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NFC Championship Game loss to Seahawks spelled doom for Rodgers-McCarthy

It was a blown opportunity that will come to define the underperformance of the Packers in the McCarthy era. Recent reporting suggests that was when Rodgers fully lost faith in his coach. His performance and his numbers bear that out.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v Seattle Seahawks
Failing to beat the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game may have been the nail in Mike McCarthy’s coffin in Aaron Rodgers’ eyes.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“It’s going to be a missed opportunity we’ll probably think about the rest of my career.”

That was Aaron Rodgers after an ultra-conservative offensive gameplan and myriad special teams miscues cost the Green Bay Packers a trip to the Super Bowl in 2015. Despite locking down Russell Wilson and forcing him into four interceptions on the road in Seattle, the Packers couldn’t muster much of an offensive attack thanks in large part to Mike McCarthy’s insistence on playing not to lose.

“At times, we just weren’t playing, we weren’t playing as aggressive as we usually are,” Rodgers told the media after the game, alluding to a pair of field goals inside the five-yardline and a reluctance to pass the ball to try and score. When asked to elaborate, he quickly replied, “No, I can’t.”

He couldn’t because doing so would undercut his coach, the man responsible for calling plays, likewise responsible for that lack of aggressiveness. But for a guy who had been MVP two of the last four seasons, he couldn’t throw his coach under the proverbial bus after the game. He’d have to wait at least a few years to do that.

Bleacher Report’s massive story on the fracture between Rodgers and McCarthy points to this game as the undoing of the duo. In an interview on Locked on Packers, the story’s author, Tyler Dunne, specifically mentions it as a potential touchstone for the moment Rodgers lost faith in McCarthy.

Looking back, this shouldn’t be surprising. Most trace the offensive struggles of 2015 back to McCarthy giving up playcalling duties, the injury to Jordy Nelson, and Davante Adams simply not being healthy enough or prepared enough to assume the go-to role in this offense. But in the context of this reporting, it might be time to add an essential factor: Rodgers lost faith in the system.

He lost faith in McCarthy.

The other factors hold true. The coach never evolved the offense post-Nelson, whose athleticism was never the same. Randall Cobb and Adams weren’t healthy or capable of shouldering the burden of the passing offense, and Eddie Lacy’s weight got out of hand. But the bad habits, the hero ball, the happy feet, that all may have been avoided if Rodgers still believed in in the system and in his coach.

In that 2015 season that followed this loss, Rodgers completed a career low 60.7 percent of his passes with another career low in per attempt average. In fact, his four lowest seasons in yards per attempt are the last four.

Running the table papered over the continued struggles of the offense in 2016, even with Nelson back in the fold. Rodgers led the league in touchdown passes, but other than 2015, it was his worst season by quarterback rating since he took over the starting job. Sandlot plays became more frequent, with Rodgers hoping to spin out of the pocket and make some miracle second-reaction play. The extreme version of that cropped up this past season when he exploded the record for throw-aways.

Even before the collarbone injury in 2017, when Rodgers engineered a pair of brilliant late rallies, the offense overall was sputtering. His 7.0 per attempt average is the second-worst number of his career, and the offense could best be described as “Get open.”

And the run game? LOL. The what?

There had been previous, more complicated explanations for why Rodgers’ mechanics fell off, why he played so often outside the structure of the offense, and why the run game fell to the wayside. In light of the obvious power struggle that’s been reported multiple times by respectable journalists and journalistic outlets, it’s becoming time to change our perspective.

If Rodgers was trying to win games by himself, that’s a much simpler explanation than the ones previously being offered. That’s not to say there weren’t other factors. Clearly there were. It’s true Adams wasn’t ready for the lead role in 2015 and an ankle injury dogged him all season. Lacy really did balloon up to the point he was out of football in a few seasons. And McCarthy’s offense truly did stagnate.

As Ryan Grant mentions in the B/R piece, it was an offense that worked beautifully when the team had a loaded roster, but when the talent level dropped, McCarthy never adjusted with it. We knew those parts without having to see them reported.

Missing checkdowns, changing plays, ignoring playcalls, and missing throws; it was all part of the degradation of the relationship the quarterback had with his coach. Rodgers was at his best playing within the system. It was true at Cal and then again early in his career with the Packers under McCarthy’s tutelage. Rodgers’ suis generis ability to make plays off script always functioned best as a complement to what he did within the confines of the offense itself. It was never meant to become the offense.

He tried to turn the offense into just that part, to improv his way to wins. With rookie receivers and an unwilling body, that just couldn’t happen. The fate of the final chapter of Rodgers’ career rests on his willingness to re-acclimatize to a system. Since 2014, he hasn’t had faith in the one in Green Bay. Starting in 2019, that has to change.