Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
27 Jun 2008
by Doug Farrar
Through the first quarter, the Packers-Cowboys game on the NFL Network last November 29 played to type. Brett Favre alternated between ruthless efficiency and over-reaching heroism, the Dallas front seven was opening up a can of something evil, and it appeared that Rush Lim -- Dennis Mil -- whoops ... Bryant Gumbel may have possibly had some problems, perhaps, in the announcer-booth (or whatever it may perchance have been called).
Then, with 10 minutes left in the second quarter, Cowboys cornerback Nathan Jones came free on a blitz and hit Favre just as he was throwing to Receiver Greg Jennings over the middle. Terence Newman intercepted the ball, and Favre was out of the game with elbow and shoulder injuries. Third-year quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the team's first-round pick in 2005, had never performed more than mop-up duty to that point in his pro career because of Favre's incredible durability. Rodgers had played the part of Tony Romo in practice that week, but his job was now to bring the Pack back from a 27-10 deficit. Dallas was ripping Green Bay's depleted defense to shreds, and Favre competed only five of 14 passes, with two interceptions, before his injury.
When Rodgers came into the game with 9:47 remaining in the first half, he didn't look much better. On his first drive, he threw three incompletions and had more rushing yards (eight) than passing yards (three). Rodgers' second drive began with a one-yard loss as he and running back Ryan Grant went in different directions on a handoff that never happened.
The second play of the drive turned a lot of heads, regained momentum for Green Bay, and was the first clue to Rodgers' future success. On second-and 11 from their own 25 with 4:50 left in the half, the Packers ran a shotgun formation with four wide receivers as Dallas had four defenders on the line. Jennings juked Jones right out of his socks at the line and took the ball on a little out route three yards downfield. He then turned back inside on a dime, abusing Jones yet again, and ran 40 yards downfield, benefiting from blocks by his fellow receivers (a hallmark of the new Packers offense -- all these receivers willingly block downfield). This 43-yarder was the foothold the Packers desperately needed.
On the next play, from the Dallas 32, Rodgers tried another quick out to Jennings, but this one went only nine yards, as Roy Williams was right there to stop it. After Favre had tried to force throws downfield with disastrous results, Rodgers' insertion got the offense back to quick, short passes that sustained drives and forced the Cowboys to think less about blitzing, and more about using their linebackers and defensive backs to cover.
The Cowboys didn't need to blitz to get pressure, and Rodgers found this out after a two-yard Ryan Grant run put the ball at the Dallas 21. Rodgers took a five-step drop from a single-back formation and was set upon by DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis before he could set his feet. Time after time, the Cowboys' edge rushers were beating Packers tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Behind a patchwork line and with an amazing array of yards-after-catch monsters on his roster, Rodgers settled more and more for quick drops and outlet throws. That's less a bailout and more the smart thing to do, because the Green Bay offense under head coach Mike McCarthy has been set up for the short pass.
Still, not every short pass worked, and the next two were ugly. On second-and-9 from the Dallas 20, a little screen to Grant behind the line of scrimmage looked like a mistake from the start and resulted in a loss of one. The first-and-goal shotgun set from the 9 with 1:16 left in the half was the worst play of the day for Rodgers. Dallas had an extra defender blitzing, and the edge rushers once again won their battles. Rodgers threw a dink pass upfield ... right between the "6" and the "3" on the back of center Scott Wells' jersey. Green Bay received an ineligible downfield pass penalty on this play, but the penalty was erroneously called on right guard Junius Coston. Coston wasn't downfield -- he was busy getting pushed back by the Dallas front five.
On the next play, a first-and-goal from the Dallas 14, Rodgers had a bit more time; the Cowboys showed blitz with five but brought only three at the snap. Rodgers completed a crossing pattern to Donald Driver for three yards. On the next play, a second-and-goal from the 11, Rodgers threw his first NFL touchdown. Jones blitzed from the right side, leaving a hole that Jennings exploited. From the five-yard line, Jennings got past safeties Ken Hamlin and Pat Watkins for the score.
That was the last of Rodgers' touchdown passes, but the Packers' first drive of the second half was basically a passing drive with a running play at the end. After Dallas running back Julius Jones failed to convert a fourth-down attempt at the Green Bay 31, the Packers took the ball 69 yards in 12 plays and put themselves right back in the game. Most impressive was how Rodgers performed after the drive started with an eight-yard sack courtesy of Ellis and linebacker Bradie James. Rodgers tried play-action, and the extended timing of that move was not going to work. After that play, it was more quick outs Driver, Jennings and James Jones, as well as tight end Donald Lee.
