Packers elite when Aaron Rodgers remains upright
GREEN BAY—It’s elementary. Keeping Aaron Rodgers on the field is the key to the Green Bay Packers’ hopes of winning another Super Bowl.
“Yeah, no question,” said Alex Van Pelt, the team’s new quarterbacks coach after two seasons tutoring running backs. “As long as he’s our quarterback there’s always a chance (for a title).”
In the next breath, Van Pelt set forth the offensive philosophy that will guide the Packers in the season ahead.
“We’ve got to be smart about what we’re asking him to do,” he said. “Try to get the ball out of his hand quicker. It’s something you look at and can improve on … take hits off him.”
One year ago, Ben McAdoo, Van Pelt’s predecessor coaching the quarterbacks, said it was his objective to trim the number of sacks charged to quarterbacks in half.
Minus Rodgers for all but 2½ minutes of eight games, the quarterbacks were responsible for nine of 49 sacks in 17 games compared to 14 of 55 in 18 games the year before. It represented progress, a trend Van Pelt insists must continue.
“We’ve cleaned up some things in protection in the offseason that could help in that, as well,” Van Pelt said. “For him, it’s just making good decisions and getting the ball out of his hands as quick as you can.”
After a few practices this spring, Van Pelt said, “We’re all holding onto it a little long at times.”
Neither Rodgers nor anyone else was at fault for a first-quarter sack the night of Nov. 4 at Lambeau Field when he ducked underneath a four-man rush and, after 3.9 seconds, was smothered by Chicago’s Shea McClellin. The result was a left collarbone fracture.
Much like McAdoo before him, Van Pelt will advocate that Rodgers continue to use his God-given talent to run up through the pocket so the defense, at times, ends up being at his mercy.
“In today’s game the explosive plays are so big, and he’s good at it,” said Van Pelt. “There’s a fine line between making the decision to get to the check-down or trying to extend the play.
“We’ve just got to be smarter about when we extend and when we get it out of our hand. It’s down and distance, the game situation, flow of the game.”
If Rodgers isn’t the best player in the National Football League, he’s among the top five. On a scale of 1 to 10, he’d be a 10 in many categories of quarterbacking.
Yet, in order to maximize his capability to dominate games, it only stands to reason that Rodgers, now 30, must find it within himself to avoid taking unnecessary shots.
The problem is that Rodgers always has tended to hold the ball. In 96 starts over six seasons as a starter, he has been responsible for 65½ of the team’s 265 sacks. In Brett Favre’s last six seasons as the starter in Green Bay, he was charged with 32½ of the team’s 136 sacks.
One of the reasons Favre threw 125 interceptions from 2002-07 and Rodgers had just 56 from 2008-13 was Favre’s near-refusal to take a sack late in his career. Instead, he’d often throw the ball up for grabs.
Nevertheless, Favre never missed a start in Green Bay as the most durable passer in NFL history.
Rodgers missed one start in 2010 because of a concussion and then seven last season.
The poorest season for Rodgers in terms of holding the ball was 2009 when he was charged with 16½ sacks. He cut back to 6½ in 2011, slipped to 14 in ’12 and was off to an excellent start last year with 1½ in his first seven starts.
Two months of inactivity didn’t help Rodgers’ timing when he returned for the regular-season finale and wild-card playoff game. Still, the Packers can ill afford to have Rodgers hold the ball for the four sacks as he did in those two games.
Last season, Rodgers was charged with 5½ sacks in 645 snaps whereas Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace were responsible for only 3½ (all Flynn) in 540 snaps.
With Rodgers entering his 10th season, one more than Van Pelt quarterbacked in Buffalo from 1995-2003, are there signs of physical slippage?
“No,” Van Pelt said. “In individual testing in our quarterback school his stats don’t lie. Maybe there’s a marginal split-second of a drop-off since his first year, but there’s nothing that stands out along those lines.
“He can play as long as he wants to.”
Having spent a first offseason coaching Rodgers, Van Pelt can better understand his success.
“He sees it all,” said Van Pelt. “We’ll try to let him go out and react and play and do what he’s done a million times. Don’t try to come up with stuff that if there’s not 150 (practice) reps in it let’s don’t even think about it.”
Flynn, according to Van Pelt, “deservedly” enters camp as No. 2 over Tolzien.
“We learned we’d like to have Aaron in there the entire time,” said Tom Clements, the offensive coordinator. “The other guys did well. The team, in general, rallied behind them.
“Matt brought us back in some games. He’s the Matt Flynn we remember when we had him.”
Flynn moved the team in 3½ games and was awful in Detroit.
“I see his arm as probably a little above average,” Van Pelt said. “His release is fine. He moves well in the pocket. I wouldn’t say he’s a scrambler.
“His knowledge of the system and being able to play within his own abilities is what makes him stand out.
“He’s different than Aaron; most of our guys are. But at least he has an understanding what he physically can and can’t get done. He plays to his strengths.”
The Packers haven’t kept three quarterbacks on an opening-day roster since 2008 so the onus is on Tolzien to improve.
“He’ll know this system very well,” said Van Pelt. “Athletically, he’s fine. He has arm strength. Like his accuracy. He’ll continue to grow.”