Friday, October 3, 2008

Thompson's Shadow Longer Than Favre's

During the telecast of the Packer/Buccaneer game last Sunday, FOX put up a graphic “4” over a live shot of Aaron Rodgers and the offense approaching the line of scrimmage. The graphic cast a long shadow over the Packers, and on Rodgers in particular.

Favre’s six-TD game for the Jets aside, I’m growing weary of the media trying to make this out that all the pressure that might be on Aaron Rodgers comes completely from Brett Favre. Sure, there is a part of the fan base that is trying to constantly compare Rodgers to Favre, but those folks would have done that with anyone, even if Favre had retired and wasn’t available to play. It’s the way it goes, and we’ve seen that play out with Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Bart Starr, and any other legendary quarterback. Memories are hard to shake.

But, the pressure of Aaron Rodgers isn’t coming from Brett Favre, as much as FOX and Tony Kornheiser would like us to believe. And, if FOX had wanted to be accurate, they would have placed a large graphic of Ted Thompson casting a shadow over #12 last weekend, for it is his actions that have placed Rodgers in the position he is now. In fact, credit should be given to Favre for sticking around as long as he did, because at least now Rodgers’ career has a chance to get going instead of getting knocked around and having his growth stunted like Alex Smith did.

Don’t get me wrong…I like Aaron Rodgers. I think he certainly has proven that he can handle any pressure that would have come from Brett Favre, and has shown more patience and maturity than most first-round quarterbacks we could have taken.

But, when Mike McCarthy announced in April that they weren’t going to do much to change the offense to adjust to Rodgers, he wasn’t kidding. Rodgers is continuing to play in an offense that alternates between spread and max-protect formations, just like Favre had to since 2005.

Why? Because, as many are suddenly noticing, our offensive line is porous and our running game isn’t a consistent threat. It’s really no different than it has been since the advent of the Thompson era, but in past seasons, it was easier to overlook.

When the Packers had a terrible 2005, many people pointed the finger at Mike Sherman (who was subsequently fired) and Brett Favre’s 29 interceptions, and called for the team to move on to a new quarterback. There were others (me included) who pointed out that Favre was playing behind guys named Whittaker and Klemm, throwing to guys named Chatman and Taco, and handing off to guys named Gado and Fisher. These folks (like me) were accused of making excuses for Favre’s problems.

Yet, none of those players returned for the 2006 season. And, thus began the efforts of Ted Thompson to essentially rebuild that entire offense from scratch, minus Favre, Donald Driver and two offensive tackles.

“Scratch”, of course, means building purely through the draft, and on offense, Ted Thompson has not added one major (or minor) free agent since then. This has placed a lot of pressure on the quarterback position in that time as we have waited for young guys to eventually develop.

Last season, Brett Favre was again asked to pass, pass, pass, on pace after the first eight games to break his own career mark for pass attempts he set in 2006, which broke the personal mark he set in 2005. He played behind a young interior line and had a stable of unproven running backs behind him.

Ryan Grant did establish himself over the last half of the season, but in retrospect, he was more explosive than consistent, a trait aided when you have a risk-taking gunslinger not afraid to push the envelope.

Other than Favre, there isn’t a single difference from the 2nd ranked offense of 2007. The entire offensive line unit returned, a year more experienced. The backfield returned, a year more experienced (and Grant signed long-term). The receivers have returned in full force, bolstered by a top draft pick in Jordy Nelson.

Except, of course, that the offense has free-fallen to 15th overall, and Aaron Rodgers appears to be in serious trouble when it comes to starting the next game, injured after having to run for a first down when it was clear our running backs were incapable of doing so.

You might think I’m setting this up to make out Rodgers to be the bad guy, and nothing could be further from the truth. Rodgers is a good quarterback, strong arm, tight spiral, good legs. He’s improved in his decision-making and has developed into a good check-down quarterback, taking what the defense offers him.

No, the problem is with the team that Ted Thompson has around him, and if McCarthy has decided not to change much with Rodgers behind center, he’s discovering quickly that he has a completely different quarterback than what he had.

Favre was a gunslinger, a confident guy who easily took the burden of the offense when the line broke down and the running game disappeared. He wasn’t a check-down quarterback like Rodgers. Yes, he would gun it into coverage, trying to make something happen. Sometimes he was intercepted. Sometimes, he made a breathtaking play. Always, he got the blame or the credit.

If I have said it once, I’ll say it again….Aaron Rodgers is ready to play. But the Packers are not ready for Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers’ style means you need a running threat to consistently challenge the defense, and he doesn’t have that. In all actuality, the Packers haven’t had that at all since Ahman Green was still healthy. The Packers haven’t had a 100-yard rusher this season, and frankly, they haven’t had a 70-yard rusher since the first week.