The Packers found two more counters for Dallas pressure on this drive. On second-and-8 from the Green Bay 49 with 9:56 left in the third quarter, Rodgers looked to throw to the right, but pulled the ball down and scrambled for the first down. Rodgers' scouting reports coming out of Cal said that he would occasionally break a play too soon to rely on the run, but this was the kind of move you'd expect from a quarterback with more experience. While Favre had forced throws, Rodgers was more about getting yardage on the ground as opposed to flailing away at the defense if the coverage or pressure dictated.
The next play featured a rollout right by Rodgers, with additional blocking to the right by Grant and fullback Korey Hall, and Rodgers was able to hit Lee across the middle for a gain of 22 yards. After a Grant 1-yard run, Rodgers went back to Lee on the next pass play for a 5-yard gain that took the Packers down to the Dallas 25. Those watching the game knew that the Packers had something going on.
Ellis sacked Rodgers on the next play, but a 15-yard facemask penalty put the ball on the Dallas 11. Short passes to Driver (from a five-wide shotgun set) and running back John Kuhn (from an I-formation) took the ball down to the 1-yard line. Grant scored from there. On the drive, Rodgers completed all six of his attempts for 61 yards despite two sacks -- one due to pressure, and one to coverage. Cowboys 27, Packers 24.
The Cowboys scored a touchdown and a field goal in the fourth quarter, while Green Bay couldn't keep up the pressure. Rodgers had the ball for three fourth-quarter drives, and the Packers got another field goal, but too much damage had been done early in the game. Rodgers finished the game with 18 completions on 26 attempts for 201 yards and a touchdown.
While the Cowboys won the battle (and a playoff berth) with this win, it could be said that the Packers won the war -- or, at the very least, they knew that when their oldest and most established player finally hung 'em up (as he now seems to have done), the replacement quarterback would not be the cause of a tremendous downturn.
The eye-test confirms this. Rodgers is known to throw a wonderful deep ball, but I didn't see much of that in this game, nor do I think the Packers would have been competitive had he tried to resort to the long pass. Green Bay's line was far too vulnerable to the Dallas edge rush for those types of plays to develop, and when you have a group of receivers who show no fear with patterns over the middle and the physical nature of blocking, you'd be a fool not to use the advantages. Rodgers is no fool. He has a nice touch with shorter throws, and I was impressed with his footwork.
Most of all, I liked his ability to maintain the offensive tempo, and his refusal to let pressure dictate what he was going to do in a negative fashion. Of all the 2005 quarterbacks (yeouch -- that's an ugly draft class), he seems the most "finished" by far, along with Cleveland's Derek Anderson, in that he could win games as the featured component. He's very careful with the ball, a trend that goes back to his college days (43 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in three seasons at Cal).
What we won't know until he's the quarterback that opponents scheme for is how he does with different blitz pickups -- after the 40-yard Jennings run after catch, Dallas went pretty vanilla, and when they did bring a cornerback, Rodgers made them pay for it.
Rodgers' primary attribute is his ability to fit into the offense around him. He can read progressions well and quickly, which is crucial when a quarterback is making all those short throws. In 2007, Cleveland's Anderson was the beneficiary of an improved pass-blocking line as a first-time starter, but he was also adept at getting rid of the ball quickly and productively. That's a skill in and of itself -- the guys who really can move the ball with short throws are an evolutionary step up from the "chuck-and-duckers" who wash out in the NFL after exploiting college defenses. Rodgers' success could be very much like Anderson's, because the system is in place.
The Packers are in good hands with their new starting quarterback. Rodgers will have his struggles, and there will be much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments when that happens and No. 4 isn't there to bail the Pack out. Still, it's important to remember that in the Cowboys game, the offense played better with Rodgers than they did with Favre, because Favre was having one of his "Hero Days," when you never knew what you were going to get. Rodgers was able to implement a game plan, and do it well, under a lot of pressure. Add his sample-size DVOA to the equation (the best for passers with 10 to 99 attempts in 2007), and the (spoiler alert!) positive projections given to him by KUBIAK and Pro Football Prospectus 2008, and it's pretty clear that fans of the team that has belonged to Brett Favre since the early 1990s will still have reason to cheer in 2008 and beyond.
52 comments, Last at 17 Jul 2008, 4:05am by Chris C