Packers hope Nelson’s return will revitalize offense
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Coach Mike McCarthy intends to keep calling the offensive plays for the Green Bay Packers.
But he has two vacancies on his staff after running backs coach Sam Gash and tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot were fired on Tuesday.
Now if quarterback Aaron Rodgers can just get back a healthy complement of receivers for the 2016 season, the Packers could have an easier time moving the ball.
The process of figuring out what went wrong in 2015 started this week for McCarthy after the Packers lost to Arizona 26-20 in overtime in the NFC playoffs to finish 11-7.
Jordy Nelson’s absence wasn’t the only problem. Rodgers didn’t play up to his typical, two-time NFL MVP standards. Injuries battered the offensive line. The running game wasn’t consistent.
McCarthy also saw a hole up the middle.
"I’ve said this for a long time, everyone wants to talk about passing game, speed of receivers," McCarthy said. "Philosophically to me … to have a successful passing game you have to have big targets that can turn through the middle of the field, whether it’s a tight end, whether it’s a big receiver."
It’s what made the versatile Nelson so valuable for the Packers. The 6-foot-3 veteran could get open for deep passes, or line up in the slot to make catches. The presence of Nelson helped make Randall Cobb better, and vice versa.
"You look at the production of Jordy when he went inside … now you’re dictating to the defense what coverage they can play to you. When you don’t have that element or the element to complement that, you see what we saw this year," McCarthy said.
Tight end Richard Rodgers had eight touchdown catches, but averaged just 8.8 yards per reception. McCarthy has said Rodgers and receiver Davante Adams, who both finished their second seasons, must contribute more next season.
The Packers could turn to the draft to fill the need, especially since general manager Ted Thompson historically hasn’t been busy in the free-agent market.
Otherwise, McCarthy cites the Packers’ 6-0 start as evidence of the team having adjusted well enough to being without Nelson, at least up that point. He doesn’t think he did a good enough job handling other injuries.
Left tackle was a particular problem spot after starter David Bakhtiari went down with an ankle injury.
"It’s part of your game-planning … and when we had uphill matchups we didn’t do a good job helping that individual," McCarthy said.
Still, the Packers have made seven straight playoff appearances. Aaron Rodgers, who turned 32 last month, is in the prime of his career.
"We take full responsibility for the expectations here. We’re not scared to talk about winning world championships and what you have to do to win world championships," McCarthy said.
Rodgers finished with a 92.7 passer rating, his lowest mark since taking over as starter in 2008.
In the exit interview on Monday with Rodgers, McCarthy said he told his quarterback that "he did a heck of a job" dealing with the most adversity he’s had to face since that 2008 season.
"I think he was really challenged this year more than ever with what he was trying to pick up for (Nelson) and so forth," McCarthy said.
A change in coaching assignments added a different wrinkle.
McCarthy took back play-calling responsibilities in December from associate head coach Tom Clements. McCarthy had adjusted staff assignments before the season in order to focus more on defense and special teams, but reverted back to play-caller with the offense struggling.
McCarthy has said he anticipated Clements would return, though Gash and Fontenot were let go.
Gash was with the team for two seasons. Eddie Lacy ran for more than 1,100 yards in 2014, but gained just 758 this past season on 187 carries.
McCarthy has said that Lacy did not have a good offseason last year and it carried over to this past season. Lacy was disciplined for tardiness the night before a game, and McCarthy had concerns about Lacy’s weight.
Lacy and backup James Starks also had issues with taking care of the ball at times this season.
Fontenot leaves the Packers after joining the team in 2006 as a coaching intern. He previously served as running backs coach and assistant offensive line coach.
The Packers have had issues with getting consistent production from the tight end position since Jermichael Finley’s career ended in 2013 because of a neck injury.