From the first snap of the Packers' explosive 42--34 victory over the Saints last Thursday, quarterback Aaron Rodgers saw options he loved everywhere he looked. It was an embarrassment of riches, really. Check it out:
Tight end Jermichael Finley split wide left, wideout Jordy Nelson split right, receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver inside of him, running back Ryan Grant to the left of Rodgers. The Green Bay QB threw a nine-yard sideline dart to Jennings to start the NFL season.
September 18, 2011
Jennings and Finley (isn't he supposed to be a tight end?) split wide; a tight end, Tom Crabtree, tight to the formation; another tight end, rookie D.J. Williams, motioning out of a trips formation to line up at fullback; Grant behind Rodgers. Grant took a handoff and ran over right tackle for 10 yards. Coach Mike McCarthy says he loves the tight end, and he's not kidding—he played three on one snap and has five on the roster.
Driver in the left slot, inside of Jennings; Nelson in the right slot, Finley split wide right; Rodgers in the shotgun, with running back James Starks to his right—on third-and-goal from the New Orleans three. Where do you focus your coverage? Nelson slithered free in the middle of the end zone, and Rodgers found him for a touchdown and a 14--0 lead.
By the time Rodgers took his 18th snap—a three-yard curl to rookie receiver Randall Cobb—McCarthy had zipped through the multicolored sections of his laminated sideline play sheet and used five wide receivers, four tight ends and three backs. Rodgers has averaged 4,131 passing yards and 29 touchdowns in his first three seasons as a starter. Barring a spate of injuries worse than those the Packers suffered in 2010, when they had 15 players on IR, those numbers should be a mere baseline for Rodgers in '11, given how much better the Super Bowl champs got in the off-season.
Finley, the athletic 6'5", 247-pound tight end, has returned after missing the final three quarters of the 2010 season; he's a matchup nightmare. The Saints most often used a safety to cover Finley, and the Packers' next two foes, the Panthers and the Bears, may prefer to use a slot corner with more speed to shadow him.
Cobb's versatility promises to be one of the compelling stories of this season—not just for the Packers but also in the NFL. His 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter tied the league record. But for McCarthy, Cobb's elusiveness in the slot makes him a perfect option in man coverage, as was clear on his 32-yard catch-and-mostly-run score in the first quarter, his second reception as a pro.
Cobb is a fascinating prospect. As a senior quarterback at Alcoa High, he was Tennessee's Class AA Mr. Football. At Kentucky he played quarterback (sometimes operating out of the wildcat), running back, wide receiver and return man. On draft day in April, with the 64th selection approaching, the Packers looked at their board and saw Cobb sticking out, far above the grades of other players left, and felt they had to make the pick—even though they had no real need for him.
With such a wealth of talent, McCarthy should be able to move the chess pieces anyway he wants and be successful. According to analysis by ProFootballFocus.com, each of the Packers' four tight ends (the fifth, rookie Ryan Taylor, was inactive on Thursday) played at least nine of the 67 snaps against New Orleans, and the three running backs (Grant, Starks and John Kuhn) played at least 17 snaps each. Cobb was on for seven plays, and the other four wideouts had at least 20 apiece. As the season goes on, McCarthy may run into a problem keeping everyone happy, but for now, sit back and watch this symphonic offense do its thing. "The sky's not the limit," says Jennings. "The heavens are."