GREEN BAY – Lost in Aaron Rodgers’ headline-creating public criticism of his young receivers earlier this week was another message the Green Bay Packers quarterback delivered.
Replying to a question about whether his not-so-subtle remarks about their repeated mistakes were also meant as a message to the team’s front office, Rodgers shook his head and said they weren’t. Instead, the intended receivers — pardon the pun — of his harsh assessment were also getting a reminder that Rodgers is always in observation mode, even when he’s not playing.
“(It’s) to let him know that I’m watching. I’m always watching,” Rodgers explained. “Whether I’m in the play or not in the play, when we’re going back through the film.”
That’s what Rodgers was doing Thursday night, during the Packers’ preseason-opening 31-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans at Lambeau Field. Sitting out his third straight exhibition season opener, Rodgers spent the game roaming the sideline in a long-sleeve green crewneck pullover, charcoal sweatpants and a light gray baseball cap while chewing bubblegum and wearing an earpiece to listen in on the coaches’ communication system.
And what was he expecting to see?
“I’m watching the quarterback a lot and the line and the movement,” Rodgers explained earlier in the week. “The things that I like to help a young (quarterback) out with is, where the eyes need to go early in the play, whether it’s pre-snap or at the snap or post-snap. You get jittery sometimes and you start staring guys down. I’ve been there, I’ve done that.
“I remember (Brett) Favre said this to me and I say this to the young guys: ‘Every mistake that you’ve made or will make, I’ve made many times over.’ That’s the growing process that’s experienced in this game. Some of us have a longer leash than others. For them, it’s about being consistent, focused and being able to find that relaxation in those moments.”
What Rodgers ended up seeing was some pretty good quarterback play, including what looked like significant improvement from his backup last season, Brett Hundley; some decent work from fellow quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle; an offensive line that clearly needs starting left tackle David Bakhtiari and starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga to be healthy; a solid performance from Marquez Valdes-Scantling, one of the three rookie wide receivers who were the cause of Rodgers’ irritation during the week; and one egregious dropped pass — or two, depending on how harsh of a grader you are — by J’Mon Moore, another of the young wideouts who drew Rodgers’ ire.
“There’s going to be a lot of good things on the tape, but there’s going to be a lot of things where we didn’t quite finish,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said afterward. “Clearly, I would call it a steppingstone game — where we had production, we had positive things, (and) we had things we clearly needed to do better. It’s preseason game No. 1. But I thought the team got off to a good, solid start.”
Hundley was impressive, although his final numbers — 9 of 14 for 108 yards with one sack, one interception and one touchdown pass for a passer rating of 81.8 — weren’t indicative of how well he played. Kizer finished 9 of 18 for 134 yards with two sacks, no interceptions and no touchdowns (74.8 rating), while fourth-stringer Boyle, who finished with a fantastic 52-yard touchdown pass to Jake Kumerow, had the best numbers (7 of 15 for 130 yards with two touchdowns for a 116.7 passer rating).
“I thought all three quarterbacks contributed,” McCarthy said.
Hundley’s best throw of the night came on the Packers’ opening series. From his own 49-yard line, Hundley threw deep for No. 1 receiver Davante Adams off a play-action fake and delivered a Rodgers-esque right-on-the-money rainbow that dropped into Adams’ hands for a 48-yard gain. Two plays later, Hundley found running back Jamaal Williams in the left flat for an 8-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7-7.
“I think for me, just knowing where I was at last year and just positive self-talk and all that stuff, obviously God blessed me with this ability to come back this year and play,” Hundley said. “Every opportunity I get, I’m going to give it my all. I think this year, this start showed it. … It will only get better from here.”
Hundley ended up playing three series, and his final pass ended up tanking his numbers, as he was hit as he threw by Titans edge rusher Gimel President, and the ball dropped into the arms of Tennessee linebacker Jaylon Brown for an interception.
Hundley also absorbed a strip-sack earlier in the first half (the ball was recovered by left guard Lucas Patrick), but overall, his pocket awareness appeared improved. That was most evident on a play just before the interception, where he stepped up in the pocket, then escaped to his right and calmly threw a laser to Moore’s back shoulder. Although the defender might’ve broken up the pass, Moore certainly could have secured the ball better when it arrived.
In the second half, there was no debate on a deep ball from Boyle to Moore that should have been a huge play. On third-and-8 from the Green Bay 35, Boyle stepped up and found Moore behind the defense, but Moore dropped the ball at the Titans’ 29-yard line. Had he caught it, it likely would have been a 65-yard touchdown.
“I’m going to move forward for sure, but it’s definitely going to put a fire up underneath me and definitely have me dig deeper,” Moore said.
Valdes-Scantling, in contrast, delivered not only a 51-yard leaping catch on a deep ball by Kizer in the third quarter, but also was on the receiving end of a 15-yard touchdown pass from Boyle that gave the Packers a 24-10 lead with under 4 minutes left. Valdes-Scantling ended up catching five passes for 101 yards and the touchdown.
While Valdes-Scantling said there was “no correlation” between Rodgers’ comments and his own play Thursday night, he did get Rodgers’ message.
“Definitely. That's our leader,” he said. “You've got a Hall of Fame quarterback over there, and if he's telling you that you're not doing it right, you've got to change what you're doing. It's just that we've got to be pros all the time. Can't be pros for just 3/4ths of practice, you've got to be it all the time. That was the only thing.”
Asked about Rodgers’ comments and how the receivers responded, McCarthy replied, “Talking with Aaron briefly, when you speak with emotion and frustration, that’s really about as far as it goes. This is a football team that’s growing and trying to get better each and every day. At the end of the day, the evaluation of every player on our team it’s a very thorough process. And I’m very pleased with a lot of the good things our young receivers are doing.
“I think they just took another step (in this game) from what they’ve been doing in practice. There’s going to be some plays they wish they had made, (but on) the first part of the route running, I thought they did a lot of really good things.”
The biggest disappointment for the Packers offensively was on the line, where Bakhtiari sat out after spraining his left ankle during Saturday night’s Family Night practice, and Bulaga didn’t suit up because the team’s medical staff is being cautious in his comeback from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee suffered last November.
Bulaga was activated from the physically unable to perform list last week and was able to practice in pads but might not see game action until the team’s Week 3 game at Oakland on Aug. 24.
Without them, both left tackle Kyle Murphy (who was at fault on Hundley’s fumble) and right tackle Byron Bell (who was to blame on Hundley’s interception) struggled.
But Rodgers’ night of viewing ended with a play he clearly enjoyed — the 52-yard, right-on-the-money Boyle deep ball to Kumerow, the former UW-Whitewater standout who beat Titans cornerback Joseph Este down the left sideline and finished with a Lambeau Leap into the almost-empty north end zone stands.
Television replays caught a smiling Rodgers, who has taken a shine to Kumerow throughout training camp, celebrating by skipping along the sideline and raising his arms.
“(He was) jacked up,” Hundley said. “Kumerow’s been very consistent this whole camp. He’s been a great teammate for all of us. We love him. When we see him succeed, we’re all excited.”
But Kumerow — and others — must build on their performances.
“Really what we wanted to accomplish as a football team was establish our play style, and secondly was just try to create as many opportunities as we possibly could for our players,” McCarthy said. “It was important for everybody to play in the game tonight, so we accomplished that. I think the tape is going to be really, really good to learn from.”