On the Green Bay Packers’ first play from scrimmage on offense Sunday afternoon, head coach Matt LaFleur dialed up a premeditated shot play to rookie wideout Christian Watson. The idea was not only to tie the score after a disappointing opening drive by the defense but also to set the tone for an offense looking to move past the storyline of Davante Adams‘ offseason departure and their unproven receiving corps. The catch slipped through Watson’s fingers and hit the turf. The Packers hope it was merely a blip on the radar, not an incredibly on-point metaphor and a harbinger of things to come.
In the press conferences following the 23-7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers both said the deep throw to Watson to start the game had been circled on the play sheet for a few days. Rodgers said LaFleur asked him about the idea, and the quarterback gave a supportive, “Yeah, what the hell, why not?” to the plan. As the first 90% of the play unfolded, it was hard not to flashback 10 years to Rodgers throwing a deep ball to an in-his-prime Jordy Nelson streaking down the sideline. Everything about it was perfect: The protection was there, the separation was sufficient, and the throw was on the money. All that was left was for the 23-year-old to stick the landing and waltz in for a 75-yard score in his first professional snap.
It was the perfect time to take the chance. The Vikings had gashed Green Bay’s defense in the opening drive. The offense needed to put together a drive to give the defense time to regroup. The offensive line was down David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins, so when will the Yosh Nijman– and Royce Newman-anchored line have its best pass-blocking rep? When they’re fresh, prepared, and had known the call was coming for two days.
What happens if Watson makes the catch? The first and most obvious result is that the Packers get six points and immediately put a damper on the enthusiasm in US Bank Stadium. Rodgers runs off the field with a fist pump and some pep in his step, the Minnesota defense is asking themselves what just happened, and Watson floats from the end zone to the Green Bay sideline quite literally on Cloud Nine (his jersey number). Patrick Peterson‘s head is still spinning, and he’s worried about the rookie embarrassing him again for the remainder of the game. Watson gets a gigantic feather in his cap from Rodgers, and their on-field relationship is off and running, one snap into Watson’s career.
With a drop, though? Well, we saw the aftermath. Watson didn’t get another target until the fourth quarter with under four minutes to play, and he only touched the ball on a seven-yard end-around run on the Packers’ third drive of the game. I haven’t studied the All-22 yet (and I won’t, but I will look on Twitter for other people who do), but Watson’s presence was minimal.
Rodgers made headlines midway through August when he said the young receivers, namely Watson and fellow rookie Romeo Doubs, needed to be “way more consistent” with their production on the field. “A lot of drops, a lot of bad route decisions, running the wrong route. We’ve got to get better in that area,” Rodgers said on Aug. 16. Less than a month later, when the lights got brighter, it’s hard not to feel like those comments were a bit of a premonition.
It’s no secret that Rodgers has “his guys” that he likes, who he will look to time and time again. Jordy Nelson was that guy. Randall Cobb was that guy; the Packers brought him back for that reason. Davante Adams was that guy, sometimes to a fault for the framework of the Packers’ offense. In the first game of the post-Adams era, especially with Allen Lazard on the sideline, Rodgers needed someone to step up and take the mantel of “his guy.” Watson had a prime opportunity that couldn’t have been drawn up any better. Still, he couldn’t do anything with it.
To be fair, Rodgers didn’t throw Watson under the bus, at least by Aaron Rodgers Post-Game Press Conference Standards. He simply stated the obvious — we’ve gotta make that play. He preached patience with the young receivers, saying that drops are inevitable, but did note that he expects improvement.
“You knew there were going to be growing pains. This counts. There are nerves. I thought Christian ran a great route to start the game,” Rodgers said after the game on Sunday. “They haven’t been in the fire. That patience will be thinner as the season goes on, but the expectation will be high. We’ll keep them accountable, but things are going to happen. There’s going to be drops. You hate to see it on the first play, but it’s part of it. There’s going to be drops throughout the season.”
The book on Watson coming out of the draft was that he was huge and fast but had a penchant for poorly timed drops. Play No. 1 of his career went exactly as advertised, and whichever direction his career goes — next week, this season, for years to come — there’s no doubt that Watson’s first play was memorable. He can be exemplary in practice, in the film room, and in the game-planning process heading into Week 2 against the Chicago Bears, doing all he can to move past his unfortunate first play. The thing with wide receivers is that they depend on someone to get them the ball. Watson’s production this season hinges on Aaron Rodgers trusting him. If Watson is going to put Week 1 behind him, Rodgers will need to put that drop in his rearview mirror, too.