January losses

Bill Huber:

The 2014 NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks will live in infamy because of the Packers’ collapse, but the game should have been over before halftime. While Green Bay led 16-0 barely 20 minutes into the game, the margin should have been much more lopsided.

On Green Bay’s first possession, Aaron Rodgers believed he had drawn the Seahawks offside so he threw it deep to Davante Adams but was intercepted in the end zone by Richard Sherman. Moments later, the Packers took over at Seattle’s 19 on an interception by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix but the drive stalled just inside the 2 and they settled for a field goal. The Packers took over at Seattle’s 23 when Brad Jones forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff but the drive stalled at the 2 and they settled for a field goal. Leading 16-0, Green Bay took over at its 44 following another interception by Clinton-Dix but Rodgers returned the favor. In all, the Packers turned four first-half takeaways into just six points and settled for a 16-0 halftime lead.

Seattle got on the board on a fake field goal, with punter Jon Ryan throwing a 19-yard touchdown to lineman Garry Gilliam. Still, with a 19-7 lead, Green Bay appeared to clinch the victory on Morgan Burnett’s interception with 5:04 to play. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers told Burnett to get to the turf – and Burnett did, giving up a likely touchdown that would have driven a final stake into Seattle. Instead, three runs by Eddie Lacy went absolutely nowhere and the Packers punted with 4 minutes to go.

The wheels, of course, fell off from there. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson scored from the 1, Brandon Bostick fumbled the onside kick rather than letting Jordy Nelson field it, Lynch rumbled in from 24 yards for the go-ahead score and Clinton-Dix played as if his cleats were stuck in concrete in giving up the two-point play that gave Seattle a 22-19 lead. A gimpy Rodgers drove the Packers to the tying field goal and overtime. Green Bay, however, never saw the ball in the extra period. Seattle drove 87 yards for the winning touchdown, with Wilson beating a blitz with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse against Tramon Williams.

“You feel like it’s a waste of seven, eight months,” left guard Josh Sitton said a day after the game. “What’s the point of getting this far? I’d have rather not even made the playoffs.

“We kicked their ass up and down the field all day,” Sitton continued. “And there’s no reason we shouldn’t have won the game. Literally one of 10 plays you can pick that if we get it, we win the game. It’s frustrating when you should have won the game and you’re the better team. I thought we were the better team all day except for 3 minutes.”

Added receiver Randall Cobb: “We just fell apart. You look up with 5 minutes left, you say, ‘There’s no way you can lose this game.’ And it just seems like we did everything to lose that game in that last little bit.”

A Rodgers vs. Tom Brady matchup in the Super Bowl would have been a game for the ages. Instead, the Packers wasted a chance to win a second Super Bowl in the Rodgers era. This season, with seemingly everything going Green Bay’s way, will Rodgers ever be in a better position to win a second title than he is this season?

Green Bay leads the series 20-9, including 2-1 in the playoffs. The 2003 playoff game at Lambeau Field went to overtime. Seattle won the toss and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck famously proclaimed, “We want the ball and we’re going to score.” Instead, he threw a pick-six to Al Harris.

“I was just happy I caught the ball. There’s guys who played with me who would tell you my ball skills weren’t that good,” Harris said recently.

In the 2007 playoffs, Seattle took a 14-0 lead just 4 minutes into the game before being buried alive 42-20 at snowy Lambeau Field. Ryan Grant ran for 201 yards and three touchdowns.

In Week 3 of the 2012 season, Seattle beat the Packers 14-12 on Wilson’s “Fail Mary” touchdown pass to Golden Tate that looked like a game-ending interception by M.D. Jennings. Shortly thereafter, the league struck a deal to bring its regular officials back following a contract dispute.

Green Bay has won eight consecutive home games in the series. Seattle’s last win at Lambeau Field came in 1999, a 27-7 romp in which Brett Favre threw four interceptions and Seattle won with Jon Kitna throwing for just 109 yards.

I got to see this across from where I was sitting:

As for Rodgers, Mike Tanier writes:

The more things change in Green Bay, the more Aaron Rodgers stays the same.

Over the last two years, the Packers have swapped out coaches and general managers, revamped their playbook, drastically altered their spending philosophy and completely rebuilt their defense. They’ve changed just about everything except Rodgers and his core entourage: top receiver Davante Adams, multipurpose wingman Aaron Jones, bodyguards David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.

The massive overhaul allowed the Packers to escape four years of 10-6 (at best) doldrums to finish 13-3, placing them two games away from the Super Bowl. The organization did its part. Now it’s time for Rodgers to do Tom Brady stuff, Hall of Famer stuff, $134 million contract stuff.

The next few weeks are a chance for Rodgers to live up to his reputation after a few too many seasons of coasting on it.

Now, there are two schools of thought when it comes to Rodgers, just as there are two schools of thought about every other NFL quarterback:

The pro-Rodgers argument: He has been the league’s best pure passer and playmaker since 2011, and he has only looked ordinary for long stretches of the last three to five seasons because of stale game plans and weak supporting casts.

