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Aaron Rodgers and the Trust Factor

It’s become conventional wisdom around Green Bay that it takes a long time – years – for Aaron Rodgers to develop trust and confidence in a new receiver. But is this an accurate statement or just a worn out cliché?

It’s an important question, because the Packers have an open starting receiver slot due to the loss of Jordy Nelson and it appears they are going to fill it with a rookie draftee rather than by acquiring a veteran receiver.

In the 10 years since Rodgers became a starter in 2008, he’s had a number of incoming wide receivers join the roster, though maybe not as many as you might think. Disregarding a few players who never went anywhere with the team, here’s a list:

Wide Receivers

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Tight Ends

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James Jones is a special case. His rookie year was 2007, when the starter was Brett Favre. Favre and Jones instantly formed a good combination. Jones, who started nine games, caught 47 throws for 676 yards and two TDs. But in his first year teaming up with Rodgers, Jones started only two games and caught only 20 balls for 274 yards and one touchdown. Jones and Rodgers slowly got more comfortable with each other in ensuing years. Jones’ best season was his last with the team: in 2015, he had 50 catches for 890 yards and eight TDs.

The statistics suggest a good many things. It’s pretty clear that head coach Mike McCarthy has been slow to give rookie receivers much game time. The only rookie who got more than five starts in his first year was Davante Adams and even his numbers don’t stand out.

Even though Rodgers had some fine years with some receivers, it was always a gradual process. It took Nelson four years to have a 1,000-yard season and the same was true for Randall Cobb. Rodgers and Adams still haven’t hit that milestone. Jermichael Finley’s best year was also his fourth year with Rodgers.

Both Greg Jennings and Donald Driver were 1,000-yard receivers in 2008, Rodgers’ first year as a starter, but each had multiple years of practice and preseason games to develop a rapport with Rodgers prior to 2008.

Veterans Coming to Green Bay

First off, it’s remarkable that the team has never brought in a proven veteran wide receiver to join up with Rodgers. This too supports the notion that the front office feels it takes years for Rodgers to gain confidence in a receiver. Why else would the team never make an attempt to supply Rodgers with a talented veteran receiver?

The same was true regarding tight ends up until two years ago. In 2016, Jared Cook came in from the Rams and in 2017 Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks came in from the Patriots and Rams, respectively. Though injuries played roles, none of these three imports was highly productive in his initial year with Rodgers.

At the tail end of the 2016 season, Rodgers appeared to be gaining confidence in Cook. Had Cook not been signed for only a year, this had the potential of being a powerful pairing in 2017. An opportunity lost.

Rookie Receivers Who’ve Thrived

Here’s a brief list of recent rookie wide receivers who bonded instantly with their teams’ starting quarterbacks.

  • 2012: T.Y. Hilton, Colts with Andrew Luck – 50 catches, 861 receiving yards, 7 TDs
  • 2013: DeAndre Hopkins, Texans with Matt Schaub and Case Keenum – 52, 802, and 2
  • 2013: Keenan Allen, Chargers with Philip Rivers – 71, 1,046, and 8
  • 2014: Odell Beckham Jr., Giants with Eli Manning – 91, 1,305, and 12
  • 2014: Mike Evans, Buccaneers with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon – 68, 1,051, and 12
  • 2014: Jarvis Landry, Dolphins with Ryan Tannehill – 84, 758, and 5
  • 2015: Amari Cooper, Raiders with Derek Carr – 72, 1,070, and 6
  • 2015: Stefon Diggs, Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater – 52, 720, and 4
  • 2016: Michael Thomas, Saints with Drew Brees – 92, 1,137, and 9
  • 2017: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger – 58, 917, and 7

For the most part, the above group consists of exceptional receivers. In several cases, however, they were matched up with run-of-the-mill quarterbacks, and yet these first-time pairings led to production in the vicinity of 1,000 yards. This never happens in Green Bay.

The Verdict

The evidence is compelling that Aaron Rodgers only has productive relationships with his receivers after years of familiarity.

What does this foretell for the 2018 Packers? Trouble. The Packers have nine more days prior to the draft in which to find a veteran replacement for Jordy Nelson. That’s very unlikely, because the candidates have been picked over, which is why there was more than warranted hype when the Cowboys suddenly put Dez Bryant out to pasture.

The Packers are staring at two scenarios: starting a rookie receiver in the WR1 or WR2 role or elevating Geronimo Allison into a starter’s role.

If the Packers go with the first option, I see little choice but to use that 14th overall pick on a receiver who is both talented and ready to play at the pro level from day one. And given the history I’ve detailed above, that would likely be a huge fall off from Nelson.

I don’t think it’s going to be option 2. If the Packers saw a bright future in Allison, they would have been developing him, especially at the tail end of last season, when playoff hopes were gone. Instead, Allison was given two starts on the year, had 23 catches for 253 yards (11.0 yards per catch) and no touchdowns. This was a decline from his rookie year, when he averaged 16.8 ypc and scored two touchdowns.

Options three and four, Trevor Davis and Michael Clark, are longer shots yet. Davis has eight catches for 94 yards and one touchdown – in two years. Michael Clark, a basketball player who transferred over to football late in his college days, is a long-term development project.

