The Packers turned in another up-and-down, ultimately disappointing performance at Minnesota Sunday night, which only intensifies Mike McCarthy’s already hot seat. The 13th-year head coach has become a receptacle for criticism, much of it adhering to the same theme: that his offensive system is stale.
The first problem is this analysis is a few years too late (more on that in a moment). The second—and much bigger—problem is it gives Aaron Rodgers a pass for the highly inconsistent way he executes this offense.
Please understand, you’re not reading an Aaron Rodgers Hot Take. At least, not according to discussions that occur within the NFL. Around the league, Rodgers is regarded as an incredible but imperfect quarterback. Outside the NFL, Rodgers is basically viewed as a god. It has somehow become heretical to say anything critical of him.
Rodgers is the most physically talented quarterback of all-time; 32 NFL GMs would be happy to build their team around him. When he’s clicking, he’s magnificent. But Rodgers does not click with the regularity of a Drew Brees, Tom Brady or even a resurgent Andrew Luck. There is no stat that captures throws that should be made but aren’t, or throws that could have been made on-schedule but were made off-schedule. If these categories existed, Rodgers would have as many as any quarterback, every year. He’s a scintillating sandlot player who goes into sandlot mode way too often.
Yes, Rodgers’s unique style, which few QBs have enough talent to call upon, has led to some of his most spectacular plays. But in the aggregate, it also creates the illusion of dysfunction around him. To television viewers, Rodgers runs around because his O-line breaks down. Or because, presumably, receivers aren’t getting open. And they’re not getting open because the scheme isn’t helping them. Sometimes this is the case. But just as often, the glitches aren’t coming from everyone around the quarterback, but from the quarterback himself.
What’s most befuddling: Right when you start to think Rodgers will forever read the field with the choppiness of a rookie, he starts slinging the ball with perfectly disciplined timing and rhythm. When that switch is flipped, Rodgers borders on unstoppable. His greatness reaches such a level that, when the switch is flipped back, you understand why outside observers can’t help but assume the problem is everyone else.
This is where McCarthy is getting victimized. A great illustration of Rodgers’s unevenness came two weeks ago in Green Bay’s win over Miami. The Packers faced a 4th-and-2 near midfield. The Dolphins are a zone D that almost always plays nickel. Knowing their nickel would keep two linebackers on the field, McCarthy put in a fourth receiver and aligned Davante Adams in the backfield, so their top weapon could run his route against those overmatched linebackers. Adams did, breaking open on a short-angle route right in Rodgers’s immediate line of vision. The play worked perfectly. And Rodgers, for reasons not even Sigmund Freud could figure out, tried to break down and extend the play. A quick-strike play like this can’t be extended, though, and naturally, the protection cracked and Rodgers was sacked.
A DEEPER EXPLANATION OF THIS FOURTH-DOWN PLAY:‘Exactly 100 out of 100 NFL play designers would tell you this route is wide open’
Imagine if it had been Sean McVay putting Brandin Cooks at running back. Or Andy Reid putting Tyreek Hill there. Their genius would have been heralded once again. On a big fourth down gamble the offensive mastermind puts his best wide receiver at running back and catches the defense off balance! Boy, you never know what this coach will do next!
Of course, McVay’s QB or Reid’s QB (or almost any team’s QB) would have thrown the ball on that play. McCarthy’s QB didn’t, and so, to outside observers, McCarthy’s creativity here never existed.
That creativity lately has shown up on other plays, too. In fact, this season, McCarthy’s offensive scheme has evolved dramatically. Early in the year, it was mostly just the simple spread formations that propagate isolation routes—that’s the unimaginativeness McCarthy has been dogged for over the years. Most likely he played this way because it accommodated Rodgers’s sandlot tendencies. It worked when the Packers had the right veteran receivers. But with an aging Jordy Nelson gone, James Jones long gone, and Randall Cobb either out injured or not looking like himself, the Packers this season have had to rely on callow, rookie receivers who are not yet capable of getting open on their own or finding the defense’s soft spots when Rodgers extends plays.
So, McCarthy has scrapped some of the iso-spread passing concepts for newer-age designs. He has used spread formations this November about half as often as he did in September. More importantly, he’s used condensed formations, with receivers aligned tight to the formation, about three times as often. Those condensed sets are the same thing McVay uses in L.A. It gives receivers more field to work with, which propagates more schematic variables in the passing game and a more natural intertwinement of routes. It also creates congestion for a defense, rendering coverages more predictable. This makes it easier for a QB to anticipate open throws. And, receivers who align tight to the formation are in better position to block safeties in the running game, which makes play-action off of that even more believable. On a related note, the Packers have also employed more snaps of two-tight end personnel, which diversifies a scheme, particularly on the ground.
The results of McCarthy’s updated approach have been mixed, in part because Rodgers’s execution has been mixed. Still, it’s reasonable to keep McCarthy on the hot seat; even with his improved approach, he’s far from flawless. But when evaluating McCarthy, we must admit that his quarterback is far from flawless, too.
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