Aaron Rodgers could point to any number of reasons why his Green Bay Packers have started the season 3-3 — his sore thumb, terrible offensive line play, a sudden relapse of the special-teams issues that plagued the team in 2021. But whatever the causes or excuses, the results are inarguable: The Packers’ four-time NFL MVP quarterback is playing like a mediocre signal-caller, and the team’s offense is below average.
These offensive struggles are largely why Green Bay dropped back-to-back home games to the New York Giants and New York Jets, starting the first losing streak of head coach Matt LaFleur’s career. Though they’ve never failed to win the NFC North under LaFleur, they’re already two games behind the Minnesota Vikings. After winning 13 games in each of LaFleur’s first three seasons, the Packers will have to go 10-1 from here on out to hit that mark again — a task that will be near impossible if Rodgers doesn’t return to elite form.
Rodgers’s overall statistical effectiveness has been extremely lacking by his standards: He’s below league average in Total QBR, yards per attempt and expected points added per dropback, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Sure, he’s still good at avoiding interceptions, with the seventh-lowest rate in the league, and he checks in with the seventh-highest completion rate. But the big-time throws that have been Rodgers’s hallmark throughout his career are missing. Without them, the Packers are much easier to defend — and nothing the rest of the offense is doing seems capable of replacing them.
LeFleur was brought in to revitalize Rodgers and the Packers’ “stale” offense, as the star QB had been criticized for being too “risk-averse” under former coach Mike McCarthy. The new coach’s fresh ideas immediately paid off: Over LaFleur’s first three years, Rodgers chucked deep balls of 20-plus air yards at a rate higher than any quarterback not named Jameis Winston, Justin Fields or Russell Wilson.
What’s more, Rodgers was very effective on those throws. On a league-high 229 pass attempts of 20 or more air yards, Rodgers ranked highly in stats like passing EPA per dropback (second) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (first):
|% of Att. 20+ Air Yds
This year, something’s different. He still throws more deep balls than the NFL average over the past four seasons, but he does it much less effectively. When Rodgers airs it out this season, he ranks 21st in raw QBR, 27th in yards per dropback, 18th in completion percentage over expected and 23rd in EPA per dropback. As a result, the snaps Green Bay has devoted to Rodgers’ bombs — he’s thrown the league’s fourth-most passes of 20 or more yards — have drastically underproduced. (He has just the 14th-most passing yards on those attempts.)
But is it all Rodgers’s fault?
The Packers offensive line has been blitzed on the lowest share of dropbacks in the NFL, yet they’ve surrendered the seventh-highest pressure rate. Green Bay quarterbacks (i.e., mostly Rodgers) have only been sacked the 18th-most frequently — but that’s because they’ve gotten rid of the ball in a lightning-quick average of 2.49 seconds, faster than all but Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Look into the Packer gameplan a little more deeply, and there’s evidence LaFleur is well aware of what his offense can and can’t do. The deep out is a classic test of quarterback arm strength, and ESPN’s 2021 “Quarterback Council” declared Rodgers’s arm the third-strongest in the league. But of the 1,041 routes Packers pass-catchers have run so far this year, only 35 were slow-developing deep outs or deep ins. No team has run fewer deep outs — and no Packers receiver has even run an out route of 20 yards or deeper, let alone had Rodgers throw it his way.
Meanwhile, Green Bay pass-catchers are running screen routes at the highest clip in the league, and short out routes at the second-highest. Their wide receivers are averaging the NFL’s fourth-fewest air yards per target, at just 6.6. On balls thrown 20-plus yards in the air, their catch rate is tied for sixth-worst in the league, and they’ve dropped more long bombs than any other team’s receiving corps.
But while the offensive line is struggling to keep Rogers protected long enough to throw deep balls to wideouts who are struggling to haul them in, running back Aaron Jones is averaging the NFL’s fifth-best yards per carry (5.84). Why, analysts wonder, is Jones only averaging 11.7 carries a game? The Packers have the sixth-best rushing success rate in the NFL, and 12th-most expected points added per rushing attempt. Surely that seems like a way to take pressure off of Rodgers and make life easier in the passing game, right?
As effective as Jones and A.J. Dillon have been in their evenly split platoon, though, the Packers’ rush offense is still based on their passing success. The Packers line up in the shotgun at the eighth-highest rate in the NFL, and they run out of the shotgun more frequently than all but six teams. Yet according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jones and Dillon both average less time behind the line of scrimmage than any other qualifying runner — meaning they aren’t dancing around behind the line, or running long tosses and sweeps, just taking the ball and going straight up the gut.
Lining up in passing formations then handing it off to decisive downhill runners can be very effective, especially when defenses fear your passing offense. But given that injuries have repeatedly reshuffled the Packers’ offensive line, and the fact that Packer centers have the third-worst run-block win rate in the NFL, building the offensive game plan around a heavier dose of north-south running — without the aerial attack presenting a bigger threat — seems likely to result in even more diminished returns than Rodgers’s already diminished vertical passing.
One obvious way to fix the offense would be to add talent to the line or the receiving corps, or both. After the Jets loss, Rodgers told reporters he has “had a number of conversations” with GM Brian Gutekunst about potential trades. But the other obvious way would be for Rodgers to elevate the players around him by elevating his performance — the way he used to be able to do. And if he doesn’t do that again soon, it’s fair to wonder whether he ever will.
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