The remaining options appear to be to sign Bryant or to go after one of the remaining restricted free agents, which could prove prohibitive.

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Rob Born

Due to Aaron Rodgers’ reckless ways, I’m officially launching the Campaign for GM Gutekunst to Acquire the Best Available (Veteran) Backup Quarterback – NOW.

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19 Comments

  1. PF4L April 16, 2018

    This is all true Rob, but just saying Rodgers needs years to build that trust, although true, is a little too simple. There is more to it than that. Forgoing writing a novel….

    You have game planning. Finley wasn’t featured into the offense until 2011. That was about as close as you are going to get in seeing a Green Bay TE approach a 100 targets. They just aren’t going to call your number a lot if you don’t have a solid grasp of the offense and know it inside out. See Jeff Janis.

    More importantly…this GB offense is so predicated on route running and timing, it takes time to get to where they will look for you. A receiver needs to be in a certain spot at a certain time, that’s how this offense hums. the exception being when the O line collapse’s.

    Yes, the Packers now have a hole on the outside But whose fault is that? They consciously, created another need on this team, when they clearly didn’t have to. It seems like, the Packers dig a hole, and each season that goes by, they grab their shovels and dig it up a little deeper. For those of you that want to point out that Graham can play out wide, i say he might as well, cause he sure as shit won’t block anyone.

    With all that said…..i wish the offense would open up more, if you have Rodgers and his gun and accuracy, i don’t see why they don’t run more go routes, or deeper 15-20+ yard slant’s. I’m getting tired of seeing an 8 yard comeback, and instant tackle (yawn). Though it might be easier said than down behind this line now.

    1. PF4L April 16, 2018

      *done

    2. Empacador April 16, 2018

      I get that 2011 was Finley’s first “featured” season. Finley was to be prominently featured in 2010, until he got hurt with what, a meniscus injury? That sideline him for the rest of 2010. Finley getting hurt is probably what made that 2010 team actually better in the long run because they had to overcome McCarthy putting all his eggs in the Finley basket.

      1. PF4L April 17, 2018

        The 5th rated 2010 defense didn’t hurt either. also, that 2011 season was near record setting in the NFL, top 3 or 5 in NFL history i believe.

  2. Kato April 16, 2018

    I think this has a little bit more to it than a “trust issue.” I think PF4L touched on it. It is an offensive system built on timing and isolation routes. When you have veterans that have played in that offense for a couple years, it is going to be a very effective offense. Like 2011-2014. But as we have seen as guys like Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and now Jordy, you are losing that experience in that offense. It is probably time for a change in offensive philosophy to run an offense that may be simpler for players, specifically receiver and QB to get on the same page. Which is a problem with Cobb and Adams being the only guys proven in this offense. And maybe that is what McCarthy is planning on when he says they are going back to the basics. Sure, isolation routes and timing concepts would be nice to still have, but it would be nice to incorporate the screens, slants, rub routes, ect to scheme players open and target specific areas of the field.

  3. cz April 16, 2018

    more of Rob insinuiting his intellect is better than ours, he cant help himself. None of the other writers do it. Poor Rob.

    “though maybe not as many as you might think. “

  4. Howard April 16, 2018

    I agree about the timing and route running. I would add the receiver needs to adjust his route based on how the defense sets up and defends the route. The receiver and Rodgers need to be on the same page on how the route adjustments, if any will be made on the fly.

    It takes a while for a receiver to see the defense and defender the same way Rodgers sees it pre-snap and post snap. Depending on if the defender is up, over the top, set up to the inside or outside of the receiver can change the route. If the receiver does not read the defense and the defender correctly, or the same as Rodgers, the receiver may be running a slant and Rodgers may be throwing a quick out. Even Jordy and Adams have been seen running a go when Rodgers throws a back shoulder, or just the opposite. It can look ugly some of the time even with veterans, let alone with rookies or new guys to the team.

    It would be good if Philbin can help simplify the route tree to help the new receivers. Rodgers sees the defense in ways that young receivers may never be able to understand or see. Even veteran receivers have a hard time seeing the field the way Rodgers does.

    It would be great if the team did not have to simplify the passing offense. Let’s face it, NFL teams except for a small number of players do not stay longer than 3 to 5 years. The retention time for players on NFL teams barely exceeds that of college teams.

  5. Sanguine camper April 16, 2018

    Born’s man crush with jordy is epic. Get over it. Jordy is slow and needed to go. They don’t need to replace him because he was nothing more than a possession receiver. Bravo for gute. He has the guts to can a player based on ability not hang on to guys for stupid reasons like loyalty.

    1. Cheese April 16, 2018

      Lol, because Davante is a speed demon and the supposedly fast Randall Cobb has been ultra productive over the past four years.

      1. PF4L April 17, 2018

        Sanquine makes a good point. Jordy needed to go. We need a wide receiver who catches that many td passes like we need new team leadership. We can get by without both.

