Monday December 28th, 2015

The Packers are 10–5 on the season, they have a pretty good shot at winning the NFC North, and they have clinched a spot in the playoffs for the seventh straight season. They have won 10 or more games in six of those seven years, coach Mike McCarthy has long been hailed as one of the NFL’s leading offensive architects, and everybody knows how great Aaron Rodgers is.

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Which makes Green Bay’s offensive malaise this season all the more confusing. In their 38–8 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday, the Packers were shut out in the first half for the second time in a month. Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times, the most takedowns he’s suffered in a single game since the third week of the 2012 season against the Seahawks (the “Fail Mary” game), and the Packers gained just 70 yards in the first half. Before being replaced by Scott Tolzien for his own preservation, Rodgers completed just 15 of 28 passes for 151 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and between his offensive line’s issues and his receivers’ inability to get open, Green Bay’s franchise quarterback was constantly under pressure.

Yes, the line was a disaster; yes, the receivers are maddeningly inconsistent; and yes, Rodgers needs to play more consistently. But it’s very clear that Green Bay’s primary issue on offense is a series of route concepts that would have been out of date 40 years ago: a series of straight vertical routes with very few combination concepts to create easy openings and almost nothing up the middle to give Rodgers easy reads. It’s something I illustrated in November, and things haven’t changed much since.

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McCarthy has tried pretty much everything except, you know, expanding his route concepts. He’s said that he’s tired of the negative talk. He’s said that he wants his players to execute more cleanly. He’s said the offensive play concepts are just fine, even as he took back play-calling duties from associate head coach Tom Clements. Rodgers has expressed frustration in a passing game that has missed top receiver Jordy Nelson for the entire season, and he has just cause for that frustration—when the coaches aren’t scheming around their personnel, it’s a serious problem.

Meanwhile, in the Valley of the Sun, the 13–2 Cardinals have what may be the most diverse and effective passing game in the NFL, led by a head coach in Bruce Arians who, unlike McCarthy, is currently living all the way up to his reputation. Like McCarthy, Arians has a quarterback in Carson Palmer who fits his system perfectly, but Palmer is currently thriving in that ideal situation. Against Green Bay, Palmer completed 18 of 27 passes for 266 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, and he could rest fairly easy as Green Bay’s offense sputtered.

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Unlike McCarthy, Arians is obsessed with making things as easy as possible for his quarterback, designing as many explosive passing plays as possible. He believes in the run game, and he believes in the central concept of the vertical passing game: If you’re sending your speed receivers upfield, you’d better keep one or more receivers underneath for some easy reads. I also wrote about Arians’s passing concepts in November, and if anything, he’s expanded his palette since then to create an offense that is nearly impossible to stop when it’s firing on all cylinders.

Two teams with great coaches and terrific quarterbacks met on Sunday. The team with the coach and quarterback building off each other’s strengths coasted to victory, while the coach-quarterback pairing still searching for answers got a good look at just how much ground there is to make up at the top of the NFC standings.

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