Back in late November, just days removed from a loss at Washington that dropped his team to 4-6, Aaron Rodgers told reporters that he felt the Packers could “run the table” and finish with 10 wins. At Detroit this Sunday, Green Bay is one win away from doing just that and claiming a fifth NFC North title in six years.
During this five-game winning streak, Rodgers has posted an NFL-best 119.8 passer rating and catapulted into the MVP discussion. But more interesting than these results has been the process behind them. It’s a process that hasn’t been much different than the one behind the choppy 4-6 start. The question is whether that’s good or bad.
There’s an inherent inconsistency to Green Bay’s offensive approach. Much has been made about the receivers’ inability to separate from man coverage and how this is exacerbated by the heavy dose of isolation routes in Mike McCarthy’s system. You still see some of that on film each week, though as Jordy Nelson and Jared Cook have gotten healthier, and as Davante Adams has become more polished, it’s become less of an issue. And when it has been an issue, it’s often been camouflaged by Rodgers’ unbelievable playmaking prowess. No quarterback is more dangerous when extending the play.
But herein lies the paradox. There are many instances when Rodgers extends the play unnecessarily. This also shows up on film — maybe not every game, because Rodgers was sensational on all fronts against the Vikings last week — but certainly in most games. Receivers will get open within the context of the play’s design and Rodgers simply will not throw the ball. Often, this will happen even when he’s looking at the open guy. A good play breaks down because Rodgers chooses to break it down.
You see other quarterbacks leave open receivers on the field, though not necessarily by what appears to be choice. Usually, it’s the athletic but callow QBs (or simply the bad ones). It’s almost never a decorated veteran doing it on a regular basis like Rodgers.
What we’re talking about is undisciplined quarterbacking. Focus on Rodgers’ helmet when he drops back. Notice how much it moves left and right, like a horizontal bobble head. It’s not still and smooth because Rodgers isn’t working through his progressions like most dropback quarterbacks. He’s dropping back and just scanning the field. That can cause a quarterback to, as Greg Cosell of NFL Films has long said, see everything and nothing.
This was a big reason why the Packers struggled in the first half of the season. Rodgers has continued to play this way in the second half, only the results have been much better. The concern is about the sustainability of this approach. Rodgers is the NFL’s most talented passer (maybe ever), but his style leaves little foundation for an offense to fall back on. There’s an inherent inconsistency with it.
You could argue that part of the reason he’s thrived is that he’s had favorable circumstances around him. Some tactical errors against Minnesota aside, Green Bay’s offensive line has been incredible in pass protection for much of this season. That affords Rodgers the freedom to play off-schedule. And moving the ascending “running receiver” Ty Montgomery to the backfield has diversified Green Bay’s personnel packages in ways that most defenses are not yet equipped to handle.
If the surrounding circumstances change — say the line has a bad day, or Montgomery and the ground game dry up — Rodgers’ loose style could paint a different picture as Green Bay’s lack of foundation becomes an issue. Maybe this gets exposed against the Lions on Sunday. Before face-planting against the Cowboys, Detroit had quietly allowed only 16.5 points a game since the start of Week 7 (second best in the NFL).
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Rodgers and his unparalleled talent will simply carry the day again, kicking the can of this discussion further down the road. But inevitably, there will come a day when there’s no road left and Rodgers will have to change. The questions will be: when, and can he?