We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Barry Petchesky
To: Chris Brown, Nate Jackson
Here's a dirty secret about the NFL: You can fake it on defense. Take the Jets' ultra-complex 46 package, inherited from Buddy Ryan, or the 49ers' "Smoke and Mirrors," which relies on the versatility of their linebackers. You can cover for weak links with the right schemes, which is why defensive coordinators like Steve Spagnuolo, Dom Capers, and both Ryan brothers can become rock stars.
But on offense, all the pass-catching tight ends in the world aren't going to hide the flaws. So it's not surprising that the most complete and unstoppable offense in the league is doing things the traditional way.
Though I previously wrote about the proliferation of hybrid players, I think you hit upon a truth, Chris: They exist to give a "less-talented offense a chance to succeed." Perhaps that's the best they can hope for—success—but Super Bowls aren't going to be won with, say, Ray Rice leading his team in receptions. Rice is an example of a hybrid weapon who's emerged due to Baltimore's lack of other offensive threats.
As you said, receiver/tight ends are now a necessity instead of a luxury. The season's barely half through, and already 33 different tight ends have caught more than one touchdown pass. It's part of a sea change that's occurred in the last decade: tight ends and offensive linemen are getting smaller, while quarterbacks are getting taller and stronger. No one's perfected this shift quite like the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers ran off another blowout last night, and they did it how they've done it all year: with just enough of a power run game to keep defenses honest and their demigod in the pocket making things look easy. For those keeping score, Aaron Rodgers is on pace to tie the single-season record for touchdown passes and shatter the record for passer rating. I get angry—physically angry—at how good Rodgers is. It's not fair that a human being can do what he does. He has the technique to put the ball exactly where he wants it, and more importantly he has the smarts to avoid putting it where he doesn't.
The key to the Packers steamroller is deceptively simple: patience. When a quarterback has no one open, he generally has three choices: throw it away, try to force it into traffic, or run. When Aaron Rodgers has no one open, he waits. Call it the Ben Roethlisberger school of quarterbacking.
Maybe standing tall in the pocket, and not Vick-like scrambling, is the true end game of the athletic quarterback trend. Rodgers is big, strong, and unafraid of getting hit. (At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, he's the size of a fullback of 25 years ago.) He would rather be sacked than get off a throw without being sure of where it's going. Get sacked he does—23 times this year. His two concussions last season might be Superman's only weakness.
But what Rodgers does, he does not do alone. It's part of an entire offensive philosophy that begins with Mike McCarthy's multiple wide-out sets, leaving Rodgers's offensive linemen with one-on-one matchups. Bryan Bulaga says their job is to "hold our blocks for that much longer"; Josh Sitton phrases it as blocking "for as long as we can." Meanwhile Rodgers is cycling through his receivers multiple times (he doesn't believe in checkdowns), and those receivers know they should never give up on a play, no matter how badly the pocket has collapsed.
As with most offensive juggernauts, Green Bay's is an elegant philosophy. Theoretically any team could run it, but in practice it requires the right personnel. It won the Steelers a pair of rings, and as long as Rodgers can survive the punishment, it's hard to imagine the Packers not repeating this year. I won't go so far as to predict 19-0, but I just can't see them losing a game. The only way to beat them is in a shootout, and Rodgers's low-risk, high-reward game plan has already been proven to last into February.