James Jones was not impressed.
Oh, sure, that 39-yard touchdown pass that his quarterback had thrown was all right. OK. Not bad. And yes, it had come at a crucial point in what would turn out to be a 30-20 Green Bay Packers victory over St. Louis on Sunday afternoon. The Rams had just pulled within a touchdown, and given the way they’d collapsed before on the road, in a dome, squandering a lead – see: Indianapolis, Oct. 7 – the game was hardly in hand.
So there was Jones, on the opposite side of the play, watching. Knowing they’d been given a free play when the Rams jumped offsides, he saw the QB roll to his left, saw him recognize that second-year receiver Randall Cobb had broken open, behind cornerback Trumaine Johnson and inside of safety Craig Dahl. And then he saw the quarterback wind up and throw, slightly across his body, a laser to Cobb that would essentially seal the much-needed victory – one that gave the team its first back-to-back triumphs of this up-and-down year – with just over 3 minutes to play.
“We’ve seen him make better throws. Oh yeah,” Jones said. “We practice with him every day. It doesn’t ‘Wow’ us.”
Ah, such is life for Aaron Rodgers.
Jones, of course, was having some fun. But he was also telling the truth. His point: The expectation level for Rodgers is what it is – off the charts. And even his own receivers are guilty of it on occasion.
“I thought he always was playing like Aaron,” Jones said of Rodgers’ perceived early-season struggles, when Rodgers by his own admission wasn’t playing up to the 45-touchdown, six-interception, 122.5-rating level he had in winning the NFL MVP last season.
“The thing is, last year, he spoiled the NFL, man. So the standard for him is sky-high, and he built that for himself by being so good. You go around the league before we played these last two games. Everybody said (New York Giants quarterback) Eli Manning was having a great year. He had 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns. Psssshhhh. Aaron easily had that, and he was having a bad year.
“The things he did last year, they expect him to do that every year. It’s the National Football League. Then you see the last two weeks, and you’re like, ‘Where’s that been at?’ But he’s been playing well.”
He certainly is now. On Sunday, Rodgers completed 30 of 37 passes (81.1 percent, his highest regular-season percentage since his first NFL start) for 342 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 132.2. Coupled with his six-touchdown virtuoso performance last Sunday night at Houston, Rodgers has completed 54 of 74 passes (73.0 percent) for 680 yards with nine TDs, no INTs and a 140.8 passer rating.
“I never felt like he was ‘off’ or anything like that. I just thought as an offense in general we just weren’t doing what we needed to do to help him out,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “Because we can’t just rely on Aaron to do everything. From the offensive line, tight ends, running backs, we’ve got to be able to help him out running the football and getting some favorable down and distances. When he has favorable down and distances, he can do a lot of good things. And that’s what he’s been doing.”
The guys on the receiving end haven’t been too shabby, either. Against the Texans, the triumvirate of Jones, Cobb and Jordy Nelson combined to catch 19 passes for 256 yards and five touchdowns. Sunday, they were on the receiving end of 22 balls for 264 yards and three touchdowns. With Rodgers on point, that threesome – without two-time Pro Bowl wideout Greg Jennings – catching just about everything thrown its way and the threat of a running game there (even if the production isn’t), the Packers’ offense is starting to dictate the game rather than the other way around.
“I think we’ve had a couple of real good plans. We’ve been aggressive, I’ve been playing better and we’ve been able to score a lot of points,” Rodgers said. “I’m expected to be consistent week in and week out. There’s been times where that hasn’t been the case but I’m happy with the way that our offense is progressing. Obviously, I wanted to come out and play really well. Missed a couple throws I probably could have hit but, other than that, I think it was a good performance by our offense.”
As a result, the Packers (4-3) are on the good side of .500 for the first time this season, still looking up in the NFC North standings at upstart Minnesota (5-2) and Chicago (4-1 entering Monday night’s game against Detroit) but having notched a quality road win against an up-and-coming team in the Rams (3-4), who came in perfect at the Edward Jones Dome this season.
“We knew this was going to be a tough matchup,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think to come in here, don’t turn the ball over, I thought our team played smart today, played very good situational football and we’re pleased to win back-to-back. That was our message all week: Stacking success, as you have to every single year.”
With home games against Jacksonville (1-4) and Arizona (4-3) before the bye, a season that at times appeared to be spiraling has new life, if that success-stacking continues.
“We’d like to think (there’s momentum building), but for whatever reason, we’d also welcome any doubters or any naysayers to continue to say what they’ve been saying, because I think it’s really brought us together the last couple of weeks,” Rodgers said. “It’s not just the negative comments, but the fact that there’s been a greater sense of urgency with our team.
“Our veteran players have spoken up when they’ve needed to. Our younger players are buying in and starting to believe. They’re starting to see what a successful team can look like if things are done the right way. I’m proud of Coach McCarthy, the direction that he’s laid out for this team, the focus that he’s given us, and the guys have responded positively.”
Added Jones: “I feel like we’re starting to get on a roll. And I’m not just talking about wins. Just as a team, I feel like we’re starting to jell together, we’re starting to click together – especially on offense. I feel like our tempo is good. When we’re rolling and getting long drives, it’s tough to stop us.”
There were two such drives Sunday.
The first came to open the third quarter, making the Packers’ decision to defer after winning the opening coin toss pay off. On the 12-play, 80-yard drive, the Packers converted three third-down plays: A third-and-8 from their own 22 on an 18-yard completion to Nelson; a third-and-1 from the St. Louis 38 with a 17-yard strike to Jones; and a third-and-6 from the Rams’ 17 with a 9-yarder to Nelson. It ended in a 5-yard TD to Cobb.
“We had one of our best drives of the season, for sure, starting the second half. It wasn’t the prettiest drive, but we converted a lot of third downs,” Rodgers said, pointing out the Packers’ 60 percent third-down conversion rate (9 of 15).
“That’s what we’ve done around here in the past. We’ve been up maybe a score, or less than a touchdown, and had to come up with a big drive and we’ve been able to, so we’re proud of that,” “We had to convert some tough third downs and kept drives going and flipped the time of possession, gave our defense a little bone there and were able to finish off that drive with a touchdown that put it back to two scores and gave us a good chance to win the game.”
Then came the drive that ended in Rodgers’ so-so throw to Cobb. The drive began at the Green Bay 20-yard line with an Alex Green run for no gain – one of eight rushes that Green had that either failed to gain yardage or lost yardage – but Cobb’s 11-yard catch got things going. Then, on third-and-7, Rodgers hit Cobb short of the first-down marker, but Cobb slithered his way to an 8-yard gain. It was then third-and-9 when Rodgers, knowing Rams lineman Kendall Langford had jumped offside, found Cobb.
“We felt like we’ve always had this caliber (of an offense) and we’ve tried to approach it this way, but obviously it didn’t turn out the way we planned to. But we’re starting to make the plays that are there and executing our game plan,” Cobb said. “We took that momentum from the Houston game into practice this week and we had a phenomenal week in practice with our preparation, and it showed up in the game today.”