It is rarely ever wise 'round these parts to offer even passing criticism of Aaron Rodgers. Just a few weeks ago, I commented that a pass into the end zone that went off the fingertips of Donald Driver was a little high and thrown too hard. The repercussions across Twitter were fast and furious. "Oh, what? It hit him in the hands? Favre threw hardballs too, and Driver caught those!"
But after yesterday's inexplicable meltdown on all fronts against the lowly Colts, there are plenty of people pointing fingers: some at Dom Capers, some at Mike McCarthy, or any assortment of players not living up to expectations. It may not be in my own personal best interest, but I'm placing Aaron Rodgers in the cross-hairs.
"But wait!" you claim. "How can you blame Rodgers when the defense gave up 28 second-half points? Or Mason Crosby hitting fans seated on the ten yard-line with his field goal attempt?! Or MIKE MCCARTHY?!?!" Yes, indeed, there are problems on all fronts with this team after yesterday, but the one place we didn't expect problems was on offense, and particularly not with our reigning MVP. After all, as the defense slowly declined into a historically poor unit by the playoffs last year, it was Rodgers and the offense that brought us fifteen wins to only one loss.
"Come on!!!" you scream. "Look at that offensive line? I've seen turnstiles put up more resistance than them! And those receivers are dropping pass after pass, and can't break away from the defenders?!? And our running game?!?! Once we lost Benson, we got NOTHIN'!!!!!" There's no doubt that the supporting cast around Rodgers isn't up to snuff, either.
But the prevailing thought has to be, if our success on offense begins with Aaron Rodgers, so does our failures. Simply put, this is what a quarterback, particularly one that leads the team in passing as well as rushing, is expected to do nowadays.
So, now that we've established that Rodgers is worthy of some criticism, I will offer my reason why the offense has spluttered so far this season, and it has to do with his key ranking on Madden: accuracy.
Hands down, Rodgers' accuracy has always been what has set him apart from other quarterbacks, what set him up to be the MVP-caliber player he is. Heck, remember those training camp contests where he threw 70-yard bombs directly through a Life Saver? His career highlight reel is full of unbelievable passes where he has always been able to put the ball on the head of a pin, usually in the perfect spot where only his receiver could catch it, regardless of the flailing arms of a defender.
Even more importantly, however, are the YouTube collection of balls vaulted 40-50 yards in the air, coming down to settle right in the arms of a sprinting Jordy Nelson or Greg Jennings, who just separated from his defender.
But, in 2012, we've not seen that deadly accuracy. At times, we haven't seen any accuracy at all. Those 40-yard bombs have been attempted, and most have fallen harmlessly five or six yards in front of a wide-open receiver.
The problem is that, while we may not want to face the truth that Rodgers simply hasn't been able to find his accuracy on those long passes, defensive coordinators are embracing it.
One of my criticisms of Matt Flynn was that he was an effective quarterback when he didn't toss the ball farther than fifteen yards. He simply didn't have the long-range accuracy, and rarely hit the long pass. It made him, in my estimation, a serviceable West Coast Offense quarterback, able to nickel-and-dime you in a conservative offense. But he didn't have that extra dimension that Aaron Rodgers brought.
This season, Rodgers has been Matt Flynn: accurate on the short ball, but nearly unreliable on the long ball. And defensive coordinators have figured that out, bringing their defensive backs up closer to the line and challenging the receivers. McCarthy admitted as much following the game.
"They were very aggressive with us," said McCarthy. "That's the M.O.: jump up and challenge the perimeter. That's going to be the M.O. until we start gashing people, and we didn't do it today."
In actuality, other than perhaps the Chicago game, we haven't done it all season, Mike. As with anything in football, teams will overplay until you make them pay, and the Colts were able to send as secondary missing two of its three top cornerbacks and still shut down the passing game.
The question that lingers, then, is where has Rodgers' accuracy gone? Is this hubris, the MVP no longer paying attention to details of the game? Or is it simply a part of the aging process, losing a little touch on the ball as the football-years pile on, accelerated by repeated bone-jarring hits to the head and body?
Get sacked eight times a game and I guarantee you've aged more than three hours.
One might draw some comparison to the previous quarterback under center in Green Bay, who spent the second half of his career trying to persevere through declining accuracy. One could say that Brett Favre would compensate by throwing the ball harder, even though it wasn't always on target. This led to some interceptions, but nearly as many as there could have been if he didn't drill every single pass.
In fact, this would lend some credibility to why Rodgers threw that pass so hard and high into the endzone a few weeks back, the one that went off of Driver's fingertips. Yes, "it hit him in the hands", but when you are asking a receiver to stretch out to his highest vertical point, you don't need to throw a 90 mile-per-hour fastball to get it there. That would be one of those passes that, if placed exactly where it could be caught by the receiver (and no one else), simply needed to be crisply put on point...giving the receiver a better sense of timing for the ball's arrival.
But Favre didn't survive simply by moving the pocket and throwing fireballs. His receivers adjusted to him. Go back and look at some of Favre's passes post-Super Bowl. Many of them weren't in those sweet spots, and his receivers knew they were going to have to catch the ball at nearly any point around their body. Many times they had to reach back for the ball, or change their route. I believe that Favre's receivers often made him look better, and the receiver that couldn't adjust (i.e. Robert Ferguson) was more indicative of Favre's accuracy issues.
Not even dreaming of comparing Favre to Rodgers at this point, but I do dare to compare the receivers. Going back over the past several seasons, Rodgers has placed the ball consistently on a pinpoint, almost always in stride and ahead of the receiver in his route. Now, with more balls not on those pinpoints, coming a little ahead or a little behind on the timing, we're seeing more and more drops from those receivers who are used to Rodgers' old accuracy.
In fact, which receiver has not been bitten by the dropsie bug so far this season? Randall Cobb. Think about it.
I've been concerned about the dependence on Rodgers on the offensive side of the ball for some time now. No one likes to listen to stuff like that when you're 13-0. "What's the matter? 13-0 isn't good enough for you? Do we need to be thirteen-and-oh-ier???"
But Rodgers' accuracy (and mobility) gave McCarthy the leeway to pursue the no-huddle offense, eschew the running game almost completely, and allow his quarterback to essentially be responsible for 70-90% of the yardage each and every week. And when his accuracy returns to that of mere mortal men, the whole machine suffers.
Since I am already prepared for the onslaught of criticism about to be opened up upon me in the comment section, I will leave you with one final thought. Rodgers is not to blame for the entire team falling apart yesterday. He can't kick field goals or rush the quarterback or cover Reggie Wayne. But, he gets full credit when the offense is playing at a record-setting level. No one, be it player, coach, or management, is above criticism, especially when the team has lost in such embarrassing fashion.
The passing offense was supposed to be the one thing we weren't supposed to be worried about this year. And after getting shut down by the Colts, we're worried.