Why Losing Greg Jennings Isn’t the End of the World or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust Mike McCarthy
Hello, I’m Thaddeus Collins. You may know me from such shenanigans as #ThrowbackWeekend or from my ramblings on Twitter. I thought that my first post on Pocket Doppler would be used to introduce myself, state why I wanted to start writing online, talk about what I was going to offer readers and delve into how a boy from Brooklyn, New York City (with no Wisconsin ties) became a hardcore Green Bay Packers fan. This past Sunday, I had started a draft email with a few ideas I wanted to write on and I knew that an autobiographical introduction to the Pocket Doppler masses would’ve been my first article. That was until a certain play in the third quarter of the Packers latest game.
Greg Jennings goes down
I wasn’t even looking at the play that closely. The game was pretty much a laugher at that point and I was trying to watch Sherrod play left tackle (subject of an upcoming post) and keep track of the happenings on Twitter. I saw the throw from Rodgers, I saw the catch from Jennings, I saw the tackle. You could’ve shown me the play a million times and I never would’ve guessed that Jennings was in excruciating pain. Back to Twitter. The next time I look up at the screen, I see Jennings doing the one-legged hop to the sideline. But he’s smiling. But he’s hopping. I can see he’s hurt, but it can’t be that bad, right? Or was that a grimace? I rewind the play to see if I can determine what’s wrong. I’m hoping and praying that it’s an ankle tweak or that maybe the defender landed on his ankle and Jennings is temporarily hurt. No replay I see leads me to believe that Jennings hurt anything in his knee. When I cut back to the live action, I see Jennings with the towel over his face on the bench. I immediately think, “This is not good”. Driver and Cobb stand nearby with a mixture of support and curiosity. I wonder if they thought what I was thinking. Yet the game continues on without WR1.
Rumors, Innuendo and Waiting for McCarthy
I’m not sure if I remember much about the rest of the game. I came into the second half of the game intent on watching Sherrod play. I badly wanted to see him play well. I put myself behind him on Twitter and I definitely did not want to be shown up by my fellow Tweeters. All of that was secondary after Jennings went down. All I remember was wanting to get Aaron Rodgers the heck out of the game. After the game, I remember reading tweets during the post-game rush. It was all a blur, really. Nothing made sense. In the age of Twitter, everyone wants to be the first to break news. I saw tweets about people speculating that he was out for the year, some said he’d be fine. I knew that I couldn’t deal with speculation and that I would have to wait for affirmative news. I had to close Twitter for the night. The next day at work, the day got away from me and I forgot about the impending conference until about a half-hour before McCarthy was to speak. I was so busy with work, but I knew that I needed to know as soon as he spoke. The tweets seemed to all come in at the same time. Jennings and the Green Bay Packers dodged a bullet. If all goes well, Jennings should be set for the playoff run. I was relieved and apparently, so was McCarthy who dropped some uncharacteristic levity to the situation as per Ty Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Are you guys tweeting?” Laughter filled the room and Twitter. Now what?
“Next Man Up”
What if I told you that the Jennings injury is a significant short-term loss, but not fatal? What if I told you that the Packers will still have a seemingly unstoppable offense? What if I told you that the Packers will still go undefeated? Would you believe me? It’s OK if you don’t, because the Packers themselves already do. Ty Dunne snagged a great quote from Jermichael Finley in which he said, “It’s the next man up right now,”. I agree completely with Finley and here are some of the people who will have to step up and how:
- Jordy Nelson: Nelson is listed as the backup WR on the Packers depth chart but it is apparent to anyone who watches the Packers this year that he isn’t even number 2 on the depth chart. He’s number 1a. With Jennings out, teams are going to start sliding their coverages over to Nelson. Corners playing man, safeties over the top and linebackers back in coverage to minimize slant routes. This will not deter Rodgers from looking for Nelson, so Nelson will need to keep up the acrobatic and sure-handed catches to keep the offense on track.
- James Jones: I strongly believe that Aaron Rodgers was not speaking in clichés when he said that he needed Jones back for this year. I believe that despite the drops we fans get exasperated over, Rodgers truly believes Jones to be his safety valve when teams focus on either Nelson, Jennings or Finley. I think that Rodgers has no doubt about Jones’ hands and will put the ball where he needs to put it to ensure that only Jones can catch the ball. There is no hesitation on Rodgers’ passes to Jones. Rodgers likes to use James Jones a lot on third down because teams scramble to lock up the aforementioned three receivers and James Jones gets a lot of single coverage looks. Look for this defensive setup to continue, leading to James Jones and the next two receivers’ benefit.
- Donald Driver: Driver has had a bit of a resurgence in the past two games. All of a sudden, number 80 is streaking open across the field with a linebacker trailing behind him. Rodgers will take that. Every. Single. Time. Driver needs to continue to be accountable and needs to brace himself for a lot more drag routs over the middle and under other receivers routes. Driver gets overshadowed by the two receivers mentioned above and the two mentioned below. Because Driver is humble and he will do whatever Rodgers needs him to do, Driver will find himself the target of many more passes. If Driver can keep his YAC decent, defenses will have to respect “Quickie” like they did in the Favre twilight years.
- Randall Cobb: I could talk about how Cobb will replace some of Greg Jennings productivity as a wide receiver, but I think he has greater utility to the offense with his special teams play. On kickoffs and punt returns, you can see Cobb getting more confident. Cobb now seems to be playing more instinctively than ever before. Cobb no longer looks for his cuts, he looks for holes. There was one punt return in the Raiders game where he caught the punt and paused for what seemed like eons before making his move. He did this because he was confident that if he found the right hole, he had the quickness to break through it. Mark my words, Cobb is going to shorten the field for this offense and before the Packers run is completed, Cobb will score another special teams touchdown. Oh yeah, and Cobb will replace part of Jennings productivity as a wide receiver. Wow, Ted Thompson. Wow.