        Don’t let Cobbs 4 td/year fool anyone. It’s a contract year for Cobb. Gute knows that Cobb will step up his game and make us all forget about wasting a roster spot on Nelson. I wouldn’t be shocked if Cobb made a resurgence and awes us with 5 or 6 td catches.

        1. Kato April 17, 2018

          PF4L I think you inadvertently bring up a good point. Except I think you are underestimating what Cobb will do this year. He will have 1000 yards and 10 TDs. Then the packers are giving him $10 million per again, which he will immediately regress back to 600 yards and 4 TDs. Just watch. Never underestimate a 28 year old looking for one last big payday in a contract year.

          1. Howard April 17, 2018

            Both Jordy and Cobb were in their final year. Jordy said he only wanted to play one or two more years. Cobb does want one more big contract. If it is big I don’t think it will be with the Packers.

            I hate that the Packers did not try to work with Jordy to make a valid offer. I think the Packers should also have asked Cobb for reduction in salary. Is one of the reasons the Packers went after Jordy so hard and not Cobb, in part, because if Cobb has a good year and leaves he could produce more in a comp pick over a Nelson one year deal if he left?

          2. Kato April 17, 2018

            Howard that is something that never even crossed my mind. And I don’t like it. Even if Cobb has a great year and gets an insane contract, I don’t think the 3rd round pick we get would likely be worth a year or two of Jordy on a restructured deal. But who knows.

          3. PF4L April 18, 2018

            I suppose you could be right Kato…..but….. lets talk about it when he actually does it. Even if he does it, i’m not impressed. Rodger’s target receivers are diminishing, so it would go to logic that Cobb gets more attempts. But lets not forget what happened with Cobb the last time Jordy was out a season. Cobb stepped up his game and……..wait…wrong year….nevermind.

          4. PF4L April 18, 2018

            Howard, the only possible good that may happen getting rid of Nelson like they did, is show Packers players that if Gutekunst is going to disrespect and throw out Nelson like he did, no one is safe (except Cobb maybe). So maybe the others start to take this seriously and not just go through the motions collecting a weekly game check.

            But then again, i still think this team is broken A-Z, so don’t mistake me for a guy that actually gives a fuck about this current regime because i have no faith. As a Packer fan i’m marking time my friend. I’ve watched the pattern of this team going backwards. This team and regime is in no danger of winning now, even with Rodgers.

    2. Larry April 17, 2018

      He did’nt get slow until he had a no talent bum at QB. Cutting Nelson was an epic mistake that will be proven this year. However as usual, it will be us fans who have to suffer through said mistake……..

      1. PF4L April 18, 2018

        Well…..You make a great valid point, but maybe all those td catches in 2016 and 2017 from Rodgers to Nelson were just “flukes”. Something the Packers don’t need.

        Right Gute?

  6. MJ April 16, 2018

    Some of the guys above have mentioned a very valid point: the complexity of the timing/rythm offense and how the receiver is supposed to read a defense as quickly and well as Rodgers (which is doubly ridiculous; first, Rodgers has many more years in the system, and second, he himself is an uncommon football specimen). The solution to this is to simplify the scheme for the newly acquired WRs, as some have proposed above.

    I want to add another reason why crafting a system more friendly to WRs should be a serious priority for Philbin and McCarthy. Even if we generously assumed the current timing-and-rythm offense has the potential to become – over time – the most effective and unstoppable scheme, in practice this is never attainable. It takes three to four years for receivers to master it, as Rob showed, and by then, they need contract extensions or leave. Therefore, you are (i) either investing VERY heavily at the WR position (to the detriment of other areas) or, (ii) letting your experienced guys leave and going back to square one with some rookie.

    I had a similar conversation with a Chinese martial artist once, about infantry swords. He said that with the Jian, a longish straight thin blade, a soldier could become more deadly than with a Dao (more machete-like, a cutting-and-chopping-first sword). However, he said that if he had to raise an army, he would hands down equip them with Dao, since they were far easier to use and had a shorter learning curve. Back to our WR case, even if we sacrifice a little potential, the approach should be such that regular “levies” (rookies and newcomers) contribute as fast as possible, since the true long term goal is rarely a possibility. Either you don’t have the cap space to hold on to all your receivers once they become Jian swordmasters, or they never get to that point to begin with.

    The above point goes in line with the draft-and-play strategy that Rob named (not invented, it is too obvious to be claimed as such), of having players start to contribute as soon as humanly possible. That way, when you start losing them to crazy teams throwing even-more-crazy money at them, you can trust that the team will not take a nosedive. It seems that McCarthy offensive scheme (and Capers’ defense, for that matter) have been expecting players go through an excessively steep learning curve before being able to help the team out. That is a recipe for a team with an ever growing number of holes.

    As a final note, thanks for putting together all the stats to back up your assertions, Rob. The read was definitely interesting. And though not always does correlation imply causation, the hard numbers tend to speak for themselves, so the research is appreciated by us readers. Even in the cases where we do not agree with some of your points, articles like this still lead to enjoyable discussions.

    1. PF4L April 17, 2018

      “Even in the cases where we do not agree with some of your points, articles like this still lead to enjoyable discussions.”

      Well stated.