GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers, as usual, is taking it upon himself.
For the Packers’ offense to reach the level of efficiency and productivity it needs to, the two-time MVP quarterback said on Wednesday it’s on him to pick up the pace.
“The energy and the tempo starts with me in practice, in the game, and guys need to feel that even more,” Rodgers said. “So I need to amp up my level during the game and get us playing faster.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean more no-huddle, hurry-up stuff, but it could. More specifically, Rodgers referenced not wasting any more timeouts because the offense is slow getting either into or out of the huddle, and also trusting his progressions in the passing game to find the open receiver and get him the ball in a timely manner.
It’s no secret Rodgers and the Packers’ offense are at their best when there’s a rhythm to a series of plays, but that rhythm has come and gone this season, and the biggest issue is it’s been mostly gone on third down.
The Packers have converted just 38 percent this season on third down, 19th in the league. They hit close to rock bottom in a sense last Thursday in Seattle when Rodgers was sacked four times on third down in a 3-of-11 showing.
Only once all season have the Packers hit the 50-percent mark on third down (Week 4 vs. Buffalo, 11-of-19). There’s no single reason for the struggles, but Rodgers pointed to a couple of factors.
Veteran slot receiver Randall Cobb’s absence from five games and the lack of experience in scramble drills with new tight end Jimmy Graham and the Packers’ rookie receivers – an ad-lib chemistry deficit extended in part by Rodgers’ knee injury and limited mobility for much of the first half of the season – have certainly played into it.
But as Rodgers returns on Sunday to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the site of his broken collarbone a little over a year ago, he knows it falls on him to find an effective way to crank up the energy and make it work against a formidable Vikings defense that ranks first in the league on third down (28 percent).
“I need to be great with my checks and I need to continue to find the open guy,” he said. “I have to bring it with the tempo and obviously play like I want to play, and play close to a perfect game.”
While Rodgers ponders that he’s also had his hometown area of northern California on his mind. Earlier Wednesday, Rodgers launched a charitable campaign in partnership with the North Valley Community Foundation to help the victims of the wildfires in Paradise, Calif., which is near where he grew up in Chico.
He’s donating $1 million to start the Aaron Rodgers NorCal Fire Recovery Fund, and the campaign includes a matching component on social media as well as encouragement of others to donate what they can. The Packers have announced a $250,000 donation to the effort.
Rodgers spoke at length at his locker on Wednesday after practice about his motivation and his connection to the devastated area. You can listen to all of his comments here.
The visit to Minnesota comes at a crossroads-type moment for the Packers in 2018. At 4-5-1, a win could get them right back in the thick of the NFC North race while a loss would push them to the brink of postseason elimination.
After the loss at Seattle last Thursday, the Packers’ fifth straight road loss of the season, Rodgers talked about the need for a “galvanizing moment” to get the season headed in the right direction.
He thought his scrambling, 54-yard heave for a touchdown to little-used tight end Robert Tonyan last week might be that moment. It gave the Packers a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, but the momentum wasn’t seized and the Packers didn’t finish the deal. He then joked on Wednesday that the return to practice of receiver and training-camp hero Jake Kumerow might be it.
However it materializes, it’s probably going to have to come late in a game, given how the Packers have let winnable road games at Los Angeles, New England and Seattle slip away in the fourth quarter over the last month. And if it comes on third down against the league’s best third-down defense, all the better.
“It just happens naturally. You never know what it’s going to be,” Rodgers said. “It could be a big block or a catch-and-run, or a big-time play in the fourth quarter. For a team to take off the way we need to take off, we need those plays to jump out, those wild plays. We need something to rocket-ship us to where we need to go.
“It starts with me. I have to bring the tempo, I have to bring the energy and get guys to feed off of me, and then we have to make plays. We need to step up and find a way to get a win.”