Keeping Rodgers Upright
By now it should be painfully obvious, literally so to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, that the Packers are going nowhere this year unless they can find a way to keep their young quarterback standing. Rodgers has already been dropped 20 times in four games so far this season, a pace that would obliterate the franchise record for sacks allowed. And that’s not even counting the times he’s been hit or knocked down after getting the ball away. At the rate he’s going, Rodgers will be envious of the protection beleaguered quarterback David Carr received back in the days when he was with the sieve-like Houston Texans.
It’s become abundantly clear that Ted Thompson has ‘screwed the pooch’ in his efforts to assemble an effective offensive line, not only in the past offseason but throughout his tenure as Packers general manager. Indeed, in spite of the Favre fiasco, it is the primary shortcoming of his administration. Thompson has been attempting to stabilize the line since he made the decision over 4 years ago to allow guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera to sign elsewhere in free agency. The parting with Rivera was understandable given his age and injury history. Wahle’s departure may have been less justifiable. But Thompson’s real failure is his inability at this point to adequately replace them.
It hasn’t been for lack of trying. In the last 5 years, the Packers have drafted 10 offensive lineman, 6 of which are still with the team. Current starters Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, Josh Sitton and Allen Barbre were 2nd, 3rd, and (the last two) 4th round picks respectively. Thompson has also brought in a number of lower tier free agents, none of which panned out. Despite these efforts, or perhaps because of them, the offensive line remains an area of grave concern, actually regressing the past couple of years. While there aren’t any guarantees in player acquisition, Thompson has never really sold out in his quest to solidify the line, be it through a trade or a top of the line free agent signing. Green Bay remains one of only a handful of NFL teams without a former first round draft pick among their offensive linemen. The result is that the only capable lineman they have, when he’s healthy, is left tackle Chad Clifton; a second round pick who was drafted prior to Thompson’s arrival.
There appears to be a peculiar methodology at work in the Packers attempts to remedy their line deficiencies. In trying to find players for head coach Mike McCarthy’s preferred zone blocking scheme, Thompson has repeatedly endeavored to fit a square peg into a round (lineup) hole. Colledge and Sitton played tackle in school, yet the Packers moved them both to guard positions. Spitz has been plugged in all along the line in his time with the team, never really being allowed to develop at one position. Barbre was undistinguished the prior two years yet the coaching staff suddenly deemed him fit this year to assume the right tackle spot from former starter Mark Tauscher. There is precious little evidence to suggest that any of these players has the talent and/or consistency to be a starting caliber NFL offensive lineman.
Another problem is Thompson’s apparently natural aversion to the use of free agency in player acquisition. Thompson was content to rely on inexperienced reserves at the line positions, even though Clifton’s age and medical record put him at risk to miss time at some point during the season. Their lack of depth forced them to move half the line out of their comfort zone in order to compensate for Clifton’s absence the last two games.
So, what are the Packers options?
The Packers could go to a ‘max-protect’ scheme to safeguard Rodgers, but that would remove options from their passing attack. Plus, as NFL analyst Chris Landry pointed out on Fox Sports radio this morning, the Packers aren’t really set up well for that approach. Tight End Donald Lee is an adequate, but not great, blocker and backup Jermichael Finley isn’t even that at this early point in his career. Neither is starting halfback Ryan Grant particularly adept at blocking.
It would help greatly if McCarthy could establish a credible running game to take some of the heat off his quarterback. But the onus for that falls on the offensive line as well and more often than not depends on game situations.
Rodgers also needs to help himself. Whether the sacks are his fault or the line’s is beside the point. It’s admirable that Rodgers wants to buy time for his receivers to get open but the reality is that this line won’t afford him that time. Until that changes, he needs to make quicker decisions in dumping the ball off short, running on his own or simply throwing it away. Otherwise the chances are against him making it through the year in one piece. And if Rodgers goes down for any substantial amount of time, the Packers season is effectively over.
It’s very difficult to correct off-season personnel mistakes in the middle of a season. Any players still available on the open market probably aren’t any better than what they already have and would require time to learn their system. The Packers may have some depth at other positions to use as trade bait but it’s unlikely to find another team with enough depth on the offensive line to complete a deal. And, once again, that player would need to learn their system.
In the short term, the best bet the Packers have is to hope for the quick recovery of Clifton and to re-sign Tauscher. According to news reports, the Packer are already exploring that option, signifying their (and our) frustration with the status quo. Of course, there’s also the question of his health but the timing coincides with the Packers’ initial estimate of his readiness to return. One would assume that in the course of his rehab he kept himself in at least marginal playing condition. Tauscher’s experience would provide an immediate upgrade over Barbre and the bye week would give him additional time to get up to speed.
For the future, Thompson needs to explore every avenue to build an acceptible offensive line. Thompson was bold enough to commit to Rodgers as his franchise quarterback. He must apply the same conviction to acquiring the men he charges with protecting him. If he is unable or unwilling to do so, that responsibility will no doubt fall to his successor.