- Jermichael Finley: If Finley was frustrated with double teams before, it would stand to reason that he’s going to be even more frustrated with double teams during Jennings hiatus, correct? Not so fast. Rodgers has never been afraid to throw to Finley, even if double covered. Before Finley got injured last year, there was talk about Rodgers forcing throws into Finley. Finley can be the biggest key to this offense staying on track. Rodgers will look to Finley first on almost every play. Finley needs to have the confidence to understand that he’s the big man over the middle. Every ball that’s in his vicinity he needs to own. Finley needs to believe, “No one touches the ball if I don’t touch the ball thrown to me”. If Finley is going to rise during Jennings absence, Finley will need to play with much more aggression. Rodgers will reward Finley’s aggression with more and more passes if Finley makes sure that Rodgers has an open man no matter what the coverage is.
Some might say, “Great ‘analysis’, Thad. You listed all the remaining receivers and wrote a blurb about them. How does that prove that the offense will be fine?” I would agree with this sentiment. The five receivers are not enough to keep this offense on track. What else needs to be done to minimize offensive lulls? How about I put the remaining factors in order of importance?
- The Offensive Line: 40% of the starting/preferred offensive line have combined to miss 13 games. The Packers have some capable depth that has patched the line together, but seemingly that glue comes apart at the most inopportune times for Rodgers and the offense. With Dietrich-Smith and Newhouse as replacements on the line, the running game is stalling and extra protection is sometimes needed to afford Rodgers adequate time to let routes develop. In the Raiders game, McCarthy felt it necessary to see what Sherrod could do at left tackle but even more interesting, McCarthy wanted to see what Newhouse could do at right guard. I don’t think McCarthy tries this if he was satisfied with his line play. McCarthy realizes that he needs to fine the best five linemen for the post season run and he will keep Rodgers out on the field in order to find that right combination. Ultimately, it’s up to those five linemen alone to dig deep within themselves and protect QB1. If the offensive line can do that and at a minimum, allow the RBs to get at least a semblance of a running threat, the offensive line will get a passing grade and the offense won’t stall often.
- The tight ends: I am throwing around the idea of arguing in a subsequent post that Quarless is a bigger loss than Jennings. I would like to see the next two games without Jennings before I commit to such a bold statement, but the tight ends are still a group I would like to focus on right now. Due to the offensive line’s lack of cohesion, McCarthy frequently uses his tight ends in-line or in the backfield to chip block aggressive blitzers. Nothing gives me more joy than watching the tight ends flip an unsuspecting blitzer on his bum. Quarless’s amazing hit on Jared Allen in the Minnesota home game comes to mind. The four remaining tight ends will need to keep this up with Quarless on IR. I previously discussed what Finley needs to do, but I think Ryan Taylor and D.J. Williams will be the “next man up” that Finley was talking about. I like what I see in Taylor. He seems perfect for the dirty work in the backfield. Williams will have a chance to get back in favor with Rodgers as long as he keeps his head in the game. There is little tape on Williams so the Packers can have him do some un-scouted routes come playoff time. Finally, Tom Crabtree has deceptively good hands and always seems to go unaccounted when he releases into the field.
- Defense: Tom Silverstein wrote an article stating that the Packers defense is pretty much what it will be for the Packers playoff run. Silverstein also made a good point about the breakdown in communication between the secondary and the safeties. The Packers are going to need to prove Silverstein wrong if they want to help their offense. If the offense doesn’t feel the need to put up a score for every possession, they’ll play a lot smoother and will run less aggressive play-calling, which will give the defense sorely needed time to regroup and recuperate during the game. One thing people don’t mention a lot is that the defense is hurting too.
- Aaron Rodgers: Why is he behind three other groups in order of importance? Because Rodgers is already playing lights out. Rodgers cannot play much better than he is now. All he needs to do is have confidence in everyone listed above. Rodgers’ improvement will come from his mental confidence and not his physical prowess. As long as Rodgers does not try to do it all by himself, the offense won’t derail. Rodgers would do well to think back to the years where Brett Favre thought the offense lived and died by his arm and make sure to take risks when the reward is there.
- Mike McCarthy: Much like Rodgers, McCarthy will need to stay within his gameplan. Don’t change anything but the players on the depth chart. I take comfort in the fact that McCarthy has done exactly this with previous injuries this year (Chad Clifton and Josh Sitton). I trust Mike McCarthy to tell his team in private that they won their latest Super Bowl with unexpected injuries and will need to win this Super Bowl the same way. If McCarthy trusts (i) his offensive line to protect his quarterback, (ii) his tight ends to engage the linebackers on run plays and confuse the safeties on passing plays and (iii) his stable of wide receivers to cover the void left by Jennings, Mike McCarthy will continue his great play calling and will not revert to some of his conservative offensive tendencies. McCarthy must act like Jennings never existed and keep the train rolling. When the players see McCarthy has moved on, they will too.
This undefeated team is due to a collaboration of hungry and selfless players and coaches. They can be comforted that Greg Jennings is not lost for the year but right now they need to move forward without him. The Packers need to continue their unabashed quest for perfection and their mantra for “next man up”. It seems as if that’s the only true elixir for the regular and post season attrition.