When Green Bay Packers‘ starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers had grown tired of panicking Packer fans and the media’s relentlessly repetitive questions concerning his team’s 1-2 start in September of 2014, he attempted to semi-sarcastically calm the masses with a five-letter word that’s now attached to his legacy–”relax”.
Following last week’s loss in Indianapolis to the 4-5 Colts, Green Bay’s second straight and third of the past four weeks, Packer fans would’ve welcomed another sarcastic one-liner from Rodgers just to know that he still has complete confidence in this team’s ability to turn things around. But while speaking to the media on Wednesday, Rodgers’ comments instead revealed a quarterback who’s legitimately concerned about his team’s mindset ahead of this Sunday’s game at the Tennessee Titans.
”I expect everybody to come ready to play and prepared and excited about it,” said Rodgers via ESPN. ”You know, we just need to weather some of the ups and downs a little bit better. Obviously not the way you want to start a game [Week 9 at Indy] with the kickoff return for a touchdown, but we need to weather that a little bit better this week–all of us—and it’ll start with me.”
In Week 9, starting quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts dealt the Packers a painful loss that exposed them as a mediocre NFC team that’s only in the hunt for the NFC North title because of equally-mediocre competition. From allowing Indy’s Jordan Todman to return the game’s opening kick-off for a 99-yard touchdown, to giving up a pair of rushing scores to veteran running back Frank Gore, Green Bay looked like a shell of its former successful self last Sunday.
Although the return of lead receiver Jordy Nelson has obviously added to the offense following last season’s injury-fueled absence, Rodgers’s top target just isn’t the same player who finished the 2014 campaign with 13 touchdowns and career-highs in both receptions  and yards [1,519]. Statistically, the seven touchdown receptions that Nelson has totaled through the Pack’s first eight games means that he’s on pace to top his 2014 total, but last year’s torn acl has clearly cost the former Pro-Bowler a step or two, and Nelson believes that the recovery process is to blame.
”I think it’s more just your body getting back to normal overall,” said Nelson via ESPN. ”If you take a year off from the game, the grind of the season, the recovery every week, all that I think is more part of it than the actual knee I would assume.”
Regardless of the reason, Nelson has caught just 38 of his team-leading 73 targets this season for a dismal success rate of just 52.1 percent. By comparison, from Nelson’s rookie year in 2008 through the end of 2014, the former Kansas State standout never caught less than 61.1 percent of his targets.
When added to the pre-injury struggles of the now-absent Eddie Lacy, the knee injury that’s already cost second-string running back James Starks four games, and the hamstring injury that’s contributed to Randall Cobb’s inconsistency and limited the Kentucky product to only five games, Nelson’s decline has come at one of the worst possible times.
Minus a reliable run-game, head coach Mike McCarthy has been forced to employ a pass-heavy offense featuring a small crowd of receivers paid to provide Rodgers with options and move former full-time wideout Ty Montgomery into the backfield. But entering Sunday’s game against the Titans, the Packers rank a depressing 23rd with 1,948 net passing yards and 21st with 2,801 total net yards, and Rodgers’ insistence on finding Nelson has been causing the veteran quarterback to make some uncharacteristically bad decisions.
At the moment, Green Bay is trailing both the slumping Minnesota Vikings [5-3] and the Detroit Lions [5-4] in the NFC North, and Sunday’s tilt in Tennessee will mark the beginning of a crucial, three-game stretch that also includes games at the Washington Redskins [4-3-1] and Philadelphia Eagles [4-4].
Following their Week 12 trip to The City Of Brotherly Love, the Packers will host a pair of potentially problematic opponents when the AFC South-leading Houston Texans visit in Week 13 and the Seattle Seahawks roll into town seven days later. And if they’re still standing after that five-game grind, a Week 15 game at the Chicago Bears will mark the first of three consecutive divisional contests to end the regular season.
If Rodgers’ and the Pack can keep pace with the current leaders of the NFC North, and find a way to win the type of close games that they’ve already lost to Minnesota, Indy, and the Atlanta Falcons, they’ll have a chance to reclaim the divisional crown in a Week 16 showdown versus the Vikings and a meeting in Motown with the Lions in Week 17. But if Green Bay’s offense continues to sputter when it needs to score and its defense doesn’t tighten things up soon, the Packers’ will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008—Rodgers’ first year as Green Bay’s starting quarterback.