Both Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers deserve blame for the Packers' struggles

The Green Bay Packers are on the brink of death, and both Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers deserve a share of the blame.

With a healthy Rodgers commanding their offense, the Packers aren't supposed to be a 4-6-1 team on the outskirts of the playoff picture, lumped together with other .500-ish teams that make up the "still alive" category. We've seen the Packers miss the playoffs before, but we haven't seen them miss the playoffs in this manner. They went 7-9 a year ago, but Rodgers missed nine games with a broken collarbone. They went 6-10 in 2008, but that was Rodgers' first season as the starter. That's it. That's the entire list of playoff-less seasons in Green Bay since the dawn of the Rodgers-McCarthy era. 

With good reason, this season sticks out. The Packers have bumbled their way to 4-6-1 with an offense that looks more pedestrian than we're used to seeing. Entering Week 13 (you can stream Cardinals-Packers on fuboTV, try it for free, and stream all the CBS games on CBS All Access), they're 17th in scoring, averaging 24 points per game. Rodgers has completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 3,271 yards, 20 touchdowns, one interception, and a 101.7 passer rating. Rodgers' touchdown percentage of 4.8 is down 1.5 percent from his career average. His completion percentage is also down 3.2 percent. 

It's certainly worth noting that even when the Packers' offense is at its worst, Rodgers is still sporting a 20-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the offense as a unit checks in at fifth in DVOA. It's not like Rodgers and the Packers suddenly stink. Rodgers is still meeting his career average of 7.9 yards per pass attempt and his passer rating is down only 1.9 points from his career passer rating. At his worst, he's still one of the better quarterbacks in football. 

It's just that, anyone who has a watched a recent game can see that Rodgers doesn't look like the fire-breathing dragon he once was. In a must-win contest against the Vikings last week, the Packers scored 17 points while Rodgers finished with fewer than 200 yards and a very Jay Cutler-ian passer rating of 94.0.

While Rodgers has dealt with a knee injury he picked up in Week 1, he hasn't missed a game yet. It'd be far too convenient and simplistic and problematic and unfair to suggest that the Packers are down and out because of that knee injury. The problems have more to do with McCarthy's scheme, the quality of players surrounding Rodgers -- a problem that is exacerbated by McCarthy's offense -- and Rodgers' own level of play. All three issues are interlinked. They all feed into each other. 

We'll start with McCarthy.

All GIF footage via NFL Game Pass

Failure by design

The issues stem from McCarthy's system.

The Packers rely heavily on isolation routes. They expect their receivers to gain separation on their own, even though most of their receivers -- with the notable exception of Davante Adams -- aren't capable of winning on their own. Instead of bunching receivers together to help create openings, instead of using picks or rubs to make it more difficult on defenders to track receivers in space, instead of doing the sort of things we see the ChiefsRams, and Saints do on a weekly basis, the Packers opt for a far more simplistic and ineffective approach of spacing out their receivers and hoping they can win their individual battles downfield. Meanwhile, Rodgers sits back and waits for someone to get open. A lot of the time, it doesn't happen.

The thing is, this isn't a new issue that sprung up this season. We've been writing about McCarthy's antiquated approach for years. In Nov. 2015, CBS Sports' Pete Prisco wrote an article titled, "After Further Review: The Packers' O isn't scaring teams and here's why." A few months later, Prisco wrote another article called "After Further Review: Why Aaron Rodgers is not playing like an elite QB." Both stories reached a similar conclusion.

From the first story:

The Packers are big on isolation routes, with little in terms of bunch formations or pick plays. They spread out the receivers and allow Rodgers to go through his progressions. That's all well and good when receivers win, but that isn't happening much anymore.

From the second story:

The biggest issue is that the receivers aren't fast and there is little creativity to help them get open. When Jordy Nelson went down, the Packers lost their best receiver and that led to teams playing a lot of man coverage against the Green Bay receivers and daring them to win.

They've loaded the box to stop the run, which slowed that part of the offense, and nobody can win outside. The Packers have a system that uses mostly isolation routes, which means the receivers have to beat their man coverage with their speed and their ability to run routes, rather than help from a pick or a rub or a bunch formation.

The issues haven't gone away. They've persisted.

In the clip below, taken from the second quarter of the Packers' loss to the Vikings last week, you'll see the problem. Rodgers' first read was to Adams, who was blanketed in coverage. Once he moved off Adams, all that was available to him were two tight ends on the left side. With pressure arriving and no one open, Rodgers threw the ball out of bounds.

That's not a rare occurrence. According to Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo‏, Rodgers has thrown the ball away 47 times this season

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The clip below, taken not long after the play above, paints a similar picture. Rodgers dropped back to pass, none of his receivers, all of whom were running isolation routes, got open, and then pressure arrived, so he chucked the ball out of play.

Take a look at the routes downfield at the moment Rodgers hit the top of his drop. No one was open. 

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NFL Game Pass

Against a defense as good as the Vikings, you can't just hope receivers like Equanimeous St. Brown are going to get open entirely on their own. If you do, you're asking your quarterback to hang onto the ball while waiting for the improbable to happen. Eventually, pass rushers like Danielle Hunter are going to break through.

The play below is yet another example of how the Packers depend on isolation routes that their receivers can't win.

When Rodgers hit the top of his drop, there wasn't a single target available to him. The Vikings had the running back covered in the flat. And all three downfield receivers were covered.

