Tom Oates: Mike McCarthy, Packers behind the league curve in offensive innovation

November 22, 2018

GREEN BAY — Even in a year where scoring is at an all-time high, the Los Angeles Rams’ 54-51 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs Monday night has everyone in the NFL buzzing.

Some liked it, some didn’t, and they broke down along familiar battle lines.

“I’m not a 54-51 kind of guy,” Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, a former defensive coordinator, said Wednesday. “That’s just not my cup of tea. I think it would run me out of football.”

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who calls his own plays on offense, had an entirely different perspective on the third-highest-scoring game in NFL history.

“I loved it,” said McCarthy, whose Packers play at Minnesota on Sunday. “I came in (Tuesday) morning and a couple of us pulled the tape up and we obviously watched both offenses. We didn’t watch their defenses. There were some big plays and it sure was a fun game to watch.”

One can only hope McCarthy was jotting down notes because his offense, considered cutting-edge for much of his 13-season tenure in Green Bay, is suddenly looking dated this season.

There are legitimate reasons for that. The knee injury suffered by quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the opener has limited his mobility and affected his accuracy. Injuries to Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison have robbed Rodgers of his two most experienced wide receivers not named Davante Adams. And McCarthy’s refusal to stick with the running game even though Aaron Jones is the most explosive back he’s had in Green Bay is mystifying.

However, something else becomes clear every time you watch teams such as the Rams, Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots putting up video-game numbers. Offensive football in the NFL is changing right before our eyes and the Packers haven’t changed with it.

McCarthy’s offense has always been based on having multiple wide receivers, players who can win one-on-one battles and get get deep for his beloved “shot” plays. But offenses that rely on wide receivers aren’t running roughshod over the NFL anymore. Offenses still need big plays, they’re just creating them in different ways.

Indeed, the college influence has crept into the NFL and the change has been dramatic. Offenses are spreading out defenses, using the entire field and every possible receiver. They’re throwing more to their running backs and to small, quick running back/wide receiver hybrids, all of whom can catch short passes in wide-open spaces, make defenders miss and gain yardage after the catch.

Asked what the Rams and Chiefs did to put up 105 points, Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander said: “It looks like they distribute the ball well. They give the ball to everybody. That’s a challenge for certain defenses when you’ve got a quarterback who can place the ball anywhere.”

The Packers for the most part have not participated in that trend. They seldom throw to their backs and haven’t had an effective hybrid-type player since Cobb was healthy and in his prime. Cobb has missed half of the team’s 10 games this season.

According to research by Packer Report, Green Bay ranks 30th in the NFL in passes caught by backs since the start of the 2014 season. In those five seasons, Packers backs caught 309 passes — or about half of the 602 caught by Saints backs.

This season Packers backs have caught 41 passes. Just two teams have had fewer. Jones leads with 16 catches, which ranks sixth on the team.

Now look at the offenses that are tearing up the NFL. Among backs, former University of Wisconsin athlete James White leads the Patriots with 66 catches. Alvin Kamara’s 56 are second on the Saints and James Conner of the Steelers and Todd Gurley of the Rams rank third on their teams with 45 and 43, respectively. All four teams rank in the top seven in the NFL in scoring.

Two other teams among the top seven — the Chiefs and Chicago Bears — have gotten major contributions from hybrids who catch passes and run from scrimmage. Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs and Tarik Cohen of the Bears are in the 5-foot-9, 180-pound range and are threats to make a big play every time they touch the ball. Brandin Cooks of the Rams fits into that category as well.

For a long time, the Packers didn’t need to find diverse ways to throw the ball because they had so much firepower on the perimeter. In Rodgers’ 2011 MVP season, he had wide receivers Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver and Cobb, with all except Driver in their prime. In his 2014 MVP season, he had Nelson and Cobb at the peak of their powers along with Adams, then a precocious rookie. For much of this year, Rodgers has been throwing to Adams and three rookie wide receivers drafted in the fourth round or later.

In football, there is no one way to do things and a team can’t completely make over its offense during the season. Still, all over the league innovative coaches are spreading the ball around and using the entire field to put up big numbers. It’s where the NFL is going, if it’s not there already.

There have been signs in recent games that McCarthy is trying to change things up, but his offense hasn’t fully evolved to accommodate the changing talent on the roster and the NFL’s latest offensive concepts. Until that happens, the Packers likely will be chasing teams on the scoreboard and in the standings.

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