GREEN BAY, Wis. — There were very high expectations on the Packers’ group of wide receivers this season. Often considered the deepest unit of any team in the NFL and playing in a pass-first offense with superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing them the ball, Green Bay went into most games with a clear advantage in that area.
However, finishing as the league’s ninth-ranked passing offense is not enough to live up to those deservedly lofty expectations.
The Packers’ downfield passing attack this season was not nearly what it was in 2011. On a couple occasions this year, there was talk from certain wide receivers that it wasn’t their group’s fault for the decline. Both James Jones (in early October) and Greg Jennings (in early January) objected to the idea that they needed to do a better job of getting open.
“They say the wide receivers are getting jammed up, (and) it’s definitely not true,” Jones said on Oct. 11. “If you turn on the film, we’re 30 yards, 40 yards down the field every time. We’re not getting jammed up.”
Three months later, Jennings said, “We were open; we were definitely open” after it was running back DuJuan Harris — and not one of the team’s highly acclaimed wide receivers — who led Green Bay in catches on Jan. 5.
At times this season, it would have been somewhat accurate for Jones and Jennings to feel the way they did. There were plays in certain games in which one of the wide receivers broke free on a deep route but did not have the ball thrown to them. On most of those plays, Rodgers was rushed out of the pocket and had to look to his shorter reads instead of taking a shot at a longer pass. On a few of those plays in which the wide receivers did a good job of getting open, Rodgers, like even the best quarterbacks sometimes do, failed to get them the ball when he had a chance.
But the assertion from Jones and Jennings that the wide receivers weren’t at fault for a lack of big passing plays this season wasn’t always true, either. There were plenty of plays in which Rodgers had to make a shorter throw because there was no one with enough separation deeper down the field.
Therefore, like most things, the truth in this situation lies somewhere in the middle.
Rodgers completed just nine passes of 40-plus yards this season, ranking 11th among quarterbacks in that category. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman had nearly twice as many passing plays of 40 or more yards than Rodgers, and rookies Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson both had more than the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player. In 2011, Rodgers ranked fourth in this area with 13 passes of 40-plus yards.
Rodgers also dropped from sixth to ninth in passing plays of 20-plus yards, finishing with 10 fewer this season than he did a year earlier.
Rodgers is becoming increasingly risk-averse and that is a contributing factor to the dropoff in big plays. It’s with good reason that he’s been the league’s highest-rated passer the past two seasons. Rodgers prefers taking sacks and throwing shorter passes rather than forcing the ball into tight coverage deeper down the field. He still takes those shots occasionally, but it’s not with the frequency that most NFL quarterbacks try it.
That’s the one area of Rodgers’ game that the Packers’ wide receivers can point to and effectively make their claim that they were open downfield more than the statistics would suggest.
Even with that, though, Green Bay’s wideouts are working with one of the league’s best quarterbacks. More often than not, when Rodgers had time to throw and someone was open, it didn’t matter who it was to or how far the pass needed to go, the ball was thrown. That’s where Jones and Jennings can’t justify their comments about being open with plenty of separation, because it didn’t happen as much this season as it did in 2011.
“I always focus on how we’re looking to improve instead of from a numbers standpoint,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said a day after the Packers were eliminated from the postseason. “Because sometimes, don’t get me wrong, the production is great, but we always want to get better. Some of the goals we might have in mind as far as our standards, we’re striving for perfection. And the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl and obviously we did not achieve that this year. So, until we get to that stage, the production part is just secondary.”
The Packers’ offensive line played a role here, too. Rodgers was sacked 51 times this season, more than any quarterback in the NFL. Again, that’s partially because he held the ball longer than was sometimes possible instead of risking an interception. But if Rodgers had better pass protection, the wide receivers would have had an extra second to make a move and there would have been more time to attempt a deep pass.
“We succeed as a unit and we fail as a unit,” Bennett said.
Injuries were certainly a factor, as well. Jennings missed eight games with a groin injury that later required abdominal surgery and Jordy Nelson was in and out of the lineup in the second half of the season with hamstring injuries. This caused Rodgers to not be able to work with his full group of wide receivers on the field at the same time for more than three months.
“It might be easy to use that as an excuse, but we don’t make excuses around here,” Bennett said. “We line up and just go play, and that’s the bottom line regardless. Once we hit that field we’re expected to go out and execute and be productive and win. We don’t make any excuses.”
When overall talent level at a particular position is as high as what the Packers had this season at wide receiver, expectations follow. Without a single receiver finishing with more than 1,000 yards or in the top 20 in the NFL rankings, those expectations were not met.