Packers season report card: Offense and special teams
After a successful regular season but a disastrous playoff exit for the Green Bay Packers, it’s time to look back and hand out grades for the 2014 season. The focus in this section of the report card analyzes the offense and special teams. (** A position-by-position report card for the Packers’ defense will be posted Jan. 27. **)
It wasn’t a season quite as good as 2011, but Aaron Rodgers produced at a level in 2014 that will very likely earn him his second NFL Most Valuable Player award.
Rodgers’ highlights included throwing six touchdowns in the first half in Week 10 against Chicago, leading the game-winning drive in Miami (including the fake-spike play) and for his improbable second-half return in Week 17 to lead Green Bay to victory over Detroit (which gave the Packers their fourth consecutive division title and the NFC’s No. 2 seed in the postseason).
Rodgers helped get Green Bay ahead with such large leads at times that he didn’t even have to play the fourth quarter of several games. He had near-perfect passer ratings in Week 3 at Chicago (151.2) and Week 7 against Carolina (154.5) — an NFL quarterback cannot do better than a 158.3. Rodgers threw only five interceptions in the regular season out of 520 passing attempts. That means Rodgers threw 104 passes for every interception. It was also the second consecutive season in which he didn’t throw an interception at Lambeau Field. Rodgers’ 38-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio was by far the best in the league.
Rodgers finished second in the NFL in passer rating (112.2, the second-best mark of his career), second in yards per attempt (8.43), seventh in passing yards (4,381) and ninth in completion percentage (65.6 percent).
The left calf injury Rodgers initially suffered Week 16 at Tampa Bay changed the rest of the season. The situation worsened a week later when Rodgers injured a different spot on the same calf. With the injury then forcing him to become almost exclusively a pocket passer with limited mobility, Rodgers still performed at a high level in the Packers’ divisional-round win over Dallas with three touchdowns and no interceptions. One of the touchdowns in that game, when he rolled left and fired a rocket pass to Richard Rodgers in the end zone, is a throw that almost no other quarterback can make even when completely healthy.
Rodgers’ season ended on a sour note in Seattle, the same place where his season began with a fairly rocky start. It’s likely of little coincidence that the teams Rodgers struggled against were the NFL’s best defenses. His worst statistical game of the season was at Buffalo, which boasted a defense that finished second in the league in opponent passer rating. Rodgers’ second- and third-worst games (based on passer rating) were at Seattle, a defense that gave up the fewest passing yards in the NFL. Unsurprisingly, those games accounted for three of Green Bay’s five losses.
Running Backs: A-minus
As a rookie in 2013, Eddie Lacy quickly inserted himself into the discussion of being one of the NFL’s five best running backs. In his sophomore season, Lacy further cemented himself in that conversation with the league’s elite running backs.
Lacy finished with 39 fewer rushing yards and two fewer rushing touchdowns than he did a season earlier. However, his yards per carry went up from 4.1 to 4.6 and he became a much bigger threat in the passing game. Lacy increased his catches to 42 (up from 35), his receiving yards to 427 (from 257) and his touchdown receptions to four (from zero).
Lacy continued to prove himself to be one of the NFL’s more difficult players to tackle. According to data from ProFootballFocus, Lacy broke a total of 84 tackles (59 as a rusher, plus 25 as a receiver). His overall rating from ProFootballFocus was the third-best in the league among running backs, trailing only Le’Veon Bell and Marshawn Lynch.
James Starks was a good backup, but his yards per carry went from 5.5 in 2013 down to 3.9. John Kuhn had his most rushing yards (85) since 2010, getting the ball far more (24 times) than he did a year ago (just 10 times). DuJuan Harris went from being the team’s starting running back going into 2013 (that’s how Mike McCarthy termed Harris’ role at the time) to being a complete non-factor on offense (no touches in the final eight games).
As a team, Green Bay finished 11th in rushing yards per game and 10th in yards per carry.
Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb were one of the NFL’s best wide receiver duos this season. Between them, Nelson and Cobb combined for 189 catches, 2,806 yards and 25 touchdowns.
While those statistics are tremendous for those two players, it also represents just how big of a decline existed behind them. Nelson and Cobb accounted for 54.1 percent of the Packers’ catches, 63.1 percent of the receiving yards and 65.8 percent of the touchdowns.
Jarrett Boykin was a major bust as the presumed No. 3 wide receiver. It took Green Bay three games to realize that Boykin was nowhere near ready to step into that important role. Rodgers targeted him seven times in those three games, with Boykin coming away with two receptions for 17 yards. For the season, Boykin had a grand total of three catches for 23 yards and no touchdowns.
