As Green Bay prepared for their season-opener at Minnesota, part of the discussion centered on how to start the game, namely throwing it deep to rookie Christian Watson on the very first offensive snap.
Maybe part of it was strategic: The Vikings wouldn’t expect a home run shot on the first play. Maybe part of it was tactical: The Packers drafted Watson out of North Dakota State in part for the 4.36 speed he clocked at the scouting combine.
And maybe, just maybe, part of it was to answer the narrative and remind everyone in the league, let alone the Vikings, that they could still be dangerous despite losing All-Pro Davante Adams to Las Vegas and overhauling the wide receiver corps.
“We talked about it during the week, ‘Do you really want to start off with a bomb shot?’” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I said, ‘Yes, what the hell, why not? This kid can really fly. Let’s give him a chance.”
And so they called the play and Watson did as expected. He got behind the secondary and free deep — “I thought Christian ran a great route.”
And Rodgers, being Rodgers, threw an equally great ball, perfectly timed and placed.
It hit Watson right in the hands.
Then it hit the ground.
A sure-fire, 75-yard, season-opening touchdown pass and catch lost due to the self-inflicted error. Watson grabbed his helmet in humiliation. Rodgers rolled his eyes in frustration. The tone was set for the game, one where the Packers young receivers made error after error as the passing game ground to a halt.
Minnesota didn’t just win 23-7. It held Rodgers to 195 yards passing, one interception and no touchdowns. Just 95 of those yards went to the wideouts. (Meanwhile, Adams had 10 catches for 141 yards all by himself in his Raiders debut.)
“We’ve got to make those plays,” Rodgers said. “... It's the mental mistakes we have to clean up, there were too many of those to ignore.
“We knew this was going to be growing pains,” Rodgers said of the young players. “This is real football. It counts. It’s different. There are nerves.”
And now there are lingering doubts.
It’s worth remembering, of course, that just one year ago the Packers were trounced 38-3 by New Orleans in Week 1. The performance was so bad, and Rodgers' body language so obviously frustrated, that the Fox pregame show the next week questioned whether his man-bun (seriously) was a sign of him not wanting to play football any longer.
Green Bay promptly reeled off seven consecutive victories en route to a 13-4 season. After the opening week debacle, Rodgers threw 37 touchdowns against just two interceptions and was named the league MVP.
So, in his words, R-E-L-A-X.
“Feels like we had a much better performance [this year], scored four more points than we did that day,” Rodgers said. “There’s a lot more to build on when you compare those two. It’s just tough to win in this league and definitely tough when you get in your own way.”
The Packers host Chicago on Sunday night in their home opener and the debate around Wisconsin is pretty simple — concern or no concern? Was this the sign of a post-Davante drought to come, or just another slow start for an offense that has seen them before?
It’s worth noting that while Rodgers has not expressed such concern about the young wide receivers, he also hasn’t not expressed such concern about the young wide receivers. Postgame on Sunday, he just kept saying they’d have to improve.
“Look, we’ve got to have patience with those guys,” Rodgers said. “They are young. They haven't been in the fire. That patience will be thinner as the season goes on, but, the expectation will be high. We will keep them accountable but there will be drops. You hate to see it on the first play, but there will be drops throughout the season.
The wide receivers weren’t the only issues. Rodgers acknowledged he made a bunch of mistakes as well. Pass protection was also a problem, but the line is without both starting tackles, even if Rodgers refused to blame injuries.
“We're professionals so there is an expectation for performance,” Rodgers said.
All in all, it was an ugly opener. Green Bay has seen those before. Can the young wideouts, the young players who surround Rodgers up and down the roster, regroup?
Rodgers returned to the NFL this season because he believed they could. We’ll see how long that belief remains.