Despite having arguably the best quarterback in the game, Green Bay haven't clicked this season
One of the biggest stories of this NFL season has been 'what is wrong with the Green Bay Packers', or more specifically, given the importance of quarterbacks in American football, 'what is wrong with Aaron Rodgers?'.
The Packers' quarterback has been one of the league's best ever since taking over the reins from Brett Favre, but his play over the last two seasons has left many asking if he's somehow hit a wall. Which is a particular problem for Green Bay, because over those years their offense had depended primarily on Rodgers' ability to 'make plays,' to generate results regardless of what was drawn up in the huddle.
This season was supposed to be different. Last year, the Pack lost top receiver Jordy Nelson to injury in training camp. Although they started the season 6-0, they went 5-7 the rest of the way, yet still won a big playoff game in Washington before losing in overtime to the Cardinals in Arizona.
But coming off a bad loss to Dallas and a sloppy win over the Bears, the thrilling but frustrating 33-32 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta last week left Packer fans none the wiser about what is going wrong.
Rodgers came alive in this one, throwing for four touchdowns in a gunslinging showdown with Atlanta's Matt Ryan, and also leading the Pack in rushing, with 60 yards.
That, of course, is one of the problems. When Eddie Lacy is healthy, the Packers' offense is balanced. Even when he's overweight and looks more like a guard who's picked up the wrong jersey, Lacy's combination of quick feet and big power makes him hard to stop.
But he's out for the season, along with third-stringer John Crockett; second-choice James Starks is out as well. Coach Mike McCarthy didn't even have a third tailback on the squad: fullback Aaron Ripowski, who's supposed to look more like a lineman, was their second-leading runner in Atlanta. Receivers Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb both lined up at tailback, as well as undrafted rookie Don Jackson, just promoted from the practice squad.
Before the season, the Packers let all-Pro guard Josh Sitton depart rather than give him a long-term deal, but their line has not performed that badly. They've not received production from their tight ends: Jared Cook was brought in to be a downfield target, but he's missed four games and been a non-factor in the rest. Richard Rodgers, no relation to Aaron, hasn't stepped up from his limited success at tight end last year.
Defensively, the team has been challenged by the surprise retirement of big tackle BJ Raji, and a string of injuries in the secondary.
Already thinned by the loss of Casey Hayward in free agency, Sam Shields has been lost for the season. Their best corner, Demarious Randall, has been hurt most of the season too. Quentin Rollins and Demetri Goodson are in and out, and Ladarius Hunter, undrafted in 2015, had possibly the worst game I have ever seen a corner have in the week six loss to Dallas.
But injuries effect every team, and having depth or schemes to cope with that is a huge part of success. In 2015, the Pack had beaten a series of mediocre teams, and the 49ers had shown a way to slow the Pack attack down.
After their bye week they were crushed at Denver, who had clearly paid attention to the lesson San Fran were giving. Bring up an extra defender, dare Rodgers to beat you throwing, but keep him in the pocket and make his receivers get open.
The formula is still working this season: Rodgers' stats, especially completion percentage, are way down. More importantly, his trademark accuracy seems off - he's missing open receivers, and sometimes not even seeing them. Theories abound around Green Bay, stretching all the way to either unhappiness or too much happiness between Rodgers and his actress girlfriend Olivia Munn. But mostly the theories center on McCarthy, and the offense he runs.
Image: David Goldman AP/Press Association Images
McCarthy likes to isolate his receivers into one-on-one matchups, trusting in Rodgers' ability to put a pinpoint pass into the right place, and in guys like Nelson to win 50/50 balls. Without Nelson, it became apparent the Pack needed to work some scheming into their pass game: ways of using pass patterns in combination to get receivers open.
But McCarthy seems to resist stubbornly. Last season offensive coordinator Tom Clements called the plays until McCarthy took back the offense; this season Clements' title is associate head coach/offense, former running back Edgar Bennett is the coordinator, and McCarthy is still calling the plays.
This conservative approach is reflected by the team's general manager Ted Thompson. As his running backs were falling, Thompson made a conditional trade with Kansas City for reserve running back Knile Davis, a talented but fumble-prone runner who would have seemed a good fit in Green Bay two years ago. After two weeks, they released Davis and cancelled the deal.
This week the league's trading deadline passed with the Packers doing nothing to acquire either a running back or a corner, and critics pointed out the David non-trade was the only one Thompson had made in the past six years.
Green Bay did get one piece of luck. Center JC Tretter was injured against Atlanta, but the man he replaced in the lineup, Corey Linsley, is coming back from injury, so they shouldn't suffer.
But this week's opponents at Lambeau are the Indianapolis Colts, another team with defensive problems, no running game, and a quarterback who can put points on the board in Andrew Luck. Receivers TY Hilton and Donte Moncrief will pose a severe threat to whichever cornerbacks are fit enough to start for the Packers.
Their defense has been troubled by the run the past few weeks, to the point it would make sense to move ace linebacker Clay Matthews inside, where he could help stuff runs, rather than leaving him outside to pass rush.
But those are, if you pardon the pun, secondary issues. The Packers have, for years, ridden the eyes, feet, and arm of Aaron Rodgers to victory. If those elements got back into sync against the Falcons, it will be worth the loss. After all, many other teams would be happy with a 4-3 record. But in Green Bay they expect more, and if Rodgers cannot revert to the Rodgers of old, the Lambeau faithful may be doing more than just questioning.