GREEN BAY — There’s an old adage in the NFL, one that coaches seem contractually obligated to use on a semi-regular basis.
You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.
Even as a rookie coach, Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur has used it multiple times this season. And when it comes to his offense, LaFleur has to admit his group has not shown much improvement in recent weeks. And you know what that means.
“It’s just been too inconsistent, I would say,” LaFleur said. “There are flashes where we look really good, and there’s (other times) where it’s a grind to get a first down.
“I really think when you look at the total body of work, the biggest thing that’s held us back for the majority of the season is the third downs. We just haven’t been good enough.”
The Packers entered their playoff bye week having converted just 3 of 12 third-down situations (25%) during last Sunday’s 23-20 come-from-behind victory at Detroit to close the regular season, leaving them at 73 of 203 (36%) for the season — tied for 21st with Arizona in the 32-team NFL.
For comparison’s sake, none of the NFL’s playoff teams had a worse conversion rate than the Packers. Of the top 10 third-down teams league-wide, seven are in the playoffs. Kansas City (47.6%) led the NFL, and Baltimore (47.1%) tied for second in the league.
Overall, the Packers’ offense finished 18th in yards per game (345.5), tied for 17th in yards per play (5.4), and 15th in points per game (23.5).
During their five-game winning streak to end the season, the Packers averaged 23.6 points per game and 354.0 yards per game. In contrast, their best stretch offensively was during their four-game winning streak in October, when — despite playing without No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams, who was sidelined by a toe injury — they averaged 32.5 points per game and 409.2 yards per game while beating Dallas, Detroit, Oakland and Kansas City.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, finished his first season in LaFleur’s offense having completed 353 of 569 passes (62.0%) for 4,002 yards with 26 touchdowns, four interceptions and 36 sacks for a passer rating of 95.4 — his third-lowest single-season passer rating of his career. Only his 93.8 rating in 2008, his first year as the starter, and his 92.7 rating in 2015 were lower.
Interestingly, during the first eight games of the season, Rodgers completed 65.4% of his passes for 2,324 yards with 16 touchdowns and two interceptions (106.7 rating) but during the last eight games of the season, he completed 58.7% of his passes for 1,678 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions (84.2 rating).
Asked Thursday to share what he feels good about offensively and what concerns him, Rodgers expressed concern about how often the “timing” has been off this season.
“I feel good about the grasp of the offense, the checks and the expansion of the stuff we’ve been working on throughout the season to get to this point. Where I feel like we can just do more and get more comfortable (is) Monday to Saturday — getting the plan to look the way we want it to look,” Rodgers replied. “After that, we’ve just got to execute and get on the same page.
“I think the timing’s been off a lot of the year. I don’t know if that’s going to get fixed. It’s not going to get fixed the next two days, it’s just a matter of finding those concepts where the timing has been good. because there’s been a number of concepts where we’ve looked good. the ball’s been coming out on time, I’ve been feeling good about the rhythm and guys are getting open on time. but there’s I think too many concepts that we’ve really tried to hit and keep hitting and make it work and we just aren’t on the same page timing-wise. And that’s why this has been a good week to just self-scout.”
Rodgers acknowledged after Sunday’s game he had “too many missed throws,” and ESPN Stats & Information charged him with 16 overthrows — the most in a single game in his career and tied for the most by any quarterback in a game since ESPN started tracking the statistic in 2006. Rodgers also said the Packers game plan coming into Detroit was “we wanted to stretch the field, for sure” and that led to “a lot” of downfield throws.
“We wanted to take some shots early, (and we) had some opportunities. (I) missed obviously a few of them, didn’t come down with a couple of them as well. But that was the plan,” Rodgers said. “(I) felt good about the throws, that’s the crazy thing. Felt good about some of those I overthrew by a couple yards. Just a little bit off at times. But when we had to make some plays, we made some plays.”
That they did, with Rodgers throwing touchdown passes of 20 yards to Adams and 28 yards to Allen Lazard to erase the Packers’ 17-3 halftime deficit and set up kicker Mason Crosby’s walk-off 33-yard winner as time expired.
