GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers spent a good portion of his conversation with reporters Monday being the calming voice of reason.
Whether he was defending backup Graham Harrell from what he finds to be overly intense criticism or allaying concerns about the way the No. 1 offense has scuffled in the first two preseason games, the Green Bay Packers quarterback was doing his best to explain why there’s nothing to worry about.
While Harrell – and the backups around him – will have to play better before Rodgers’ words of reassurance convince some doubters, Rodgers has numbers to back up his contention that what the starting offense does in preseason will have no bearing on how the unit will fare in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field.
“You can’t take any of the things that occur in the preseason over to the regular season,” the NFL MVP said Monday.
In the Packers’ first two preseason games – losses to the San Diego Chargers and Cleveland Browns – the Rodgers-led starting offense has managed just one touchdown, and that came after the Browns turned the ball over at their own 23-yard line. The other five drives have ended in two fumbles, one punt, one interception and one failed fourth-and-2 play. The unit has managed just 130 yards offense, with only seven first downs.
The starters are slated to play the first half of Thursday night’s third preseason game at Cincinnati, and wide receiver Greg Jennings (concussion) and tight end Jermichael Finley (quadriceps) are expected to make their preseason debuts.
“You’ve been watching the games. We’ve been looking a little sloppy,” Finley said of the starting offense. “So it’s key to come out with the first group and get that half in and execute right.”
But how much does it matter? In the past three seasons, the Packers have had varying degrees of offensive success – and it didn’t translate to how they played in their first game that counted.
In 2009, Green Bay's starting offense was downright unstoppable. In 13 series, the unit rolled up 646 yards and produced nine touchdowns, one field goal, one missed field goal, one punt and one failed fourth-and-1. Rodgers was 29 of 41 for 465 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions for a 147.9 rating.
In the regular-season opener against the Bears, the unit managed just 226 yards, converted just 4 of 15 third-down situations and scored just 21 points, pulling out a 21-15 victory on Rodgers’ 50-yard touchdown pass to Jennings with 1:11 to play. On the night, Rodgers was 17 for 28 for 184 yards with the one touchdown and no interceptions (92.0 rating).
In 2010, the first-string offense again played 13 series, gaining 542 yards on 78 plays. The unit scored seven touchdowns, punted three times, lost two fumbles and turned the ball over on downs on a failed fourth-and-1. Rodgers, who didn’t even suit up for the preseason finale at Kansas City that year, finished the preseason having completed 41 of 53 passes for 470 yards, with six touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 141.2 rating in three preseason games.
In a 27-20 victory at Philadelphia in the regular-season opener, the Packers gained 299 yards of offense, were 6 for 14 on third downs (43 percent) and held on to win. Rodgers went 19 for 31 for 188 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions (73.1 rating).
Last exhibition season, the No. 1 offense played 11 series and gained only 360 net yards. Its 10 full-fledged drives ended in three touchdowns, one field goal, one missed field goal and five punts; the unit’s one other possession was one play before the end of a half. Rodgers finished exhibition play having completed 37 of 47 passes for 395 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions for a rating of 130.1.
Despite the comparatively unproductive preseason – at least whenever the group wasn’t running its no-huddle offense -- in the regular-season opener against New Orleans, the offense was magnificent, gaining 399 yards, converting 8 of 12 third-down situations, scoring five offensive touchdowns and winning, 42-34. Rodgers completed 27 of 35 passes for 312 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions (132.1 rating).
“You know, specifically in ’10 I remember we faced a lot of real vanilla looks and that’s what the preseason is all about. When we get to the regular season, San Fran(cisco), Chicago, Seattle and New Orleans are probably going to be a lot different looks than we’re going to see in the regular season,” Rodgers said, referring to the team’s first four regular-season opponents. “As much as you want to do well, you realize it’s not going to be vanilla once the season starts.
“There’s not a lot of game-planning that goes into these games on both sides. We’re not going to game plan for Cincinnati and they’ll probably have one or two things in like we do for them, but at the end of the day, it’s about staying healthy and having a good feeling coming out of these situations. I’m not too worried about the (offense).”
What Rodgers is worried about is making sure the offense gets work in a variety of situations – situations that haven’t presented themselves so far.
“We’re trying to hit targets, hit some new plays, new thoughts we want to get in, hit some situational stuff you might not work on in practice, some backed-up situations, some crowd noise when you play on the road,” Rodgers said.
“We really haven’t had a really good red zone (opportunity). We got the turnover and scored outside the red zone last week, so to get in the red zone, maybe with a goal-to-go opportunity, to be able to punch that in is going to be important for us. No third-and-short for us last week, to get a third-and-short and convert is going to be important for us. Last year, we were below the league average, I believe, in third-down conversions and third-and-one, so to convert a couple of those would be nice, keep drives going.
“(We) haven’t had a 10-plus play drive yet. That’s something that would be good for our guys. I don’t know if (the offensive linemen) want one, but it would be good to kind of get some reps where we’re real tired and they’re real tired, so a 10-plus play drive would be nice.”