comeback that came up short when Mason Crosby missed a 52-yard field goal with five seconds left. Before that, Rodgers had brought Green Bay’s mordant aerial attack to life with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to tight ends Richard Rodgers and Justin Perillo. After a failed two-point conversion that would’ve tied the game, the Packers got one more opportunity to pull off the win when they recovered an onside kick with 32 seconds left, but Crosby’s bid for the game-winner never had a chance.
The final result hardly falls on the shoulders of Crosby at all. It was far more about a Green Bay offense that has been struggling all season and completely out of sorts since their Week 8 loss to the Broncos. In that game, Rodgers threw for just 77 yards as Denver’s hyper-aggressive cornerbacks soaked up Rodgers’s targets, and with limited route creativity from the play-calling side, there was little for Rodgers to do. Last Sunday’s loss to the Panthers saw a bit of a return to form for Rodgers, but the offense was still falling short. This led coach Mike McCarthy to modify a plan he’d made in the off-season, when he decided that Tom Clements would be his play-caller and de facto offensive coordinator. Quarterbacks and receivers coach Alex Van Pelt would move from the box to the sideline to communicate directly with Rodgers.
On Sunday, the offense looked the same: slow in execution, not nearly creative enough to take advantage of Rodgers’s gifts and unable to sustain drives.
The numbers were not pretty. Green Bay punted nine times, the most for the franchise since 2006. It was the first time in 26 games the Packers didn’t score a first-half touchdown, breaking the NFL’s longest streak. James Starks led the team with 42 rushing yards on 15 carries, for a paltry 2.8 yards per carry average. Rodgers targeted receiver Davante Adams 18 times in this game, but Adams was only able to catch 10 of those passes for 78 yards. Rodgers completed passes to nine different receivers, but he was also out of sync with his targets on multiple occasions, and the route concepts established by Clements, or McCarthy, or whoever, again did Rodgers no favors. Outside of a brief blast of creativity with shorter routes in the first part of the game, Rodgers was forced to do what he’s been doing all season: wait for longer-developing isolation routes to open up and make plays outside of structure. Most of Rodgers’s impressive plays in this game were made that way.
I took a more detailed look at Green Bay’s passing game last week, and I’m not seeing any adjustment to the hard truth that without the injured Jordy Nelson as their No. 1 receiver, the Packers are left with a group of receivers that needs to be schemed open.
“Big picture, I am concerned for them,” analyst Kurt Warner said Sunday morning on NFL Network. “I think we’re starting to see what this defense is all about … I think we see the issues around Aaron Rodgers. But for me the most concerning thing is that Aaron Rodgers is starting to show he’s frustrated. He’s starting to miss some things.”
Sounds a lot like Warner’s prescient comments from September 2014, when the Packers were suffering from a similar strain of predictability and Rodgers told the football world to R-E-L-A-X.
“One thing, when I watch the film of them—very stagnant offensively,” Warner said. “They’re a team that kind of lines up in what they're going to line up in. They don't motion a lot, they don't get a lot of multiple formations, and I think that when they play against good teams—teams that can rush the passer—they start to struggle a little bit. I think they have some issues, and they need to change it up. If you take out Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, who's the next guy who's going to step up and be a big playmaker? I don't see it, and they're not getting it out of the backfield.”
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Coming back to the pack with their record at 6–3, and with records falling for all the worst reasons, the Packers had better realize that the issues that ail them require more than quick fixes and portable coaches. Right now, their season is circling the drain.