GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers isn’t entirely sure how this season will unfold.
He can’t predict just how quickly his young wide receivers will grasp what he calls the “why” and the “how” of the Green Bay Packers scheme; he doesn’t know whether the dynamic running back duo of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon will be able to help him shoulder more of the burden of the offense (even with opposing defenses knowing full well what they want to do); he’s unable to guarantee just how effectively he’ll navigate the frustrations that come with being an 18-year NFL veteran dealing with what surely will be more numerous rookie mistakes than he’s had to overcome in his 15 years as the Packers starting quarterback.
But for all the attention being paid to how Rodgers interacts with and tries to mold those young receivers into the types of players he requires — especially in the wake of the team’s underwhelming performance in its season-opening 23-7 loss at Minnesota — there’s a corollary question that also must be asked: Does the four-time NFL MVP, coming off back-to-back MVP seasons, need to alter his style of play to accommodate the inexperience he’s surrounded by? Must he not only adjust how demanding he is of his receivers, but be more demanding of himself and realize he has less margin for error?
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“I’ve got to play the same way,” Rodgers said during his usual midweek Q&A session with reporters at his locker as the Packers prepped for Sunday night’s home opener against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. “I don’t play the way I played in 2011 (when he won his first MVP award). I’ve got to play on time, and guys have got to get open. So no, I’m not going to change the way I play. I have to realize who’s out there, who we’re throwing to and how we’re going to actually make some hay and score some points.”
While there was plenty of blame to go around in the wake of the offense managing just seven points in last week’s loss, Rodgers bore some responsibility as well. He threw a foolish up-for-grabs interception near the end of the first half that he described as “a real dumb decision by me,” and then he lost a fumble on the opening drive of the second half when he held onto the ball too long on a 9-yard sack. Although the young offensive line blocked the play incorrectly, Rodgers admitted he should have thrown the ball away before taking the hit.
Asked if those two plays are proof that he has less margin for error than he had the past two seasons, when he had first-team All-Pro wideout Davante Adams whom he could always count on, Rodgers shook his head.
“I don’t really look at it that way. It’s more the standard that I’ve set,” he replied. “I didn’t lose a fumble all last year, and hadn’t thrown a pick in a division game (since 2019). That’s the standard that I hold myself to, regardless of who’s out there with us. So that’s why that’s frustrating.
“I don’t look at it as ‘Tae’s not here. I’ve got to do even more or play perfect football.’ I’ve just always held myself to a standard of taking care of the football, and that wasn’t good enough (last) Sunday.”
More growing pains
As Rodgers said after that game, there will be more growing pains in the weeks ahead, because the Packers find themselves in such a foreign, challenging predicament at receiver: They have two youngsters who are too talented to sit the bench (rookie draft picks Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs); two veterans who are trying to show they have plenty of good football left in them (29-year-old newcomer Sammy Watkins and 32-year-old Randall Cobb on his second tour of duty with the team); two young receivers who have not yet earned much of Rodgers’ trust (second-year man Amari Rodgers and rookie seventh-round pick Samori Touré); and a new No. 1 receiver who is coming off a career best season in which he caught 40 passes for 513 yards (Allen Lazard).
Against the Vikings, Watson dropped what should have been a 75-yard touchdown on the Packers’ first play from scrimmage and caught only one other ball from Rodgers the rest of the game; Doubs caught four passes for 37 yards and showed promise; Watkins had just three catches for 18 yards while Cobb caught only two passes for 14 yards; Lazard was inactive because of a lingering ankle injury; Amari Rodgers didn’t play a single offensive snap; and Touré was inactive in favor of practice-squad call-up Juwann Winfree, who played nine snaps and had one 17-yard reception.
Beyond the moments of frustration Rodgers had during the game, it seemed obvious that beyond Cobb, he had yet to develop the crucial comfort or connection with any of the wide receivers in uniform for the game.
“Chemistry is so important. It’s why Randall Cobb, at 32 years old, is still on this team,” said ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck, a former Packers backup quarterback who went on to start for three other NFL teams and made three Pro Bowls during an 17-year NFL career. “He would be playing for no one else. But on the Green Bay Packers, he could be a star.
“Chemistry is so important. Trust is so important. And that’s what he had with Davante. You see the same thing out of Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. … With Aaron Rodgers, give him Randall Cobb, give him Allen Lazard, give him whoever he has that chemistry with and let these young, talented guys compete and earn it. And I think that’s the way to go.