Davante Adams stepped into Boykin’s spot, and, for a rookie who didn’t turn 22 years old until Week 17, did fairly well. Adams had two breakout-type performances, both in high-pressure situations. First, he had six catches for 121 yards against New England and then seven receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs against Dallas. The problem was Adams’ consistency. In the final month of the regular season, he had four catches for 29 yards in a span of four games. Adams also disappeared in the playoff loss at Seattle with one reception for seven yards.
The Packers were very fortunate to not suffer any injuries to their key receivers, because there wasn’t much depth behind them. Jeff Janis was nothing more than a preseason star, given just 15 regular-season snaps, and Jared Abbrederis didn’t make it out of training camp before suffering a torn ACL in his right knee.
Tight Ends: D-plus
It didn’t take long to realize just how different Green Bay’s offense was without the threat of Jermichael Finley down the middle of the field. The Packers thought they had Finley 2.0, or "Finley Lite," with Brandon Bostick, but that never worked out. Bostick, the tight end on the roster whose skills most closely resembled Finley’s, played only 34 offensive snaps in the regular season. The coaching staff’s obvious distrust of playing Bostick meant acceptance — to a certain extent — that the offense would only get steadiness from the tight end position but not a lot of major playmaking ability.
Richard Rodgers was thrust into a bigger role than the rookie was ready for early in the season. Rodgers struggled mightily through the first six games, especially as a blocker. Rodgers improved throughout the year and displayed very dependable hands as a receiver. In the final four games of the season (playoffs included), he had 12 catches for 101 yards and one touchdown. Still, while the decision to go with Rodgers paid some dividends later in the year, it was probably too big of a role for a player who didn’t even play a traditional tight end spot during his final year of college at California.
Andrew Quarless was the veteran of the group, but he had his ups and downs. Quarless showed that he’s really best served as a No. 2 tight end, not a featured tight end. He caught at least one pass in 15 of the 18 games and played nearly 60 percent of the total offensive snaps. Quarless was steady but unspectacular, though it would have been foolish to expect anything more than a season like that out of him.
Ryan Taylor was released near the midpoint of the season after playing just 10 offensive snaps. Undrafted rookie Justin Perillo was called up from the practice squad but played only 11 snaps.
Offensive Line: A-minus
In the opinion of Rodgers and McCarthy, it was the best offensive line that the Packers have had in at least a decade.
The biggest surprise was rookie Corey Linsley stepping into a spot right before the regular season that was supposed to belong to JC Tretter. When Tretter suffered a left knee injury in late August, Linsley had to cram a lot of work into a short amount of time. Everyone knew Linsley was strong enough for the role, but with the help of guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, he quickly got down all of the other intricacies of the position. Without Linsley being ready, the center position could have been disastrous for Green Bay.
Sitton and Lang were simply the best guard duo in the NFL. Even playing with injuries the second half of the season, Lang was ProFootballFocus’ third-rated guard overall and Sitton was fourth. Sitton was named an All-Pro and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
David Bakhtiari showed a lot of improvement in Year 2 compared to his rookie season. He allowed seven sacks and 20 quarterback hurries, both improvements after giving up 10 sacks and 28 QB hurries in 2013. Bakhtiari was still the weak link on the offensive line in terms of run blocking, though.
Bryan Bulaga had a mostly healthy season, which was a big step for him after finishing 2012 and 2013 on the sideline. Bulaga moved back to the right tackle spot that he’d played in his first three years with the Packers and became one of the league’s better players at that position.
Rodgers was sacked 28 times, with 18 other quarterbacks being sacked more than him. But the starting five of Bakhtiari, Sitton, Linsley, Lang and Bulaga were only credited by ProFootballFocus as allowing 14 of those 28 sacks.
From a pure percentage standpoint, Mason Crosby had the third-best year of his career by making 81.8 percent of his field-goal attempts in the regular season. However, Crosby got little help from the line in front of him, as three of his six misses were blocked. Crosby also had two extra-point attempts blocked.
Crosby was automatic in the two playoff games. He made all seven of his field-goal attempts, including one in Seattle that sent the game into overtime. Adding in those seven makes, Crosby’s field-goal success for the entire year was 85 percent. He has proved to be well past the 2012 struggles that could have been the beginning of the end of his career.
Tim Masthay had the worst season of his career. He had a career low in net punting average (37.0 yards), which ranked Green Bay 28th in the league in that category. Masthay was only needed to punt 49 times and went two games without punting at all. Perhaps the infrequency of being on the field led to his struggles.
The Packers had no kick return game whatsoever. Their long return of the season was 41 yards, while their average yards per return was 19.1. Harris was benched at the end of the season as the kick returner, which tells a lot in terms of how replaceable the team viewed him to be.
Micah Hyde was very good as a punt returner, taking two of his 14 returns all the way for touchdowns. He and Cobb each had exactly 14 returns, but Hyde had a much better average (15.8 yards compared to 8.0).
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