Why the Packers Stink: How Mike McCarthy Broke his Franchise QB
I originally planned on putting together a several thousand-word spiel on this topic, but as I begun to dig into that, I remembered the acronym KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. So, I’ll try and be concise. For quite some time, people have been curious about what’s been out of order with the Packers. This tends to happen when you transform from one of the league’s most potent and efficient offenses to a struggle symposium. It also helps nothing that Aaron Rodgers (who I still think is the best QB in the league) hasn’t quite looked like himself since the offense cratered. Some think Rodgers’ best days are behind him. While I can’t deny that he doesn’t look like the Aaron Rodgers of old, I hardly think he’s on a slow boat to Washedington. In fact, I think that with some schematic adjustments, he could end up being even better than ever.
The subtitle for this piece is “How Mike McCarthy broke his franchise quarterback” because I think his offense is mostly to blame for the issues here. What changed about his offense from 2014 (Rodgers’ MVP season) to now? Nothing. That’s the problem. The offense still features a high amount of isolation routes; routes that do not intersect with each other at any point. In other words, success in this type of pass offense depends on receivers who can either separate from their defenders, make plays while covered, or both. If these receivers cannot make themselves available quickly enough, the pressure is on the quarterback to extend the play until at least one does so. As we all know, Aaron Rodgers is more than capable of extending a play past its expiration date. The 2014 Packers thrived offensively because they featured two Pro Bowl wideouts playing at a high level, and a viciously effective rushing attack. When Jordy Nelson went down with a torn ACL before the 2015 season started THAT should’ve been McCarthy’s cue to make some schematic changes. Instead? Nada! They just threw James Jones back into the mix and proceeded as if nothing happened. And that was okay, for a little while. Remember that viciously effective rushing attack I mentioned earlier? Gone. That… is a problem. Here’s why: your team’s run game has a very strong impact on the efficiency of its pass game. When you are highly successful at running the ball, teams will typically move a safety down closer to the line of scrimmage. This means that safety can’t cover deep with ease. This typically stresses the lone deep safety, creating opportunities down the field. This also gives you an effective play action game. When you pair the loss of your best receiver with a major decline in the effectiveness of the run game, you get something I like to call, a complete fucking disaster.
“But Randall Cobb was the other Pro Bowl wideout you mentioned, right? He should naturally step up!” That didn’t quite go as planned, either. Between nagging injuries and defenses being able to better key in on him, he struggled to carry the slack created by the loss of Nelson and the run game becoming weak sauce. What did not help matters there, were the receivers behind him. After Randall Cobb, the Packers had James Jones, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, and Jeff Janis…not exactly a group you write home about. Now, I’m sure they were (and are) lovely, kind souls. But when it comes to the art of separation? Not very good! As I mentioned, Aaron Rodgers is very capable of extending plays. However, nobody can extend a play ad infinitum. When those receivers simply don’t get open, the quarterback is left to choose from one of four options: throw into coverage while trusting your target to make a play, throw the ball away, try and pick up yardage on the ground, hold the ball until you take a sack. When your receivers aren’t good/great, option one typically yields little fruit.
Fast forward to 2016. Jordy Nelson is back, but not quite better than ever. ACL tears usually take the athlete an extra year to regain form, but at 32, it’s fair to wonder how much better he can get. Unfortunately, the offense (save for a healthy romp over the Chicago Bears), doesn’t look much better. The problem is more of the same: a heavy dose of isolation routes. The run game looked slightly better but not nearly as lethal as before, and what makes things worse is that top rushers in Eddie Lacy (fat) and James Starks (not good) are lost to injury. To add insult to that, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t looked like the laser surgeon he once was; missed passes, poor demeanor on the field, and even sloppy football management, losing track of defenders, which has led to seven turnovers over the first seven weeks of this season (outrageous by his standard). The offense is struggling, and he’s pressing. Rodgers isn’t guilt-free in this situation by a long shot – his fundamentals have looked spotty at times and he can stand to clean those up. He could also rein in his gunslinger habits a bit, where he has a tendency to pass up a sure quick play for a potentially explosive one. There is no blame on the Packers’ offensive line. They have been outstanding this season, giving Rodgers time to retie his cleats and massage the football before almost every throw. This goes on Mike McCarthy. With a weak run game and receivers who can’t get open downfield, defenses are more than happy to sit back in cover two all day long while Rodgers looks for windows that close in the blink of an eye.
The most frustrating part about the Packers’ woes is that they could be resolved with a few simple schematic changes. These things help your quarterback get the ball out faster. Doing so gets him in a rhythm, gets the receivers comfortable, and takes a lot of stress off of the offensive line. We saw this last Thursday against the Chicago Bears, when Aaron Rodgers was able to get 34 of his 56 pass attempts out in under 2.5 seconds, completing close to 80% of those passes (thanks PFF). While I don’t see everything from that game being sustainable (the Bears were largely consumed by their own complete implosion on offense), that is certainly an element that can be incorporated in every weekly effort. The Packers incorporated a number of short passes, where receivers can break open quickly, largely as an extension of their limited run game. There are other ways to do this, though. The New England Patriots (soulless cheaters, but very well coached) like to incorporate a number of concepts such as rub concepts (route concepts that naturally create an opening for one or multiple receivers), pre-snap motion (moving a receiver around the formation, which can give him a free release while clarifying the defensive play for the QB), and outright formation manipulation (an example of this is Tom Brady directing TE Rob Gronkowski to split out far wide to exploit linebackers in man coverage). Of course, the Packers don’t have a Gronkowski. But they don’t need one. The need is to scheme receivers open quickly, and keep defenders guessing. In doing that, you minimize the amount of situations where Rodgers is left patting the ball and scrambling, looking for an opportunity that never comes. You get the offense back on track. And you help to fix your franchise quarterback. An Aaron Rodgers who doesn’t have to make plays from nothing all day long is a quarterback who can regain his discipline, his form, and to use his term, “R-E-L-A-X.”