GREEN BAY, Wis. — Preseason or not, NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers’ first-team offense have hardly looked like the group that led the NFL in scoring last season.
In six drives so far through two games, including the Packers’ 35-10 loss Thursday night at home to the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay’s starters have produced only seven total points with one interception, and, most disturbingly to coach Mike McCarthy, two fumbles lost.
“We turned the damn ball over too much,” McCarthy said when asked to assess the first-team offense after two games. “I don’t care if it’s preseason, scrimmage, practice, it’s something that needs to stop. There’s no excuse for that. As much as we train taking care of the football and emphasize it, it’s important that the things you do every single day in your practice structure show up on game days.
“We’ve got to take care of the football.”
In the Packers’ first preseason game in San Diego last week, it was a botched handoff exchange between Rodgers and starting running back James Starks on the opening drive. Against the Browns, it was a fumble by wide receiver Randall Cobb after he was stripped of the ball along the sideline after an 8-yard completion.
Turnovers were not a problem last season, as the Packers finished with the second fewest in the entire league. With ball security being one of the most important factors in McCarthy’s offensive system, his starters turning the ball over three times in six possessions this preseason is not going to go over well in the meeting rooms this week.
Rodgers’ combined statistics are 8 of 19 passing for 75 yards with one touchdown and one interception. But considering that starting wide receiver Greg Jennings (concussion) and starting tight end Jermichael Finley (quadriceps) have missed both games, Starks (turf toe) was out Thursday night and new running back acquisition Cedric Benson has not played yet, this is not what the Packers offense will look like on Sept. 9 when the regular season begins with an NFC showdown at home against the San Francisco 49ers.
That’s why Rodgers is trying to keep these past two games — both losses — in perspective.
“It’s preseason,” Rodgers said after the game. “You want to do well, but it’s more about kind of your feel in the pocket. We run some no-huddle stuff most of the time, so (it’s) how the play-thoughts are hitting your mind and your ability to make a quick decision on what you’re seeing and what kind of routes you want to get into and what adjustments. We made a lot of adjustments at the line of scrimmage tonight, and it’s about a feel out there.
“Obviously you want to score every possession. We had a couple runs our last couple preseasons of doing that, but sometimes things happen that prevent you from doing that. We don’t want the turnovers, obviously, but I think we’re happy where we’re at. It’s preseason.”
Rodgers and Jordy Nelson did have a Lambeau Leap moment on Green Bay’s first drive of Thursday’s game. Two plays after Rodgers missed Nelson wide open in the end zone — a play both players attributed to Nelson having a mistimed step — the two connected on a well-thrown pass over Browns cornerback Joe Haden that was an even better catch.
Those were the types of plays that helped the Packers to a 15-1 regular-season record last year. They also carried Rodgers to 45 touchdown passes and just six interceptions on his way to an NFL single-season record for quarterback rating.
That’s why it’s difficult to think that these six drives will be indicative of the way Green Bay’s starters will perform once the wins and losses start to count.
Jennings, Finley, Starks and Benson are expected to be ready by then, and McCarthy will begin to call plays on offense with the intention of winning as opposed to getting a look at certain packages, as he currently is doing.
By then, Rodgers also will have had three more weeks of working with his new center, veteran Jeff Saturday, who signed with the Packers this offseason after a 13-year, five-Pro Bowl career with Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
“As an offense, we’ve still got work to do,” Saturday said. “We definitely didn’t accomplish anything yet, but it doesn’t count yet. We have to keep getting better and keep improving in practice. I think the feel has been good. This week was better than last week for us, and I felt like it was meshing together better.”
The one aspect of the starting offense that has not found its way yet is the running game. Last week, Starks had five carries for 16 yards with a fumble and a dropped pass before exiting with an injury. With Starks out Thursday, Alex Green, who is still on a limited snap count as he continues to recover from a torn ACL suffered last season, had four rushing attempts for 16 yards.
Without any breakout runs from Green, it was Rodgers who led the team in rushing with 24 yards on two scrambles.
“I think we need to run the ball a little bit better,” Rodgers said when asked what the offense needs to do the rest of the preseason. “I was looking at the stats; I think we had 22 yards on 16 carries other than the two of us (quarterbacks).
“We’re not going to do the things we want to do on offense if we can’t win the down, as we like to say on those rushing attempts. We need to do a better job of that.”
There is no reason to rush to judgment about the Packers’ first-team offense yet. With the exception of Saturday at center in place of Scott Wells and Benson at running back instead of Ryan Grant, this is the same group of offensive players that exceeded 40 points in six games last season.
As Rodgers stated on several occasions after the game, this is just preseason.