From the start, the 2018 season for the Green Bay Packers was going to be defined by new general manager Brian Gutekunst attempting an intensely delicate balance.
On one hand, you had the Old Hands Looking For One Last Go ‘Round — quarterback Aaron Rodgers in his age-35 season, 32-year old OLB Clay Matthews, and a batch of aging free agent acquisitions (35-year old cornerback Tramon Williams, 32-year old tight end Jimmy Graham, 29-year old defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson).
Re-signing Rodgers and bringing in guys on short-term deals gave this season a serious win-now feel, and with well-paid go-to receivers (Davante Adams and Randall Cobb) and tackles (David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga), at first glance it seemed Rodgers had what he needed.
On the other hand ... there was everything else. The defense had a new coordinator (Mike Pettine) and only five players making more than $2.5 million (Matthews, Williams, Wilkerson, end Mike Daniels, and OLB Nick Perry).
The Packers selected cornerbacks with each of their top two picks in April’s draft (Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson) and would need at least one to play a starting-caliber role immediately. With Cobb’s explosiveness vanishing in recent years, Rodgers was going to need a reliable contribution from at least one of three receiver draftees. There was an on-the-fly rebuild going on in the middle of win-now mode. The ceiling was high, and the floor was pretty damn low.
It obviously hasn’t worked out. Head coach Mike McCarthy was fired after a loss to lowly Arizona dropped the Pack to 4-7-1.
The team is probably better than its record; they are 13th in ESPN’s FPI (between the 6-5-1 Vikings and 6-6 Colts) and 12th in DVOA, a statistical stature that suggests a borderline playoff team. But a series of tight losses — by eight at Detroit, by two at the Rams, by three at Seattle, by seven at Minnesota, by three to the Cardinals — brought about the end of both win-now mode and McCarthy’s 13-year Green Bay residence.
The McCarthy post-mortems in recent days have been frequent and comprehensive. Green Bay was too patient for too long, McCarthy’s offense was resistant to incorporating some of the easy concepts that are getting NFL receivers open at record rates, firing him now gives the Pack a head start on replacement hunting, etc.
But what happens next? And what does Gutekunst have to lean on as he attempts a similar win-now-but-build-for-the-future balance with a new coach in the coming years?
To attempt answers, let’s first look at what their actual strengths and weaknesses have been in 2018. Then we’ll look at the contract situation.
The offense has been fine until it falls behind schedule.
Green Bay’s perilous balance has bled over onto the stat sheet — the Packers are very good at a lot and very bad at a lot.
Offensively, even with Cobb offering very little, there’s been a solid combination of run efficiency and big-play passing.
Former UTEP star Aaron Jones is quietly having one hell of a year running the ball. He’s averaging 5.7 yards per carry, though granted, that average has been just 3.8 per carry over his last three weeks of feature work. Still, his overtaking of Jamaal Williams on the depth chart gave the Packers a jolt of extra efficiency. He was dominant in the easy win over Dolphins (15 carries for 145 yards) and was excellent against the Rams, too (12 for 86).
In theory, you combine efficient rushing with big-play passing, and you’re in business, right? Though Cobb’s contributions have been minimal (6.6 yards per target in only six games), Adams has averaged a healthy 13.3 yards per catch over seven catches per game, and three young receivers — third-year target Geronimo Allison and rookies Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown — have combined for 950 yards over 60 catches (15.8 per).
There’s all sorts of explosiveness here, and it’s combined with the fact that Rodgers never really puts the ball in harm’s way; he has one single, solitary interception in 463 passes. But that explosiveness takes a while to come about, and the easy options don’t exist.
Watching Packers last few games and I keep seeing plays like this.— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) December 3, 2018
No one open until Rodgers makes a play but also there has been a lot of dropped passes but it's RODGERS' fault though! pic.twitter.com/AoRoeeHVX3
3rd and 3 and your best option is to throw to a well covered fade.... not ideal pic.twitter.com/hJnZaJC1HL— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) December 3, 2018
The biggest problem with McCarthy’s offense as it stood in 2018 is that nothing came easy — Rodgers was being asked to develop great timing and efficiency with a receiving corps that, outside of Adams, he doesn’t really know.
Those issues reappeared with the 2018 offense, which continued to look antiquated in comparison to teams like the Chiefs and Rams. The Packers simply don’t do enough to create natural rubs and easy releases for their receivers, who have to win one-on-one in coverage. Of Rodgers’ 21 touchdown passes this season, just two used a pick to create space, and they were both within two yards of the end zone. Two of the touchdowns included stacked receivers, but one didn’t create an open receiver and required Rodgers to improvise and create a throwing lane for a score.
The Packers hadn’t run a jet sweep through mid-October, and while they used ghost motion in Week 12 to set up an Aaron Jones touchdown run, it felt like when the diner that has been in your town for 75 years suddenly added poké to the menu. Putting Davante Adams in the backfield for one fourth-down play isn’t modernizing your offense. It’s one play.
So what happens when you’ve got a QB who doesn’t throw interceptable passes and has to wait a while for guys (many of whom are rookies or close to it) to come open? Blitz downs become disasters. Even with an efficient run game, Rodgers has faced plenty of blitz downs. They’ve been mostly disastrous.
