For the first time in years, Aaron Rodgers, the swaggering superhero quarterback, looked defeated. Standing at the podium following another second-half collapse in which the Green Bay Packers’ offense stalled and sputtered, the all-time great talked about the color changing in his beard and the ravages of time.
This wasn’t the same player who used to run around throwing the championship belt at opposing sidelines, or who brought grape soda to press conference to troll the Vikings. This version of Rodgers, nearly 35, battled injuries for the second season in a row and hasn’t played to his lofty standards. There was no R-E-L-A-X or Run the Table™ talk. His eyes glossy and his voice wavering, it was fair to wonder who that quarterback was. It sure as hell wasn’t Aaron Freaking Rodgers.
The same can be said for Rodgers on the field this season, where losing his running ability neutered his playmaking. His footwork deteriorated and even from clean pockets, and he is throwing off his back foot. At times, Rodgers looked more worried about not taking a hit to his knees than making a play, reminiscent of his 2015 season when the offensive line struggled and his receivers couldn’t get open. Those wounds carried into the 2016 season until he found his footing, literally and figuratively, for the stretch run.
Rodgers, and more importantly the Packers, need that inflection point this offseason. Reset the quarterback, get him re-focused, re-engaged, and re-stocked with talent. Too often this season, Rodgers simply looked dejected whether it was playcalls, receiver miscues or his own mortality and fallibility. In order to finish his career with a stretch worthy of his talents, Green Bay must make him its priority.
If that seems weird to say about a team that just paid him the biggest contract in NFL history, let’s remember money doesn’t buy football happiness. In fact, the huge contract impairs the team’s ability to pay for those around him. Brian Gutekunst brought in weapons with Jimmy Graham and the trio of rookie receivers, but injuries to Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb robbed those smaller moves of any kind of big impact.
Davante Adams and Aaron Jones represent a starting point, but they aren’t enough. That said, it’s hard to look at what the Saints are doing in New Orleans for example and feel like the Packers shouldn’t be similarly explosive. Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara aren’t so much better than the Green Bay duo that it should make up for the difference in consistency and continuity.
No, the difference is the coach. Rodgers’ issues with Mike McCarthy go back several years and it’s clear this team’s future lies with a different person in charge. Mark Murphy shouldn’t prioritize offensive scheme over all else; personality, culture, and team management all still matter for this team. But there’s no single factor the Packers should consider more than a new coach’s potential impact on Rodgers.
There’s fitting symmetry here. McCarthy came to the Packers in the back nine of Brett Favre’s career with that Hall of Fame quarterback sliding into bad habits and playing uninspired ball. McCarthy refocused Favre, putting together in 2007 a spread attack similar to the one New England used that season to go 18-1, and took that team to the NFC Championship Game. Meanwhile, he mentored Rodgers, helping him revamp his mechanics and putting him through a quarterback school that has long been the envy of the league.
That’s what the Packers need once again. Rodgers’ footwork degrades by the day. His confidence, particularly for a player whose arrogance and self-belief is a fundamental part of his greatness, must be rebuilt, and that starts with having faith in the plan. It’s harder to step into a throw with conviction when you’re not convinced at the snap the play will work. How can Rodgers be Rodgers, in all of his self-assured glory, if he’s not actually sure what he’s doing is going to work? At a certain point, he will start to wonder if he’s as good as he thinks, which appears to be the unfortunate point at which this team currently finds itself.
A coach like Josh McDaniels, himself arrogant and self-assured in the way the great ones often are, brings the bona fides of running one of the most adaptive, creative offenses in football, as well as the experience of handling an all-time great quarterback. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have seen everything, done everything. They need someone who knows how to communicate, hold them accountable, and still find new ways to engage them.
Rodgers, one of the brightest minds the game has ever seen, has said he wants to be coached hard. McCarthy clearly hasn’t found ways to keep him engaged, to the point Rodgers admitted to Josh Rosen he has to basically goof around in practice just to stay mentally sharp. Tom Brady gets coached hard in New England and it’s made him better. Rodgers needs that kind of attention. He welcomes it.
That could be enough. Geronimo Allison gets healthy, Equanimeous St. Brown and/or Marquez Valdes-Scantling take that Year 2 leap and this team takes off with a re-engaged Rodgers and a more modern scheme.
Brian Gutekunst has to make sure. That means plugging the leak at right guard and finding better swing tackles as Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari age. Robert Tonyan may have a future as a move tight end, but with Marcedes Lewis and Lance Kendricks set to be free agents, the Packers could use a more impactful player next to Jimmy Graham. And while EQ and MVS have each flashed this season, banking on them to develop may simply be leaving too much to chance.
Find a veteran receiver, even if it’s not a star player. Look what Rodgers was able to do back in ‘15 with James Jones, a player who simply knew where to be, where to go, and when. A new offense could mitigate the need for such precision. Brady, of the course of his career, throws to more wide open receivers than just about anyone in football. Someone like McDaniels could make everyone better. But there’s no room for error as Rodgers’ beard grays.
Defensive centerpieces like Jaire Alexander and Kenny Clark offer a good start on defense. Kevin King, Josh Jackson, Blake Martinez, and even Kyler Fackrell offer hope for that side of the ball moving forward. Re-signing Bashaud Breeland could give the team the flexibility to move Jackson to safety. Drafting a pass rusher early and signing at least one other impact defensive player should give this defense enough of a boost.
As Rodgers pointed out Sunday, the defense played well enough to win. The offense didn’t hold up its end. That can’t be acceptable with the best quarterback in the game under center. Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst need to do everything in their power to reassert Rodgers as the game’s preeminent player by putting him in a much better position to succeed. For years, he kept this team going on sheer talent and force and will. The league’s too talented and well coached now for that to be enough as Rodgers’ physical abilities begin to waen. Rather than Rodgers elevating a flawed team, it’s time for the team to start doing some lifting of its own.