As the Green Bay Packers’ offense performed worse and worse as the season progressed, the elephant in the room got harder and harder to ignore.
With the season over, coach Mike McCarthy addressed the elephant.
Blaming the demise of the offense on Jordy Nelson’s torn ACL might be an oversimplification. But without Nelson’s game-breaking, field-stretching ability, defending Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ passing attack became much easier.
“I’ll tell you this, and I’ve said this for a long time, everyone wants to talk about passing game, speed of receivers,” McCarthy said on Monday, two days after the Packers’ season ended with a 26-20 overtime loss at Arizona. “Philosophically, to me, to have a successful passing game, you have to have big targets that can turn through the middle of the field, whether it’s a tight end, whether it’s a big receiver.”
The Packers couldn’t replace Nelson. In 2014, he had six touchdown receptions of at least 59 yards. That’s more 59-yard receptions — touchdown or nontouchdown — than 30 of the other 31 teams. With Nelson piling up 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns, the Packers ranked sixth with 386.1 yards per game, eighth with 266.3 passing yards per game and led the NFL in scoring with 30.4 points per game. Without Nelson, the Packers ranked 23rd with 334.6 yards per game, 25th with 218.90 passing yards per game and 15th with 23.0 points per game.
The Packers had no one to pick up the slack — especially as a middle-of-the-field threat. Not only did defenses scheme to take away Randall Cobb, but Cobb’s never been a dynamic deep threat. Richard Rodgers had a solid second season, ranking 12th among tight ends with 58 receptions and fifth with eight touchdowns, but he’s hardly a deep threat. Of the 25 tight ends with 35 receptions, Rodgers ranked 34th with 8.8 yards per reception.
Without a deep threat, defenses suffocated the Packers’ offense. Rodgers went from MVP to owning a run-of-the-mill, 15th-best passer rating. That 30.4 points per game from last year? Green Bay exceeded that number just once in its final 15 games.
“You look at the production of Jordy when he went inside, you look at the production when he was inside, now you’re dictating to the defense what coverage they can play to you,” McCarthy said. “When you don’t have that element or the element to complement that, you see what we saw this year.”
What they saw were defenses that saw Rodgers and shrugged their shoulders. Well, they didn’t shrug their shoulders at Rodgers, but they sure as heck shrugged their shoulders at the Packers’ passing game. Imagine, a two-time MVP quarterback and owner of the highest passer rating in NFL history being dared to throw the ball. But that’s what defenses did by loading the box. Sure, Eddie Lacy is overweight, McCarthy said in pointing out the obvious on Monday. But defenses were hell-bent on taking away the Packers’ rushing attack and generally succeeded. In seven of their final nine games, they failed to average 4.0 yards per rush. Compare that to last season, when they averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry in eight of their final nine games.
“Our run game was clearly better last year,” McCarthy said. “Going into this year, probably in my time here 10 years, clearly the way we’re built up front with our offensive line and two backs, there was probably the best potential — as I’m the defense looking at us, they’re going to line up to stop the run.”
Without Nelson to burn defenses from that run-focused game plan, every first down seemed excruciatingly difficult to gain.
“If you really don’t feel the threat down the field or a big-time threat on both sides,” McCarthy said, “you’re going to see three-deep, three-shell coverage and tight man-to-man, and we’re going to add that extra player to the box. Just look at the first play of the Arizona game. We’re in a three-wide-receiver set and they’re in an eight-man front — that’s the biggest commitment you can make to the run defensively. That’s what we saw a large part of the season.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.