Nevertheless, the Packers quarterback knows as well as anyone: The offense was not the same last year without wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
And Rodgers believes that a healthy Nelson will cure much of what ailed the Packers last season.
Nelson, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee during the team’s Aug. 23 preseason loss at Pittsburgh, remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after suffering what he termed a “hiccup” in his left knee while working out in advance of training camp. Although three other players came off the PUP list Tuesday, Nelson remained there.
Without Nelson last season, Rodgers said one of the most crucial elements of the Packers' scheme – their play-action downfield passing game – virtually disappeared. Rodgers finished the season with a career-low 7.1 yards per attempt, a number that looks even worse when compared to what he averaged during his NFL MVP seasons in 2011 (10.5) and 2014 (9.5).
In 2014, Nelson caught 98 passes for a Packers franchise-record 1,519 yards, had an NFL-best five touchdown receptions of 50 yards or more and also had an NFL-high five receptions of 60 yards or more. Nelson also has four career touchdowns of 80 yards or more, tied for the most in Packers history.
In October, Rodgers lamented that the Packers had yet to find someone to play Nelson’s role in their so-called “Jordy package.” In an interview for ESPN Wisconsin’s Wilde & Tausch late last week, Rodgers admitted that the team never found anyone to fill the void.
“No, it didn’t surprise me,” Rodgers replied incredulously when asked if he was surprised by how much Nelson’s absence affected the offense. “The thing that he does is, we have specific packages for him that just, we didn’t have a guy who could fill those packages. And it was a lot of play-action stuff, where we’re taking eight-man protection and taking shots down the field. And we didn’t have a guy who could take that spot.”
The Packers brought back veteran James Jones following Nelson’s injury, but while Jones finished with a team-high 890 receiving yards, he wasn’t a downfield threat. Nor were the Packers able to go deep to Davante Adams, who was hobbled by an early-season ankle injury, or to Randall Cobb.
“I thought James came in and did a great job for us,” Rodgers said. “Davante was hurt for most of the year and he gutted it out. He played through a serious injury that was bothering him for much of the season, so I’m proud of him for doing that. But we didn’t have the same type of production on offense because there was [a] gaping hole in the play-action game, I think.”
The results were obvious. The Packers finished 23rd in the 32-team NFL in total offense, their worst finish since 1991, when they were 24th the year before the Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers golden era began. In the 2015 campaign, they also finished 15th in the NFL in scoring (23.0 points per game), their worst finish in that department since coach Mike McCarthy's first season in 2006 (22nd, at 18.8 points). In fact, from 2007 through 2014, the Packers were never outside the top 10 in scoring.
After the Packers' offense was completely inept in a loss at Denver last Nov. 1, McCarthy insisted the scheme was not to blame. He basically reiterated that stance on the eve of training camp this year.
But how much of their struggles were the direct result of Nelson’s absence?
A lot, Rodgers said.
“It’s an excuse, but it’s the truth," he said. "The truth is we lost a stud receiver who put up incredible, All-Pro numbers one year and he’s gone the next year without getting that production back. We knew you can’t replace a Jordy Nelson. But we thought that supplementally, we would [compensate].
“I thought that collectively we were going to be able to fill some of that void. But again, the stuff that he does is tough to teach, and that’s why he’s one of the best in the business. I’m proud of the way that we battled, but we all didn’t play as well as we wanted to and we didn’t get it done.”
Just twice in the past five years have Rodgers and Nelson been simultaneously healthy enough to play all 16 regular-season games. And there’s no denying the results.
In 2011, Nelson had his first 1,000-yard season (68 receptions, 1,263 yards, 15 TDs), Rodgers threw for 4,643 yards with 45 touchdowns and an NFL-record 122.5 passer rating to earn his first MVP. That year, the Packers led the NFL and set a franchise-record with 560 points scored, the second-highest total in league history.
In 2014, Nelson caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns, Rodgers threw for 4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns en route to his second MVP award, and the Packers scored an NFL-best 486 points.
Could the Packers put up similar numbers in 2016 with a healthy Nelson?
“I think,” Rodgers said slyly, “we’re going to be pretty good this year on offense.”