Considering Aaron Rodgers played all 18 games last season, the Green Bay Packers offense underperformed like never before during Rodgers’ tenure as a starter. Here are a few of the tell-tale rankings in the stunning fall:
— Finishing 23rd overall in the league in offense (334.6 yards per game); the previous worst was 13th.
— Finishing 25th overall in passing yards (218.9 yards per game); the previous worst was ninth.
— Finishing 15th in points per game (23.0); the Packers had never finished out of the top 10 and twice were first in the league — including 2014, when they posted 30.4 points per game even though Rodgers played the final stretch of the season with a calf strain.
Over the last 10 games of the 2015 regular season, the Packers dipped to just 20.4 points per game. Losses at Denver, home against the Lions and Bears, at Arizona, and home against the Vikings netted just six offensive touchdowns.
There is reason for optimism, however, as Rodgers heads into his 12th NFL season. Aside from the expected boost with the return of Jordy Nelson from a season-long ACL, the Packers have made offseason strides to ensure they are better prepared to withstand the loss of such a key player.
It starts with the acquisition of tight end Jared Cook, whose speed and size should help the Packers even if Cook fails to outpace incumbent Richard Rodgers’ sturdy totals of 58 catches and eight touchdowns a season ago. Except maybe a game at Detroit, the Packers made little to no impact exploiting the middle of the field with their tight end. Much too often, Rodgers was running nondescript routes toward the sideline and he offered little in the way of yards after the catch. He finished at just 8.7 yards per catch for the season (including playoff games), second-worst on the team among the 13 players that caught at least one pass.
Opposing defenses will have to respect Cook’s ability if not his production. Packers coach Mike McCarthy made it known at his season-ending press conference that the middle of the field and the way defenses played the Packers in 2015 were issues that needed to change.The coaching staff will have to do its part with some of those changes, as will Eddie Lacy.
The strides in Lacy’s offseason training will be on display for the public when next week’s OTAs begin, but social media accounts and teammate comments seem to suggest the fourth-year running back has slimmed down headed into a contract year. Three years ago as a rookie, Lacy was the driving force — even against teams that stacked the box against him — for a Packers offense that relied on him when Aaron Rodgers was sidelined with a broken clavicle. In 2015, he regressed to the point where the Packers could not count on him to carry an offense that needed it down the stretch. Lacy had his moments but was much too slow getting to the line of scrimmage and left yards on the field even on his better runs. When backup James Starks had fumbling issues, the Packers had nowhere else to really turn in the backfield.
Of the several games down the stretch in which the Packers’ offense stumbled, the game at Arizona on Dec. 27 seemed the most helpless. A battered offensive line put Rodgers under siege (he was taken out by coach’s decision in the fourth quarter) and the Packers lost, 38-8, in a hostile environment. McCarthy later admitted he made a mistake by leaving backup tackle Don Barclay on an island against seasoned Cardinals pass rushers. The Cardinals registered nine sacks and 12 quarterback hits.
This spring, tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari return in better health and towering newcomer Jason Spriggs offers depth. In the surprise move of the draft for the Packers, general manager Ted Thompson moved up in the second round to nab Spriggs, who projects as the most legitimate backup tackle on the roster, not to mention a safety net for a returning offensive line that has three of its key starters in the final year of their contracts. Though tackle is a tough position to succeed at during a rookie season in the NFL, Spriggs at least gives the Packers some comfort that they are better prepared to handle an injury situation at that spot.
With Nelson back and Jeff Janis on the national radar, the Packers should have a better shot at getting defenses out of the aggressive mentality that handcuffed the offense on the outside in 2015. They have a deeper, more seasoned group of receivers. Speedy Trevor Davis out of California was added in the draft. Davis essentially replaces popular James Jones, who produced for the Packers in 2015, but is much slower by comparison.
Rodgers, 32, needs to play better, too. In 2015, he had his lowest passer rating (92.7), lowest completion percentage (60.7) and was a part of the most sack yardage allowed (314) since he took over as a starter. Those numbers someday might just represent an anomaly in a Hall of Fame career but should at least provide an alert for a team that has become almost solely reliant on its quarterback.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org