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Growing pains magnified for Plant High alumnus Christian Watson in Green Bay

The former Panther returns to Tampa to face the Bucs with his new team.
Packers receiver Christian Watson (9) is pursued by Bears safety Eddie Jackson (4) during Green Bay's 27-10 victory Sunday night at Lambeau Field. A Plant High alumnus, Watson returns home Sunday afternoon when Packers face the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.
Packers receiver Christian Watson (9) is pursued by Bears safety Eddie Jackson (4) during Green Bay's 27-10 victory Sunday night at Lambeau Field. A Plant High alumnus, Watson returns home Sunday afternoon when Packers face the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium. [ MATT LUDTKE | AP ]
Published Sep. 20

It seemed a fly route toward a first impression.

On his debut snap as a pro, Packers rookie Christian Watson dashed down the right side, sprinting effortlessly past Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson. As Aaron Rodgers’ spiral began its descent, Watson — roughly 4 yards behind Peterson at that point — extended his hands for a catch sure to make a league-wide statement.

Just the way his veteran quarterback had envisioned it.

“We talked about it during the week, ‘Do you really want to start off with a bomb shot?’” Rodgers recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, what the hell. Why not? This kid can really fly, let’s give him a chance.’”

But Rodgers’ otherwise perfect throw turned out to be bomb of a different sort. Watson dropped it.

“I just know that it’s a play that I’m going to make 99 times out of 100,” the Plant High alumnus told reporters after that 23-7 defeat.

“I would’ve said 100 out of 100 if it weren’t for today. ... And going forward, I’m going to make that play every single time. I’ve just got to understand that I know what I’m capable of, and I know what the standard is, and I’m going to uphold that from here on out.”

Over the past two Sundays, the memories of this past winter’s NFL scouting combine — where Watson stole the show — get a bit grainier. The North Dakota State star became the first receiver of his size (6-foot-4, 208 pounds) to achieve a maximum athleticism score (according to NFL Next Gen Stats) at the event, but such measurables can’t gauge everything.

Like opening-night nerves. Or quarterback-receiver clairvoyance. Or how one might respond after stumbling on a national stage.

Such are the intangibles Watson, 23, continues navigating at the dawn of his NFL career for a refurbished Packers receiving corps in the Year 2022 AD — After Davante.

Two-time Packers All-Pro Davante Adams — Rodgers’ top target for the prior half-decade — was traded in March to the Raiders, who ultimately signed him to the league’s most lucrative deal for a receiver. Now Green Bay is attempting to fill the void with a blend of rookies (Watson, Romeo Doubs), retreads (Randall Cobb, Sammy Watkins) and holdovers (Allen Lazard).

In Sunday night’s 27-10 win against the Bears at Lambeau Field, Rodgers targeted nine different players while getting 193 combined rushing yards from the tailback tandem of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks for an open receiver against the  Bears.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks for an open receiver against the Bears. [ MATT LUDTKE | AP ]
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“The days of one guy getting 15 (targets) and the next guy getting four or five are kind of over,” said Rodgers, whose team arrives at Raymond James Stadium for the Bucs’ home opener Sunday afternoon.

“We’re going to have to find ways to get different guys the football in different spots. We had a package for Christian (against the Vikings), we had a package for Romeo. ... That’s kind of the way it’s going to go.”

Smack in the middle of this major transition is Watson, who has five catches (on seven targets) for 43 yards in two games. His staggering combine effort prompted fans to peg him as the sleek successor to Adams when Green Bay took him with the No. 34 overall pick in late April.

But presuming a seamless segue from the Football Championship Subdivision to the NFC North would have required a Lambeau leap of optimism.

Rodgers didn’t attend organized team activities, which drew criticism from those insisting he could have used that time to develop chemistry with his new peers. Then Watson missed the first couple of weeks of training camp following offseason knee surgery. When Watson was cleared to practice, Rodgers assumed a professor’s role, testing his rookie at various junctures.

Then came the opening-night gaffe.

“These are good kids. They really are,” Rodgers said of his rookie targets days after the opener. “They want to please, they want to do the right thing, they care about it. I’m going to figure out a way to continue to get on the same frequency with them.”

Meantime, Rodgers will follow a script highly similar to the one revised for Tom Brady: Lean heavily on the defense and run game until the receiver room stabilizes.

The Packers are leaning on Aaron Jones and the run game until they can sort out chemistry with receivers.
The Packers are leaning on Aaron Jones and the run game until they can sort out chemistry with receivers. [ MIKE ROEMER | AP ]

While Rodgers tries to get on the same page with his new set of targets, Brady could be missing veterans Mike Evans (suspended), Julio Jones (knee) and Chris Godwin (hamstring). Not coincidentally, the Packers and Bucs rank sixth and 13th in the NFL, respectively, in rushing after two weeks and possess top-10 defenses.

“It’s a new defensive coordinator (former Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry) since the last time we played them and they have some really talented players on defense, really physical up front, some great edge rushers,” Brady said on his Let’s Go! podcast Monday.

“It’s going take better football on offense than what we’ve played.”

Somewhere in the Midwest, Rodgers might be uttering the same sentiment.

“Look, we’ve got to have patience with those guys,” Rodgers told reporters after the opening-night loss.

“They’re young, they haven’t been in the fire. That patience will be thinner as the season goes on, but the expectation will be high. So we’ll keep them accountable, but it’s going to happen, there’s going to be drops.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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