“I trust Aaron Rodgers in the way that the Bucs trust Tom Brady. You’ve seen it with different guys he’s had chemistry with. That’s an important piece of his game. I would lean into that. I would not fight it.”
Of course, Hasselbeck’s theory requires Lazard, Cobb and Watkins to be productive and stay healthy. And there’s reason to wonder if all three can do that.
“There is a transition at the wide receiver position. There’s no question about it,” said ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen, who played seven seasons as a safety in the league, including two with the Packers. “You have young players that are going to be counted on — maybe not immediately but throughout the course of the season — to be productive players for them.
“Everyone has to understand this: You’re not going to recreate Davante Adams. Not with this receiving group. But can you try to recreate the production with two or three guys? I think that has to be the goal with this receiving group — recreate the production, even though it’s going to look different, there’s going to be different route concepts. There’s going to be ways to scheme to the wide receiver talent they have that will fit the throwing traits of Aaron Rodgers.”
More running game
Packers head coach/offensive play-caller Matt LaFleur acknowledged that didn’t happen against the Vikings, as Rodgers completed 22 of 34 passes (64.7%) for 195 with no touchdowns and one interception while absorbing four sacks. LaFleur also said immediately after the game and throughout the week that he needs to get Jones and Dillon more involved moving forward.
“Based on the coaching tree Matt LaFleur comes from, what that offense really is in terms of structure is, there’s a heavy run-game foundation in that offense,” Bowen said. “Look at that coaching tree. In my opinion, the offense is built out of the run game. That sets up your passing opportunities, it sets up your play-action opportunities.”
Across the national media landscape, the Packers’ Game 1 loss and Rodgers’ very un-Rodgers-like numbers gave the shout-at-each-other TV debate shows a week’s worth of fodder, from examining the lack of talent around Rodgers to Rodgers’ own mistakes to his lack of chemistry with the young receivers.
But the Bears aren’t buying the notion that Rodgers is less dangerous without Adams and with mistake-prone kids playing in his place.
“(We’re) not falling into that trap to say they don’t have a No. 1. We try to tell the guys, ‘Don’t drink the Kool Aid of what the media is trying to sell that there’s gloom and doom in Green Bay. Don’t fall into that trap,’” Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams said.
“And then the quarterback, don’t underestimate the power of great leadership. He is a great leader, and he will get those guys into shape. I remember last year watching TV, the media was crucifying him, crucifying the team, saying they were done. You can’t buy into that.
“You’re facing one of the best in history, a guy that has a ton of experience. You’re not going to trick him; you’re not going to fool him. (But) we need to take care of ourselves and our business and what we need to do and more so who they are and what they’re doing.”
Added Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, a former Packers assistant and one of Rodgers’ closest confidantes who was Green Bay’s quarterbacks coach for last year’s 38-3 season-opening shellacking by the New Orleans Saints: “There are 17 games, and it’s a season of progress. To panic over one game … it’s a long year. Like it was (with) New Orleans last year, right? And my first year there, it was in Seattle in ’14 when we got our butts whooped. And we ended up going back to the NFC Championship game that year. So, it’s one game. You stick to the details and what you want to be good at. And that guy is good at a lot of things, so they’re able to do a lot.”
For his part, Rodgers seems to fully grasp what he’s up against, even if he doesn’t especially like it. And while he might be stubborn about not altering the way he plays, he has a track record of such success that it’s hard to argue with him.
At the same time, the Packers’ early season success hinges on how well he can play given the circumstances and how effectively he manages his frustration. The sooner he is able to thrive in both categories, the better chance he gives his team of being at its best late in the season.
“They’re rookies. There’s going to be mistakes,” Rodgers said. “So, you hold them accountable and prepare and communicate as well as we can. But it’s not (like) throwing to older guys out there. It’s young guys who are very talented who are going to make some great plays (despite) not actually knowing what they’re doing sometimes, and there’s going to be times when they don’t make the right reaction. And just having patience with that (is crucial). Because I think by the end of the year they’ll have it figured out.”
“The most important thing for a jump to happen is not repeat the same mistake twice. These guys are going to make a lot of mistakes. The guys who don’t repeat the same mistakes are going to get more opportunities.”
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