Minus Rodgers, Packers Join Bottom Feeders

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells likes to say, "You are what your record says you are." By that tenet, the Packers in 2013 were a contender with Aaron Rodgers and a pretender without him. The results were perhaps wider than anyone could have imagined. Plus, read how three other teams in recent history have compared after losing top-level quarterbacks.

Are the Green Bay Packers a 2-14 team without Aaron Rodgers?

That was the question posed in a July 19, 2012, story on this Web site just before training camp started. The Indianapolis Colts were coming off their first season in 14 years without Peyton Manning, and after nine consecutive 10-win seasons, they bottomed out at 2-14 when their MVP quarterback missed the entire season recovering from a neck injury.

The difference for the Colts, without Manning, and with three different quarterbacks taking turns in his place, was like night and day.

The Packers, without their own MVP quarterback this past season, now can relate.

While Rodgers in 2013 only missed half the season, the sample size was big enough to give Packers fans a glimpse of what life could be like in the standings without an elite quarterback regardless of perceived roster talent.

The Packers were 2-5-1 without Rodgers, the sixth-worst record in the NFL during the Week 9-16 stretch that their starting quarterback was sidelined with a broken collarbone. Even perennial losers the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4), and Minnesota Vikings (3-4-1) were better. And they had essentially nothing to play for in their respective divisions.

In the eight games without Rodgers (including the Nov. 4 Chicago Bears game in which he got hurt on the first series), the Packers averaged 21.5 points per game and were minus-70 in point differential.

With Rodgers, the Packers in the regular season were 6-2, the fourth-best record in the league from Weeks 1-8 and including Week 17 (Rodgers' return to the starting lineup). Only seven teams had better records and four of them are playing in this weekend's conference championship games.

In the eight games with Rodgers, the Packers averaged 30.6 points per game and were plus-59 in point differential.

Since 2008, the Packers are 3-8-1 in games Rodgers has not started or has not finished because of injury. Packers coach Mike McCarthy was asked at his season-ending press conference if the Packers have become too reliant on Rodgers.

"Well, I mean, Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the National Football League. So, to say you're too reliant on him, it depends on what side of the fence you want to look at," said McCarthy. "Does he make a difference on a football team? Absolutely. I think that's stating the obvious. He makes a difference, not only when we walks on the field on Sunday, but when he's involved in the meetings as a starting quarterback, when he's practicing, the energy, the ability, the experience, the attitude that he brings to the practice field. Clearly he makes a difference when he plays.

"How many teams play with four quarterbacks in a season and win a division championship? I think we've been the fourth that's happened. So, yeah, it was definitely a challenge. Was our confidence challenged? Absolutely it was challenged. But that's part of the evaluation you have to go back and look at. Who stepped up during those times? Who stepped up when Seneca (Wallace) was in there? Who stepped up when Scott (Tolzien) played and Matt (Flynn)? Those are the things you have to make sure you go back and look at and make sure that's part of your evaluation."

To the Packers' credit, they fought back to win an NFC North Division that no one really seemed to want. While the Detroit Lions and Bears were stumbling over their own feet down the stretch, the Packers posted a franchise-best three fourth-quarter comeback wins in December (one with Rodgers at quarterback in Chicago) and nearly positioned themselves for a fourth against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They also posted a 16-point, fourth-quarter comeback against the Vikings in November when Flynn came in relief of Tolzien to forge an overtime tie.

To that point in the season, however, the Packers had lost three straight games without Rodgers. After a 40-10 loss to the Lions on Thanksgiving, in which three other preferred starters - Jermichael Finley, Bryan Bulaga, and Nick Perry (and Randall Cobb if counted as a starter) – were out, the Packers had endured a 0-4-1 stretch, their worst such stretch since Rodgers' first season as the starter (2008).

Moreover, during the 2-5-1 stretch, the record of the Packers' opponents was just 35-50 combined. Only the Lions (6-5) and Dallas Cowboys (7-6) had winning records. And only one of those teams – the Philadelphia Eagles – finished the regular season with a winning record (10-6) and a playoff spot. So, the Packers were hardly playing the cream of the crop.

Before the 2013 season, Packer Report attempted to put a number on how many wins an elite quarterback adds to his team above a replacement quarterback. Using research and a model devised by an economics student at Butler University, it was concluded that Rodgers, based on advanced statistics from the three seasons prior, added 5.3 wins above a replacement. The New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees added 4.91. Manning was 4.3. The Cowboys' Tony Romo was 2.86. And Tom Brady, a close second behind Rodgers, was 5.28.

Interestingly enough, the New England Patriots were a rare example of being able to overcome - to a degree - losing a top-level quarterback for an entire season. In 2008, Brady, coming off a spectacular, record-setting 2007 campaign, was lost in Week 1 with a season-ending knee injury. Backup Matt Cassel, with just 39 pass attempts in three previous seasons, took over and the Patriots finished a commendable 11-5 (but they did finish 16-0 the season before).

While Manning's one-year absence with the Colts represents a much bigger win differential (from 10 wins in 2010 to just two wins in 2011) than Brady's with the Patriots, Romo's case with the Cowboys is a little more difficult to understand. The only other top-level quarterback currently in the league to miss as much time during a single season as Rodgers because of injury, Romo was 1-4 in 2010 before he broke his collarbone. The Cowboys went 5-6 without him (Jon Kitna as the primary starter). That was the season the Cowboys fired Wade Phillips after a Nov. 7 game against the Packers. With Romo starting every game in 2009 and 2011, the Cowboys finished 11-5 and 8-8, respectively.

Despite another season of battling through a high number of injuries, the Packers in 2013 were on pace for another "normal" season in terms of wins and losses through Week 8. (Since Rodgers took over as the starter in 2008, the Packers have averaged 10.6 wins per season.) Rodgers had just displayed a masterful performance (24-of-29, 285 yards, two touchdowns) in a 44-31 victory over the Vikings at the Metrodome with three of his main passing targets - Finley, James Jones, and Cobb - out.

"When we came out of the Minnesota game, I thought we really, really hit our stride because we had a couple of bumps there and we got the no-huddle offense where it needed to be, we changed a lot of the mechanics from the past," said McCarthy. "I felt very, very good about our offense and our numbers reflected it, too. More importantly the internal numbers of the things we were trying to get done. And the defense was playing very well. But the special teams, we had a lot of change and I think it kind of caught up to us down the stretch, but 5-2, I felt very good about our team, yes."

Then Rodgers broke his collarbone and everything changed. Three different quarterbacks were used over the next three games. The Packers' defense caved in over the second half of the season. Vegas lines on Packers games generally swung six to nine points per game with Rodgers out. The Packers were flexed out of two Sunday night games for the first time. And Lambeau Field ticket prices on the secondary market tumbled.

On almost every level, the Packers fell fast and hard. But no one could have imagined they would fall as far as they did – to the depths of the NFL – when their MVP quarterback was out.


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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