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NFL Game Pass

On a third-and-manageable in the third quarter, the Packers drew up a play designed to get them a huge chunk of yardage with three possible pass catchers. Two ran streaks down the sideline and the slot man ran a deep post. No one got open, so Rodgers lobbed up a prayer downfield that fell incomplete. 

This is as low percentage as low-percentage throws get:

The Packers have all but eliminated the middle portion of the field, limiting Rodgers' options to the outside.

The scheme makes the game unnecessarily difficult on Rodgers. He doesn't have the type of receivers who can consistently win solo. But that's what the Packers' offensive structure forces them to do.

Packers not as talented as other top offenses

As Rodgers waits for his guys to get open, the protection up front breaks down. The Packers have allowed 36 sacks this season, which is tied for the fifth-highest total in football. According to Football Outsiders, the Packers' offensive line ranks 21st in pass protection.

Against the Vikings, the Packers surrendered four sacks. This play in particular sticks out. Faced with a third-and-long, the Packers opted for maximum protection. Only three players ran routes downfield, leaving seven players to block for Rodgers. It still resulted in a sack.

That sack occurred on third down, which has happened a ton this season.

The Packers don't just look different from the Chiefs, Rams, and Saints because of scheme. They also look different because of personnel. The Packers' offense isn't nearly as talented as some of the other top offenses around the league. 

Adams, a quality receiver, leads the team with 114 targets, 77 catches, 1,022 yards, and 10 touchdowns. And then there's a massive drop off in production. Jimmy Graham is second on the team with 61 targets, 36 catches, 486 yards, and two touchdowns. As was the case in Seattle, Graham is most effective in the red zone as a touchdown threat, but he's not even doing that in Green Bay. Third on the team in receptions is Randall Cobb with 26, and he's played in only five games this season. Receivers like Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Geronimo Allison, and St. Brown are contributing to the cause. 

Rodgers has been let down by his supporting cast at times this season -- like when Graham (who is playing with a broken thumb) dropped this dime over the middle against the Vikings.    

With this supporting cast, the Packers would be better off helping their receivers get open with motion, bunch formations, picks, and so on. But that's not what they do. 

Rodgers isn't blameless 

Rodgers deserves blame in all of this as well. 

Again, it's worth repeating that for all of his struggles, he's still one of the best quarterbacks in football. By Football Outsiders' metrics, he's been the ninth-best quarterback in football, sandwiched in between Andrew Luck and Tom Brady. Rodgers isn't broken. He's not bad. He's still really good.

He's just not his superhuman self this season. He's lacking consistency. Too often, he's looking for the home-run ball instead of taking what the defense gives him.

Not all of those 36 sacks are on the Packers' offensive line. Against the Vikings, he turned down an easy third-down conversion by refusing to throw the ball to Graham, who was crossing the field and would've picked up the first down. He took a sack instead.

He sometimes hesitates to dump the ball off on early downs. Below, Rodgers eventually took a short gain, but not until he scrambled outside the pocket to his right and was forced to throw short with no other options. By that point, the defense was better prepared to close down on the underneath targets.

If you freeze the frame at the top of his drop, you'll see three wide-open targets. He should've just let it go immediately and worked within the structure of the play, but he tried to create a bigger play first that wasn't there.

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NFL Game Pass

Here's where it's worth pointing out that Rodgers often does create big gains outside the framework of the play. He deserves credit when it works. He deserves blame when it doesn't work.

Like every quarterback, Rodgers misses open receivers by targeting the wrong ones downfield. Below, he forced a throw into tight coverage on the outside when his man working the middle of the field generated separation just before Rodgers began his throwing motion.

The most obvious mistakes Rodgers made against the Vikings came at the end of the game when he missed back-to-back easy completions with poorly thrown balls. Both were as bad of misses as you'll see from any quarterback all season.

On second down, Rodgers skipped a pass that didn't even travel past the line of scrimmage.

On the next play, he sailed a routine throw to Adams that should've resulted in six. 

Again, every quarterback misses easy throws from time to time. Rodgers isn't the only quarterback who makes mistakes. He's human just like Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. But for so long, we've considered Rodgers a cyborg sent from the future to destroy defenses. There's a reason Robert Mays, formerly of Grantland and currently of The Ringer, started calling him a dragon. Rodgers really used to be that much better than every other quarterback. He used to operate in his own dimension. We're not used to seeing him miss throws like the ones above. We're not used to seeing him perform in the same ballpark as other great quarterbacks. 

It's worth reiterating that for all the bad that transpired on Sunday night, Rodgers still did Rodgers kinds of things. He's still capable of creating magic.

Even his incompletions are impressive.

Rodgers is still Rodgers. And the Packers' offense hasn't been that bad in terms of results. They've just been disappointing by their standards.

As fall turns into winter, it's clear Rodgers and the Packers' offense aren't entirely clicking. They're not reaching their entire potential. McCarthy's outdated scheme with its limited route tree is the main culprit, which only makes the Packers' lack of talent around Rodgers more noticeable, while Rodgers himself has made mistakes.

With five weeks remaining in the season, the Packers likely need to win out to make the playoffs. If they don't, changes could come to Green Bay this winter.

That might be the best long-term outcome for the Packers. Missing the playoffs this season and getting an offensive overhaul would be a better result than sneaking into the playoffs and doing this all over again next year. Rodgers will turn 35 in a few days. Time is running out on the Packers to win another Super Bowl with him. A new coaching staff with fresh ideas might be the only thing that can get the most out of Rodgers while Rodgers is still operating close to his peak. The Packers might be on the verge of death, but a tragic death might be the only thing that can reawaken their offense and quarterback for the wars to come.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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