Aaron Rodgers has always been able to make the plays no one would even think to attempt, something he showed even in a down year where he battled injuries all season. The Green Bay Packers’ new head coach has to get Rodgers and this offense back to making the plays most NFL quarterbacks make, the on-time, rhythm throws.
When Rodgers operated Mike McCarthy’s offense at maximum velocity, these were base staples of this offense. He’d hit his back foot and the ball would come whizzing out, right into the waiting arms of Jordy Nelson or Greg Jennings. If it was third-and-7, the ball was going to come out to Nelson on a comeback, it would be in the perfect spot, and there was nothing the defense could do about it. First down.
Everything started there, mostly because Green Bay had no running game to speak of in the middle part of the Rodgers-McCarthy era. But even off play action, the Packers wanted the quarterback to be able to come off that run fake, turn and fire. They could create big plays off those run fakes, or believe Rodgers could make something out of nothing on second-reaction plays when those quick throws weren’t there. More and more, that seemed to become a greater part of the offense, whether by design or by necessity. Clearly though, the plan stopped working as the offense sputtered in 2018, ultimately costing McCarthy his job.
In 2014, when Rodgers won the MVP and the Packers boasted the best offense in football by DVOA, Green Bay’s quarterback finished third in the league in passer rating when getting the ball out in under 2.5 seconds. Even in his ‘down’ season of 2015, Rodgers finished 9th and Run the Table Rodgers (2016) finished 6th. In 2018, he was gulp average, just 14th in the league.
The quick game relies on three main tent poles. The first is scheme. Are the routes and their combinations conducive to quick throws, or is the call all go routes on third-and-2? Those gimme throws on third down magically disappeared from this offense, in part because they became so infatuated with throwing on first down, something they did as much as any team in the league last season. It seemed like any time Davante Adams got single coverage, he could have beaten his defender on a slant for a first down, yet unlike a team like New Orleans or the Rams, who will call a play until a team proves it can be stopped, the Packers went away from staple plays that should have been killing teams.
In Tennessee last season, Marcus Mariota held the ball an almost identical amount in terms of how often he got the ball out within 2.5 seconds according to Pro Football Focus’ numbers. If Matt LaFleur’s offense doesn’t prioritize getting the ball out quickly, how can that fix this problem schematically? The answer speaks to the core of the problem: it’s how often the ball comes out quickly, but how effective the quarterback is when it does.
Jared Goff got the ball out quickly on just 33.8% of his dropbacks in 2018, the fewest in the league. But when he did, he completed 72% of his throws and posted a 109.3 quarterback rating with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Being efficient in that area sets up the opportunities down the field to take the shots we know Rodgers wants to take.
The second tentpole of the quick passing game is the quarterback’s ability to see the field. We shouldn’t have any concerns about this with Rodgers, who thinks the game as well as any quarterback in the business. When he eschews quick throws and underneath routes, he does it knowingly. Either he doesn’t trust the play concept, doesn’t trust the route, or simply would rather create a big play down the field by improvising.
LaFleur will have to instill confidence in Rodgers to more often let the offense do the work. McCarthy’s scheme rarely allowed for that because it required pinpoint precision from everyone involved. The innovation in the Shanahan/McVay offense rests, in part, on the notion that the scheme is doing more of the work. It requires less virtuosity from the quarterback and receivers. The Rams are one of the best receiver screen teams in football. Shanahan has long been the master of the leak play, going back to the days of his father, where the offense gets the whole field moving one way while a tight end or a back leaks out the backside. Making it easier on the quarterback facilitates the creation of confidence in the offense.
But once Rodgers buys into the play design, which one hopes will happen quickly as the team pivots away from the stale McCarthy concepts, he has to trust his receivers. The scheme once again comes into play, if for no other reason than the ballet dance required in the old system no longer holds with what LaFleur wants to do. Receivers still need to be precise with their route running, but they don’t have to win on their own as consistently — it’s built into the play. This lends itself to easier decision making from the quarterback and it’s less about picking a guy who is likely to be open because of a matchup and more about the intent and design of the play itself. That clears the waters that can lead to indecisiveness and hesitation.
The final tentpole of the quick passing game is the one least under control by the coach and quarterback: personnel. Do the Packers have players aside from Adams who can win early in their route? Even if the offense involves more receiver screens and built-in throws, guys still have to be able to get open early and create after the catch. With Randall Cobb’s impending free agency casting a shadow over this offense, Green Bay can’t say with much confidence it has a player capable of the kinds of short, sudden routes that teams like the Patriots rely so heavily on to beat teams.
There will be players in the draft who could bring that dynamic elements, guys like Marquise Brown, Hunter Renfrow, Andy Isabella and others. Free agency brings intriguing names like Golden Tate and Jamison Crowder. Given the current structure of the team, with McCarthy wanting to bring in size/speed receivers who can win one-on-one down the field, the current roster is ill-equipped to give Rodgers a Greg Jennings-like player who can win right away underneath and turn 3 yards into 13 in the blink of an eye.
That player could also be a pass-catching running back split out wide, something LaFleur and all the Shanahan-tree coaches employ. Even if Aaron Jones can work that into his repertoire, adding a player with more natural pass-catching ability would give the Packers a mismatch option in the passing game it hasn’t had since Ty Montgomery was a featured part of the offense.
Whichever combination the Packers decide to employ, there must be some focus on getting back to what Rodgers used to do so well. The second-reaction greatness only works if the first-reaction game carries the brunt of the load. It doesn’t have to be all three-step drops. Rodgers is one of the best fade throwers in football and his ability to catch and fire to the sidelines with Adams has already been an effective weapon. But getting back to the rhythm passing game will lighten the burden on Rodgers to be great, while also making those virtuoso improv plays even more effective with the rest of the offense intact.