With the season potentially in the balance on Sunday Night Football in Week 12, the Green Bay Packers trailed the Minnesota Vikings by 10 with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter. Davante Adams shook his defender and was wide open on the near side in the end zone. Aaron Rodgers missed him.
That’s a microcosm of the entire Packers season. However, while the year has been an objective failure to this point, this was the first time a national audience got to see what more and more loyal Packers followers have seen throughout the season.
Rodgers is off.
The beautiful stat line is still there for Rodgers, in fact some of his numbers (specifically his INT%) are on pace for career bests. But that’s why you can’t assess a quarterback by box score watching.
The aforementioned throw to Adams is the most noticeably egregious throw from the loss to Minnesota. But in the first half he missed another pass to No. 17 as well that could have resulted in a score.
Continuing with the trend, it was more of the same in the third quarter.
This isn’t to say all of Rodgers’ numbers are smoke and mirrors this year. At the start of the game versus Minnesota he looked sharp. He was making crisp throws and the Packers moved the ball well.
Again, a microcosm of the season. The good has looked so good from Rodgers, but the bad has been present consistently as well. It’s not just the missed throws, though. There have been constant complaints from anyone and everyone who follows the Packers that he’s not hitting checkdowns, possibly not even looking for them. Considering he has a historically strong arm, that sounds like an odd thing to complain about, but there are moments when it seems like he might be taking shots he doesn’t need to take instead of settling for a modest gain.
Taking all of this into account, it’s valid to ask just how much Rodgers is contributing to Green Bay’s offensive plight.
Coach Mike McCarthy has been the main target of vitriol when it comes to the Packers offense and its relative sluggishness or lack of productivity this season. Hot buzzwords like “scheming players open” or “the game has passed him by” come to mind right away. To be sure, he deserves a share of the blame for his apparent reluctance to update his offense like teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams have, despite having the high-quality personnel to make a more modern offense work.
But McCarthy can only do so much from the sideline. At some point, the players themselves need to be held accountable.
Generally speaking, Rodgers deserves the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned that through a decade of excellence, records and playoff runs. That doesn’t mean he’s absolved of any blame, however.
Look at the pieces around him on offense this year. Even though he’s taken 34 sacks this year, the sixth most in the NFL through Week 12, his offensive line has been graded as one of the best in the league by Pro Football Focus. Davante Adams already has career highs in receptions (77) and receiving yards (1,022) in only 11 games. Aaron Jones is leading the NFL in yards per rush at an even six yards per attempt. There are plenty of young targets on the team who, while not necessarily consistent in individual cases, have proven that they can produce in a myriad of ways in the passing game. The pieces necessary for a successful offense are there.
If the quarterback is missing throws or not taking the easy plays, however, they can’t do their respective jobs.
Rodgers hasn’t been bad this year; again, his numbers look great, and he’s looked the same at moments this season. According to PFF, he’s third in the NFL in “big-time throws.” He’s been good this year, without question.
The seven quarterbacks in the NFL with a PFF grade of 90.0 or above so far this season. pic.twitter.com/rMUu6haOTr
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 27, 2018
It would be intellectually dishonest, however, to exclude him from discussions about Green Bay’s offensive struggles.
There are potential explanations for why Rodgers hasn’t been able to work the same kind of magic he has in previous years at this point in the 2018 campaign. It’s not absurd to question the health of his knee despite his heroics after initially injuring it in Week 1.
A prototypical flash of his brilliance, for what it’s worth.
One could also argue that maybe the lack of checkdowns/safe throws is intertwined with the perceived issues with the rest of the team and its coaching. In other words, it’s possible that Rodgers is trying too hard to make a big play when he doesn’t need to because he feels like the weight of the team rests completely on him.
Knowing the type of person No. 12 is, there’s no telling whether or not we’ll ever know the real reason his performance has felt different this year. It could be the knee, it could be mistrust in his coaches, it could be any number of things. The reason itself is irrelevant, at least as it pertains to wins and losses. All that matters is that the offense is struggling and, unlike in past years when he’s been able to drag the team kicking and screaming to victories anyway, things aren’t clicking the way they’re expected to.
Does that call into question the expectations Rodgers is always facing? Does that mean that maybe he’s done even more for this team in the past than he already gets credit for? It doesn’t hurt to ask any of these questions, whether they paint him in a positive or negative light.
In the end, the important question is this: how much blame does Aaron Rodgers deserve for the Packers offense stagnating? Certainly not all of it, but it’s willful ignorance to say he’s completely pure this year, either. Like most things in life, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
That answer sounds non-committal, but the point isn’t to start a witch hunt for a quarterback, a coach or any party. Instead, it’s to spark a necessary discussion about a future hall of famer’s role in his team failing to meet expectations.
The season isn’t over, and while Green Bay’s playoff chances are almost comically unlikely, sports are unscripted and we don’t know how things will end until all the games are played. Given his history, given what the world saw him do on a bum leg to open this season, given all we know about Rodgers, nobody would be surprised if he once again finds another gear to lead a last-second charge to the postseason.
But, unlike in years past, nobody should be surprised if he misses a key throw or two down the stretch either. Mike McCarthy can’t take all the blame for that.