Two plays to define a season for the Green Bay Packers. On the first, rookie Equanimeous St. Brown beat Pro Bowl cornerback Kyle Fuller to the inside, but didn’t bend his route far enough where Aaron Rodgers expected it. The Packers settled for a field goal instead of a touchdown. On the second, another rookie, Marqueze Valdes-Scantling cooked Fuller once again, but Rodgers simply overthrew him. No miscommunication or lack of nuance. One of the best of all-time just sailed the throw.
In a game the Packers ultimately lost 24-17, that’s an 11-point swing as MVS would almost certainly have gone untouched into the end zone had the throw been on target. For more fitting metaphor, a throw to the big free agent Jimmy Graham in the fourth quarter ended Rodgers’ interception streak at an NFL record 402 throws. Had Graham held on, the Packers could have cut a 10-point deficit to three, instead it’s a turnover.
The 2018 Packers official video should be called “this close,” with six of eight losses coming by just one score.
We can put to bed any notion of Joe Philbin returning as the next head coach, stripping him of the interim title and handling him the keys outright. The next Packers head coach was not on the Green Bay sideline Sunday (though he may have been on the other side of the field). And the Packers can’t reach their ultimate goal of getting back to the Super Bowl with their All-World quarterback not playing up to his ability. For whatever structural and personnel deficiencies the Packers offense has, Rodgers hasn’t played his best football this season.
In the first half, the Packers managed just 122 yards of offense. Sacks ended drives on third-and-short and a third-and-long on consecutive drives to open the game and the disjointed look to the offense from earlier in the season once again cropped up. Credit the Bears defense, but there’s clearly something fundamentally wrong with the bedrock of the offensive system, unable to create anything easy for its players, including and especially the quarterback.
The Packers missed on the aforementioned throw to EQ and instead of 7-7, it’s 7-3, becoming another in a string of inflection points for Green Bay over the course of the season. If Mason Crosby doesn’t lose his mind. If Ty Montgomery doesn’t take the ball out. If Rodgers does lose the grip on the ball in Seattle. Counterfactuals define this season. If one thing changes here or there, a game may look different, and by extension the season.
But they didn’t, and that didn’t change on Sunday with a team clinging to its playoff hopes, facing a divisional rival that looks like a nascent powerhouse in the NFC.
Rodgers came out firing in the second half, marching his team down the field with quick passes and solid balance in the run game. Third-and-7. Incomplete. Field Goal. Instead of having a chance to cut the Bears lead to 14-10, they have to settle for a 43-yard Mason Crosby field goal and a 14-6 score. These are the plays Rodgers ate for breakfast when this team fired at maximum velocity, a team that now seems decades ago. Their best call on third-and-manageable is throwing into coverage for Randall Cobb. That’s what this offense has become. A one-week hiatus against the worst passing defense in the league doesn’t paper over the structural deficiencies holding this offense back.
Meanwhile, the Bears made the plays fans normally expect their team to be making. On their own third-and-7 in the first half, Mike Pettine dialed up the perfect blitz, getting Eddie Pleasant free off the corner. Mitch Trubisky spun out of the tackle attempt and floated a ball to Adam Shaheen for 23. A sure sack turns into a first down. That’s what Aaron Rodgers normally does.
The difference is most of what Trubisky does results from beautiful play design, giving him simple reads and open receivers. Trubisky will make a handful of plays every game on his own, backbreaking because of how hard Nagy’s offense can be on its own. Rodgers still makes those plays, it’s the rest of the time that has been like pulling teeth. If the only way the offense can succeed is Rodgers making plays, that’s not sustainable over 16 games in 2018, not the way offenses exploded this season.
As has been the case all season, the Packers’ urgency ramped up in the second half as they fought their way back. Nagy’s aggressiveness cost him on a fake punt where Green Bay’s special teams was ready, stopping the play in the backfield. Rodgers found Adams with a dime up the left sideline for 28 yards on third down to extend the drive, setting up a 10-yard touchdown scamper from Williams. The connection worked again with Rodgers finding Adams wide open for the two-point conversion and the game-tying points.
On the next possession, another Nagy special backfired. One of the best play designers in the league, Nagy’s situational playcalls have been the best in football. For what felt like the first time all season, one failed to work as Tarik Cohen fumbled a wildcat snap on third-and-short at the Packers 23.
Momentum clearly on the Packers’ side, right? Rodgers throws three straight incompletions and gives the ball right back to the Bears. The third-down miss was particularly egregious because this was the play when Valdes-Scantling torched Kyle Fuller over the top and Rodgers simply overthrew him. Another play embodying the 2018 season in microcosm. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.
In typical 2018 fashion, the miss cost dearly.
Pettine’s defense, playing a questionable amount of soft zone coverage against Trubisky, couldn’t hold on the following possession, letting the second-year quarterback dice them up. Trey Burton ran wide open to the corner of the end zone against one of those aforementioned zones and Trubisky found him for the go-ahead touchdown with 10:16 left in the fourth quarter.
This would have been the time for some Rodgers magic, but Randall Cobb dropped a potential first down, ending a drive in a three-and-out. Speedy Tarik Cohen returned the ensuing punt to the 15 and from there it was all over but the crying. A brainfart from Cohen cost the Bears a potential touchdown, but a Cody Parkey field goal put the Bears up 24-14 and the Packers simply couldn’t mount a sufficient comeback.
Chicago ended the third-longest playoff drought in the league and a streak of eight consecutive defeats at home to the Packers.
Sunday showed these are teams headed in opposite directions, the Bears to the playoffs and standing in the NFC as a Super Bowl contender, while the Packers face their biggest offseason since committing to Aaron Rodgers amid turmoil and disappointment. The Bears can keep fighting for playoff positioning while the Packers have to determine if playing their franchise quarterback the final two weeks even makes sense.
Green Bay played with the best teams they faced this season, kept it close, but couldn’t make the plays they needed to make. They’re short right now, talent and coaching prowess. Before they can expect to beat a team as good as the Bears, that has to change.
It’s not exaggeration to suggest this offseason will ultimately define the Rodgers legacy. They’re close, but just not close enough. Mark Murphy, Brian Gutekunst, and Rodgers himself have to find a way to close that gap.