In front of him, the tackles are showing sign of age, and the interior linemen drafted by Thompson have continued to be a liability. When Favre was playing, it was excused, with claims that a Future Hall of Famer should be able to overcome such line play. And most of the time, Favre did. He had excellent evasion skills and moved the pocket easily to create that extra second.

But guys like Jason Spitz, Tony Moll, Daryn Colledge, and Allen Barbre have all had more than enough time to develop into athletes befitting their draft position, and only Spitz has shown any level of fulfilling of that promise. A fourth round rookie was able to beat all of them out this preseason, until an injury took him out.

As a result, not only are we still drafting guards to improve on what we have, we are losing the ability to properly shore up our tackle spots in the event Chad Clifton or Mark Tauscher suddenly drop off.

When I talk about the Shadow of Thompson hovering over Aaron Rodgers, it is exactly that.
He has had three full seasons to prepare this team for Rodgers’ coming out party, and had Brett Favre as the tackling dummy to take the heat (and the hits) until the team around him was ready.

Thompson was the NFL GM of the Year last year. Yet, the offense is looking more and more lost as defenses have more film on Rodgers and the 2008 Packers, and it is clear that Thompson’s penny-pinching ways are putting Rodgers at risk.

When the Packers go into max protect schemes, as they have since the Larry Beightol era, Rodgers has only two or three receivers to throw to. Since defenses have been able to create pressure with only a four-man rush or with only one blitzer, Rodgers has had problems. He’s good at taking what the defense gives you, but lately, the defense isn’t giving him anything.

This is where a game-managing quarterback needs a running game to take that pressure off of him, but in the last two games the Packers have managed only 112 rushing yards, and 18 of those belong to Aaron Rodgers. Conversely, the opposing teams have had 395 rushing yards in those games.

When the Packers shift to a spread offense, the defenses have, again, been able to create pressure with only a four man rush, leaving Rodgers to continually go to a safety valve route like Jordy Nelson or Brandon Jackson instead of having time in the pocket to allow the real threats like Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, or Donald Lee to do their thing.

When Thompson essentially dismissed the return of a quarterback that had proven himself able to work under these conditions, he gave the job to Rodgers. I’m guessing he truly must have believed that he had built an offense that was going to be able to continue to rack up yards without Favre. Perhaps winning awards and accolades will do that to you.

The fact that Thompson went so far as to eschew any and all veteran quarterbacks to back up Rodgers was a sign that he wanted Rodgers, and only Rodgers, to play behind center this year. I don’t think he wanted any competition for #12, and in retrospect, that was another rather inexplicable move, now that Rodgers is fighting off an injury.

Wait a minute…”in retrospect”? I thought that move was foolish at the time, not just with 20/20 hindsight. And this places yet another huge amount of pressure on Rodgers that, given the lack of talent or execution in front and behind him, he shouldn't have to have. Thompson has had three long seasons to have his draft picks and other moves pan out.

With the New York Jets (a team mocked as having less offensive talent than the Packers not too long ago), Brett Favre presently leads the NFL with a 110.8 passing efficiency rating. And yet, Thomas Jones hasn’t exactly dominated the running game for the Jets. In fact, he has only 83 yards in his last two games.

Perhaps Favre had many years of good training learning to bear the mantle of leadership when he was playing on a young team marked by inconsistency and mistakes. But, this is not the kind of team that Aaron Rodgers is going to have a lot of success with, not with the specific gifts he brings to the table.

And, for now, the critics point to decry Ryan Grant and the offensive line as the major culprits in the Packers’ sluggish slowdown. But, it probably won’t be long before Rodgers starts taking the heat, as Favre did.

And that would be tremendously unfair to Rodgers. The person who is responsible for creating the team around him is the one who should be getting pointed at (but, I suppose, having that GM of the Year trophy sitting on the mantle deflects criticism). His avoidance of expensive free agents may have won praise in a rebuilding cycle, but now that expectations are high and Aaron Rodgers is being asked to lead in his own way, the over-investing in traded-down-for draft picks should be under the microscope.

No matter how many first-day receivers Thompson drafts, it isn’t going to matter if he can’t get rid of the ball or have a running game to open it up.

I am going to continue to root for Aaron Rodgers to overcome, and/or the talent around him to provide the kind of offense that he needs to be successful. There’s no reason that a mobile, game-managing quarterback can’t be successful in the NFL.

But all of those successful game-managers in NFL history had one thing in common: a strong offensive line and a running game. Talk about a long shadow to live under.


stick56 said...

In case this comes up "anonymous" yet again.

Im stick56.

And this is by far the best analysis of the Packers that Ive read in a long, long, longgggggggggggg time.


C.D. Angeli said...

Stick, good to meet ya. :-)

Thanks's an unfortunate analysis, for sure, but accurate. I think the Atlanta game is going to be a bloodbath, which will be in part to the injuries, but also in part to the Packers being unable to hide their weaknesses behind Favre anymore.