In what was one of the most lopsided losses of his career, Aaron Rodgers proved what he means to the Green Bay Packers more than in just about any other game in his 12 seasons with the franchise.
The Packers had no business being on the same field in the Georgia Dome with the Atlanta Falcons battling for the NFC Championship game; it was a mismatch in every sense of the word. Atlanta has better players up and down the entire roster except at quarterback, but Matt Ryan is clearly good enough as to where Rodgers was helpless to do anything about it. The final score was a 44-21 Atlanta triumph, yet even that does not reflect on how non-competitive it actually was.
Let’s take a quick gander on how this game was over by just after halftime, shall we? Set aside the egregiously bad defense for a moment — we’ll get back to that later. Rodgers looked like his usual self out there throwing darts against a defense that should not have been good enough to stop him, but the offense was done in by too many mistakes
Rodgers started off the game completing passes of 27 and 15 yards to Jordy Nelson, who deserves a medal for the effort he put forth in this game playing on two broken ribs, and it looked like the Packers would answer Atlanta’s opening touchdown with ease and the shootout would be on.
On third-and-4 from the Atlanta 23-yard line, it looked like either Corey Linsley or T.J. Lang should have picked up a blitzing Deion Jones up the middle and Rodgers would have had an easy completion to Randall Cobb over where Jones had blitzed from. Instead, nobody picked up Jones, Rodgers was forced to throw the ball away and Mason Crosby missed a 41-yard field goal. Linsley said after the game that they had the correct blocking assignments based on the call, but the blitz was an unscouted look that they got fooled on.
After an Atlanta field goal to go ahead 10-0, Rodgers drove the Packers down the field again only to see Aaron Ripkowski fumble the football at the Atlanta 12 and have another scoring chance result in nothing. The Falcons went up 17-0 on the ensuing possession and then the teams proceeded to trade punts.
Green Bay had an opportunity to make it a game again with a “double-up” opportunity before halftime, but that ended when center Corey Linsey got bulldozed by defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who was able to trip up Rodgers for a sack to force a 3rd-and-21 arm punt that was picked off by safety Ricardo Allen.
To the surprise of nobody, Atlanta went up 24-0 with a touchdown before the end of the first half after interception opportunities were blown by safety Marwin Evans and cornerback LaDarius Gunter. To have any prayer of a miracle, the Packers needed a score on their first possession of the second half, but tight end Jared Cook dropped two on-the-money passes.
In any event, don’t waste your time engaging with anybody who tries to blame any of what happened on Rodgers yesterday. The only reason the Packers made a miracle run from 4-6 to the NFC Championship game with a roster being held together by duct-tape was some of the greatest quarterback play you will ever see. It will eventually catch up to you when you’re relying on one player.
If Rodgers had an above average defense more than once in his career he would surely have more than on ring, yet status quo has remained on that side of the ball. It’s not a coincidence that the one time he did it resulted in a title. President Mark Murphy preaches taking the long view of results and in the eight years of Dom Capers of defensive coordinator of the Packers — an eternity for any coordinator in the NFL — it has been utter failure in seven of them.
Capers’ defenses have either been embarrassed throughout the entirety of playoff losses (51 points allowed in 2009, 37 in 2011, 45 in 2012 and 44 yesterday) or completely helpless to stop game-winning drives three straight seasons from 2013 through last year. It’s time to stop the excuses; they’re different ones lined up each year.
No, the personnel is not the greatest, but if the players were blamed every year then coaches would never be fired. Yes, the Sam Shields injury in Week 1 was a crushing blow. However, there was another team on the field who lost their top cover man for the season too — the Atlanta Falcons. Desmond Trufant, one of the best corners in the game, tore his pectoral muscle in Week 12 against Arizona and had season-ending surgery.
Yet, a top defensive mind like Dan Quinn was able to overcome that adversity. The Packers had 11 of their preferred starters playing on defense. One injury should not turn a defense into a complete dumpster fire. Plenty of teams have gotten more out of less than what Capers has managed to accomplish.
It’s not about overreacting to this one game — the Falcons have had a historically great offense this season and torched pretty much everybody — but this has been a constant theme for eight years now. The defense was terrible for the vast majority of this season as well, not just this game. Green Bay was 4-6 for a reason.
Another interesting note is that the Atlanta defense has nine of its 11 starters in either their first or second year in the NFL. One of the many excuses for Capers is that he is always handed such a young team, but Atlanta proved you can overcome that too.
With the Packers needing desperate help at the two most important positions on defense — corner and pass rusher — it should make for a tough offseason. Green Bay will be stuck with the 29th pick in the draft, not much cap space and seven key contributors about to hit free agency. That’s going to make it tough to improve dramatically, unless Ted Thompson wakes up and tries his hand at free agency.
It’s becoming painfully obvious that ignoring one half of player acquisition is hurting the Packers. Nobody is saying Thompson has to spend like a drunken sailor; you just can’t fill every hole you have in the draft. It’s early still, but Thompson’s last two draft classes are not off to promising beginnings and has caused the overall talent of the team to suffer.
The Packers have big decisions to make on top players Clay Matthews (15.2 million cap hit in 2017), Randall Cobb (12.75 million), Sam Shields (12.12 million) and Jordy Nelson ($11.55 million). Nelson came on at the end of the year, but there are really no arguments to be made that the other three players are worth near those enormous cap hits. It’s hard to think about because Matthews, Cobb and Shields have meant so much to the franchise, but that’s the rough part of the business. Green Bay has to try to renegotiate some of those deals.
There was a lot to be proud of about the 2016 season for the Packers. They showed heart, guts, character and determination in turning a 4-6 start to a trip to the NFC Championship. Green Bay got the most out of this team that it could.
This team needs to get Rodgers help if it wants to get back over the hump and bring the Lombardi Trophy back home. If not, the long term results suggest that these playoff exits before reaching the ultimate goal will keep occurring.