Despite the presence of one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, Green Bay’s offense fits the profile of one manned by a game manager type — run the ball and keep things safe on standard downs, then warm up your punter the moment you fall behind schedule. Rodgers obviously isn’t Peak Aaron anymore, but if you think he’s still got some tricks up his sleeve (and he’s certainly shown glimpses), maybe build him a more modern offense, give him some easier passes, and see what happens.
The defense is fun, aggressive, and glitchy.
As Rex Ryan’s former right-hand man, Mike Pettine has fit the Ryan profile: be as aggressive as you can when you’ve got the chance (and sometimes when you don’t) and hope the glitches don’t outweigh the three-and-outs you force. And despite injuries up front and youth in the back, the Packers have been able to force plenty of awkward downs and distances and three-and-outs.
From a marginal efficiency standpoint, they have the best pass defense in the league and the second-best passing downs defense in the league. They force blitz downs, and they dominate opponents on blitz downs as well as the opponent’s defense dominates the Packers.
This is a good thing to have in your back pocket in the pass happy 2018 season! And Green Bay has put together this happy set of stats despite the fact that three of their five most well-paid defenders (Perry, Daniels, and Wilkerson) are on Injured Reserve — they’ve combined for just three tackles for loss this season and, per Spotrac, occupy 14 percent of Green Bay’s cap between them — and despite the fact that Gutekunst’s ongoing shadow rebuild included some in-season moves in the back: part-time starter Jermaine Whitehead was waived on November 6, just a week after safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was traded to Washington.
Both rookie corners, Alexander and Johnson, have been asked to do a lot and have held their own (they’ve combined for 16 passes defensed). Williams has been alright after moving from corner to safety. Obviously Williams’ age means he isn’t a long-term answer back there, but Alexander and Johnson could form one of the more dangerous cornerback tandems in the league for years to come.
You can probably figure out what the problem is, though. You’ve got an aggressive play-caller and an aggressive secondary trying to make plays on the ball while battling youth and a subpar pass rush. What happens when they don’t make a play? The opponent does.
The big plays Green Bay allows are bigger than just about everyone else’s. Green Bay is sixth in completion rate allowed but 21st in yards per completion. The Packers are excellent in the short passing game, which prevents that per-completion average from being even bigger, but the glitches have been deadly.
They’ve allowed 22 passes of 30-plus yards this season, tied with the Chiefs and Rams for the most in the league. Only, they don’t have the Chiefs’ and Rams’ offenses to fall back on.
The rebuild is going pretty well. The “win now” part will depend on the new head coach.
Let’s list the Packers’ young assets.
- Adams is still only 26 years old, and despite the passing game’s passing downs issues (and his lack of consistent help), he’s already exceeded his career highs for catches and yards and is on pace for more than 110 catches and nearly 1,500 yards. He’s obviously getting paid like a star receiver now — there’s no rookie contract discount here — but he’ll be a reliable, exciting piece for a while.
- As NFL passing offenses continue to blossom, you’re going to need as many strong man coverage guys as possible, and in the 21-year old Alexander, 22-year old Jackson, and 23-year old part-time starter Kevin King, plus 26-year old recent addition and former Washington starter Bashaud Breeland, Green Bay’s got some potential keepers, and affordable ones at that. The interceptions haven’t come yet, but they should soon.
- Defensive end/tackle Kenny Clark is 23. The UCLA product is third on the team in both tackles for loss and passes defensed. He’s a keeper. Behind him, inside linebacker Blake Martinez, a sturdy presence against the run, is just 24 and leads the team in TFLs.
- Jones is just 24, and Jamaal Williams is 23. Green Bay’s run game isn’t the most explosive in the world, but with the run game decreasing in importance throughout the league, the Packers are probably solid at running back for a while, especially considering Jones’ decent pass-catching abilities.
- Valdez-Scantling and St. Brown are not yet consistent (53 percent catch rate between them), but they were fifth- and sixth-round picks, respectively. Fellow rookie J’Mon Moore (one catch) was a fourth rounder. They’ve been asked to contribute well beyond their draft status, and the odds are good that one of them becomes a strong option opposite Adams moving forward.
If Gutekunst chooses to let them go, Matthews and Cobb will come off the books this coming season. In fact, here are the players scheduled to make more than $10 million next year:
- Rodgers ($26,500,000)
- Perry ($14,700,000)
- Bakhtiari ($14,200,000)
- Graham ($12,666,666)
- Daniels ($10,900,000)
- Adams ($10,600,000)
Obviously that’s a lot to pay Rodgers if he doesn’t have his fastball anymore, and Perry and Daniels are only worth that money if healthy, but that’s not an incredibly burdensome list. With another draft class and room for at least a couple of interesting free agent additions, Gutekunst could be able to address some of the outstanding issues (of which there aren’t a ton).
As far as rebuilds go, there’s a lot to like here. But Rodgers’ presence assures that the situation remains a little more desperate than the average rebuild. Gutekunst can’t make solid moves — he has to make great ones to take advantage of whatever Rodgers has left. But if he nails the upcoming coaching search, and if Green Bay can create some easier passes for Rodgers on offense while simply getting healthy on defense, they might have a lot to offer in 2019.