“Just focus,” Lazard said when asked why the offense stalled so often during the first half. “I think we kind of came out flat. We thought (the Lions) were going to roll over, but that’s not the case, especially in the NFC North. We know we have to come out there every single game and play harder.”
While motivation shouldn’t be an issue for their Jan. 12 NFC divisional playoff game, it would seem the Packers offense during the second half of the season desperately needed a big play early to shake itself out of its first-quarter doldrums.
For instance, on the first play of their 21-13 win over Chicago on Dec. 15, LaFleur dialed up a shot play and Rodgers put a 60-yard throw right on the money to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, only to see the ball go right through the receiver’s hands. Against the Lions, Rodgers hit tight end Jimmy Graham in stride down the right seam on the Packers’ first offensive snap for what likely would have been at least a 30-yard gain. Instead, Graham dropped the ball and when Rodgers overthrew Valdes-Scantling down the right sideline, the Packers went three-and-out and punted.
“I think there is a lot to that,” said LaFleur, who also acknowledged the Packers “came out flat” and “were kind of sleepwalking through that first half” against the Lions. “We wanted to come out aggressively and we stayed pretty aggressive throughout the course of the game. And unfortunately, in talking from an offensive perspective, we were just a hair off on a lot of plays. You make a couple of those plays (early), you don’t have some of those drops, and it kind of gets you going. And we never really got into a rhythm.
“We’ve just been off on a lot of plays, whether it’s a guy dropping a ball or maybe the (throw) is just a tad off. But (Rodgers) can’t do it himself. He’s got to have; the play around him has got to be better. The guys that have opportunities they’ve got to make plays.”
As does Rodgers.
In the wake of the Packers’ 37-8 loss at San Francisco on Nov. 24, Rodgers said the Packers needed him to “get hot” down the stretch. Before beating the Lions, Rodgers said the offense doesn’t need him to “throw 40 touchdowns for us to win.”
The truth, as it often does, probably lies somewhere in between. To reach Super Bowl LIV, the Packers will have to win at home on Jan. 12 and then either win at San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game or beat someone else at Lambeau Field on Jan. 19.
Given the level of competition, they’ll need Rodgers, who in 16 career playoff starts has completed 63.5% of his passes for 4,458 yards with 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions (99.4 rating), to be on top of his game – even if the offense takes a more balanced approach than it did during past playoff runs under Mike McCarthy.
“We’ve done it a lot of different ways (offensively), so I don’t know. I don’t mind (throwing a lot), but it’s a little better when we’re more balanced,” Rodgers said. “We wouldn’t like to (throw a lot), but it kind of depends on who we’re playing and what they’re trying to take away.
“I think the NFC is wide open. There’s six really good football teams that are in, and I think homefield advantage can be really important. Green Bay is a tough place to come and play, although we haven’t over my time haven’t had a distinct advantage as far as our win-loss record. I feel like this team can utilize the cold better than some of those other teams that relied on heavy passing games, where we’re a little more balanced this year.”
Safety Raven Greene, who suffered what was thought to be a season-ending ankle injury in September and underwent surgery, was back on the practice field Thursday after being designated for return from injured reserve. “It’s kind of still kind of an evaluation for him to see where he’s at,” LaFleur said of Greene. “But, (it was) definitely nice to have him back out there.” … The Packers practiced for roughly an hour after being given Tuesday and Wednesday off for the bye week. They’ll practice again Friday before having the weekend off, leading into another bonus practice Monday. “Just wanted to get ‘em back in the action, get a sweat,” LaFleur said. … LaFleur said the coaches scouted the Packers’ three potential NFC Divisional opponents — New Orleans, Philadelphia and Seattle — during the early part of the week, since the team won’t know its opponent until the weekend is over. “We’ve divvied that up amongst the staff, taking a peek at all three of those teams,” LaFleur said. “But it’s hard to go full-fledged in because you just don’t know.”