The anti-Rodgers argument: His accuracy and big-play capability decline incrementally each year, but he has tuned out coaches and ignored open receivers for so long and has such a huge salary and gift for passive-aggressive blame deflection that no one in Green Bay has the authority or courage to force him to adjust.

The truth about every quarterback always rests somewhere between the capes and the critics. But in this case, the anti-Rodgers camp makes a lot of valid points.

Rodgers finished 12th in the NFL in passer rating this season, right between Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz. He finished 13th in Football Outsiders DVOA, between Watson and Philip Rivers. He finished 21st in ESPN’s QBR, between Giants rookie Daniel Jones and Brady, who had a miserable season by his standards. Rodgers, fully healthy and freed from the predictable Mike McCarthy offense that allegedly held him back, had a middle-of-the-pack season by any statistical standard.

Blame Rodgers’ “lack of weapons” if you like, but he threw for fewer yards, touchdowns and a lower completion rate than Wentz, whose receivers and running backs were pulled from the Pat’s King of Steaks line after a Flyers game. Rodgers had Adams (for most of the year), Jones, a serviceable Jimmy Graham and familiar-if-ordinary receivers like Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdes-Scantling to throw to, yet Derek Carr outperformed him statistically while throwing to a castoff Ravens tight end and a 5’10” fifth-round pick.

A deeper dive into the data makes Rodgers look even worse. Per Pro Football Reference, Rodgers led the NFL with a Bad Throw Percentage of 21.2 percent. It’s wise to be skeptical of newfangled, subjective-sounding stats like Bad Throw Percentage, but many of the names just below Rodgers on the list (Jameis Winston, Josh Allen, Jared Goff, Mason Rudolph, Old Man Brady) earned reputations this season for throwing too many gopher balls.

Rodgers finished second to Brady with 31 throwaways, per Pro Football Reference; being a veteran and giving up on a play is one thing, but doing it about twice per game when you are supposed to be one of the NFL’s best playmakers is another. And Rodgers was one of 15 qualified quarterbacks with a Dropped Pass rate of less than 5 percent: again, his targets were not to blame for his ordinary numbers.

Dig a little deeper, and some instructive trends emerge.

Rodgers’ efficiency rate in the first quarters of games was 123.5, with nine touchdowns, zero interceptions and a completion percentage of 71.0. In the second quarter, his efficiency rating plunged all the way to 77.2, with a completion rate of 54.6, before balancing out at 94.3 (passer rating) and 62.8 (completion percentage) in the second half. To clarify that heap of statistical splits: Rodgers put up Patrick Mahomes stats in the first quarter and Dwayne Haskins numbers in the second quarter before balancing out in the above-average neighborhood for the rest of the game.

Those splits jibe with what Packers fans saw on the field all year. Rodgers usually looked efficient, and sometimes spectacular, while working within the structure of Matt LaFleur’s offense on the first few Packers drives. But then he became the self-indulgent old stage actor who refused to stick to the script and began improvising. While there were few overt signs of the Rodgers-LaFleur drama some of us anticipated/worried about/licked our chops for when the 40-year-old coach replaced McCarthy, there were too many long stretches in which Rodgers turned up his nose at his initial passing options, scrambled around directing traffic, overthrew a bomb he would have completed in 2014 and scowled impatiently as he walked to the sideline.

The result of Rodgers’ Jekyll-and-Hyde season might have been another 10-6 finish (or worse) if the Packers running game and rebuilt defense didn’t lift them to victory over Washington, the Lions (twice) and the Vikings (twice).

The 36-year-old Rodgers set a Hall of Fame standard for himself from 2010 to ’14. He has fallen well short of that standard in recent seasons. The Packers spent the last two years eliminating the reasons/excuses for his decline. Now it’s time for him to perform to that standard again, because the Packers won’t be able to beat their playoff opponents by scoring 20 to 24 points and trying to squat on the lead.

That doesn’t mean Rodgers must do everything single-handedly. Just the opposite: He must evolve the way the best-of-the-best are supposed to late in their careers. Brady replaced Randy Moss rocketry with a much more surgical approach. Peyton Manning changed teams and coaches at age 36 with his trademark professionalism and reached two Super Bowls. John Elway settled into a run-oriented system at age 36 and won two Super Bowls. They all met new coaches, weapons and realities about their declining skills halfway by learning to thrive in new systems or environments.

If Rodgers cannot lead the Packers to the Super Bowl this year, they’ll likely do even more to accommodate him next year: draft a half-dozen receivers, hold closed-door grievance-airings with LaFleur, sign Antonio Brown (that would go over swell) or whatever. That’s what teams do when they have over $100 million and a decade of organizational identity invested in their quarterback.

But if Rodgers can’t take this Packers team to the Super Bowl, it really means the next thing that must soon change in Green Bay is the quarterback. And it will all be because the quarterback himself refuses to change.

I wonder if Tanier wrote this a dozen years ago about Brett Favre. Change the names of the receivers and running backs, and you could have said basically the same things.

For what it’s worth, this year’s team’s fortunes seem much more dependent on how the defense does, and I predict the defense, not Rodgers, will decide the Packers’ fate Sunday.

 

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