No magic words: Packers' struggle 'feels different' than in past

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers had one word to describe what he had on his left knee Sunday at New England, where he played without a brace for the first time since his Week 1 injury:

“Just grit,” Rodgers said.

But the Green Bay Packers quarterback, known for catchy slogans like "R-E-L-A-X" or "run the table," didn’t have anything for this season ... at least not yet.

Those two messages happened organically. In 2014, he told Packers fans to relax -- and then spelled it out, letter by letter, after a 1-2 start. In 2016, he said he thought the Packers could run the table after sitting at 4-6.

In both seasons, the Packers made the NFC title game.

That seems like a far-fetched idea at this point with the Packers at 3-4-1 heading into Sunday’s game against the visiting Miami Dolphins, but that’s not why Rodgers didn’t offer any bulletin-board sayings Wednesday when asked for one.

“Well, you asked a question, so it’s not authentic,” Rodgers said during his weekly news conference. “And those two were authentic responses to questions, so when prompted I just feel like we have to play better, consistently, 60 minutes, try to eliminate some of the lows we’ve been having. We have to play with confidence and play up to the level we’re capable of playing.”

Maybe "grit" would be an appropriate slogan, too.

Rodgers played without the brace in the 31-17 loss to the Patriots on Sunday night, marking the first time he went without protection since his left knee was injured in Week 1. He also practiced Wednesday as a full-time participant, the first time that has happened since the injury (his previous Wednesday participations were limited).

‘This just feels different’

If it seems like there’s a different vibe to this season than in the past when the Packers have turned things around, at least one player admitted as much.

“We've lost games before here, but this just feels different,” said receiver Randall Cobb, who was a part of both the R-E-L-A-X and run-the-table seasons. “And it doesn't feel good. It's not fun. But we've got to figure something out.”

The Packers haven’t won on the road, and after back-to-back losses at the Rams and Patriots, they’re home for only one game against Miami before two more on the road, at Seattle on a quick turnaround next Thursday night, then at Minnesota in Week 12.

“Yeah, I mean we definitely need some momentum, we need to get a win,” Cobb said. “I can tell you, this isn't fun. Very frustrating and it's tough. Because I know what we're capable of and we're not there. I don't know what it is, but we've got to find a way to get it done.”

The Packers’ unexpected struggles have prompted questions about whether coach Mike McCarthy's offense has become stale -- queries Cobb smiled at but mostly avoided -- or does enough to get its best players such as Davante Adams open even when they're double-teamed, as Adams was against the Patriots.

“It’s kind of like each play is a new experience because they find different ways and obviously Bill [Belichick] being a really good coach, he knows what he’s doing out there,” said Adams, who caught six passes for just 40 yards against the Patriots. “He knows how to take people out of the games. Unfortunately that somewhat happened, but we’ve got to do a better job of making sure that we’re still finding guys -- if there is a double, a guy can still be open whether it’s me, Cobb, Jimmy [Graham] or whoever it is. We’re scheming things, but we can always do better obviously.”

Rodgers off target?

One measure of the offensive production -- or lack of it -- is completion percentage. At 60.6, Rodgers is on pace for the lowest of his career. Part of it could be chalked up to his knee injury and how that can prevent him from stepping into throws, but Rodgers suggested there was another factor.

“I’ve had an unnatural amount of throwaways this year,” Rodgers said. “I would say the majority of those are coverage throwaways. I think that’s been a big contributor to the completion percentage. But yeah, it’s lower than we’d like.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers has 39 throwaways, already his most in a season. His second-most (37) came in 2015.

“I think it’s guys being open,” Rodgers said of the high volume of throwaways. “If a guy’s open, I’m going to pull the trigger. But if guys are covered, and I can’t extend it, then you have to find a place to go with the ball that it’s our guys’ or nobody’s.”

But even taking throwaways and spikes out of the equation, Rodgers’ off-target numbers are as high as ever. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, his off-target percentage (which removes throwaways and spikes) stands at 20.4 percent, just one-tenth of a percentage lower than his career worst in 2015. Sunday’s game against the Patriots was, at 30 percent, his highest off-target game of the season and the sixth-highest of his career.

No wonder he referenced “missed throws” several times after the game.

“I don’t think you can draw a complete equal between completion percentage and accuracy,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “When I’m throwing the ball, I’m throwing the ball where I want it. If I say I missed a throw, that means that I missed a spot by 6 inches or by however much I missed it by. We’ve just had a number of throwaways based on the coverages. We’ve got to keep finding ways to get guys into one or two spots, open on time and when they’re open, I’ve got to make the throws.”