Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy are still trying to figure this out. (AP)
In 2011, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers enjoyed one of the best single seasons in NFL history. He completed 343 passes in 502 attempts for a 68.3 completion rate, 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns, and just six interceptions. The Packers were bounced out of the playoffs in their first attempt against the New York Giants, but there was no doubt that Rodgers had leapfrogged just about everybody else in the NFL to become perhaps the best quarterback in the league.
Then, there was no doubt. Now, things aren't so clear. Through five games in 2012, Rodgers has thrown almost as many interceptions (four) as he did last year, and his yards per attempt is down from 9.25 then to 6.92 now. The only game in which he didn't throw a pick came against the Seattle Seahawks, and he didn't throw a touchdown pass in that one.
Prorated through a full season, Rodgers is on pace to complete 416 passes in 605 attempts for 4,182 yards, 32 touchdowns and 13 picks. Not a bad year by most standards, but when you go 15-1 as the Packers did in 2011, and you've already doubled that loss total in 2012, there's room for serious concern. Especially when the success of your team rests resoundingly on the shoulders of your signal-caller.
On his weekly radio spot for ESPN Milwaukee, Rodgers acknowledged that he's not living up to the expectations others have for him, and those he holds for himself.
"[I've] been making just some mistakes I'm not used to making," Rodgers told Jason Wilde. "Throwing the ball to the other team — I've done that four times already. I'm fortunate [Chicago Bears linebacker Lance] Briggs dropped one against Chicago as well. Just uncharacteristic of the way I've played. [I've also] made some checks that have been unproductive, missed some throws I'm accustomed to hitting. Haven't played the way of the standard I've set."
"Their offense isn't operating the way it did through the first 13-14 games of last year," Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's "NFL Matchup" told me in our most recent matchup podcast. "I don't see the continuity in the passing game, and I think [Packers head coach] Mike McCarthy knows that. And that's why you're seeing a greater focus on the run game. Rodgers' numbers are pretty good, but when you watch the tape, you don't see the precision. You don't see Rodgers drop back, hit his back foot, and boom -- the ball comes out. He's jumping up in the pocket and moving around. He's obviously a terrific player, with maybe the best skill set of any quarterback in the league, but you're just not seeing the precision you've seen over the last couple of years."
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Whatever the reason, Rodgers has said that it's on him to fix it.
"My solemn promise is I'm going to work every day to get better. I'm going to clean up some of the things I'm not doing as well as I should. But, the proof is in the pudding. Right now I'm not getting it done. I've got to look at myself first.
"But I can tell you nothing has slipped in the way of preparation or the way that I practice or the energy and leadership that I take to it. Which is probably the most frustrating thing. You can't really point to one thing. I just haven't performed as well on Sundays as I'm used to performing."
It's also entirely possible that the Packers miss former offensive coordinator Joe Philbin more than anyone thought they might. Philbin, who is now the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, was the man in Rodgers' ear from his ascent to the starting job in 2008 through the 2011 season, was replaced this year by Tom Clements. The new guy has some interesting opinions on offensive structure, especially for a team that's put a priority on the passing game for good reason.
"We kinda talked about it in the offseason, really, we looked at some statistics," Clements recently told NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. "I don't recall the exact statistics off-hand, but there was a correlation between the number of attempts and the win/loss record. It wasn't necessarily the yardage because running the ball does a number of things. It can wear-down the defense, it can slow down the pass-rush, and if you're running the ball well, it can gain you yards. In the long-run, it's helpful. We wanted to do that, we wanted to run the ball a little more even before we got Cedric [Benson], and it makes it easier to do that because he gets positive yardage most of the time."
Benson suffered a Lisfranc injury in the Packers' Sunday loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and he could miss the rest of the season as a result. Through five weeks, he had rushed 71 times for 248 yards, a 3.5 yards-per-carry average, and just one rushing touchdown. Per Football Outsiders' metrics, he's been the 16th-most efficient back in the league in a cumulative sense, and the 21st best on a play-by-play basis.
Thanks to the New York Jets, we have seen what happens when you base your offensive philosophy on a faulty premise. One wonders how much Clements' correlation/causation confusion is contributing to the problem.
If you want to change your offensive philosophy because you truly believe that you can field a dominant run game based on personnel, that's great. But Clements appears to be endorsing one of the flimsier correlations in the game. The "run-to-win" philosophy is full of holes -- not notably, the fact that teams tend to run the ball at a much higher rate when they're ahead late in games and trying to kill the remaining time on the clock.
How do you attain the kinds of leads that allow you to pound the rock when you want to? Generally speaking, you throw the ball, and you throw it better than the Packers are right now. Aaron Rodgers has the talent and the targets to come out of this "slump" (which would still project to a career year for most other quarterbacks) at any time, but with the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears setting the pole position in the NFC North so far, he'd better do it soon.
That starts in practice, and McCarthy recently admitted that it's not going so well there, either.
"Our practice, frankly, is not quite what it needs to be, and I think it's shown up on Sundays. That was part of my message (to the team), and I have to get that out of them, that's my responsibility. We've been on an up-and-down schedule through the first month as we've talked about 10 times already, I'm sure. We were able to get into a flow of a normal schedule last week and it didn't quite look the way it needed to look.
"We need to take advantage of our (once-a-week) padded practices and hit the targets that we need to hit during the week because I clearly believe it shows up on Sundays."
It certainly does -- for a number of consecutive games, and for a number of reasons.
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