On Sunday, head coach Mike McCarthy called plays for the first time this season. With a heavier reliance on the run game, a knack for ‘building offense,’ and keeping Aaron Rodgers in structure, the Packers looked a lot like the Super Bowl contender they were expected to be
Let’s get something clear: Green Bay’s season will not be reanimated because of the miraculous Hail Mary victory at Detroit last Thursday. That’s precisely how the narrative is about to play out, thanks to America’s tendency to Disneyfy every storyline. But the performance in Detroit was a microcosm of what, to that point, had been a very disappointing season for the Packers. The Hail Mary was the ultimate sandlot play from Aaron Rodgers, obscuring the passing game’s utter lack of rhythm and continuity. Overall, last Thursday was a very poor offensive showing.
Coach Mike McCarthy verified this by reclaiming the play-calling duties from associate head coach Tom Clements this week. The last time McCarthy had called plays at Lambeau Field was last season’s divisional round win over Dallas. He faced the same foe again Sunday.
McCarthy’s impact was evident from the outset. On second-and-six on Green Bay’s second drive, he called an off-tackle split-zone run for Eddie Lacy out of a two-back set with Randall Cobb motioning to an offset wing position. Lacy’s run gained 18 yards. Two plays later, on second-and-eight, the Packers showed the exact same formation (including Cobb’s motion) and did play-action off the same run look, this time with James Starks. The play was designed to hit Cobb on a rollout in the flat; after some hesitation, Rodgers did, for four yards.
It wasn’t a big gain, but the concept was what’s important. McCarthy was “building offense”—calling plays that worked off previous plays and that set up future plays. It’s what good offenses do and, frankly, it wasn’t common enough under Clements, where the Packers seemed to run one isolated play after another.
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Cobb was at the forefront of many of McCarthy’s calls. Early in the game, when the Cowboys were playing a lot of zone (a bizarre choice, by the way, given Dallas’s recent success in man-to-man and the immense difficulty Green Bay’s receivers have had in separating from press coverage), Cobb was often the primary option out of his usual slot position. That’s because against zone coverage, the slot receiver draws mismatches against safeties and linebackers.
As the game progressed and Dallas expanded its coverages, Cobb moved around, including into the backfield, where he got meaningful touches. This has been a Packers staple in 2015, though McCarthy amplified the approach by using it on successive possessions, with Cobb being the focal point in route combinations. Cobb also got three carries. The mere threat alone that he poses makes the backfield gambit worthwhile. Case in point: James Starks’s 13-yard touchdown catch-and-run was aided by a misdirection design that began with a fake handoff to Cobb.
Though Cobb has been up and down this season, he’s not the Packers receiver who needs help from the play designs. That would be James Jones and, especially, the floundering Davante Adams. Instead of consistently spreading both receivers wide in static 2 x 2 or 3 x 1 sets, McCarthy diversified his formations, even putting his wideouts in some stack alignments in order to compromise the spacing of Dallas’s cornerbacks. This is the wrinkle that’s been so badly missing from Green Bay’s attack.
McCarthy did all this without drifting away from Green Bay’s West Coast spread foundation. Frustrating as it has been to watch Packers receivers struggle out of widened 2 x 2 and 3 x 1 sets, those sets are still the fulcrum of Green Bay’s slant- and seam-based passing attack. And the spacing from those formations still propagates a lot of Rodgers’s sandlot playmaking.
This season, the Packers have been entirely too dependent on that playmaking. What success they were having seemed to come only after Rodgers extended the play. Everything was happening out of structure. Rodgers is great out of structure, but no quarterback can be consistent this way. McCarthy understands the value of a sandlot quarterback, but more importantly, he understands that the less the Packers rely on Rodgers’ sandlot mode, the more valuable it becomes. Sandlot will always be a part of Rodgers’ game; for Green Bay’s offense to evolve, it must be no more than a significant branch on Rodgers’ tree, not the tree’s trunk.
Really, Rodgers is a quarterback who needs disciplined football imposed upon him via the play’s design. With no leash, he’ll too often play out of structure. With a tight leash, you constrict his greatness. Give him a long leash and you’re all set. Jay Cutler is the same way. So is Russell Wilson. And perhaps the best example of all: a younger Ben Roethlisberger.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder McCarthy kept the ball on the ground 40 times on Sunday (discounting scrambles and kneel-downs). The tone was set immediately with four run calls to open the game. Aside from a futile third quarter, the ground game kept the Packers ahead in the down-and-distance, fostering Rodgers’s discipline. Eddy Lacy’s season has been uneven at best, and some weeks his reps have declined accordingly. The one upside to this is it leaves the 230-pounder bruiser fresh for the stretch run. Lacy—and Starks, for that matter—got stronger as the game progressed on Sunday; the two backs combined for 103 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
A freshly balanced, newly rhythmic offense paired with a young, talented defense that’s versatile in both scheme and personnel? The Packers, just in time for the holidays (oh, and the postseason) may finally start looking like the Super Bowl contender we all expected.